Cairo is pursuing an array of diplomatic actions as it tightens security and girds itself militarily in response to developments in Libya to which Turkey is transferring jihadist mercenaries from Syria. Among them, according to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, are members of the Murad Sultan Division. The influx of Turkish-backed militias has also been confirmed by local Libyan sources. The Turkish regime has also dispatched intelligence agents in preparation for the troops it plans to send after obtaining parliamentary approval for the move last week.
Cairo has made it clear these developments constitute a direct threat to Egyptian national security, and not just because of their implications regarding the war theatre in neighbouring Libya. Egypt has suffered considerably from the fallout of the Libyan crisis that erupted in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Muammar Gaddafi regime in 2011. Since then Libya has become a major hub of terrorism and organised crime, much of it directed against Egypt which has had to fight arms smuggling operations from Libya to terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State (IS) franchise in Sinai.
IS, which is among the terrorist organisations that have found a safe haven in Libya, brutally massacred more than 20 Egyptian Coptic expatriates in Libya. Morabitoun, an Al-Qaeda franchise, also operates out of Libya. Egypt fears that the arrival of Turkish-sponsored militias to serve as auxiliaries in Ankara’s military campaign in Libya will set back all Cairo’s efforts to counter the terrorism and organised crime emanating from that country.
As part of its diplomatic drive Cairo hosted a ministerial coordination meeting with the foreign ministers of France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus on 8 January. According to diplomatic sources in Cairo, the step aims to forge a regional alignment opposed to Turkish military intervention which aggravates the threats the situation in Libya poses to all its neighbours.
The sources stressed that Cairo remains eager to bolster the political process in Libya. In this framework, it called for an urgent Arab League meeting which concluded with a rejection of Turkish intervention in Libya and called for the rehabilitation of the Skhirat Accord.
Egypt’s deputy foreign minister for African affairs delivered a letter from President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo, the chair of the African Union High-Level Committee on Libya, explaining Egypt’s position on the latest developments. In Cairo, the Foreign Ministry hosted a meeting of ambassadors to Cairo for the same purpose. Unofficial sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that Cairo is in the process of formulating a comprehensive political vision for Libya that it will present at the Berlin conference on Libya expected to take place later this month.
The Egyptian Armed Forces also held two military manoeuvres in succession in the Eastern Mediterranean. Military experts and other sources stated that the timing, formations and nature of the manoeuvres were meant to deliver a strong message — that Egypt is equipped, prepared and ready to avail itself of all options in response to the developing situation. Egypt has also begun military action to safeguard its western border with Libya and it has raised its level of readiness to secure its territorial waters.
In his capacity as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, President Al-Sisi has issued statements that make it clear that while Egypt does not want a war and hopes that it will be possible to avert yet another conflict in the region this does not mean Cairo is not prepared for such an eventuality. The manoeuvres in the Eastern Mediterranean drove this point home in a tangible way. The large-scale amphibious exercises conducted by the Egyptian navy last week underscored the strategic complexity for which Egyptian forces are equipping themselves in an operational theatre that could flare up at any moment. The drills included aerial and amphibian landing scenarios and engaged elite combat forces from the Northern Military Zone.
Cairo is also concerned by reports of Tunisian and Algerian cooperation with Turkey, according to observers. Recent Turkish visits to the two North African countries coincided with visits by leaders from the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). Although both Tunis and Algiers have reaffirmed the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of Arab nations they are still at odds with Cairo over how to handle the Libyan situation. Morocco, which hosted the UN-sponsored talks that resulted in the Libyan agreement in Skhirat, is closer to the Egyptian position. Cautioning against escalation in Libya, Rabat denounced Turkish intervention, confirming how closely aligned it is to Egypt in this regard, as one Egyptian observer put it.
Although Cairo has reiterated its support for the Libyan National Army (LNA), it realises that the LNA is not equipped for a major conflict, especially given Libya’s extensive and porous borders that facilitate the movement of terrorist organisations into the field. The LNA’s ability to control its borders remains contingent on agreements with local tribes, especially in the east and south where it has needed to protect its back during its advance towards the capital. Most of these tribes have probably reaffirmed their support for the LNA as the Turkish military and its auxiliaries’ arrival in their country brings back grim memories of Ottoman occupation. However, the situation with tribes in the west is ambiguous. The LNA does not have an agreement with the Amazigh tribes which are well organised and armed while Misrata remains a stronghold of anti-LNA militias. The LNA also needs to secure the areas it has recently brought under control. For example, this week the LNA announced it had liberated Sirte, which is strategically important since LNA control of the area will prevent militias and terrorist organisations from reaching major oil fields in the vicinity.
Khalifa Haftar’s national mobilisation speech delivered as Turkish troops began to arrive in Libya reflects both the fears and challenges. The commander of the LNA called on civilians to join the resistance against the “Ottoman occupier” and appealed to Arab forces to contribute to the fight against the Turkish occupation of Libya because the Turkish expansionist project targets Arab identity. Hopefully, diplomatic action will succeed in averting such a scenario which is why some parties hope that the LNA succeeds in entering Tripoli before the Berlin conference or that the Berlin conference can succeed in laying the foundations for a new transitional process in Libya that will make it possible for the army to follow through on its mission to end the tyranny of the militias.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Preparing for the worst