Conflict Crisis Management Libya North Africa
MENASource June 18, 2020

Libya’s crisis is a tough puzzle to solve for Egypt

By Alessia Melcangi and Giuseppe Dentice

The new Turkish assertiveness in Libya and Libya National Army (LNA) General Khalifa Haftar’s strategic retreat from the Western part of the country have created a new equilibrium in the conflict. This is a potential watershed moment that could lead Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Russia to rethink their support for Haftar and prepare a possible compromise over Libya, especially given the pronunciation of the so-called Cairo Declaration on June 6, 2020. In fact, Haftar is gradually losing internal and external support—from within his own forces to Egypt and the UAE—to the point that no one will likely bet on him again. In this fluid scenario, neighboring Egypt, which has emboldened Haftar since 2014, may play an important new role in order to protect its specific foreign and domestic interests in Libya.

The Libyan crisis is a significant challenge to Egypt’s domestic stability and political legitimacy. Since 2013, the conflict has been of strong geopolitical importance for Cairo due to the strategic convergence between the UAE and Saudi Arabia and their support for Haftar’s war against the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA)—the latter being backed by Turkey and Qatar. Despite several attempts to emerge as a political mediator in the conflict—as in the case of the failed meeting in Cairo in February 2017—Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has never hidden his support for a military solution to the conflict in favor of Haftar, the strongman of Libya’s East, and the so-called LNA. In fact, this area is at the center of Egyptian interests due to the desire to control and stabilize the growing asymmetrical threats along the 1,115-kilometer border that separates the two countries.

Over the past few years, Egypt has taken a number of security measures—such as the deployment of field armies in a counterterrorism mission and the launch of a huge military exercise named “Raad 24” in the western zone, near the Salloum checkpoint—to safeguard the porous frontier and prevent dangerous jihadist penetrations into Egypt from Eastern Libya. A particular focus has been on protecting northern Sinai, a strategic area that suffered several terrorist attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)-affiliated Wilayat Sinai. From Cairo’s perspective, the emergence of a possible spillover of violence into its territory could also create a dangerous convergence of interests with some radicalized Muslim Brotherhood groups that are operating both in Eastern Libya and in Egypt’s Western Desert.

The latter point is crucial to understanding the similar vision of al-Sisi and Haftar, who, ideologically, share a political project to combat political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which are perceived as an existential threat by both leaders. For Haftar, this aversion offered the pretext to launch his offensive against the GNA, which has been accused of being a pawn of Islamists. Libya has become one of the theaters of this complicated situation, in which the polarizing fight against political Islam has strengthened the tensions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one side and Turkey and Qatar, proponents of political Islamist activism, on the other.

But recent developments in Libya risk making Egypt’s stance unsustainable. Cairo suffers from its dependence on the UAE-Saudi Arabia relationship. Gulf financial support is essential for Egypt’s stability, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, which has overwhelmed its healthcare system; the number of reported cases in the country has steadily risen in recent weeks, with more than 1,500 infections occurring per day since June 12, 2020. But the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s rigidity and poor diplomatic acuity often seen in Middle Eastern affairs—such as in the Libyan question—is perceived with impatience by Cairo. Moreover, the growing tensions with Turkey, now the most determined supporter of Tripoli, makes the Libya game more complex. These contrasts were born out of already deeply deteriorated relationships. In fact, the two governments are on a collision course on a plurality of political and economic issues, such as Turkey’s support for political Islam and the geo-economic disputes in the eastern Mediterranean.

The creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, strongly supported by al-Sisi, not only risks reducing the importance of Turkey’s Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP) and Turkish Stream pipelines, but marginalizes Ankara from gas exploitation investment projects in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reacted to this danger with his usual harshness. On November 27, 2019 Turkey reached an agreement with the GNA on the borders of their respective Economic Exclusive Zones (EEZ) in the Eastern Mediterranean, violating international rules on the delimitation of national waters. This was followed by Ankara’s decision to support the fight against Haftar forces two months later. Cairo’s deliberate choice to isolate Turkey radicalized Ankara’s position, triggered geopolitical rivalries in Libya, and prompted Ankara to react at every level—not just in the energy sector.

Further complicating Egyptian matters in Libya are the tense relations between al-Sisi and Haftar. The latest developments in Libya have created some concerns for Egypt, who perceives Libya as a theater for strategic and geopolitical affirmation. In this sense, Egyptian ambitions could be undermined by Haftar’s weak political and military leadership. According to interviews with different unofficial Egyptian sources, loyalty to Haftar is due more to the money received from his external sponsors than to his ability as a leader. Additionally, Haftar’s military defeats, such as  Watiya and Tarhuna, and other failings in the civil war with the GNA have highlighted some other reasons for their tense relations. Firstly, Egypt is not satisfied with the LNA’s military operations in Western Libya, especially its year of inconclusive siege against Tripoli. Secondly, the al-Sisi government is quite irritated with Haftar and his tactical flirtations with Gulf allies in Libya. Lastly, and related to the former, Haftar’s ambiguous attitude risks weakening Egypt’s image in its strategic neighborhood and also risks undermining any prospect of defining an Egyptian foreign policy able to distance itself from Saudi and Emirati hegemony in the Middle East. Nevertheless, it is not unthinkable to believe that the cold relations between Haftar and al-Sisi are overestimated.

So, what can we expect from the conflict? Russia’s recent moves in Libya and multilayered Egyptian initiatives—like the so-called Cairo Declaration and the multi-billion arms deal with Italy—could add further complexity. One can imagine that Moscow would have preferred to avoid being even more involved in the conflict, but it cannot allow a complete defeat of Haftar at the same time. If the Kremlin’s strategy is to achieve the upper hand in mediating from a position of strength for a possible future bargain with Turkey, Haftar could become a negotiating pawn beyond Libya’s internal dynamics. This would have implications in the regional context, including, perhaps, the Syrian conflict, which also sees Russia and Turkey on opposite sides despite co-leading diplomatic efforts.

Such a situation could sound an alarm bell for Haftar and his supporters, urging them to consolidate their position in the east for future negotiations with Turkey and the Tripoli government. The Gulf monarchies, until now the most determined Haftar supporters, could follow the line suggested by Moscow—having no interest in continuing a war that does not see them as winners. Egypt could, therefore, take advantage of this situation to get away from Haftar and try reaching out to more reliable political alternatives, at least in the medium-long term period. In fact, Egypt may still consider support for Haftar an obvious choice in the short-term, since there are no adequate replacements. At the same time, supporting Haftar is a functional way to contain Turkey’s maritime and security assertiveness in Libya and in the wider Mediterranean from the Egyptian perspective of foreign policy.

In conclusion, two elements are certain in this complex scenario. Firstly, Cairo will not fall into the trap of being drawn into an open proxy war in Libya, since it might have serious repercussions on the security of its porous borders, especially in the south. Secondly, Haftar’s next moves will effectively define whether the relations have cooled between him and Cairo or whether Libya is facing yet another aftershock in a marriage that is more tactical than strategic.

Alessia Melcangi is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and a tenure track assistant professor at La Sapienza University of Rome.

Giuseppe Dentice is an associate research fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Center at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI).

Image: Libya's eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar attends a conference in Libya, October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori