Analysts expressed skepticism as to whether Cairo would directly intervene in the Libyan civil war after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared his country’s readiness to do so if necessary.
Egypt supports the Libyan National Army (LNA), while Turkish support recently shifted the balance of power in favor of the LNA’s opponent in the civil war, the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
Libya has been torn in two since 2014, when Khalifa Haftar, a renegade general, rejected a power-sharing agreement and withdrew to the oil-rich east, taking with him entire military units, in opposition to the GNA.
El-Sisi, in a speech on Saturday during a tour of Egypt’s Western Military Region, which abuts Libya, said advances by forces supported by Turkey on the Libyan city of Sirte could trigger military intervention. He invoked Egypt’s “right to self-defense based on international legitimacy.”
Egypt’s defense minister, army chief of staff and the leaders of the main branches of the armed forces attended the speech.
“The Egyptian army is one of the strongest armies in the region, but it is a rational army; it protects and does not threaten; it believes and does not attack. That is our faith and our unchanging principles: Be prepared to carry out any task within our borders, and if necessary outside of our borders,” el-Sisi said.
Ahmed Kandeel, a expert on international relations at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, told The Media Line that the president’s message was serious and strong, and a clear indication of Egypt’s readiness to move on the ground to secure its national security on the strategic western border with Libya, or in any other strategic direction.
“Additionally, the message clearly indicated that President el-Sisi was anxious that a new focus of terrorism not be formed in Libya as a result of Turkey’s support to armed militias there by sending Syrian mercenaries there to seize the gas and oil wealth of the Libyan people,” Kandeel said.
The Egyptian president had drawn a red line warning the GNA not to send it forces east toward Sirte, he added.
The city is rich in oil and located between Tripoli, the GNA’s capital, and Benghazi, the LNA’s stronghold.
“This matter not only touches on Egyptian national security but also on regional security, in addition to Libyan national security. Therefore, if Egypt doesn’t act now, when will it act?” Kandeel asked.
The Arab League’s General Secretariat said that on June 18, Egyptian requested that an emergency meeting be held to discuss the situation in Libya. However, the GNA said it would boycott the session, which is to be held by member states’ foreign ministers next week.
Abd al-Salam AlRajhi, a political analyst and academic researcher based in Tripoli, told The Media Line that for such an Arab League meeting to be held, a request by the Libyan government was necessary, and not one from Egypt, “especially since the Libyan government asked for a similar meeting in April 2019 but was rejected by the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain, as they thought that Haftar would end up controlling Tripoli.”
AlRajhi said Cairo was using the Arab League as a tool, and that the League was closely tied to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. “It’s true that the Arab League secretary-general is Egyptian; so is his deputy. In addition, there is the fact that it [the League’s headquarters] is located in Cairo, but that doesn’t mean that it has become an arm of the Egyptian government,” he said.
The GNA was clear in its rejection of the scheduled meeting, AlRajhi said, and if it is held, any final statement issued by the foreign ministers would be worthless.
“If Egypt wants to resolve tensions and solve its issues with Turkey, Cairo has to find a way to do it somewhere else, not in Libya. As Libyans we refuse such a thing; Libya isn’t an arena for settling states’ accounts,” he said.
AlRajhi described el-Sisi’s statements as “enthusiastic and unrealistic,” citing as evidence the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s repeated efforts over the past 24 hours to make clear that el-Sisi had not intended to declare war. “What’s really weird about his statements regarding the red lines around Sirte is the fact that the latter is controlled by Russia and not the GNA, and that this was stated by the US more than once, and America is an ally to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and that axis,” he continued.
He added that what the Egyptian president meant was that he would not accept the GNA taking control of the oil and gas fields located in the area around Sirte, the so-called “oil crescent” that is home to 60% of Libya’s hydrocarbon resources.
AlRajhi scoffed at el-Sisi’s remarks, given that for the past five or four years, the Egyptian army had been unable to defeat terrorism in Sinai, which was much smaller than Libya. “Especially since the weapons used in Libya are completely different than those used in Sinai and on a larger scale, where in Libya we’re talking about more than 40,000 fighters. Egypt failed to secure northern Sinai in its own country when faced with dozens or maybe hundreds of terrorists, so Cairo has no chance to win militarily here,” he said.
Last month, the GNA regained control of Tripoli International Airport from the LNA, two weeks after the latter pulled its troops out of sections of Tripoli, the nation’s largest city. The LNA, headed by Field Marshal Haftar, had been besieging the city, the base of the GNA, which is headed by President Fayez al-Sarraj.
The GNA’s victory in Tripoli after weeks of combat has been credited in great measure to the help of bands of Syrian mercenaries that Turkey and Qatar reportedly brought in to fight in the civil war. The victory greatly weakened Haftar’s forces, which are backed by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and based in the east of the country.
Ferhat Polat, a researcher at the TRT World Research Centre and at the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, told The Media Line that Egypt had been helping armed groups linked to Haftar ever since the latter launched the Operation Dignity campaign in mid-2014.
“For everyone making assertions about whether Egypt will intervene more directly in Libya, in fact, the Egyptian support [has already] ranged from training and the supply of weapons to the participation of Egyptian troops in military operations on the ground, besides reportedly carrying out airstrikes jointly with Emirati forces in Libya’s eastern, western and southern regions,” he said.
There was no denying that Egypt had legitimate concerns, as the civil war could directly threaten its national security and stability, but security was not Cairo’s only vital interest in Libya, Polat said. “Egypt’s policy is also animated by strong ideological drivers and economic opportunism. Therefore, Egypt has been supporting Libyan warlord Haftar and his so-called LNA out of concern for its own economic and geo-strategic interests.”
He added that since April the GNA, backed by Turkey, had achieved significant victories while Haftar’s forces had suffered heavy losses. “The UN-backed government forces drove out Haftar’s militias from the city of Tarhuna [located 59 miles southeast of Tripoli], which was Haftar’s last remaining western stronghold. Now forces loyal to the UN-backed government are fighting in Sirte, a coastal city and a gateway to the oil fields and the east.”
Egypt and Haftar’s other backers appeared to be mainly concerned about creating some sort of momentum to slow down the significant military losses “as UN-backed forces project power over Sirte and the oil fields in the east,” Polat said.
Ashur Shamis, a Libyan political analyst and journalist based in London, told The Media Line that el-Sisi’s statements came as a surprise to all the parties involved in the conflict, including the Libyan people.
The Egyptian president’s remarks were not geared toward forging peace or reconciliation, but rather to divide Libya, Shamis said.
“El-Sisi doesn’t have the military capability to back up such declarations, but he’s trying to protect his ally Haftar and to make sure that the eastern part of the country remains under his control,” the analyst said.
Shamis opined that el-Sisi latest declaration was not his idea, but rather a project cooked up by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and France, where Cairo has been used to give it voice. “They think that by declaring what they declared, they will frighten the Libyans and the GNA, and thereafter they will stop [advancing] and give in, but most people understand that it was more of a show,” he said.
The issues between Cairo and Ankara had a lot to do with the latest statements by Egypt, “but most people believe that el-Sisi isn’t really serious about his declaration, but that it came as Haftar isn’t now afraid of Libyan [forces], but rather he’s afraid of Turkey, which forms a major issue for the LNA in the western part of the country, and Istanbul isn’t backing away.”
Jalel Harchaoui, a Libyan political analyst based in France, told The Media Line that the issue with el-Sisi’s statements was that Egypt has done very little of late, whereas back in 2017 it was seen as a pillar of regional security, as it was supposed to take care of not only Sinai but also at least the eastern part of Libya.
“When Egypt bombed Sirte in 2015 and when it bombed Derna in 2017, [and when] it also bombed the center of the country [Libya] in 2017, in the Hun area not far from Waddan and Al Jufra Air Base, countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and France were very happy, because that was the role it was expected that Egypt would play,” he said.
Harchaoui said, however, that Cairo was always against the offensive designed to take Tripoli that Haftar launched in April 2019. “Egypt was deeply opposed [to it], but ever since it has played a logistical role in terms of facilitating the flow of munitions and equipment through Egyptian territory, a flow that was injected by the UAE and more recently by Russia.”
He clarified that Egypt thought that just providing this logistical assistance was enough, and it was otherwise basically going to stay out of the conflict, “because it doesn’t like the war and it noticed that the UAE was spending a lot, doing a lot, and even hired Wagner [Russia’s Wagner Group]. But now Turkey has completely crushed Haftar, which is something that Egypt had always feared since 2018.”
Some say the Wagner Group is a “private military contractor,” while others call it a disguised unit of the Russian Defense Ministry.
Harchaoui added that Egypt had always understood that Haftar was a loose cannon, that he was going to be aggressive and undertake something so ambitious that could cause his collapse, but that Egypt wanted the Libyan National Army to at least survive in eastern Libya, without creating problems in the country’s west.
“Now that you have this Sirte situation, the spotlight is on Egypt, and Egypt is doing very little,” he elaborated. “If you look at everything that has happened this month, since the beginning of June, in terms of protecting Sirte, in terms of placing anti-personnel mines, in terms of mobilizing airplanes, all that work has been done by Wagner, the Russian paramilitary company, not so much by Egypt,” Harchaoui said.For more articles visit themedialine.org