Due to Turkish insistence to remain militarily involved in Libya, the south of the Mediterranean is full of tensions, on both the political and military levels. Egypt, France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus have all taken steps to ensure the security of the region and their strategic interests in it. Perhaps Egypt, Italy and France are not only concerned with their interests in the Mediterranean; they are mainly concerned with the Libyan file. Other countries like Greece, Cyprus and even Israel are concerned with their gas and oil interests in the region that Turkey is starting to threaten and violate. The south of the Mediterranean is an extremely rich spot in natural gas, and naval military powers within it are quite significant.
Egypt has been for almost three weeks keen to bring back a political process to the scene in Libya, one that is built upon Libyan-Libyan negotiations between legitimate parties. But Turkish persistence to intervene in the region made the Government of National Accord (GNA) in West Libya quite adamant to resort to military solutions — or in other words to secure the maximum limit of military gains before going back to a political process. After several efforts, Egypt had to resort to other tools than the political course. Egypt announced its willingness to start a series of military manoeuvres under the title “Hasm 2020” — a display of naval military exercises to prove its power within the south of the Mediterranean.
In similar manner, Italy, France, Greece and Cyprus followed the same course, and joint manoeuvres were declared and naval components started to move. But if Egypt is interested in the Libyan file due to border security issues and millions of Egyptian labourers that used to work in Libya, and if Italy is interested in the Libyan file due to its battle against illegal immigration and its investments in the Libyan oil sector that are worth billions of dollars, other countries are involved because of the regional security of the Mediterranean. Turkish intervention in Libya, and military presence in the south of the Mediterranean, is making the state of security in the region very vulnerable, and is escalating political and military tensions between the various countries involved.
Both the United States and Russia have taken vague positions towards what is happening in the region. The United States is consumed within its own internal problems, mainly the coronavirus, mobilisation on an anti-racist platform, and the upcoming presidential elections. However, the US has refused a Turkish request for purchasing a missile defence technology, and stated that it will participate in joint military manoeuvres with Cyprus in the Mediterranean. This means that the US started to believe that the bet on Ankara is a losing one amid these tensions. Russia, on the other hand, is in quite a dilemma. Moscow is very careful to maintain its Turkish ally, mainly for political and military support in the Balkans region. Politically, Russia refused any foreign intervention in Libya, via its spokesman in the Security Council, and indeed Russia does not want to lose a strategic ally like Egypt in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Mediterranean at this moment is a scene of potential conflict between countries that have significant naval military powers. If one single shot is fired within this tension filled scene, the whole region will pay a very high price. Egypt has stated more than once its refusal of any foreign intervention or any violations of UN decisions. But it also stated that its national security is top priority that Egypt will not ignore, neither now nor in the future. Similarly, European countries declared that they have a vested interest in the south of the Mediterranean, one that Turkish intervention currently threatens.
As tensions rise between regional powers, the Libyan interior is not calm. The ongoing fight over legitimacy between the east and the west in the country is still active.
The current scene puts Libya several steps further from a political solution. Military influence seems to be the determining factor within the Libyan interior. The foreign fighters that Turkey managed to smuggle into Libya complicates the problem more. There is a new genre of militias emerging, exercising their rule over cities like Tripoli, Misrata and Zintan.
The Mediterranean as a region is in a state of doubt. Egypt is between a rock and a hard place because it does not want to violate the mechanisms borne of the consensus of the international community, but at the same time it will not underestimate its national security priorities. The overall scene in Libya is not promising, and it’s the Libyan people who will eventually pay the price.
The writer is a senior researcher and director of the Programme for Mediterranean and North African Studies at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly