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New challenges in Libya

Egypt’s dilemma in Libya lies between needing to stop Turkish interference while minimising political and geographical divisions in aid of a larger resolution to the conflict

Ziad A Akl , Friday 10 Jul 2020
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Libya has been witnessing recently a very rapid pace of political and military transformation. And no doubt Libya is an integral element of Egypt’s national security strategy, either due to border security, countering radicalisation and terrorism or fighting the phenomenon of illegal immigration through the coasts of the Mediterranean, all core Egyptian strategic interests. However, the latest developments in Libya show there is a dual path currently. One has to do with new international and regional alliances that Egypt is trying to mobilise to stop Turkish intervention in Libya, and another has to do with military developments with regards to reaching a state of ceasefire and ensuring that the dividing line between the east and the west at the city of Sirte is not crossed by any military force. 

The international community has been moving during the past week on the Libya file. France, Italy and Germany declared their refusal of any foreign intervention in Libya and made clear the necessity to go back to a political process under the supervision of the United Nations. Moreover, tensions between France and Turkey have been escalating recently due to the Turkish role in Libya, spilling out on the NATO platform. Moscow hosted Aguila Saleh, head of the Libyan parliament, in an official visit to meet with the ministers of defence and foreign affairs, and the US communicated with Fayez Al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Al-Sarraj also met with the Turkish minister of defence in Tripoli last week. 

The overall scene heralds a sort of a resurrection of the role of the international community in the Libyan matter. The coronavirus had put the role of the international community and its institutions in limbo on several files, specifically in the Arab world, like Syria, Libya and Yemen. But Egypt’s long-term interests in Libya makes it obliged to act. Egypt’s main allies at the moment are the European countries that refuse the Turkish military presence in Libya and in the South of the Mediterranean, including France, Germany, Italy, Greece and Cyprus. At the same time, alliances with the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia still exist and are active. However, the role of both Russia and the US is still not clear, and their interference within the Libyan interior remains to be seen. 

Militarily, the situation is becoming more complex. As mentioned earlier, Egypt has set a faultlines at Sirte and Al-Jafra. However, Turkey does not always respect the norms of the international community in its foreign policy. This means that Egypt might face a dilemma in seeing a necessity for military intervention while its political position refuses foreign intervention in Libya and respecting the arms embargo decision taken by the UN Security Council. This contradiction requires lots of coordination between the different divisions within the Egyptian state, specifically the armed forces, the presidency and intelligence institutions. 

It is highly unlikely that Egypt will officially and directly intervene militarily in Libya; this option is in last place on its list of priorities. The new challenge that Egypt is facing today on Libya is trying to pressure the international community to stop Turkish military intervention while trying to minimise political and geographical divisions within the Libyan interior. This is political work that the armed forces will not be bureaucratically involved in, according to the Egyptian state structure. However, there will be a high level of coordination between political and military institutions in Egypt during the coming phase concerning developments in the situation in Libya.

The Libyan interior remains at this moment very far from a moment of reconciliation and a new beginning for an effective political process. Both sides remain in a state of denying the legitimacy of each other, and these positions are stated clearly through the media. The east believes that the GNA is based on the Skhirat Agreement, and those who signed this agreement were not authorised by the Libyan people through fair and transparent elections, according to Saleh. The West, on the other hand, sees General Khalifa Haftar as a war criminal who should not be present in any negotiations. Between these contradicting positions, a political solution in Libya seems far-fetched at the moment. 

Egypt is facing a new reality in Libya that it has to adapt to for the sake of its national interests. Either on the political or military levels, Egypt’s positions must be flexible in the coming months, in service of the Egyptian vision for the Libyan conflict.

*The writer is a senior researcher and director of the Programme for Mediterranean and North African Studies at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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

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