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Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Shadows of war in Libya

The Turkish decision to send military forces to Libya is a cynical move intended to seize control of the country’s oil wealth and a clear and present threat to Egypt’s security

Hany Ghoraba , Thursday 9 Jan 2020
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Hopes and prayers for a new year of peace, prosperity, and human understanding were shattered in fewer than 48 hours last week as the world celebrated 2020. While it may have been unrealistic to have such hopes given the brewing tensions across the world, particularly in the Middle East, most people hoped that the new year would bring more harmony to a troubled world.

But that could never have been the case with the existence of tyrants such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the helm of his country. On 2 January, and upon the request of Erdogan, the Islamist-dominated Turkish parliament led by the AKP approved the deployment of Turkish troops to Libya in response to a request from Islamist-affiliated Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj. 

Al-Sarraj, who in November 2019 illegally signed a memorandum of understanding with the Turkish state without the approval of the Libyan parliament, requested the aid of Turkey to assist him and the Libyan militias in their battle with the Libyan army that is now on the brink of liberating the capital Tripoli from the clutch of terrorist militias. 

The Turkish involvement in Libya is not new, and both Turkey and Qatar have funded and aided jihadist groups in the country that have wreaked havoc in the country over the past nine years. However, 2019 witnessed some decisive victories by the Libyan army led by Khalifa Haftar in this struggle, and Al-Sarraj, desperate to stay on in power, signed a humiliating memorandum of understanding with Erdogan providing access to the Turkish military to establish bases and control oil and gas exploration in Libya as a result. 

The Turkish army has been experiencing major setbacks in northern Syria, forcing it to relinquish its plans to expand its assaults and employ auxiliary terrorist groups affiliated to the terrorist Islamic State (IS) group and Jabhat Al-Nusra to get the job done against a valiant Kurdish defence. 

Moreover, the dwindling domestic popularity of Erdogan and the mounting economic and political instability in Turkey led the Turkish tyrant to pull off what could be one of his last tricks to attain the victories he will need to retain his seat as president. His decision to send Turkish troops to Libya was met by an outcry from the Turkish opposition, which, however, remains largely helpless.

Egypt has strongly condemned the Turkish parliament’s decision, which paves the way for a Turkish invasion of Libya on a laughable pretext. The Egyptian leadership will not allow a terrorist-supporting regime to gain a foothold on the country’s western borders in what is a clear and present danger to Egyptian national security. 

Prior to the parliament’s decision, Egypt called on international organisations and allied countries to thwart the Turkish aggression on Libya, with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi holding talks with US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin along with other international players including France, the EU, and the Arab League. A meeting between Haftar and Al-Sisi was held in Cairo to coordinate efforts to quell the Turkish invasion.  

It is well known that Libya has North Africa’s largest proven oil reserves, representing untapped wealth for upcoming generations, and Erdogan believes that a few deals with an interim prime minister in Libya will help him to acquire a major cut of that wealth. But this is not certain to happen, since there is a lot at stake in Libya that Erdogan will need to take into consideration. 

Haftar has been defiant in the face of the Turkish threats and has called Erdogan a “lunatic Turkish sultan” who wants to ignite a war in the region. In a televised speech, Haftar called upon Libyans to rally behind their national army in the face of an imminent Turkish invasion. A large number of Libyan tribal leaders answered the call, saying they were willing to defend Libyan soil along with the national army. 

Haftar indicated that the “Ottoman” Turkish invaders had found “appropriate traitors” to deal with in Libya, in a reference to interim Prime Minister Al-Sarraj. His position was reflected in the Libyan parliament’s decision to sever diplomatic ties with Turkey, annul the agreement signed by Al-Sarraj, and call upon the Libyan attorney general to charge Al-Sarraj and the signees of the Turkish deal with treason. 

The decision has come as a blow to Erdogan’s ambitions, stripping his plans of any legitimacy. However, the act does not seem to have deterred the Turkish tyrant, whose greed for control over the Libyan oil industry has blocked his judgement.

Meanwhile, Egypt has stepped up its military preparations and has secured its western borders with Libya upon the news that Turkey is moving remnants of allied IS and Jabhat Al-Nusra terrorists to Libya from Syria. Naval and air force units along with elite paratroopers and special forces have participated in Egypt’s military exercises. The Egyptian military has been preparing for any such struggle for the past six years, and today it is ready to face the Turkish invasion head on. 

Condemnations from the European Union and allied countries such as Greece, Russia and others have been announced. Such developments will render Turkey’s move into Libya more arduous and expensive on many levels than Erdogan could have predicted. 

Turkey’s direct confrontation with the region’s strongest army and largest navy will not only carry terrible repercussions on the Libyan front. It will also mean that Turkey will lose commercial access to the Suez Canal, as Egypt will prevent Turkish vessels from crossing the waterway under the 1888 Convention of Constantinople that entitles Egypt to close the Suez Canal to any hostile country. 

However, losing access to the Suez Canal should be the last of Erdogan’s worries since Egypt is ready to support Libya in the case of a Turkish invasion, and its logistical supply lines are open. Turkey, on the other hand, has no logistical supply lines for its invasion, apart from in occupied Northern Cyprus.

Throughout the present crisis, President Al-Sisi has remained calm and has not spoken about Turkey or even mentioned Erdogan in a single speech. Nevertheless, the steps taken by the Egyptian leadership and the non-stop meetings and army moves indicate that preparations for a possible clash are ongoing.

There are two reasons why Al-Sisi has avoided speaking of Erdogan’s ambitions, the first being psychological and having to do with not giving the enemy the importance of mentioning his name. The second reason is for domestic purposes, since speeches about a potential war could create unnecessary panic, especially during the winter tourism season.

Needless to say, the majority of any operations would take place in the west of Libya, which is nearly 1,500km from the Egyptian border, and hence there is no reason to cause panic regarding an operation that is far from Egypt’s borders.

Al-Sisi remains the only Egyptian leader who has been able decisively to defeat the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist organisation and destroy its organisational hierarchy domestically. This is feat that has not been attained by any Egyptian leader since the establishment of the Brotherhood in 1928 during the reign of former king Fouad. Al-Sisi has not uttered the name of the Muslim Brotherhood in any public speech since he was elected in 2014. 

Erdogan’s Libyan gamble will end up in a further Turkish blunder given the condemnations and potential military loses that the Turkish state will receive should it choose the path of war. Wagering Turkey’s interests on a deal with a besieged Libyan interim prime minister who was last seen shopping in London after selling out his country’s oil wealth is a gamble that must backfire.

Once again Erdogan is placing his country on the wrong side of history, this time in a collision course with Egypt’s interests. If history is any guide, Egypt will prevail in any struggle in the end.


The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly 

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