Egypt’s President Sisi is threatening military action in support of the warlord Khalifa Haftar as the Tripoli-based GNA seeks to take the key coastal city of Sirte.
On 20 June Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, shaken by the rout of the forces of Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, was talking tough. “If some people think that they can cross the Sirte-Jufra frontline, this is a red line for us” Sisi said.
Forces loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) are laying siege to Sirte, a key coastal city and threatening the Al Jufra air base in the central interior of Libya.
The GNA is backed by Turkey militarily and Qatar diplomatically, while Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) is backed by the Egyptians, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, France and Saudi Arabia – though to be fair the last three mentioned are wavering in their support given Haftar’s failure after more than a year to take control of the capital Tripoli and his many battlefield blunders after the GNA, heavily supported by the Turks, finally launched its counterattack.
On June 20 Sisi opened the Gargoub Naval Base, west of Marsa Matrouh, which is part of the northern fleet region in charge of securing the western part of the Egyptian northern coast including the Dabaa nuclear station.
The same day, in an address to air force pilots and special forces troops the Egyptian president told them to be ready for combat duty: “Be prepared to carry out any mission, here inside our borders – or if necessary, outside our borders.”
Though it was not clear what he was referring to inside the country, possibly the North Sinai insurgency, it was very clear what he meant by outside. Egypt, like the UAE, regards the GNA as a redoubt of the Muslim Brotherhood which they consider a terrorist organisation.
The Saudis, though they have their own ongoing war in Yemen were happy to join the UAE in support of Sisi’s claim to have a legitimate right to intervene militarily in Libya.
Riyadh said it stood alongside Cairo in its right to defend its borders and people from terrorism. The UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for an immediate ceasefire while backing Sisi and calling for a political solution as “the only acceptable way to end the conflict.” Meanwhile the Emiratis continue to arm Haftar.
The GNA unsurprisingly declared Sisi’s threat “a hostile act and direct interference, and amounts to a declaration of war.”
In its statement the Tripoli regime denounced “interference in its internal affairs, attacks on its sovereignty, whether by declarations … like those of the Egyptian president or by support for putschists, militias and mercenaries, is unacceptable.”
It said it was open to “all impartial mediation … under the aegis of the UN” but rejected “unilateral or extrajudicial initiatives,” while declining to attend an upcoming Arab League meeting.
The extent to which this is posturing or a genuine threat by Egypt to engage militarily not only against the GNA but Turkey remains to be seen.
The Turks in backing the government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj have already established a formidable presence in Libya and may be satisfied with what they have, rather than backing a bid by Sarraj to unite the entire country under his leadership.
For his part Sisi will want to think twice before sending in fighter jets to support Haftar’s bid to hang on to Sirte and Jufra. A miscalculation by one side or the other would raise tensions, already dangerously high, to a new level.
As we discussed in our commentary of 11 June, the Egyptian president is facing a mounting Covid-19 crisis with the number of cases rising dramatically.
The economy is in terrible shape with the tourism industry flatlining thanks to the coronavirus. It could be argued that Sisi has more than enough domestic crises to keep him and his government well occupied without adding a military adventure to the list.
On the other hand, he would not be the first leader to use armed confrontation to distract from problems at home.
As the threats and counter-threats fly back and forth, Libya’s neighbour Tunisia is watching with a degree of consternation that highlights the fragile nature of the country’s democracy and the shaky coalition of Islamist and anti-Islamist forces on which it rests.
President Kais Saied, a secularist who governs with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Ennahada party is on a two day visit to France with Libya at the top of the agenda.
He will endeavour to hold a neutral position but the French may use Tunisia’s awful economic situation (like Egypt, the tourism trade fell victim to Covid-19, see our commentary of 4 June) to try and steer his government away from overt support for the GNA.
The French will have had in mind that the leader of Ennahada and the speaker of the house Rached Ghannouchi had called Sarraj to congratulate him when the GNA took the key airbase of Al Watiya in May, thus ensuring the rout of Haftar’s forces.
The call infuriated Saied since he had not been informed, let alone consulted. But beyond a public chastisement – “Everyone must recognize that there is only one Tunisia and one president both nationally and internationally” – there is little he can do. Without Ghannouchi, Saied cannot govern.
That didn’t stop the opposition leader and staunch anti-Islamist Abir Moussi from sponsoring a bill earlier this month calling for an end to foreign intervention in Libya and preventing Tunisia from being used as a staging post for any military forces seeking to influence the war. The bill, with Islamists voting against it, failed but not by much.
Meanwhile Russia, which backed Haftar with mercenaries, though cooling to the warlord sees opportunities to enhance its Mediterranean presence by playing the role of peace negotiator.
That’s the view of Wolfram Lacher a Libya expert and senior associate with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
On 21 June he tweeted: “In the absence of a credible US role, Russia stands to benefit from the current posturing between Turkey and Egypt in Libya, and could also benefit from an escalation between the two, since it is ideally placed to mediate between them.”
Just before flying off to Paris on Monday, Sarraj met with US Ambassador in Tripoli Richard Norland and US Africa Command (AFRICOM) head Gen. Stephen Townsend.
It’s an indication that though President Trump has scant regard for Libya, others in his administration are concerned, not least about Russian manoeuvring.
And in a sign that the conflict is drawing in more and more international players who see advantage to themselves in choosing one side or the other, the journalist and Libya analyst Mourad Teyeb references a tweet by a special advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader backing the GNA and calling for a political solution: “Tehran fully supports and cooperates with Turkey in Libya.”
Haftar’s backers want to hit the pause button and then sort out what to do with the warlord who has so badly failed them .
The question is will the GNA and the Turks decide to play that pause game too or press on? What happens in Sirte in the days and weeks to come will provide the answer.
Will Sisi wage war on Libya?
A GNA with full sovereignty would pose more of a threat to Sisi’s regime than a divided Libya.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the weekend ordered his military to be ready for possible operations in Libya.
This was done publicly at an air force base in the country’s western military region, on the border with Libya. It comes after a ceasefire proposed by Egypt was rejected by Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
Egypt aims to halt the GNA’s advances eastwards to territories controlled by the Libyan National Army (LNA), backed and supported by authoritarian regimes in the region, including Egypt.
Tensions with Turkey
Many commentators in the region are dismissing Sisi’s threats as irrational, as acting on them would go against Egypt’s national security. Some say it is a diversion from his domestic failures in responding to the coronavirus pandemic or negotiating with Ethiopia over a massive hydroelectric dam project.
Yet, newly rising regimes and revolutionary states are generally more prone to wars than others, from the French Revolutionary Wars, to the war between Iraq and revolutionary Iran in the 1980s, to Ethiopia’s war on Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union as it was newly consolidating power in 2006, among other examples. As such, observers should take Sisi’s threats more seriously.
But why, in this case, would he contemplate war on Libya?
The GNA is certainly inclusive of the pro-Arab Spring revolutionaries who overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. They are the antithesis of Sisi’s regime, which came to power through a military coup in 2013.
Consolidation of power by the GNA would not only add the state to pro-Arab Spring countries in the region, such as Tunisia, Qatar and Turkey, but it would also strengthen the Arab Spring in the long run and promote anti-authoritarianism in the region.
In addition, Turkey, which has been intervening on behalf of Libya’s GNA, is Egypt’s current archenemy. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan still severely condemns the military coup in Egypt and remains hostile towards Sisi, who has repeatedly criticised him and scuffed him off in international settings.
Drawing a line in Libya
Upon the anniversary of the death of Mohamed Morsi last week, Erdogan tweeted a eulogy in his memory, referencing him as a martyr and Egypt’s only democratically elected president.
Turkey’s support for the Egyptian opposition undermines Sisi’s legitimacy, but what is perhaps more worrisome to the Egyptian regime is that Turkey, having militarily tilted the balance of power towards the GNA, may have military bases in Libya. Given Turkey’s record in Syria, Sisi cannot ignore the threat from Libya.
A fully consolidated GNA with full sovereignty in Libya and deeper relations with Turkey would certainly pose more of a threat to Sisi’s regime than a divided Libya.
If the GNA maintains a belligerent stance, it will be more inviting for Egypt to act now, rather than wait for Libya to grow into a larger threat. A direct military confrontation in the near future should thus not be ruled out.
Sisi’s threat of military action in Libya not only aims to strengthen the LNA’s position, but it is also a signal to other countries that, with additional regional support, he may be willing to send the military in.
Sisi may be thinking of helping the LNA hold ground in the east to deny the GNA the rich oil fields of eastern Libya, the main source of income for the country.
In this way, he would be drawing a line in Libya, across which GNA revolutionaries and their Turkish backers could not pass, thus giving Sisi’s Egypt a more secure buffer zone.
The need for diplomacy
The possibility of war is compounded by the fact that the GNA, understandably, has been responding with provocation towards Egypt, which has backed LNA forces as they committed numerous war crimes.
The GNA also has poor communication channels with Egypt, refusing to meet online with the Arab League for urgent talks requested by Egypt.
This would have been a good opportunity for the GNA to engage more in regional diplomacy. Instead, the lack of communication only deepened the mistrust, providing more room for mutual misperceptions of intent.
Egypt, hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, recently announced a ban on discussing “sensitive” issues in public and on social media, including the pandemic, the Libya conflict, the insurgency in Sinai and Egypt’s tensions with Ethiopia over the dam. Such censorship highlights the dire political situation in Egypt.
While these factors make an Egyptian war on Libya less likely, they do not rule it out. Sisi’s threats to Libya do not mask its current challenges, but balance the threat posed by the changes occurring in Libya.
Many observers point out that Sisi should be primarily focused on Ethiopia, given that Egypt’s water share of the Nile is at stake. However, it should be pointed out that Ethiopia poses no direct threat to the survival of the regime in Egypt.
Military action, many argue, would be a huge gamble, especially as the situation on the ground is quickly shifting, with the LNA losing cohesion.
Still, the GNA should be more active in its diplomacy to de-escalate tensions with Egypt if it is truly going to establish sovereignty over Libya.
The GNA should try to mitigate Egypt’s perception of a threat and gain more international sympathy by highlighting the LNA’s war crimes and atrocities.
The more active the GNA is in articulating its vision for a future peaceful Libya, the more likely it is to succeed in stabilising the country.
Mustafa Salama is a Political Analyst, Consultant and Freelance writer. Salama has extensive experience and academic background in Middle East affairs.