Noura El Hafiane & Mahmoud Gamal
The late quarter of 2020 and the early quarter of 2021 witnessed many changes in Egyptian attitude towards the Libyan issue due to Libyan internal reasons -both military and political- on the one hand, and to regional and international changes, on the other.
Second: Motives behind shift of Egyptian attitude
1- Military developments
The operation launched by the GNA forces, known as Operation Volcano of Rage, in the face of Haftar’s forces’ attack on Tripoli, played a significant role in reversing the balance of power at the field level, due to Haftar’s failure to win the bet of controlling the western region, defeating the GNA forces, and achieving his ultimate goal of seizing the entire Libyan soil.
Despite the military and logistical support that Haftar had received from regional and international powers, the reality on the ground highlighted superiority of the GNA forces, backed by Turkey under a military cooperation agreement concluded in November 2019.
The GNA’s Operation Volcano of Rage inflicted great losses on Haftar’s militia and revealed the extent of its vulnerability due to its indiscriminate tactical plans despite the great support that Haftar has received for years, particularly during his attack on Tripoli 2019, where the goal behind this military operation, known as Operation Flood of Dignity, was success of Haftar’s project -actually the project of the regional and international axis that supports him- by gaining power via the use of military force.
Despite Sisi’s warnings related to the GNA forces’ response to Haftar’s attack on the Libyan West, including threats of intervention on the ground to protect and preserve Egyptian national security, both field and political reality imposed a new approach on the Egyptian policy in Libya, given the fact that Cairo had been opposed to the Tripoli war launched by Haftar for fear of confusing Sisi’s plans in Libya –
However, Sisi ultimately submitted to the fait accompli as a result of the UAE pressure that has been greatly supportive of Haftar in that campaign. The shift in the military scene in favor of the GNA forces, reaching a ceasefire between the conflicting forces, and the subsequent progress in the political settlement process, made Cairo change its strategy on two fronts;
(a) Militarily, by maintaining survival of its ally, Khalifa Haftar, in the Libyan scene; and
(b) Politically, on tracks of dialogue between Libyan factions supported by the international community.
This was manifested by meetings between representatives of the two countries, most recently the visit of the new Libyan prime minister of the GNU government, Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh, to Cairo.
This visit is also viewed as a victory for the vision adopted by some parties within the Egyptian regime that had been opposed to the military orientation and the Egyptian forces’ participation in military operation on the ground. The vision of those parties that had questioned Haftar’s ability to win the battle, was to achieve balance in the Egyptian behavior towards all Libyan conflicting parties, to serve Egypt’s strategic interests.
Therefore, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s regime has become quite certain of the need to change its policy in Libya, as betting on the military factor alone and continuing to support Haftar with weapons and equipment (since 2014) is unlikely to lead to the success of Haftar’s project that several regional and international powers have bet on.
Instead, it will ultimately lead to a complete loss of Egyptian influence inside Libya. This prompted Cairo to change its equations by relying on a military-political balance, based on the changes and fluctuations in the regional and international arena.
2- Political developments:
The political settlement process in Libya is the key factor that prompted Cairo to change its policies in the Libyan scene, given the fact that the progress that took place in the tracks of this process via the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), where some of the LPDF meetings were held in Egypt, such as hosting the constitutional track discussions of the Libyan Constitutional Committee as well as meetings of the 5+5 Libyan Military Committee – all this imposed significant changes on the Egyptian position toward the Libyan issue.
The statements of the Sisi regime have significantly changed from their past statements, the regime currently emphasizes Egypt’s full support for the political process, which ‘constitutes stability not only for Libya, but also for its regional neighborhood, particularly Egypt, due to the fact that Libya’s security and stability is linked with the Egyptian national security.
Thus, Cairo wants to maintain its presence as an influential, not a marginal actor in the Libyan scene, by making balance in its positions towards the military and political solutions to ensure a position for itself in the event that any of the two tracks succeeds.
Also, Cairo wants its position to be in line with the visions of the majority of international and regional positions that view the political process as the only track for ending the years-long conflict in Libya.
The Egyptian regime has realized that it is not possible to impose a political authority in Libya through the military option alone, which was clearly evident during the visits of Egyptian delegations to western Libya and opening the way for restoration of diplomatic relations with the UN-backed government, which had been severed over 6 years.
Also, this approach has been boosted with the advent of a new executive authority that had regional and international acceptance, and whose prime minister chose Egypt as his first external destination, which pushed the Egyptian regime to realize the need to accept the changes brought about by the Libyan reality, that are acceptable to international legitimacy and international community.
Therefore, Sisi’s regime has changed its policy in Libya at the political level by opening contact channels with all Libyan actors to ensure that it remains a party in the Libyan scene.
Under the pretext of protecting the country’s national security, the Egyptian regime targets achievement of its own interests manifested in provision of support to Haftar’s project, albeit in a new way or under a new cover, given the fact that the Haftar project is in complete harmony with the policies of Sisi’s Egypt that never accepts success of any democratic project in the region, because that constitutes a direct threat to the regime’s existence that came through a coup against the nation’s legitimate institutions.
3- Regional developments:
The regional factor has played a significant role in the shift of the Egyptian position toward the Libyan issue, via two tracks: the first track is linked to the UAE ally, and the second track is linked to the Turkish rival.
With respect to the first track, the Egyptian-Emirati interests have recently been in conflict, not only in Libya, but also in the whole region, especially with respect with Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Addis Ababa regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the Tigray issue, in addition to the UAE’s leading of the new wave of normalization with Israel, which appears to withdraw the rug from under the feet of the Egyptian regime that has monopolized this file for many years.
Moreover, the UAE wants to establish itself as the decision-maker in all regional files, including the Libyan file, particularly its approach of adhering to the military solution of the issue and betting on resolving it through Haftar, at a time when Cairo believes in the need to change its strategy after the repeated losses of Haftar on the ground, which have greatly affected the Egyptian interests, given the fact that Egypt is geographically adjacent to Libya, which makes it the most affected party in the case of deterioration of the security situation there, unlike the UAE.
In fact, not only the field and security situation that affected Egypt, but also the events in Libya had a great impact on the Egyptian economic file as well, due to the great effect of this situation on the Egyptian labor, as Libya was one of the most attractive markets for Egyptian labor, in addition to the great strategic and economic importance of Libya to Egypt regarding the oil file, as political stability in Libya (manifested in the presence of a Libyan government) will facilitate Cairo’s import of Libyan oil at preferential prices.
Despite all this, the co-writers believe that the Sisi regime’s dependency on the Abu Dhabi axis is unlikely to be affected, due to the fact that the relationship between the two parties is linked with files that are difficult to abandon, most prominently the fight against political Islam, in particular; and the Arab revolutions in general – a file that brought Bin Zayed, Sisi, and Bin Salman together in what can be called the counter-revolution alliance.
As for the second regional track, namely, the Turkish rival; since Turkey engaged in the Libyan issue, there were escalating statements from the Egyptian officials against the Turkish presence in Libya, where Sisi hinted at Egypt’s likely military intervention in Libya, especially after the success of the GNA forces with Turkish backing based on a military cooperation agreement concluded between the two parties in November 2019, in resolving the military battle and ending the presence of Haftar and his militia in the West, which forced parties to the conflict to sit at the negotiating table after reaching a ceasefire agreement in August 2020.
This made Cairo re-read the Libyan scene based on the Libyan changes on the ground, as well as the regional and international developments, which even affected the Egyptian-Turkish relations which have witnessed a lull over the past few months during which there were contacts between the two parties on security-intelligence coordination, a situation that has been imposed by several considerations, particularly the developments in the Libyan issue and the coordination in the Eastern Mediterranean, despite the fact that these understandings contradict the UAE plans that reject any coordination with Ankara in the Libyan file; but Egyptian-Turkish coordination has dramatically escalated over the past few days, which significantly reflected on the media file.
Noura El Hafiane – A Moroccan researcher, PhD in Public International Law and Political Science; Faculty of Law, Economics and Social Sciences Sale, Morocco; November 2015.