Egypt’s Changing policy in Libya: Opportunities and Challenges

On December 27, 2020, a high-ranking Egyptian diplomatic and security delegation visited the Libyan capital of Tripoli to hold talks with the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The delegation was led by Deputy Head of General Intelligence Ayman Badie, who is responsible for managing Egypt’s Libya policy, with other officials from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The visit marks the first of its kind since the start of Libya’s civil war in 2014 and raises many questions about the nature of Egypt’s position on the Libyan crisis. In particular, the visit raises questions about whether Egypt is at a turning point in its strategy toward Libya and, consequently, regarding Cairo’s possible contribution to a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

New Dynamics

Although the Egyptian delegation’s visit to Tripoli seems surprising, Cairo and Tripoli have been cozying up to each other in recent months through a gradual rapprochement. This has spurred various transformations on the ground in Libya since the Government of National Accord (GNA) successfully thwarted renegade General Khalifa Haftar’s assault on Tripoli by obtaining military aid from Turkey. In addition, for the first time in years, a political dialogue has been underway between Libya’s rival factions as a result of the UN mediation and rounds of talks in Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya.

The cease-fire signed between Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army and the GNA on October 23, 2020 helped to soothe tensions between Cairo and Tripoli, allowing for a return to the negotiating table and an abandonment of the military solution to the crisis.

Also, on September 28, Egypt hosted talks between Libya’s factions to help resolve the Libyan crisis. Seeking to serve as preparation for a permanent cease-fire and help the UN-supported 5+5 Joint Military Commission, the meeting included security and military delegations from both rival factions. Hence, it seemed as though Egypt was attempting to return to playing the role of mediator in the Libyan conflict. Over the last three months, Cairo has also convened talks1 between delegations and officials from the Tripoli-based Supreme Council of State and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. The cease-fire signed between Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army and the GNA on October 23, 2020 helped to soothe tensions between Cairo and Tripoli, allowing for a return to the negotiating table and an abandonment of the military solution to the crisis. This coincided with the launch of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum on November 9, 2020. All of these different factors paved the way for a shift in Egypt’s response to the Libyan crisis.

Regional Shifts

One of the strategic mistakes that Egypt made in its initial approach to the Libyan crisis was picking a side. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi believed that an alliance with Haftar would help Egypt realize its strategic goals and interests in Libya and this is what drove Egypt’s support for the military solution, at the expense of a political compromise. Such an approach was seen as a way to restore stability in the country and end the civil war. Therefore, over the course of the past six years, Sisi has been providing all forms of military, logistical, intelligence, and security support to Haftar’s camp in eastern Libya. Sisi also backed the military campaign that Haftar launched in April 2019 to control the Libyan capital. However, with the warlord eventually failing to achieve his military goals, Cairo started seeing its former ally as a burden and increasingly portrayed him as an obstacle to the resolution of the conflict. Perhaps Cairo’s abandonment of Haftar contributed to bettering its relationship with the GNA, and thereby, to ruling out a military solution in favor of a political one.

The Turkish intervention in Libya is one of the most important factors that pushed Egypt to rethink its strategy there. Turkey is a regional opponent of Egypt and the two countries are at odds with each other over a variety of issues, but particularly on Ankara’s support for the Egyptian Islamists and its rejection of the coup that brought the Sisi government to power in 2013. In recent months, the eastern Mediterranean gas dispute between Turkey and Greece has become the major flash point between the two.

In terms of Libya, the military and intelligence assistance that Turkey provided to the GNA led to a reversal of the military balance and a rethinking of the political calculations of all actors involved in the Libyan crisis. 

In terms of Libya, the military and intelligence assistance that Turkey provided to the GNA led to a reversal of the military balance and a rethinking of the political calculations of all actors involved in the Libyan crisis. Egypt’s decision-makers realized that there is a need for a new approach to deal with the Libyan conflict in order to prevent Turkey from expanding its influence over the GNA. On the other hand, there are recent indications of an improvement in relations between Egypt and Turkey. With bilateral talks2 taking place between the parties on intelligence issues and the increasingly friendly statements issued by the two countries’ officials, tensions between these rivals seem to be on a gradual decline. If the trend continues, this could contribute toward resolution of the Libyan crisis.

In addition, there are differences between Egypt and the United Arab Emirates over a number of regional issues, including the Libyan conflict and the Emiratis’ normalization of relations with Israel. Some reports indicate that there is a widening gap between the two countries’ perceptions of these issues. For example, while Egypt believes that there is a possibility to reach a political solution to the Libyan crisis through negotiations, the UAE insists on the necessity of a military solution and supports Haftar in his attempt to wage war on the GNA. Cairo also looks to the swift normalization process between the UAE and Israel with suspicion, as Egypt sees the UAE’s growing regional presence as a challenge to its own role, interests, and image as a regional power.

Challenges to Egypt’s Role in Libya

Egypt faces many challenges as it tries to implement its playbook in Libya. First, it does not yet have a clear vision for how to deal with the Libyan crisis. Egypt’s policy-making on matters related to Libya is still dominated by security and intelligence interests, as it is the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate—and not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—that is responsible for managing the country’s Libya policy. The problem is also not limited to Libya; Sisi’s policy-making mentality is eclipsed by an obsession in security as he tackles both foreign and domestic issues. This reflects a lack of vision and an inability to think outside the box.

Second, there are doubts regarding Egypt’s ability to reach a consensus with Turkey—at least on the Libya issue. The relationship between President Sisi and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is characterized by frequent tensions and hostility due to both personal and political reasons. On Libya, Cairo is suspicious of Ankara’s consolidation of relations with the Tripoli-based GNA. In December, the Turkish parliament an extension of the deployment of Turkish troops to Libya for an additional 18 months. In a move that further aggravated Sisi, the Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar visited Libya on December 26 and confirmed Turkish troops’ readiness to support the internationally recognized government and promote the current political settlement in the country. Akar also warned Haftar against carrying out any attacks on Turkish forces in Libya.

Since the signing of the maritime delineation agreement in November 2019, Libya has been a cornerstone of Turkey’s regional strategy. This was particularly apparent with regard to Turkey’s attempts to secure access to eastern Mediterranean gas and balance its relationship with the European Union in light of the recent tensions with Greece and other European Union countries Therefore, unless Egypt and Turkey make real concessions regarding the Libyan issue, as well as in other areas of disagreement, a viable solution to the Libyan crisis will be difficult to implement.

Despite current tensions between Egypt and the UAE, Egypt needs the UAE’s financial support at this time, resulting from the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic which led to widescale street protests last September.

Third, despite current tensions between Egypt and the UAE, Egypt needs the UAE’s financial support at this time, resulting from the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic which led to widescale street protests last September. Unless Cairo is able to find other sources of financial support and foreign investment, it might need to succumb to pressures from the UAE, the most important of which is a return to the military solution in Libya.

Fourth, despite the progress that has been made during the past months’ talks between the rival Libyan parties, the peace process is still fragile and could collapse at any moment, especially due to the difficulties of reaching a final agreement and a clear road map to which all sides are committed. In other words, if Libya’s political process were to collapse—and this could happen at any moment because of continuous violations of the cease-fire agreement—the conflict would return to square one, which is the military conflict, and all the cards would be shuffled again.

The Road Ahead: Policy Recommendations for Egypt

Egypt can meet these challenges. First, it could benefit from the current period of relative tranquility in the region—especially following the recent Gulf reconciliation—and reposition itself in Libya. This could happen by completely abandoning the military solution, which would require cutting all support for Haftar and engaging exhaustively in peace talks between Libya’s factions. Second, Egypt should play the role of an honest broker and show no bias toward one side or another if it wishes to restore its credibility with all parties to the conflict. Third, Egypt should communicate more with Turkey to reach understandings and agreements on dealing with the Libyan issue according to the interests of both parties.

Fourth, Egypt must integrate more civilians into its decision-making process related to Libya in order to expand the scope of decision-makers beyond security and military officials. This is particularly important because the Libyan crisis will not be solved through armed conflict but by negotiation and concessions from all sides. In sum, there is an important opportunity ahead for Egypt that could allow it to play an active role in the Libyan crisis and to restore its regional standing.

Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. To learn more about Khalil al-Anani click here

1 Source is in Arabic.
2 Source is in Arabic.