In a week when high-level meetings were convened to discuss developments on the ground in Libya, videos of Egyptian workers being held hostage by militias allied to the Government of National Accord (GNA) have added a further complication to an already complex situation.
GNA forces have been advancing steadily eastward, and though they still remain some distance from Egypt’s borders with its north African neighbour, Egyptian officials say that “whichever way” Cairo looks, it cannot but see serious reason for worry given the situation across its border.
The possible dismantling of the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar, is a serious concern in Cairo. “It means that the hard work that has gone into helping former Libyan generals and officers assemble a skeleton national army has come to nothing,” said one source. “It means that Libya would be left in thrall to mostly Jihadi militias.”
Egypt, like many other countries with a direct interest in Libya, has expressed repeated concern over Turkey’s transfer of jihadists from Syria to Libya to support the GNA-led militias war against the LNA.
Egyptian officials have declined to comment on any equivalence between the presence in Libya of Syrian and other Jihadists on the side of the GNA, and the presence of Russian mercenaries on the side of the LNA.
According to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity, “Egypt cannot accept having Jihadis on its borders.”
“We know from our experience with the Islamic State (IS) that their modus operandi is to constantly attempt to gain more ground, and that would leave Egypt in the position of having to deal with terrorists in Sinai in the east, and militants just across our western border. We have already suffered enormously because of the infiltration of arms and militants from Libya into Sinai.”
Another Egyptian national security concern is that Libya will fall into a spiral of tribal disputes, something officials in Cairo say is inevitable if tribes from the west of the country wrest control of Libya and marginalise Libya’s eastern tribes.
This, says the source, was one of the points Egypt stressed in the Cairo Initiative last week when it appealed for a new presidential council to be formed with representatives of all Libya’s tribal and political forces, with the exception of the country’s Jihadists.
“We cannot be expected to sit and watch Libya inching closer towards a civil war that could lead to the division of the country. Egypt is not Turkey. Turkey is miles and miles away from Libya and if things take a nasty turn in Libya it can just leave. Egypt does not have that option,” he added.
None of the Egyptian officials who spoke on Libya failed to add that for Turkey to have a strong foothold in Libya poses a threat to Egypt’s national security.
The highest levels of the Egyptian administration believe wreaking havoc in Egypt is a top policy objective of Turkey’s president. The depth of the animosity between Ankara and Cairo is an open secret.
There are over a million Egyptian workers in Libya, and their safety is clearly an issue, say officials in Cairo, given the video that was broadcast this week on social media.
But what can Cairo do? According to the officials who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly, it will keep pushing its initiative, pressing forward with the content, even if the format changes.
The important thing, says the anonymous source, is to have the clear targets, and chief among them are a presidential council that represents all Libyans, the removal of foreign forces from Libya, and a viable political process.
Though official sources declined to comment on the possibility of an Egyptian military response, they all confirmed that Egypt will act to protect its borders.
Meanwhile, Cairo was also immersed in a last-ditch diplomatic attempt to secure an agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the reservoir of which Addis Ababa says it will start filling next month, with or without an agreement with downstream states.
Following a Sudanese initiative, Egypt engaged in three-way negotiations via video conference with Ethiopia and Sudan to try and iron out the differences that have blocked an agreement despite seven years of on-again, off-again negotiations — including one round sponsored by the US.
This week’s talks were based on a Sudanese draft text that attempted to bridge the gaps between Ethiopia and the agreement that was being hammered out in the US capital until, in mid-February, Ethiopia decided to forgo the entire Washington/World Bank-sponsored process.
The talks, which were supposed to conclude on Tuesday and as the Weekly went to print, have been described “as very complicated” in official statements released by Egypt’s Ministry of Irrigation.
The difficulties, according to sources, involve not just the technicalities involved in filling and operating the dam, but are focused on Egypt and Sudan’s insistence on a legally binding agreement, while Ethiopia wants a set of non-binding guidelines.
What is at issue for Egypt is water security, and Egyptian officials say that cannot be left to a non-binding agreement.
“Egypt cannot leave the fate of its population subject to the good will of Ethiopia,” said one concerned official. “This would be to gamble with our national security.”
Ethiopia began building the mega-dam on the Blue Nile, which provides close to 80 per cent of Egypt’s already inadequate annual quota of Nile water, in April 2011.
Cairo has faced an uphill diplomatic battle to get Ethiopia to abide by the Declaration of Principles that it signed in 2015, which states unequivocally that Ethiopia must reach an agreement with Egypt and Sudan before it starts the filling of the reservoir.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said that the “latest round of negotiations will not yield positive results as long as Ethiopia remains intransigent.”
Should Ethiopia continue on its present course, Shoukri said Cairo will have no choice but to explore other options, including asking “the UN Security Council to shoulder its responsibility to protect international peace and security by stopping Ethiopia from taking unilateral action that negatively affects Egypt’s water rights.”
On Monday evening Sudan’s Ministry of Irrigation announced a one-day extension of the talks to allow legal teams to try and hammer out a solution to ongoing differences over the legal status of any agreement and dispute settlement mechanism.
If Egypt lets Ethiopia have its way, officials say it would be an open invitation for more problematic situations to arise in the future. Water, after all, is an existential issue for Egypt.
Failure to reach an agreement on GERD also has national security dimensions, impacting the balance of power in the Nile Basin and across east Africa.
Egyptian officials say it would have been difficult to miss the message Ethiopia was sending when its deputy army chief told state media that Egypt should be aware of Ethiopia’s military capabilities as it continues to oppose Addis Ababa’s plans to start filling the hydroelectric dam next month.
“Egyptians and the rest of the world know too well how we conduct war whenever it comes,” said General Birhanu Jula, as reported by Associated Press.
Egypt, say officials, has made it clear that it is “more than willing” to opt for “participatory choices” when it comes to the management of water and the security of the Nile Basin and east Africa. Ethiopia, they add, has spurned such an approach.
As far as Cairo is concerned, the same officials argue that Addis Ababa is simply trying to create a fait accompli in east Africa, whether about the Nile, the management of Nile Basin relations, east African security measures or a possible initiative for Red Sea security, to which Ethiopia has no direct access.
“If things take a turn for the worse it will not just be Egypt that pays the price. The entire region will be dragged in,” said one concerned Egyptian official.
“This is not a situation that anyone who cares for the security and stability of the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea would want to see. They have to do what it takes to prevent it.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly