By Kay Westenberger
This content was written by a student and assessed as part of a university degree.
Egypt’s interests in Libya
Libya’s internal chaos is enforced by external interference and regional manoeuvrings. As a direct neighbour to Libya, Egypt is one of the major stakeholders.
Egypt’s policy towards Libya is thereby driven by multiple interests reaching from pressing security concerns to economic considerations to ideological objectives and the fight against political Islam.
The instability in Libya directly threats Egypt’s national security and own stability. A major security challenge is the 1,150-km Egyptian-Libyan border. Since Ghaddafi’s fall, violence along the border has exponentially increased.
Given the instability in Libya and the length of the border, complete border security is seen as impossible from Egyptian official side.
Despite tens of thousands of Egyptian troops in the western desert, landmines along the border and military fighter jets in the sky, the border remains a major smuggling hub for weapons, drugs and people, including extremists and hostile militants.
There is an increase in arms trafficking, with weapons reaching Islamist militants in the Sinai region, where Egypt has been fighting an insurgency against IS-affiliates with hundreds of Egyptian soldiers being killed. Egypt fears further spillovers of jihadist militias and criminals to its territory.
Next to security concerns, economic interests play a major part in Egypt’s Libya policy. Before 2011, around 1.5 million Egyptians lived and worked in Libya, generating remittance up to 33 million US dollars per year.
By 2015, the number of Egyptian migrant workers in Libya has halved with the reduction in remittance having severe effects on the Egyptian economy. Libya further served as a major trading partner for Egypt in the past.
The civil war in Libya however negatively affects the bilateral trade with a reduction in Egyptian exports to Libya by 75%.
Egypt’s ministry of foreign affairs claims the Libyan government will multiply its investments in Egyptian markets, increase economic cooperation and restore the trade volume as it was before the revolution plus supporting Egyptian companies in the reconstruction of Libya once the country is stabilized.
Closely connected to Egypt’s economic interests is Cairo’s hope to secure its energy interests in Libya. Egypt today is a net importer of energy and accumulated over three billion US dollar of debt with foreign energy companies. A stable Libya being rich in oil and gas could allow Egypt to import Libya’s energy sources for lower prices.
A third core interest for Egypt is its ideological project to eradicate political Islam. A main objective of Cairo is to side-line the Muslim Brotherhood at home and abroad, which includes countering the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya.
Counter-measures are especially important given that other regional powers like Turkey or Qatar support the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya.
Regarding Egypt’s most pressing interests, a stable Libya with a central government able to secure its borders, tackle internal Islamist and jihadist threats and engage in bilateral trade with Egypt seems like the preferable long-term solution.
Whereas Egypt officially supports the unity efforts of the United Nations, it on the other hand backs Eastern tribes and militias in Libya and the Haftar government which repel the UN-backed negotiation process.
The multiple interests and security concerns of Egypt regarding Libya help understand its contradicting Libya policy.
Egypt’s intervention in Libya
A main concern for Egypt is stability in Libya. Thus Cairo actively engages in international diplomacy to establish a political settlement.
Egypt officially states constructive national dialogue to be the only way for political reconciliation. Therefore Cairo backs the UN-led mediation and hosts meetings of the Egyptian National Committee on Libya to build consensus between the Libyan parties and foster unification of the military and other state institutions.
At the same time, Cairo blames the international community for Libya’s slow political transition. Al Sisi’s accusations are based on the international ousting of Ghaddafi and then ‘not finish(ing) the job’.
Egypt officially calls on the international community ‘to repair what it had spoiled’ based on fostering institution building, reconstruction and a central consensus government in Libya. This stresses Egypt’s strive for stability and unity in Libya.
Egypt, however, has multiple interests regarding its neighbouring state. Besides long-term stability, a main aspect of Cairo’s current Libya policy is its security-centric approach.
The volatile border and need to tackle Islamists as one of the main security risks to Egypt compels Cairo to cooperate with tribal leaders in the Libyan-Egyptian border region.
Traditionally, tribes of Eastern Libya and Egyptian Western desert are aligned through intermarriages and lineages and can offer intelligence and mediation for cross-border quarrels.
Egypt hence realigned with tribes in the border region like the influential Awlad Ali tribe and several Matrouhi tribes as a short-term solution to combat cross-border trafficking and arms smuggling.
This co-opting of tribal elites, however, fails to address underlying grievances in the region and lacks long-term solutions for existing border issues.
Egypt further found a main ally in Haftar, who heads a coalition of federalist militias, Eastern tribes and military units in East Libya. Cairo supports Haftar and aligned militias by offering intelligence, logistical support and supplying weapons, thereby violating the UN arms embargo.
For Egypt, Haftar combines various security interests in his person. For one, Egypt’s support of Haftar stresses the importance of border stability to Egypt. Moreover, Haftar actively engages in the fight against jihadists and Islamists, taking a clear stance against the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya.
Another important similarity between Egypt’s president al-Sisi and Haftar is the shared belief in a strong military rule to establish stability and national identity.
Framing Libya in light of security concerns allows Cairo to legitimate its security-approach towards Libya and its intervention. By portraying Haftar as a strong man for restoring stability and fighting Islamist control, the Egyptian government shows a clear stance towards Libya.
Haftar and his Libyan National Army, however, oppose the UN-backed GNA. Moreover the strict anti-Islamist stance polarizes the country.
Islamist militias are compelled to join together to one coalition undermining more practical Islamist factions and external patrons of Islamists like Qatar are pushed to expand the support.
At the same time Haftar lacks the capacities to expand its power and send forces to Tripoli. Therefore, instead of fostering unity and stability, experts claim Egypt’s one-sided support for Haftar to create further division in Libya.
The ongoing clashes among the two competing sides and the various incorporated armed militias already jeopardized hopes for holding elections end of 2018. Furthermore, being too closely linked to Haftar impedes efforts of Egypt to act as a neutral mediator to achieve unity.
Egypt’s conflicting Libya policy displays a security paradox. From a security point of view, supporting Haftar prevents a vacuum in Libya’s east as a fertile ground for jihadists and Islamists and hence serves as a logical immediate security measure.
At the same time, however, Egypt’s Libya policy prolongs the conflict and hinders opportunities for a settlement between the warring Libyan parties. This way, the long-term objective of a stable Libya for better security and economic cooperation with Egypt is hindered.
As long as Libya is unstable however with other external powers backing Islamist militias and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt as well is pushed to support certain militias and Haftar to secure own interests in Libya and avoid hostile spillovers, even if that means prolonging the conflict.
Militias and local armed groups in Libya enjoy far spread influence with the two main governing sides depending on their support and security provision.
Even the UN relied on militias to provide security for official institutions and UN facilities instead of pushing them out of government roles.
By following own agendas, competing among each other rather than consolidate power and contesting the legitimacy of a central government in Libya however, armed groups are a main factor prolonging and complicating a political transition.
One-sided external support of respective armed groups thereby increases Libya’s divide further, counteracting unity efforts.
Looking at Egypt in detail, the government faces a security paradox. On one hand, Egypt would strongly benefit from a stable Libya with a unified central government to foster bilateral trade and security.
On the other hand, Cairo competes with other regional powers about influence in Libya, such as Qatar and Turkey supporting Islamist groupswhile Egypt places importance on containing the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam.
Especially given immediate security concerns such as the volatile Libyan-Egyptian border and the risk of jihadist or Islamist spillovers to Egypt pushes Cairo into supporting affiliated militias and granting one-sided support to Haftar in the East of Libya, even though this contradicts UN unity efforts.
Kay Westenberger – Student of International Security Studies and Student Analyst at European Values think-tank.