A Thorny Dossier: Egypt’s Libya Policy

Wolfgang Mühlberger
Wednesday 27 Jan 2016

Cairo's policy toward Libya is driven by two goals: establishing a strong central state structure on its western border and avoiding the emergence of a political entity under control of political Islam

With a striking similarity to domestic politics, Cairo is framing its ‘Libya strategy’ in terms of a securitised approach against Islamism and Islamist terrorism alike. In that sense, support for the remains of the Libyan National Army (LNA) – to a large extent under control of the anti-Islamist General Khalifa Heftar based in North-Eastern Libya – presents itself as a logical option.

Based on a shared, generous terrorism definition between the Cairo and Tobruk governments – combined with the real need to militarily engage a jihadi insurgency spreading throughout the Libyan territory – Cairo is consistently calling for an end to the arms embargo imposed by the UN on the sovereign Libyan state since then-president Muammar Qaddafi’s crackdown on protestors in 2011.

But over the past four years, this very state structure has been disintegrating, culminating in an institutional split and generating a failing state. The lifting of the sanctions should therefore be limited to the internationally recognised government in Tobruk, considered an ally by Egypt, to help empower military units under General Heftar’s command. But with a new Libyan government of national unity potentially in the making under the aegis of the new UN envoy Martin Kobler, Cairo might have to review this stance in terms of feasibility.

However, any agreement requires thorough implementation, including support from the two opposed militia alliances, siding with either Tobruk or Tripoli. As such a stance seems uncertain at this stage of the conflict due to widespread rejection of the proposed unity government; Cairo should be able to continue its Libya policy for the time being.

Yet a closer look at the Libya dossier reveals that Cairo is engaged on a more complex approach, beyond the simple call for ending the sanctions, oscillating between mediation, intervention and containment. This variance is not only an expression of conflicting views, and methods, of the foreign ministry and the presidency, but also reflects Egypt’s obligatory insertion of preferences of the international community, including the strictly non-interventionist Algerian position. Algeria opposed military intervention against Qaddafi in the League of Arab States in 2011 and continues to this day to reject any armed interference in the Libyan setting.

Lately this preference has been given to the diplomatic process for a negotiated political solution under the helm of the UN. However, having suffered the rejection of the proposal for the ‘Government of National Accord’ by both conflict parties in October, the efforts of the previous UN special envoy Bernardino Léon for building a viable and representative political structure ex nihilo have not been producing tangible results to date.

External support for allies or proxies such as the LNA, stealthily or more openly, might thus increase. Nevertheless, despite the bleak outlook for a political solution, the negotiation process has been endorsed and is still rhetorically supported by the Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry.

In real terms, the current Libyan setting increasingly comes down to managing chaos. Resulting from a controversial R2P (Responsibility to Protect) intervention, the implications of an ongoing low-intensity conflict and a lacking intra-Libyan political consensus amounting to a self-destructive attitude, even the neighbouring countries are feeling the negative externalities of political instability and a growing jihadi nexus. Following in the footsteps of the LIFG (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group) and the disproportionate role of Libyans in the former Iraqi core-ISIS, the local Libyan ISIS avatar is part of a powerful international jihadi network, reaching out to the local insurgency in Sinai. Understandably, the Egyptian authorities perceive a double geographical threat, both on its north-eastern flank (in the Sinai Peninsula) and along the highly porous 1,100 km border with Libya. Hence, the Libya dossier is primarily considered from a national security perspective, and less from the diplomatic perspective for a negotiated peace deal.

Therefore, in addition to facing severe cuts in remittances from Egyptian workers in Libya, whose numbers dwindled down to less than a quarter of the previous expat population (reaching less than half-a-million), security considerations have become of overwhelming significance.

The strategic goals for Cairo remain pre-empting the presence of either an utterly failed – or of a Muslim Brotherhood controlled state – on its very border. In light of these interests, the declared Egyptian foreign policy position has been to support the UN National Dialogue process to achieve a political settlement between the Libyan factions, vying for control of Africa’s largest proven oil reserves and opposed on fundamental ideological differences over a future social contract.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian Armed Forces have opted for a combination of deterrence and containment. By building up their land and air presence along the western frontier, intrusions into Egyptian territory should be foiled.

In addition, the sealing of the border by the erection of a border fence is a second pragmatic step to control the flow of illicit trade. Agreement on a comprehensive border surveillance system was reached with the United States in June last year. At Egypt’s request, the Pentagon’s DSCA (Defense Security Cooperation Agency) has given the green light for the construction of a border control facility. In light of the halted EU BAM (Border Assistance Mission) in Libya, and the lack of professional border policing on the Libyan side, this containment approach should help permeating the border.

A third effort to stem the flow of illicit trans-border trade includes tribal politics, an endeavour firmly under control of the Armed Forces. The idea is basically to bring the Egyptian Awlad Ali tribe closer to the official authorities, in addition to nurturing good relations with their kin on the Libyan side of the border, the Obeydat. But following many years of neglect and the existence of real economic grievances, the perception of discrimination and of economic exclusion (mainly from the windfalls of the regional oil and gas industry) will not be easy and quick to overcome. Tribal pact-making is therefore more a work-in-progress than a firm and reliable feature of a strategy to seal-off a problematic border.

The main question that Cairo will need to answer at some point is whether General Heftar can be considered an asset for its approach to the Libyan neighbour. For the time being, the non-military approach favoured by the Egyptian foreign ministry seems to have won over the previously bellicose rhetoric of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who first called for an international military coalition in February 2015 and then worked, without success, to mobilise the League of Arab States to that end.

Soberly assessing the effect of Heftar’s ‘Operation Dignity,’ and its most recent follow-up ‘Hatf’ (literally ‘death’), will therefore be decisive. Have these endeavours led to coalition building among previously scattered jihadi militias, for example under the banner of ISIS? Or have they been capable of structurally weakening the territorial control of jihadist actors?

In other words, is the assumed Egyptian power projection by proxy working out in Cairo’s favour by making the Egyptian-Libyan border more secure and ridding its Libyan hinterland of jihadi insurgents? The most recent agreement with the US on border security points in another direction, and indicates that a multi-pronged approach is the smartest option for the moment.

Nevertheless, as Libya is pretty much embarked on a path towards Somalisation, Egypt needs to consider a ‘Plan B’ should the UN-brokered Libyan National Dialogue eventually fail for good. Since several indicators are pointing in this direction, the primarily non-kinetic approach to crisis management in Libya privileged by the Egyptian authorities and Cairo’s diplomacy might turn out as obsolete. Hence the previous stance, vocally expressed by President El-Sisi last February of favouring direct military engagement might return to the top of the agenda.

In the meantime Cairo will continue to steer a complex approach between conflict containment, tribal politics and indirect power-projection via proxy in order to secure a porous border and avoid jihadi spill-over.

The writer is Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA)

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