Gulf countries, except Qatar of course, were swift to declare unreserved endorsement of Egypt’s position on developments in Libya. Escalated military intervention by Turkey in the North African country supporting militias controlling the capital Tripoli is a source of concern for many Gulf states opposed to the insurgency by political Islamists.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi warned last week that Sirte-Jafra is a red line for Egypt, as Turkey-backed militia advance east of Tripoli. After inspecting military units at an army base near the border with Libya, Al-Sisi said that any Egyptian action in Libya would “have international legitimacy” because it would be self-defence against “threats from terrorist militias and mercenaries”. He then added that, “if the Libyan people asked us to intervene, this would be a signal to the world that Egypt and Libya are one country, one interest.”
Hours after these statements, Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced official support for Egypt’s pursuit to protect national security and full agreement with Cairo on its approach to the Libyan crisis.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation affirmed the UAE’s solidarity with the Arab Republic of Egypt in all measures taken to safeguard its security against alarming developments taking place in the brotherly state of Libya,” the official Emirati news agency (WAM) reported. Quoting a statement by the Foreign Ministry, it added that the UAE “expressed its appreciation for the diligent efforts made by Egypt to reach a comprehensive political settlement in Libya, particularly the Cairo Initiative, which is consistent with all relevant international resolutions”. The statement also emphasised the need for “disbandment of militias and relinquishment of their weapons, in addition to putting an end to foreign interference and stopping foreign support for extremist forces in Libya”.
Saudi Arabia did the same, announcing full support for Egypt and its leader’s message on Libya. In a statement, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said Egypt’s security is an “integral part of the security of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Arab nation as a whole”. It added: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia calls on the international community to fulfil its responsibilities and respond to the calls and the initiative of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to reach a comprehensive solution that ensures the safety and security of the Libyan lands.”
Bahrain also did the same. The three Gulf countries along with Egypt share a goal of standing up to militant terrorism in the region and the countries sponsoring it. Three years ago, the four countries boycotted Qatar for its support of terrorist groups wreaking havoc in the region. Qatar denies the accusation and insists that its support for the Muslim Brotherhood is a sovereign foreign policy decision.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted that, “Huge Arab support of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s statement on Libya indicates Arab world rejection of regional countries’ infringement of its borders and sovereignty. Current weakness of Arab order is temporary.”
Gulf countries are strongly against Turkey’s interference in the region. Though Turkey is occupying parts of Syria and interfering militarily in Iraq, its military involvement in Libya adds to Gulf resentment.
“Nobody wants another Afghanistan in Libya, threatening not only Egypt but the rest of the region,” a Gulf official said. He added that support of Egypt by the UAE and Saudi Arabia is more in the interest of Gulf countries and their stability.
Another Gulf source said that the tide is now against militants and the “moderate Arab bloc, comprising Gulf and other Arab countries, won’t allow the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) or their backers (Turkey and Qatar) to resurface after people rejected them years ago when they hijacked the so-called Arab Spring.”
The analogy with Afghanistan, where militant terrorism started decades ago through Arab (mainly Egyptian) recruits and Gulf finances under American auspices, is significant. But now, Gulf countries along with Egypt are fighting the main recruiter at the time: the Muslim Brotherhood and their affiliate political Islamists.
Since the Egyptians threw the Muslim Brotherhood out of power in 2013, Gulf countries drew closer to Egypt. Even in Syria, the Saudi and Emirati positions are shifting away from the terrorist-dominated, Turkey-backed opposition. Egypt maintained a neutral position throughout the Syrian crisis.
Besides Gulf support for Egypt in general, Saudi Arabia is wary of Turkish involvement in Yemen through Muslim Brotherhood-affiliate Islah, now seeking Turkish military assistance and training on the southern borders of the Saudi Kingdom.
For years, Libya has been a focal point for terrorist militants from the whole region and this poses a direct threat to all those countries fighting terrorism, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Saudi commentator Abdul-Aziz Alkhames says: “Turkey has a military base in Qatar, but it is mainly for protecting the Qatari regime, and there is an American base as well, that is not for supporting the Ikhwan in the region, as the case of Turkish bases in Libya.”
In addition, there is the danger of a country like Libya, with all its wealth and absence of proper state institutions, falling into the hands of terrorist groups. “That will be huge empowerment of these militant terrorist groups to undermine the stability of more countries, not only neighbouring Egypt, but also threatening the Gulf as well,” Alkhames said.
It seems that Gulf countries now realise it was a mistake to let Iran extend its influence in Iraq and Syria until it penetrated Yemen through the Huthi militia. Allowing Turkish presence in Libya is not possible as it will enhance their involvement in Yemen. “Such a mistake towards Iran won’t be repeated,” Alkhames stressed.
In conclusion, Gulf support for Egypt on Libya is not a tactical position but rather a strategic one in facing political Islamist militants and their regional backers: Turkey and Qatar.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly