Regional Priorities for Egypt and the Next US Administration

In a series of interviews with state media at the end of August, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave insight into his views toward foreign policy, economics, and domestic politics. Sisi’s remarks on Libya and Syria in particular reflect the threat perceptions to national security driving Egypt’s foreign policy in the region and should be carefully considered by the next US president. The next US administration will need to recognize that, despite what Sisi described as a “strategic and … improving” relationship between Egypt and the United States, the latter will fail to secure Sisi’s assistance with American regional priorities if it does not address Egypt’s own regional security concerns.

Libya is perhaps the prime example of the complexity behind competing US and Egyptian regional priorities. Egyptian support for the Tobruk-based House of Representative (HoR) is at odds with the United States’ and the broader international community’s support for the Government of National Accord (GNA). Despite challenges to the GNA’s local legitimacy, the international community has continued to repeatedly recognize the GNA as the sole legitimate government of Libya. From the perspective of western governments, the HoR’s failure up until now to endorse the GNA and its recent rejection of the GNA cabinet has put the UN-backed transition process on hold in Libya and compromised the GNA’s authority. Still, Egypt seems to be hedging its bets in Libya, as evidenced by its support for the decision by Libya’s Presidential Council to appoint a new GNA cabinet after a no-confidence vote by the HoR. 

During his interview, Sisi expressed support for the HoR as the legitimate government and representation of the Libyan people. He also lauded the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar. Haftar is a complicated figure for US policymakers. The LNA is the closest thing Libya has to a military—and with Egyptian assistance and training it could professionalize. However, it is unclear what role Haftar wants for himself in Libya’s future. The general does not support the unity government, and his forces did not assist in operations to break the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) group’s hold of Sirte—a priority mission for the United States, for which it has provided significant air support.

Egypt’s support for Haftar stems from the general’s military campaign against extremists in Libya, which Egypt views as a major threat to its own stability given the Islamic State’s presence within its own borders. The security implications of the 693-mile border that Egypt shares with Libya—and for which Tripoli has no border guard force—are compounded by Egyptian concerns of ISIS influence and operations in Libya. During his interview, Sisi noted that Egypt “is ready to confront any threat on [Egypt’s] borders with Libya.” Indeed, in the days since his interview, the Egyptian armed forces issued a statement saying it conducted a number of counter-smuggling operations on the country’s western border region.

The GNA needs to build up its local credibility in order to government the country effectively. The international community can contribute to this effort by assisting GNA-backed forces to clear ISIS strongholds and by contributing to reconstruction and the maintenance of natural resources after military operations in Sirte and elsewhere are complete. However, the absence of full support from the GNA from Egypt – one of Libya’s most important neighbors and one of the United States’ key regional allies – jeopardizes the body’s ability to build local and regional credibility. Egypt’s support of Haftar’s forces and its willingness to conduct unilateral operations to protect its own security are understandable. However, continued support for the HoR in Cairo—despite Egypt hosting high-profile talks aimed at breaking Libya’s political stalemate—and unilateral Egyptian action in Libya complicate US interests in the country and weaken the GNA’s authority.

On Syria, Sisi explained Egypt’s policy in five points: respecting Syria’s territorial integrity, finding a political solution to the crisis that respects the will of the people, disarming militias and extremist groups, activating state institutions, and reconstruction. On paper, these points are aligned with US policy. Moreover, Sisi previously praised efforts by the United States and Russia to halt hostilities in Syria. However, Egypt’s support for Russia’s intervention in Syria also puts Cairo at odds with the United States and its Gulf Arab allies. Meanwhile, Egyptian officials have refrained from commenting on the future of Bashar al-Assad, carefully walking the line between its allies regarding Syria. Russia, with whom Egypt has a strong relationship, supports Assad; Egypt’s US and Saudi allies have demanded that he step down from power. And although Sisi called non-interference a “fundamental principle” of Egyptian regional policy in his interview, in both Syria and Libya Egypt has continued to support foreign interventions out of its chief concern of countering terrorism, which it views from a domestic national security perspective. For Egypt, the threat from ISIS emanates from identified internal extremist threats; and efforts against the group, for example in Libya, are viewed through this national security prism.

In addition, while Egypt has repeatedly warned of threats to its security from ISIS, Cairo has been reluctant to send forces to participate in the US-led anti-ISIS coalition operating in Syria and Iraq. Although rhetorically a party to the 66-member coalition, former Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab specifically noted in 2014 that the Egyptian military is more concerned with its domestic and border security issues than countering ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In his interview, Sisi directly framed the growth of ISIS in Libya as a result of pressure exerted on the group by coalition forces in Iraq and Syria. Ultimately, it would appear that Cairo’s concern is that if it sends its best-trained forces to assist in ousting ISIS from Iraq or Syria, it will leave its backdoor open to Libya-based ISIS elements.

A senior defense official said the Egyptian military has reached the decision to train Iraqi troops. However, this still falls short of US demand for Egypt to participate in counter-ISIS operations. During his interview, Sisi barely mentioned Iraq and certainly didn’t lay the groundwork for more Egyptian military expeditions. Additionally, plans for the formation of a joint Arab military force, which Sisi called for last year, seem to have stalled, although Shoukry said in August that the initiative is still on the table. 

Still, Sisi’s support for joint Arab military counterterror operations and his desire to stem ISIS’ expansion in Libya as the group comes under increasing pressure in Syria and Iraq could be leveraged to garner more Egyptian support for US priorities in Syria. It appears that US President Barack Obama is keen to leave office with Libya on a better path, in the aftermath of the 2011 intervention. This spring, he admitted failure in not preparing for the internal conflict that erupted after the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi. Indeed, Egyptian officials blamed the United States and its NATO allies for unleashing chaos next door that has spilled outward. Moreover, US support of anti-ISIS operations in Libya’s Sirte this summer should provide Egypt confidence that the United States will not let the neighboring threat linger.

Obama’s successor should continue in this direction. By keeping a focus on stabilizing Libya and rooting out ISIS from the country, the next US president can make clear to Sisi that Egyptian border security is a US priority, too. The United States could also alleviate Egypt’s dependence on Haftar by continuing to support Libyan forces backed by the GNA – such as the Misratan militias – that are working to take out terrorist safe havens.  It is important to support those Libyan forces fighting ISIS while also supporting the GNA to build up and train its own capable forces so that such security operations can be implemented by government forces rather than militia forces. A professional and effective military force would also undermine the need for Haftar’s LNA and therefore his forces’ legitimacy, bringing the responsibility for security squarely under the purview of the internationally recognized government. 

More US attention to Libya would also make clear that Egypt’s army can join the anti-ISIS coalition with minimal impact on its home front. Once it has skin in the game, Egypt may be better leveraged to push Russia—about which Sisi describes relations as “solid” and “strong”—toward a political solution in Syria. Though complex, Sisi’s interconnected view of these conflicts, as reflected in his interview, means movement on one front can have positive outcomes on others.

Zack Gold is a Nonresident Fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter: @ZLGold

 Elissa Miller is an Assistant Director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

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