On 20 July 2020, Egypt’s parliament, in a unanimous decision, approved the deployment of troops outside the country. Even though the Egyptian parliament did not specifically mention Libya in its statement, it said that the country’s troops would be deployed to fight “criminal militias and foreign terrorist groups” on its western border, a clear reference to its neighbour – Libya. This move came after the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, threatened military actions against the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord’s (GNA) forces in Libya, citing a need to defend Egypt’s national security. Cairo’s move may worsen the proxy war between Egypt and Turkey, and turn it into a direct confrontation. The approval for military intervention in Libya by Egypt’s parliament did not come as a surprise since the parliament is filled with loyalists of President el-Sisi. The parliament authorised the plan for military action after a closed-door session where it discussed threats likely to come from the western border, which it shares only with Libya. On the same day, the acting head of the UN support mission in Libya, Stephanie Williams, called for a ceasefire, adducing the need to “spare the 125,000 civilians who remain in harm’s way and for an end to the blatant violations of UN arms embargo.”
An incursion and the struggles within
The struggle for power in Libya is led by the putschist rebel commander, Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) launched a strategic offensive to take over Tripoli from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) last year. The GNA is led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Last month, the LNA suffered great losses to its plan to gain control of Tripoli when the GNA troops with the support of Turkey launched Operation Peace Storm to counter attacks on the capital, gaining control of the strategic airbase, al-Watiya, in Nuqat al Khams district of western Libya and giving the GNA an upper hand in the fight. The GNA forces retook all main entrances and exit points into Tripoli as well as key towns within the region like Tarhuna city, with a goal to push further eastward hoping to retake Sirte, a strategically placed oil-rich city which Haftar’s troops captured earlier in the year. This came after the GNA signed security and maritime agreements with Turkey, boosting its chances to take control of Libya’s northwest region.
A proxy war of interests and the struggles without
Libya lurched into a civil war following a NATO-backed military intervention, which toppled the government of its long-term leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Since then, international interests in the oil-rich country have continued to grow. General Haftar’s Libyan National Army has garnered support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and France. These backers have repeatedly provided arms, drones, mercenaries from Russia and Syria, and even diplomatic cover. Russia and Egypt are the two strong supporters of Haftar that have backed their words with military support. Russia stationed its MiG-29 and other advanced fighter jets in Libya; Egypt, on the other hand, appears to be more interested in the strategic coastal city of Sirte, which it calls a “red line”, warning that it would intervene militarily if the Turkey-backed GNA troops attacked the city which sits close to its western border even as Ankara has promised to retake the city along with the inland Jufra airbase. Egypt also fears that it would lose access to oil instalments if Haftar’s LNA loses the war.
Libya’s prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj’s led GNA has received the support of Turkey and the United Nation, which sees it as the only legitimate government of Libya, a stance Egypt has criticised as unrealistic and one ignoring the obvious. Turkey’s military presence, support and decision to construct the Udqba Nafi airbase for the GNA is seen by the international community as a big geopolitical statement, one that Egyptian president, Mr el-Sisi, has criticised and cited as a threat to his country’s national security. This is because of Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood which Mr el-Sisi ousted from power in 2013. A win for the GNA will mean a strong presence of Turkey in the region, which would likely lend support to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian government sees as a threat.
There are two possible outcomes that may follow Egypt’s military intervention in Libya. One, there is a possibility of war if the GNA and its backers in Ankara try to take over Sirte, a city Egypt sees as strategic to its national interests if it remains under the control of the LNA. Two, until now, Egypt’s determination to intervene militarily in Libya has not been tested; with Sirte up for retake, it is possible there would be a diplomatic impasse or what one expert calls a “teasing scenario” which could easily slip into a military confrontation between Egypt and Turkey.
For now, aside from its military equipment stationed in Libya, Russia has played a seemingly-passive role and is likely to leave Egypt to handle all ground involvement. It seems unlikely that Egypt would take its troops all the way to Sirte, which is roughly 900km away from its borders and thus may have a limited presence in Libya’s eastern district. However, it is expected that Egypt will use its air force, which is a much cheaper and efficient way to make its statement.
The Libyan crisis presents yet another security problem for the Sahel, which is currently experiencing political instability not seen since the 1990s with various armed militias operating in large ungoverned territories in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Northern Nigeria. Nigeria is currently fraught with threats from at least two-thirds of its land borders. After the Arab Spring ousted Ghaddaffi in 2011, the arms caches of Libya’s then formidable military, fuelled a Tuareg Islamist insurrection in northern Mali that was put down by a multinational military effort led by France and supported by Nigeria. Soon after, illegal arms flowed from Libya through the Sahel. During this period, there was an upsurge in Boko Haram attacks in Northern Nigeria leading President Goodluck Jonathan to withdraw the Nigerian contingent in Mali.
Insecurity in Nigeria has worsened since then, with illegal arms from porous and badly manned borders flowing to the volatile Niger Delta, which has, in turn, fuelled sea piracy in Nigeria’s sovereign and territorial waters. Despite the efforts of Operation Barkhane and the recently launched Takuma, peace looks far away from this region, and the latest international power struggle in Libya is set to worsen the already deteriorated security climate in Nigeria and other countries in West Africa. In the final analysis, the crisis in Libya holds profound security concerns for its regional neighbours but more so for the Sahel, and a proxy war between Egypt and Turkey would only serve to worsen it.