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.
4- International developments:
There are several international variables that have imposed a new situation on the Libyan scene and also on the stances of international and regional powers, including Egypt, most prominently the departure of US President Donald Trump who used to consider Abdel Fattah al-Sisi his ‘favorite dictator’ and was supportive of the tripartite alliance of Mohammed bin Zayed, Abdel Fattah Sisi, and Mohammed bin Salman, including their vision of controlling Libya through military resolution manifested in Haftar’s project.
However, the equation has changed with the advent of the new US President Joe Biden who showed a tendency to practice pressures through the file of human rights and democracy. Also, he had used to stress in his speeches during his presidential election campaign the need to end some regional conflicts, including Libya, through which his administration seeks to limit the rise of the Russian influence there.
Accordingly, Biden’s rise immediately affected Haftar’s supporters, especially Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has attempted to preempt any likely US action by changing his approach and role in Libya by opening up to the political process, opening contact channels with all Libyan parties, and emphasizing Egypt’s support of the new civilian authority.
Through these steps Sisi wants to present himself to the new US administration as an important partner in the Libyan dialogue process under the auspices of the United Nations.
Third: Scenarios of likely Egyptian role in Libya:
Within the framework of the above considerations, it can be said that the future tracks of the Egyptian regime’s role in Libya include the following:
1- Scenario of abandoning Haftar:
Although this scenario is difficult and unlikely to achieve, it remains an option due to regional and international considerations and change of balances in the Libyan scene. However, this scenario remains dependent on a set of conditions and determinants, including:
a- Achievement of a settlement and political consensus through a comprehensive national reconciliation between various Libyan factions in the western and eastern Libya, provided that Haftar is not a part of this reconciliation, based on an internal, regional and international consensus.
In this case, Sisi will be forced to abandon Haftar to be in line with the options of the international powers in ending the Libyan conflict that has been raging for years, especially the United States under the Biden administration that announced its endeavor to end many conflicts in the region, including the Libyan conflict and the war in Yemen.
Sisi will then present himself as having had a major role in resolving the Libyan crisis, especially in light of Egypt’s embrace of several Libyan dialogue meetings, whether in the political aspect related to the constitutional referendum and elections or in the military aspect related to the 5+5 joint Libyan military commission meetings to stabilize ceasefire.
Thus, in case of the international community’s agreement on the need to resolve the Libyan file through a political solution and not a military one, the Sisi regime will find itself prompted to obey decisions and directions of the international community.
b- Intensification of the UAE-Egyptian dispute in light of their conflicting interests over arrangement of conditions in the Libyan scene, as well as their differences in many other regional issues, affecting Egypt’s regional interests, as happens in the UAE role with regard to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the its normalization of relations with Israel while overlooking Cairo in this concern, in addition to Haftar’s choice of alliance with Abu Dhabi at the expense of Cairo, in light of the increasing military and financial and logistical support that the UAE provides to Haftar on a continued basis.
In this case, the Sisi regime will consider itself the only loser in this equation in light of the increasing risks and threats of the adjacent Libyan quagmire, taking into account that these dangers and threats do not harm the security of the UAE that is geographically far from Libya.
c- The ongoing developments in the Turkish-Egyptian relations manifested in easing tension between the two countries, opening channels of dialogue and joint coordination between the two sides in several files, most notably the Libyan file, and in light of the two parties’ keenness not to involve in a direct military conflict that could have dangerous repercussions, especially on the Egyptian side, which is directly adjacent to Libya, where any direct military confrontation could push Sisi into an undesired war in light of his regime’s indulgence in many other crises that are more dangerous than the Libyan crisis, such as the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and Eastern Mediterranean Gas crises.
d- Haftar has been exposed to many losses and field setbacks, which means failure of his project in Libya; and this exactly what increases pressures on the Sisi regime in the event of maintaining provision of support to Khalifa Haftar, especially as his attack on Tripoli demonstrated weakness of Haftar’s military capabilities, especially in light of the lightning field defeat that he was exposed to during the GNA’s Operation Volcano of Rage, considered to be a great loss for the Sisi regime in light of Cairo’s dissatisfaction with Haftar’s attack on the Libyan West, known as Operation Flood of Dignity, which he led in April 2019, ignoring Cairo’s warnings against taking that step due to its serious implications on the security situation and Sisi’s political and military interests in Libya.
This put Sisi in a difficult situation and subjected him a fait accompli that was not part of the plans of the targeted role of the Egyptian regime in the Libyan scene.
Accordingly, the likeliness of Egypt’s blocking of its support for Haftar will increase in light of his adherence to the military option, especially since that option has become a real threat to Egypt’s border security.
Fourth- Scenario of maintaining support to Haftar:
This scenario of maintaining support to Haftar by the Egyptian regime remains the most likely option, but such support may be provided directly or indirectly, where the latter remains the closest to the reality on the ground:
A– Direct support: This scenario may be likely in the event of failure of the political settlement as a result of Haftar’s adherence to the military option with the expansion of field operations and continuation of the Russian role via the Wagner militias, in addition to continuing regional support from the UAE and international support from Russia and France, as the only way for Haftar to remain within the Libyan scene in light of his exclusion from the settlement equation and the political scene after the December 2021 elections.
In such situation, Sisi’s vision is likely to be provision of direct support to Khalifa Haftar and intervention in Libya militarily under the pretext of protecting the Egyptian national security against threats, while, in fact, he would be seeking to protect his regime from any shakeup that might befall it in case of failure of the project of Haftar that he has been betting on for resolving the conflict in Libya in his favor.
The likelihood of this scenario rises in the event of continuation of Bin Zayed’s alliance with Sisi and settling the outstanding problems between them.
Despite the points of contention between the two parties, the alliance between them, especially in Libya, is unlikely to be affected. While Bin Zayed prefers the military option in Libya, considering it the most decisive factor for success of his project there through Haftar, Sisi believes that his stay in bin Zayed’s alliance will protect his regime from any likely consequences, especially that Bin Zayed was at the forefront of the regimes that have strongly supported the Sisi regime, in addition to considering Sisi himself the UAE’s project within the framework of its leadership of the counter-revolutions axis.
B– Indirect support: This scenario may be the most likely track that the Egyptian regime will take within the framework of handling the Libyan file, where the Sisi regime will not completely abandon provision of support to the Khalifa Haftar project, but this will be within a long-term plan, by adopting a deception tactic and monitoring the situation to see what developments in Libya will lead to.
Accordingly, Sisi may seek to restore his relations with the Libyan West, especially under the new interim government, and to embrace key forums of Libyan dialogue, so that his regime will secure a position within the political and military circles to ensure his continuity as a strong actor in the Libyan scene, thus opening the way for Haftar to be included within the political scene after the general elections in December 2021, and control the most powerful institution in the country, that is the military institution, and thus implement Haftar’s project with UAE and Egyptian support as well as international support from one of the most powerful international actors, namely, Russia, leading to Haftar’s access to power.
The Sisi regime still views the success of Haftar’s project as success and extension of his own project that he established in Egypt with the help of the UAE that brought him to power in 2013 after planning Sisi’s coup against Egypt’s first elected civilian president.
Reviewing developments of the Egyptian attitude toward the Libyan issue, there are several findings, including:
1- The Egyptian regime has changed its strategy in handling the Libyan issue and has become more open to all forces and actors in the Libyan scene, especially after failure of the military resolution in favor of Khalifa Haftar, through engagement in both political and military tracks at the same time, with the aim of avoiding a loss of strings of influence in the Libyan file.
2- Despite the interim changes in the Egyptian position on Libya, Cairo is still working with Abu Dhabi despite the outstanding differences between the two allies on tasks and roles, and both of them seek keeping Haftar as part of the Libyan scene and prevent a complete exclusion of him from the upcoming political settlement that all parties are working at the regional and international levels, because they believe that Haftar’s absence from the scene is likely to bring the Libyan file back to ground zero and return to continuation of the conflict by means of force and arms. Therefore, it is unlikely that Cairo will completely give up Haftar’s card in light of the lack of a clear vision on the final political scene so far.
3- The developments of the Libyan scene on the ground and at the political level, as well as the regional and international transformations, were among the key factors that led Cairo to changing its approach towards the Libyan issue, with the aim of securing an influential position in the Libyan scene in the event of success of the political settlement scenario.
4- The security and intelligence coordination between Turkey and Egypt in the Libyan file may have reached an advanced degree of rapprochement or understanding at the political level, which is likely to lead to a greater understanding between the two countries in other files.
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.