Speculation over a possible Egyptian military intervention in Libya is growing, though those who are fanning the flames of such speculation appear to be divided over whether the intervention will take the form of air strikes against military targets in the Sirte-Jufra zone or include sending ground troops on combat missions.
There is no difference, however, over the objective of any military move: should it happen it will be to halt the eastward advance of militias fighting on the side of the Turkish-supported Government of National Accord (GNA).
While privy to UN recognition, the GNA has never exercised control over the east of Libya where it has long been challenged by the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar, Libya’s best-known military figure who enjoys the support of Egypt, the UAE, France and Russia.
Lately, Haftar has sustained military losses that allowed the GNA militias, with military assistance from Turkey, to push the LNA back and move closer to Sirte and Jufra, two cities in Libya’s oil crescent, about 1000km from the Libya-Egypt border.
Last month, in a rare open warning, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said that for Egypt Sirte and Jufra were a “red line” whose fall to the militias would constitute a serious national security threat. President Al-Sisi spoke while inspecting military units on the border with Libya, and his words were welcomed by many tribal leaders in east Libya.
Earlier this week Al-Sisi met with a large number of tribal leaders in Cairo. They openly called on him to send Egyptian troops into Libya to push back the militias and end the expansion of forces that “act upon the command of Turkey, to serve the interests of Ankara”.
The visit and appeals of the tribal delegation followed repeated calls from Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives, for Al-Sisi to intervene and halt what Saleh characterised as the “Turkish invasion of Libya”.
LNA leader Khalifa Haftar also joined the appeals for Egypt to help end the illegal Turkish presence in the country.
In Autumn Turkey signed a military cooperation agreement with the GNA, and Ankara has been open about supporting the GNA’s attempts to take control not just of Sirte and Jufra but the entire east of the country. It has criticised Egyptian support of political forces in the east of Libya as “illegitimate”.
As tensions have risen in the last few days, so too has military mobilisation.
On a parallel, though less visible track, political talks have been conducted among all players in Libya — regional and international. In addition to Egypt and Turkey, the US, Russia, Germany, France and Italy have been involved in trying to create a political status quo that could serve the interests of all parties without anybody having to resort to military confrontation.
Though it may look as if military escalation is inevitable, according to informed diplomatic sources in Cairo there are also chances for a de-escalation, even if it is temporary.
“I think we would come on board if there is a settlement that observes our strategic interests, in the sense of keeping the militias, mostly a group of Jihadists that Turkey shipped from Syria to expand the influence of the GNA, in check,” said an Egyptian government official who asked for his name to be withheld. “Egypt is not picking a fight but it will intervene if it has to.”
The official spoke on Saturday, a few hours after Al-Sisi met with tribal leaders in Cairo. A day later, on Sunday, the Egyptian National Security Council issued a statement restating Egypt’s wish for a political settlement in Libya.
“We support a political settlement — we offered a political settlement proposal last month and we supported the Berlin Conference on Libya that convened earlier this year. But if we find that the GNA is pushing east we will not be able to sit and watch,” said the official.
“We will push back to make sure that the Jihadist militias don’t end up on our borders, and that is perfectly legitimate.”
Combating lawlessness in Libya is not a new concern for Cairo. It is a long-standing worry, dating from before the fall of Muammar Gaddafi who ruled Libya for four decades.
High-ranking Egyptian diplomats say Gaddafi posed a major headache for Anwar Al-Sadat in the 1970s, and later for Hosni Mubarak. A former aide to Mubarak says the former president would sigh at length whenever his foreign minister referred to Gaddafi.
Despite recognised borders and an established capital Libya was never a state in the modern sense. A retired Egyptian diplomat who served as ambassador to Libya under Mubarak says “Libya functioned in a very peculiar way.
“It was not like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Syria under Hafez Al-Assad or Sudan under Omar Al-Bashir. It was just Gaddafi, and some of his aides who tried to execute his orders, and a few military units that were somehow seen as an army.”
Diplomats concur that Libya never functioned as a centralised state but as a tribal system headed by a brutal dictator. Lawlessness was endemic, and drugs and arms trafficking proliferated.
With the fall of Gaddafi, Libya descended into complete chaos. In the words of a former UN envoy to Libya, “it was total disarray.”
In Cairo, Tunis and Algiers voiced their worries about security. Countries sharing borders with Libya were profoundly concerned about the impact of lawlessness spreading. And in southern Europe politicians became alarmed about the potential immigration crisis.
Further east and north, capitals contemplated how best to promote their economic interests in a country that it was hoped would emerge from 40 years of savage dictatorship.
The same dynamic of concerns and vested interests is still at play. Key players in Libya include the US, Russia, the UAE, Turkey, a major investor in Libya since the last decade of Gaddafi’s rule, and France and Italy which, through the petroleum giants Total and Eni, have massive interests in the collapsed country.
Egyptian officials argue that today’s Libya is more fragmented and lawless than ever. Unlike the Gaddafi years Libya is no longer a tribal system headed by an eccentric dictator but a country with no centre, with battling tribes and cities, confused foreign alliances, overrun with arms and mercenaries.
Consensual political leaders are conspicuously lacking. GNA leader Fayez Al-Sarraj has tribal backing in Tripoli but his leadership of the GNA is contested. His own Minister of Interior Fatehi Bashagha is his foremost rival.
Haftar, a former general in Gaddafi’s army who defected to the US, is losing his grip over the LNA that was put together with strenuous efforts from Cairo. He is at odds with the seemingly more down-to-earth Saleh, and with several of his own generals who resent the influence and power of Haftar’s sons.
A former member of the UN mission to Libya argues that it is one thing to work for a political solution in Libya and another to think such a solution is just around the corner.
“The divisions within Libya are many, and unlike the case of Iraq there are no obvious political leaders and no remnants of state institutions to fall back on,” says the international diplomat.
Earlier this year Ghassan Salamé, a pleading Lebanese diplomat, resigned from his job as the UN secretary general’s special envoy to Libya. Following his resignation Salamé blamed direct intervention in Libya by regional and international players for the failure to get a political process off the ground.
Privately, Salamé said regional and international players were only sending arms and mercenaries to Libya but insisted on their allies dominating the political scene regardless of what was good for the country.
In Cairo there are no illusions about long-term instability in Libya. Which is why, officials say, Cairo is eying all possible allies, including tribal leaders. Egypt is not bothered by criticism of its relationship with tribal leaders, or warnings that the arming and military training of east Libya’s tribes threatens “Syrianisation”, or even “Somalisation”, of its western neighbour. As far as Cairo is concerned Libya is already a war zone, one that happens to be next door.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly