Editors: Nadja Berghoff and Anas El-Gomati
A decade on from the February 17th revolution, how the global disorder transformed Libya into a battleground for interest, ideology and influence.
Egypt: In Deep Waters
By Hafsa Halawa
In June 2020, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made a public visit to inspect the preparation of troops at the Sidi Barrani airbase in Egypt towards the Libyan border, announcing publicly that Egyptian troops were to be mobilised and deployed to Libya.
For the first time in over 40 years, Egypt appeared to be organising and preparing its expeditionary forces for direct intervention into a military conflict, a neighbouring country at that. Egypt’s call to war came two weeks after President al-Sisi had called for a ceasefire in Libya.
These high profile shifts between peace and war by the Egyptian President not only illustrate the fluid dynamics in Libya and their impact on Egypt, but Libya’s geo-political importance to Egypt and it’s willingness to overturn decades of established foreign policy as a result of developments across its border.
Egypt has played a critically important role in Libya’s modern history. Over the course of the last century people and ideas have migrated across both sides of the desert border.
During the Italian occupation of Libya in the early 20th century, thousands of Libyans sought refuge in Egypt, establishing a community of prominent political exiles who would return to Libya after its independence in 1951. Ideas travelled across borders too.
Gaddafi himself, who arrived in power in 1969, took inspiration and modeled his early political thinking on Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab Nationalism.
Relations between Egypt and Libya throughout Gaddafi’s 42 year reign were complex, ranging from an attempted Pan Arab union – the Federation of Arab Republic (including Syria) in 1972 to a four day border war between the two in 1977.
By the 1980’s, despite early tensions with the Hosni Mubarak relations between Egypt and Libya were less erratic. Gaddafi had turned his back on his early Pan Arab ideas, and began instead to turn towards Pan Africanism in the late 1990s, and later a rapprochement with the West in 2003 following the Iraq war.
The Arab Spring in 2011 would radically reshape the political trajectory of both countries. Egypt’s January 25th revolution culminated with the toppling of its powerful long time leader in Hosni Mubarak on February 11th days before Libya’s own revolution was sparked in Benghazi.
Egypt in this period, too consumed by managing the aftermath of its own revolution to shape the outcome of it’s neighbour resulted in it’s foreign policy towards Libya being on autopilot throughout 2011.
Despite Cairo being a hub of anti Gaddafi dissidents and pro Gaddafi figures in 2011, Egypt waited until the fall of Tripoli on August 22nd 2011 to recognise Libya’s newly established National Transitional Council.
Following the election of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt in 2012, Libya’s authorities deposited 2 billion dollars to the Egyptian central bank in order to stave off an economic crisis, in addition to attempting to arrest Ahmad Gaddaf al Dam, Gaddafi’s cousin and former special envoy to Egypt.
Egyptian Foreign Policy since 2013
Cairo’s aggressive foreign policy towards Libya began to take form following President Sisi’s rise to power. An important component of its foreign policy and threat perception began to be shaped by its own experience with the Egyptian revolution and the military’s takeover that followed in June 2013.
The new tools of the Arab Spring such as popular protest, organised civil society, and a pervasive democratic discourse were viewed as an existential threat to the staying power of the Egyptian regime.
It is within this context of a local consolidation of power in Egypt and the continued political transitions across the region, that focussed and hardened the foreign policy mindset of the military institution who began to respond and reshape Egypt’s regional foreign policy accordingly.
Egypt’s early foreign policy engagement in post Gaddafi Libya was primarily driven in a fear deeply rooted in the Arab Spring.
At the heart of this is a fundamental rejection of ‘Islamists’, a term prior to the Arab Spring that almost singularly infered the Muslim Brotherhood, but since 2013 has been deployed widely to define political actors and social movements of all stripes who favoured a democratic transition and challenged the model of ‘authoritarian stability’ Cairo seeks to promote at home.
This new authoritarian ‘anti-islamist’ narrative first became the anchor of President al-Sisi’s domestic crackdown in 2013 but would later inspire his foreign policy agenda across the region, and in particular Libya.
This foreign policy outlook has allowed President al-Sisi to find sympathy and support from Gulf neighbours who shared similar fears of the Arab Spring’s demoraticising potential, in particular the UAE and its de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MbZ) who had supported the military’s takeover in 2013.
In 2014, Egypt found a willing partner in Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) to support politically and militarily in order to execute their foreign policy vision in Libya.
Fresh from a failed power grab in Tripoli in February 2014, Haftar turned his attention to the East of the country and launched operation Dignity on May 15th 2014 in Benghazi, a military operation with clear ideational parallels to Egypt’s narrative and foreign policy – ‘a vow to purge Islamists across Libya’.
Egypt quietly offered Haftar military support in Benghazi, and conducted airstrikes alongside the UAE in Tripoli in August 2014 in support of armed groups allied to Haftar. The move sparked Libya’s 2014 civil war, and though Haftar ultimately failed to capture Tripoli at his first attempt, with a clear anti-Islamist narrative ideologically in line with Egypt and their partner the UAE, Khalifa Haftar established himself as Egypt’s focal point in Libya.
Egypt’s military furthered their cooperation with Haftar and their military involvement in Libya following the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts by Islamic State in Sirte in 2015.
Despite not launching airstrikes on Sirte, Egypt assisted Haftar in capturing much of eastern Libya under the pretext of counter terrorism, would flourish during this period as he was promoted to the position of Field Marshal in 2016, and later began to remodel the LAAF’s structures around Egypt’s military eastern Libya.
Haftar established a military investment authority Egypt’s engagement on Libya has transitioned in the time between Libya’s last two civil wars, particularly since the establishment of the UN backed Government of National Accord in 2015 but it’s foreign policy objectives have remained the same, and it’s engagement with the LAAF has only strengthened.
Egypt welcomed the GNA in 2016 and used its soft power to encourage the GNA to unify with the LAAF after it was rejected by the House of Representatives in Eastern Libya during three years of diplomatic negotiations between the LAAF and GNA.
To this effect, Egypt held the Cairo security talks in 2018 intended to unify the rival armed forces on both sides of the conflict under the precondition they remain loyal to Khalifa Haftar.
This strategy would collapse as Haftar began to capture GNA territory moving swiftly from Eastern Libya to Southern Libya in February 2019 before, without warning he withdrew from U.N brokered talks and launched an assault on Tripoli in April 2019, sparking Libya’s second civil war.
Geo-politics behind Egypt’s foreign policy
Libya’s latest war demonstrated the limitations of Egypt’s hard power. Cairo’s principal forerign policy interest since 2014 has been preserving the integrity of the LAAF and by extension maintaining Egypt’s influence over eastern Libya, and the security of its western border.
Egypt threatened to send its military into Libya in June 2020 as a result of Turkey’s entry into Libya’s civil war and Ankara’s pursuit of its own foreign policy in Libya that have dramatically shaped Libya’s conflict and Egypt’s foreign policy ambitions.
In November 2019, the GNA and Turkey established a military and maritime memorandum of understanding (MoU) to repel Haftar’s attempt to overthrow the GNA exchange for the redrawing of maritime boundaries between Libya and Turkey that threatened Egypt’s territorial waters in the Eastern Meditaranean.
Turkey’s claim against Greece in the longstanding Continental Shelf dispute established a new geopolitical battline line in Libya and introduced an economic dimension into Egypt’s foreign policy towards Libya.
In the time since Egypt’s foreign policy began to take shape in 2014, the geopolitical landscape in the Eastern Meditaranean has undergone a radical transformation.
Egypt has been buoyed domestically by significant gas production, following the discoveries of the Zohr field in the Eastern Mediterranean and others in the Western Mediteranean since 2015. By 2018, these discoveries leant greater credence to Egypt’s regional ambitions.
President al-Sisi has moved significantly on these discoveries to market Egypt as a ‘gas hub’ for the EU’s southern Neighbourhood, and promote itself among its EU partners, specifically Greece and Cyprus as a gateway to the continent.
It has strengthened established ties with Israel and Jordan in relation to the logistical network and pipelines gas deliveries and undertaken plans to activate two dormant Liquefied Natural Gas plants in the country.
Haftar’s war and the resulting maritime and security MoU between Turkey and the GNA have essentially thrown Egypt’s geo-economic ambitions off course.
Following Turkey’s military intervention in early 2020, military dynamics in Libya shifted dramatically culminating in the collapse of Haftar’s assault on Tripoli in June 2020, but threatening to erode six years of Egypt’s foreign policy investment.
GNA, emboldened by Turkish military support, forced the retreat of the LAAF, from Tripoli to Sirte, the regional frontier between West and East Libya. As a result, Egypt accelerated its soft power influence, and within days launched the Cairo initiative on June 7th 2020 aimed at establishing a permanent ceasefire at Sirte and stalling Turkey and the GNA’s advance into the east.
The Cairo initiative was rejected by Turkey on June 10th 2020, leading to the belief Turkey and the GNA could be preparing a military offensive to move past Sirte into eastern Libya, territory Egypt had assisted the LAAF to capture in 2014 and a region Egypt considers its sphere of influence.
Egypt took several measures between June and July to ensure it’s ‘redline policy’ would alarm the US into taking action to stop the war and enforce a ceasefire beginning with the June 20th 2020 claim that it would be willing to intervene militarily if Turkey and the GNA captured or crossed Sirte.
Egypt took further significant steps and measures including inviting Libyan tribal elders in July 2020 to offer their support to Egyptian military intervention followed by Egyptian parliamentary approval for a military operation days later.
Egypt’s reiteration of it’s intention to intervene militarily was pivotal in alerting former US President Donald Trump to the urgency of the situation in Libya, who called President Sisi on July 20th 2020 and agreed the need to establish a ceasefire in Sirte that would both stem Turkey’s advance on Sirte and return Libya to a U.N brokered political process.
By August, this strategy had worked as the US National Security Council published a statement claiming the “United States is pursuing a 360 degree diplomatic engagement with Libyan and external stakeholders”, the precursor to UN brokered military talks between the two rival Libyan factions that would be hosted by Egypt in September, before culminating in a permanent ceasefire agreement signed in Geneva in October 2020.
Egypt essentially used the threat of it’s hard power to induce US diplomatic efforts to stop Turkey from advancing on Sirte, and return Libya to a diplomatic and political process under the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) where Egypt is well placed to use its soft power to influence the process and produce a favourable outcome.
Egypt continues to host diplomatic talks between rival Libyan factions on behalf of the UN, sent a delegation to meet with the GNA in December 2020, has welcomed the result of the UN’s political process and the resulting interim executive authority and is expected to reopen its embassy in Tripoli in the coming days.
However Cairo will be monitoring Libya’s transition over the next 10 months and is unlikely to deviate from its foreign policy goals in Libya since 2013, namely to establish the LAAF as the institutional cornerstone of Libya’s post Gaddafi state through the UN’s military track.
Cairo believes it can acquire more in it’s foreign policy engagement through negotiations that it can shape through it’s soft power as it navigates its priority interests rather than through complex geopolitical conflict that demonstrates the limits of it’s hard power.
Egypt is keen to continue with the UN’s military unification track that will result in the very same outcome as it had intended during the Cairo security talks in 2017; an internationally recognised LAAF.
The question of Khalifa Haftar’s future remains relevant over the short term, but it’s deeper investment in
the LAAF as an institution with which to work with over the long term will remain the focus of Egypt’s foreign policy.
Hafsa Halawa is a political analyst and development specialist working across the Middle East & North Africa and Horn of Africa regions. She is also a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Nadja Berghoff – Programs and Communication Fellow at Sadeq Institute.
Anas El-Gomati – Director, Libya’s 1st think tank. Chief contributor Security & Governance.