Egypt Still Banking on Libya’s Haftar While Reaching Out to Other Leaders

Despite recent efforts to reach out to different Libyan factions, the Egyptian government is still strongly supporting General Khalifa Haftar, Libya’s strongman in the eastern part of the country who returned to Libya several years ago after living in exile for almost two decades in the United States. Haftar has allied himself with the secular Tobruk faction in Libya and is opposed to Islamists of all political stripes. Cairo seems willing to incur the displeasure of the international community, which regards Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, head of the Presidential Council and prime minister of the Government of National Accord, as the legitimate Libyan leader; the Egyptians believe that only Haftar has the leadership, strength, and organization to stop terrorists from crossing Libya’s long and porous border into Egypt. Although Egypt has important economic interests in Libya, security is its top priority, especially in light of a spate of deadly terrorist incidents that, of late, have embarrassed the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Egypt’s Extensive Relations with Libya

An oil-rich neighbor to its immediate west, Libya has long been seen by Egypt as a place to alleviate its massive unemployment problem. Prior to 2011, there were on average an estimated 2 million Egyptians employed in Libya, most of whom worked in the oil and gas industries, construction, or the informal sector (including the buying and selling of household goods). They earned enough money to justify the travel costs and uncertainty of working and living there. Currently, and despite terrorist attacks against Egyptian citizens in Libya, the number of Egyptians there has fallen to about 750,000. Nevertheless, this figure is substantial. Many of these workers come from poor villages in Upper Egypt and the remittances they send home are a significant source of income for hard-pressed families; indeed, prior to 2011, remittances were about $33 million a year from all Egyptian workers in Libya.

Due to Libya’s proximity, Egypt also sees it as an important oil supplier for its economy. Although the chaos in Libya since 2011 has interrupted such supplies, Egypt hopes that if stability returns to Libya, it will be able, through Egyptian energy companies, to purchase Libyan oil again on a steady basis.

But, at present, the security issue trumps all others. Instability in Libya, following the 2011 uprising that eventually led to Muammar Qadhafi’s ouster from power and death, has led to a proliferation of militias in the country, divided governments representing Islamist and secular factions, and operating cells and even patches of territories held by the so-called Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda.

Egyptian officials believe that in this chaotic situation, both terrorists and arms are frequently moving across the border from Libya into Egypt. They not only pose a threat to security in the western part of Egypt and the Nile valley but to areas further east like the Sinai Peninsula, which has been witnessing a stubborn terrorist insurgency over the past several years led by Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province), an IS affiliate.

Seeing Haftar as a Kindred Spirit

Because of Egypt’s fixation on the problem of terrorism, it wants eastern Libya, in particular, to be pacified and rid of terrorists. Egyptian officials seemed to have found the solution to their problems in the former renegade Libyan general, Khalifa Haftar, who distrusts all Islamists, moderates, and extremists alike and had formed an alliance with the secular House of Representatives’ government in the eastern city of Tobruk. Over the past few years, with Egyptian and UAE assistance, Haftar has expanded this government’s domain to include most of the city of Benghazi, other cities in the east, some areas in the south, and vital oil installations just east of the coastal city of Sirte.

In addition to opposing IS and al-Qaeda, Haftar shares with Sisi an ideological aversion to political Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, a large part of Haftar’s refusal to cooperate with Libya’s political factions in Tripoli, such as the Libyan Salvation Front, is because he believes they are under the sway of Libya’s equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Justice and Construction Party.

Strategically, Sisi also sees Haftar as an ally in keeping Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood from taking power in Arab states, particularly in neighboring countries that have been facing Islamist insurgencies such as Syria. Haftar fits Sisi’s view that the region is best served by autocratic strongmen who not only want to stabilize their countries and keep them whole in the face of chaos and decentralizing tendencies, but who are not averse to using force to keep Islamist groups down.

Since 2014, Egypt has been assisting Haftar and his forces, called the Libyan National Army (LNA), by supplying them with arms, logistical support, and intelligence. Such “covert” assistance is widely known and is in defiance of a UN-imposed arms embargo on Libya that has been in place since 2011. Nonetheless, Sisi is so concerned about instability and terrorism emanating from Libya and affecting Egypt that he has been willing to take the risk of defying the international community on this matter. In September 2016, during his speech to the UN General Assembly and without admitting this military assistance to Haftar, Sisi called on the international body to lift the embargo, saying that it hinders Haftar’s forces and not the terrorists themselves. Cairo is likely to continue its military assistance to Haftar.

Egypt, on occasion, has also directly intervened militarily in Libya in reaction to terrorist attacks on its citizens. In February 2015, it sent warplanes to attack IS-held areas in response to the gruesome beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by IS terrorists on a beach in Libya. More recently, in May 2017, it launched air strikes in Libya after a bus carrying Coptic Christians was attacked in Minya, Egypt. Some analysts said these air strikes were not actually directed at the group responsible for the Minya operation but were aimed at helping Haftar in his battles against an Islamist group in eastern Libya. An Egyptian intelligence source told one news service: “Names are not important for us, they are all terrorists. Those who carried out the Minya operation do not necessarily have to be in these camps but their followers are.”

Egypt Is Not Putting All of Its Eggs in One Basket

Despite this substantial assistance to Haftar, Egypt is also reaching out to other Libyan political leaders and groups to hedge its bets, understanding that Haftar is intensely disliked by factions in Tripoli (including Prime Minister Sarraj and his Government of National Accord, not to mention the Islamist-based National Salvation Front). Haftar may not be able to extend his influence to other parts of Libya without the cooperation of these other factions.

Cairo was officially supportive of the UN-brokered talks in Morocco that resulted in the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in December 2015 in favor of a Libyan unity government. However, this agreement has stalled in large part because the Tobruk-based House of Representatives never ratified it. Consequently, Cairo has tried its own hand at diplomacy to reconcile the factions. In December 2016, it hosted a conference of 120 representatives of Libyan tribes, sects, and political groupings that resulted in the “Cairo Declaration,” which called for delegations from the House of Representatives and the Council of State (based in Tripoli) to agree on decreasing the number of members of the Presidency Council from nine to three, accelerating the writing of a new constitution, and holding elections for president and parliament in March 2018.

One of the problems in moving this process forward was that Haftar was opposed to meeting with Sarraj, even after Egypt leaned heavily on him to do so. However, with the help of the United Arab Emirates, Haftar and Sarraj finally met in Abu Dhabi in early May 2017. But like most agreements on Libya, nothing is guaranteed. All factions and groups in Libya know that Cairo is still heavily invested in Haftar who, if made part of a unity government, would not want to play second fiddle to a civilian politician. Moreover, it is not clear how a unified Libyan Army, presumably under civilian control, would be created. In September 2017, Egypt announced that it would help in the “reorganization” of the Libyan Army and would be open to all parties except for terrorist organizations. However, it is widely believed that Haftar and the Egyptians want the LNA to be the dominant force in such an army. Meanwhile, Sarraj and his allies in Tripoli have different ideas. During his meeting with US President Donald Trump at the White House on December 1, 2017, Sarraj also called for the lifting of the UN arms embargo on Libya for the purpose of strengthening military units loyal to his group, the Presidential Council—not Haftar’s LNA.

Sizing up the political figures in May 2017, former US envoy to Libya, Jonathan Winer, characterized the situation as follows: “Everybody in Libya who’s got a position wants to maintain their position and increase the power and authority of that position without having to give anything up … That’s a zero-sum game and it doesn’t work, but it doesn’t stop people from trying.” How Libya aims to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018 in this environment remains to be seen.

The Washington-Cairo Connection and Libya

There was some speculation when Trump became president that US policy toward Libya would shift toward Haftar, not only because he was an ally of Sisi and Trump wanted to cultivate good ties with the Egyptian leader, but also because the president purportedly liked strongmen of Haftar’s ilk. However, it seems that the Trump Administration either reassessed its earlier views or came to the conclusion that it should not buck the international consensus in favor of a Libyan unity government. Whatever the reason, in May 2017 the Trump Administration, through its ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, articulated a position in favor of the UN-brokered unity agreement, as it is “vital to restoring stability” in the country. Haley also criticized Haftar indirectly for launching an attack on an air base in Misrata, in the central coastal region, which was controlled by a faction loyal to Sarraj’s Tripoli government, saying that such attacks are “destabilizing” and “unacceptable.”

And the fact that Sarraj (and not Haftar) was recently afforded a White House visit suggests US policy supports unity over factionalism, despite the fact that Sarraj also seems to be playing political games of his own. How all this impacts Egypt’s policy toward Libya remains to be seen, but it is highly unlikely that Cairo would drop its support for Haftar just to please the US president. And Egypt can always say, as a result of its overtures to other factions, that it remains supportive of Libyan unity.

Because of recent terrorist incidents in Egypt—the ambush of a police patrol in an oasis 80 kilometers southwest of Cairo in October, and the killing of over 300 people at a Sufi mosque in the North Sinai in November—Sisi cannot afford to look weak on terrorism. During his inauguration speech as president in 2014, Sisi underscored that combating terrorism would be his top priority. He is likely to continue his present policy of supporting Haftar militarily and financially (with the help of the United Arab Emirates), in line with this goal, while pushing for a dominant role for Haftar in a new Libyan government that would somehow be palatable to factions in Tripoli. Whether this will succeed remains an open question, but it is difficult to imagine Sisi abandoning Haftar while large-scale terrorist incidents are happening inside Egypt.

Recommendations for US Policy

Washington needs to show the Sisi government that it will help protect its porous western border with Libya while pushing Egypt to get behind a Libyan unity government in an unambiguous way. In 2015, the US Defense Department approved the sale of border surveillance equipment to Egypt. This is a step in the right direction but more needs to be done. Washington should also try to convince Cairo that part of the $1.3 billion in average annual US military assistance to Egypt should be shifted to additional border monitoring equipment and systems, along with training of Egyptian personnel. Although Egypt would not want such equipment to come at the expense of so-called big-ticket items, such as fighter aircraft and armored vehicles, it has been so vocal about the need to protect its western border from terrorist infiltration that decision-makers in Cairo may change their minds.

Perhaps with feeling more comfortable with extra security on its western border, Egypt might decrease its unconditional support for Haftar. Egypt’s current policy toward Libya is a bit contradictory—while favoring a unity government, it wants Haftar to be the dominant force within that government. Although there is no doubt that Haftar is a commanding presence in the eastern part of Libya, he has little support in the more populated western areas like Tripoli. Cairo needs to be convinced that pushing Haftar to be in a dominant position in a unity government is unlikely to work. He could be placed in a coalition government, holding substantial powers, but he would not be calling all of the shots.

Such a scenario would have the purpose of convincing factions in the east and Libyan secularists in other parts of the country that their interests would be represented, but it would also allay the fears of elements in the western part of the country, as well as moderate Islamists, that Haftar would not impose his will on them. Moreover, it would underscore that the United States is supportive of inclusionary politics and a transition to participatory and democratic governance, especially for countries that have been under autocratic rule and civil war. Getting Cairo to agree that this scenario would be optimal for both Libya and Egypt would be a tough sell by US diplomatic and military officials at this time, but it behooves them to try.

Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC