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Libyan crisis: In war and in peace

Egypt is readying itself — on the political and military fronts — to deal with developments in Libya

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 23 Jul 2020
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In the latest development in Egypt’s political and military preparations to respond to developments in Libya, the Egyptian House of Representatives voted, on Monday, to give the president a mandate to send troops on missions abroad.  

Cairo’s policy on the Sirte-Jufra “red line” that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi set last month should be perceived not only as a limit to military advances on both sides but also as an invitation to a ceasefire and the return to the political process.  

Fathi Al-Marimi, media advisor to the speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives, said the Egyptian parliament’s decision to approve military intervention abroad came in response to a Libyan request, and also to protect Egypt’s national security. Cairo and the Libyan House of Representatives have formed a joint operations room to monitor developments and coordinate policy.

Khaled Al-Mahjoub, director of the Morale Guidance Department of the Libyan National Army (LNA), voiced his appreciation for the support Egypt is giving the Libyan cause simply by its presence in the equation. Such moral support is an important factor in military calculations, he said, adding: “We were certain that the Egyptian parliament would respond favourably to the demands of the both Libyan and the Egyptian public opinion.

“The arrival of Turkish forces to Sirte and Jufra presents a very dangerous and delicate situation that could jeopardise Egypt’s national security. This is why the Libyan army and President Al-Sisi decided to designate those points as a red line. Egypt’s security and Libya’s security are one.”

Al-Mahjoub noted that, as a relatively new army, the LNA did not have the capacity to take on Turkish forces whereas the Egyptian army has much to offer in support of the LNA.

A Libyan source in Cairo told Al-Ahram Weekly that an LNA military delegation arrived in Cairo on Monday to coordinate with Egypt over the latest developments in Libya.

Last week Cairo hosted a large delegation of Libyan tribal representatives keen to create a unified Libyan national front. The meeting appeared to alarm Algeria which issued a statement expressing concern over further escalation and the arming of Libyan tribes.

“Libya will turn into another Somalia if Libyan tribes are armed,” President Abdelmadjid Tebboune warned. After noting that Algiers is in contact with all stakeholders in the Libyan crisis, both in Libya and abroad, Tebboune said: “We stand at an equal distance from all the Libyan factions and we urge the need to prioritise the political solution. We are in continual communication with Russia and France and are in almost daily contact with Egypt and Turkey at the Foreign Ministry level.”

An Egyptian official denied any intent to arm the Libyan tribes. He stressed that the tribes were an important base of support for the LNA because many of their young men served in the army. As a major component of Libyan society, the tribes are also crucial to consolidating a stable domestic political front which is why Egypt needed to coordinate with tribal representatives.

Cairo has also been in continual contact with international forces involved in the Libyan conflict. Following a phone call between President Al-Sisi and US President Donald Trump on Monday the Egyptian presidency reported that Trump had praised Al-Sisi’s tireless efforts to promote the political process in Libya. Al-Sisi explained Egypt’s aims vis-a-vis the Libyan crisis: to restore equilibrium and safeguard national institutions. He and Trump discussed the deteriorating security situation and the need to put an end to illegitimate foreign interventions in Libyan domestic affairs which have only complicated and escalated the crisis until it threatens the security and stability of the entire region.

According to military experts in Cairo, Egypt’s Armed Forces now have a green light to act in Libya if need be. The army could advance on the ground towards destinations on the Libyan coast, and deeper into the country in coordination with the LNA, or they could deliver aerial strikes against specific targets in Libya. At the same time, the sources stress that Cairo remains averse to military escalation.

In Libya, militias fighting for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) have returned to Misrata after having advanced towards the Sirte-Jufra line last week. Nevertheless, according to a Libyan source familiar with the situation on the ground, it is important to bear in mind that there are two types of militia forces on the western side of the Sirte-Jufra line.

“The most distinct are the foreign mercenaries that Turkey introduced and that now number more than 16,000. Then there are the militias fighting for the GNA. It is clear that the GNA, in the current phase, will rely on militias from Misrata which did not play a role during the Tripoli war. This is an indication of the nature of the alliances that the Turkish military command is forging in Libya.

Ankara knows that Arab tribes will not side with the Turks and so it is aligning with non-Arab forces, with local radical Islamist groups and with groups that look to profit from war.

Political and military experts consulted by the Weekly foresee a number of possible scenarios. One is a limited battle in Sirte triggered by an attempt on the part of the Turkish-backed GNA to seize control of the petroleum crescent. This economically strategic area is currently controlled by the Petroleum Fascilities Guards, a branch of the LNA. The combatants would be restricted to local factions, but they would rely on support from their respective regional partners. A grimmer scenario would involve further escalation causing that battle to spiral into a war. The experts continue to discard this possibility because both Egypt and Turkey, the regional powers most involved in the Libyan crisis, appreciate the grave costs and repercussions of a military clash between them. Therefore, in the context of the current dynamics surrounding the Libyan conflict, Cairo and Turkey will continue to lock horns politically, even if their political rhetoric and military manoeuvres send the message that they have not ruled out the military option. Such a war scenario in Libya would send tremors throughout the region, according to the experts who say that the coming days will give us a clearer sense on which direction all stakeholders are heading.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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