Erdoğan's trusted men seal a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the incumbent government of Dbeibé for hydrocarbon exploration on Libyan soil

Turkey strengthens its position in Libya after reaching controversial energy deal with Tripoli

PHOTO/@MevlutCavusoglu - The heads of Turkish diplomacy, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, and Libyan diplomacy, Najla Mangoush

Turkey strengthens its position in Libya. In a balancing act to avoid making the other regional players involved too uncomfortable, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan managed to reach an energy agreement with the Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU) on Monday through a diplomatic delegation comprising, among others, the strongmen of his government, the foreign and defence ministers, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Hulusi Akar, and his personal adviser, İbrahim Kalın. 

Çavuşoğlu himself was in charge of negotiating the content of the text face-to-face with Libya's acting prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibé, assisted by the heads of economy and foreign affairs, Muhammad Al-Huwayj and Najla Mangoush. The parties initialled a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that strengthens cooperation in the hydrocarbon sector between Ankara and Tripoli. Under the agreement, Turkey will be able to explore oil and gas fields in Libyan territory through jointly owned companies. 

The preliminary agreement comes three years after the border pact signed by Ankara and the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Fayez al-Sarraj, the predecessor of the current interim government, which demarcated the maritime boundary between the two countries. 

Libyan analyst Mohamed Eljarh writes on Twitter that the UN roadmap "clearly prohibits the GNU from signing any agreements or MoUs such as those signed today with Turkey". This factor does not faze Ankara, which is focused on maintaining its military presence in Libya and, above all, its energy interests in eastern Mediterranean waters. "Turkey is taking advantage of Dbeibé's vulnerability to gain bargaining chips in the future," explains Eljarh.

Dbeibe Cavusoglu

The agreement has not been without controversy. Libya's oil minister, Mohamed Aoun, has denounced in a letter that Dbeibé not only stripped him of his ministerial functions before signing the agreement, which he disagreed with, but also assigned his prerogatives to Finance Minister Al-Huwayj to, according to Aoun, "approve a suspicious agreement with Turkey to exploit oil and gas in the maritime area near Tobruk, in eastern Libya". 

The head of Turkish diplomacy, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, appeared at a press conference with his counterpart Najla Mangoush. The Libyan diplomat, who unlike other interventions did not demand the departure of all foreign troops from the country, called on the UN to give the green light to the agreement signed by the parties. Çavuşoğlu, for his part, defended the right of "all countries with a Mediterranean coastline" to benefit from the resources available in the region "in an equitable manner". 

"We have signed a Memorandum of Understanding on hydrocarbon exploration in Libyan territorial waters and on Libyan soil by Turkish-Libyan companies," Çavuşoğlu explained. Asked about the possible reactions of other actors, the Turkish foreign minister said he was "not worried about what they think". The agreements, he said, are between "two sovereign countries", both are winners "and third countries have no right to interfere"

The Libyan parliament, based in Tobruk, flatly rejected the terms of the MoU. Speaker Aguila Saleh announced a boycott of the agreement minutes after it was signed, claiming that Turkey had empowered 'an illegitimate government' as the country's representative. The legislature disavows the executive authority of Dbeibé's GNU, whose mandate it considers to have expired because he failed to comply in time with the requirements that preceded his appointment in the framework of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), which included holding general elections in December 2021.

Cavusoglu Mangoush

In May, the Tobruk parliament appointed Fathi Bashagha, a former interior minister under Fayez al-Sarraj's government in Tripoli, as prime minister. Again, institutions were duplicated and the legislature approved the establishment of a parallel government. One from the east and one from the west now vie for power politically, diplomatically and even militarily, with skirmishes between militias, although Dbeibé's GNU has so far been formally recognised by the international community. 

Çavuşoğlu said at the end of the meeting that he would visit the Libyan parliament. This is further evidence of Turkey's two-faced game. Last August, Erdoğan received in Ankara two leading figures of the Libyan political elite at odds with each other, Abdullah Al-Lafi, the vice president of the Presidential Council that concentrates the recognised head of state, and the aforementioned Aguila Saleh, a veteran representative of the eastern faction and an associate of General Khalifa Haftar. 

"This visit should improve the position of Dbeibé and his government vis-à-vis eastern rivals Haftar and company. However, Turkey has also kept channels of communication open with Libya's eastern elite, especially Bashagha and Aguila Saleh," writes Dalia Ziada, president of the Institute for Liberal Democracy, a Cairo-based think tank dedicated to studying political transformations in the Middle East, with a focus on liberalism, democratisation and political Islamism, on the social networking site Twitter. 

Ziada qualifies, however, that it would be a mistake to assume that Turkey's rapprochement with the Libyan Eastern bloc necessarily means abandoning the GNU in Tripoli. "Among other factors, this would jeopardise the reputation of the Turkish military as a trustworthy ally," he points out, referring to the nearly 2,000 Turkish soldiers and mercenaries still operating on the ground in the vicinity of Tripoli.