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Egypt running out of patience

In an unusual departure from its customary discourse Cairo has hinted at possible recourse to military force to contend with regional threats to its national security

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 25 Jun 2020
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In the Western Military Zone along Egypt’s border with Libya, while inaugurating the Gargoub military base earlier this week, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi delivered two essential messages. Addressing the rank and file of army and Air Force personnel, he stressed the need to be prepared for combat missions abroad to repel threats to Egypt and its people. The officers and soldiers affirmed they were ready.

The second message was political and strategic. Explaining Egypt’s vision for addressing regional crises, especially the Ethiopian and Libyan crises, he made it clear that it was not a sign of weakness or wavering to show patience.

However, in the case of Libya, in particular, it was now necessary to draw clear red lines. President Al-Sisi warned Turkey, and the extremist militias and mercenaries it backs in western Libya, not to embark on any military adventures beyond a line drawn from Sirte to Jufra. According to military experts, the Sirte-Jufra line demarcates a crucial buffer for Egyptian national security and any hostile steps beyond it would constitute aggression against Egypt.

The fall of Sirte to Turkey and other hostile forces would have dangerous implications for Libya, for Egypt and for the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole. The area known as Libya’s “petroleum crescent” contains Libya’s largest oil reserves, its main oil terminals and important military bases. Not far away to the south is the Jufra air base, one of Libya’s largest military bases. Sirte houses a major operations room for the Libyan National Army (LNA) and is a liaison centre between eastern and western Libya. Sirte airport and seaport are major outlets.

Were Turkey to seize control of the petroleum crescent it would be a flagrant act of plunder on the part of a country that has made no secret of its appetite for others’ oil and gas resources. It would also benefit the radical militia groups in Tripoli and deprive the Libyan people of their natural wealth. President Al-Sisi alluded to this danger in his speech last week when he stressed the need for a just and equitable distribution of wealth among the Libyan people.

Many sources have also reported on the huge amounts of money the Turkish military-industrial sector is raking in from Ankara’s military intervention in Libya. The Libyan Review news site reported that leaked documents showed the Tripoli-based Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha had instructed Central Bank Governor Al-Sadiq Al-Kabir to transfer 169 million euros to the account of SSTEK Defence Industry Technologies, a subsidiary of the Turkish Defence Industry which is closely linked to Erdogan’s inner circle.

It should be noted that the Berlin process and the 5+5 military committee it created called for a return to the 4 April 2019 line, before the LNA launched its Flood of Dignity Operation towards Tripoli. Now that the balances are in their favour, the GNA camp is calling for a return to the 2015 lines, which means LNA withdrawal from the petroleum crescent and the Fezzan region in the south.

Major General Mohamed Qashqoush, professor of national security affairs at the Nasser Military Academy, believes that Turkey has its sights set on controlling all of Libya’s major military bases. It has taken control of Mitiga, Watiya and the Air Force College in Misrata and is now targeting Jufra.

“If it succeeds it will breach the Egyptian defensive buffer and legitimise Egyptian military action in exercise of the right to self-defence,” he said, echoing President Al-Sisi’s remarks.

“It is important that everyone understands the composition of the Western Military Zone. There are special forces, paratroopers, commandos, artillery, etc, who can be deployed very quickly to form an advanced defence formation to hold the red line. Their hardware and equipment, which we’ve seen perform in numerous manoeuvres, is up to the task.”

In Qashqoush’s opinion, the presence of radical militias in Libya has long posed a grave threat. The Turkish presence, and the transfer of jihadist mercenaries from Syria to Libya, has compounded that threat. “No one can blame Egypt for suggesting it might resort to military force, including direct intervention, in order to protect its national security. After all, no one else is going to perform the task for Egypt.”

Many European states and regional powers support the Egyptian position on Libya, one which seeks to promote a ceasefire and a return to the political process. In this framework Egypt has called for a resumption of the military track initiated by the Berlin Conference in January.

It appears that action has already been taken in response to this call. Whereas the UN Support Mission for Libya (UNSMIL) has called for a resumption of the 5+5 Military Committee, which includes five senior military officers selected by the GNA and five selected by the LNA leader Khalifa Haftar, in Geneva next month, a Libyan source involved in the discussions told Al-Ahram Weekly that the committee had already held a closed circuit teleconference on 22 June. He said the dialogue focussed on Egypt’s opposition to the current military escalation in Libya, and added that the participants would hold their next official meeting in the second half of July.

On Monday, the Commander of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) General Stephen Townsend, and US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland, met with GNA head Fayez Al-Sarraj. The meeting, which was unprecedented, concluded with an agreement on the need for a ceasefire.

AFRICOM, headquartered in Stuttgart, is responsible for all US Department of Defense operations, exercises, and security cooperation on the African continent, its island nations, and surrounding waters.

 According to a source, the results of the meeting were consistent with the views of the US National Security Council which has stressed that Washington supports Cairo’s calls for a ceasefire, a return to the political process and the need to avert further military escalation.

Such developments have not prevented the GNA and its media from escalating their propaganda campaign against Cairo. Many GNA officials have rejected the Egyptian position, with some going so far as to call it a “declaration of war”, while hawks have urged further military action to “annex” Sirte. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry released a sternly worded statement cautioning the GNA to “realise its size” when addressing Egypt. It also noted how the GNA is losing any legitimacy as one member after the other has resigned.

The Foreign Ministry statement reiterated Egypt’s resolve to defend its national security. “Egypt has demonstrated much patience. However, it will be very firm against attempts to encroach on, or attack, its interests and national security.”

While many sources the Weekly spoke to in Cairo and Libya believe that Turkey will not risk overstepping the red line directly, they do believe Ankara will attempt some ruse to test Cairo’s will. It might, for example, have some of its mercenaries take action to provoke an Egyptian response, a tactic it has used frequently to justify encroachments into Syria. They also note that the US appears determined to forestall such actions.

Although the Egyptian Foreign Ministry has stressed that Egypt is not considering a military option over the crisis surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), observers believe the tougher Egyptian stance towards the national security threats emanating from Libya extend to Ethiopian evasiveness in the GERD negotiations. Tensions peaked this week after Egypt appealed to the UN Security Council to intervene. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said that Cairo would take a definitive step if Addis Ababa refuses to return to the negotiating table. The Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew responded that his country would not accept an agreement on GERD that denied Ethiopia’s “future development rights” on the Nile, according the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA). He accused Egypt of manipulating the negotiations as a pretext to restrict the Ethiopian rights and added that no domestic or foreign force will prevent Ethiopia from completing the GERD project.

“Egypt has engaged in negotiations with good faith for almost a decade,” Shoukri responded, adding that Egypt is always prepared to negotiate to reach an agreement that serves the interests of all the parties involved. He then challenged Addis Ababa to resume negotiations immediately and to declare its commitment to its international pledges not to begin filling the dam unilaterally.

Major General Mohamed Ibrahim, assistant director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies, explained that Egypt’s appeal to the UN Security Council “came after innumerable negotiating rounds. Over the best part of a decade Egypt has shown flexibility. In response Ethiopia has only become more unyielding. We resorted to mediation which the US agreed to sponsor in collaboration with the World Bank. Yet Ethiopia refused to attend the signing session in which Egypt initialled the draft agreement. Then Sudan offered to mediate. Egypt accepted and negotiations were held over seven days this month, but to no avail. Egypt only turned to the Security Council after exhausting all other avenues.

“Egypt’s recourse to the Security Council is based on Article 35 of the UN Charter which gives member states the right to bring to the Security Council’s attention any dispute or situation that might endanger international peace and security. The Egyptian memorandum focused on three main concerns: the need for negotiations to resume, the need to reach a just and equitable solution, and the need for Ethiopia not to take unilateral action. Above all, it stressed that Ethiopia must not start filling the reservoir in the absence of an agreement with Egypt and Sudan which would violate the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles that Ethiopia signed in 2015.”

Ibrahim believes the Security Council will issue a recommendation based on Chapter VI of the UN Charter calling on the parties to resume negotiations.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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