What is happening in Libya? And how will Egypt react? Libya today has devolved into a violent political struggle between two major blocs: the internationally recognized, Tobruk-based parliament versus Tripoli’s parliament and administration. Over the last few months, hardliners on each side have become increasingly entrenched in a quest for power and control of the country’s key resources, at the expense of security and rule of law. The humanitarian consequences have been dire, with more than 400 killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. Food and medicine are in severely short supply. Egypt, historically Libya’s most influential neighbor, is rightly concerned.
First, some background on the atomization of Libya. Throughout 2013, Islamist factions within Libya’s elected parliament became dominant, damaging the opposing secularist bloc. In the eastern provinces, radical groups and common criminals continued a campaign of aggression, intimidation, and assassination of opponents, former officers, and the security forces. Against the backdrop of deteriorating security, General Khalifa Haftar attempted to unseat then-Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s government, in February 2014. A former officer under Muammar Qaddafi, Haftar had defected in the 1980’s and returned to Libya after the 2011 revolution. Following his failed coup d’état, Haftar appointed himself the leader of the Libyan National Army and attacked Islamist formations in Benghazi. His purpose was to purge the city, without distinguishing between moderates and militants. In response, Islamists, collaborated with Misrata’s forces to stage a counterattack in Tripoli. Islamists occupied the capital and its environs. This forced the elected assembly into exile, to the eastern city of Tobruk, where they are under Haftar’s protection.
The space for negotiations between the two governments is shrinking. The United Nations, in intensive shuttle diplomacy led by Special Representative Bernardino Leon, is mediating between the warring factions in order to forge consensus around the need for a national unity government to bring Libya out of the current crisis. The challenge has been to reconcile two divergent narratives that frame the situation. On the one hand, the Tobruk parliament and Operation Dignity characterize the fight as one between secular, nationalist, pro-democracy forces against radical jihadists. On the other, the Tripoli-based Dawn supporters dub it a struggle between supporters of the February 17 revolution and counterrevolutionaries who wish to bring back elements of the former regime.
A fundamental factor in favor of UN mediation in the face of these obstacles is the international community’s generally cohesive stance behind Leon’s efforts—most importantly, arguing for the principle of non-intervention by foreign powers. The advantages of non-intervention are two-fold: it would prevent each faction in Libya’s domestic struggle from gaining military and economic support from external actors; and thus empower moderate elements and create an environment more conducive for negotiations.
Yet the opposite is happening in Libya. First, Qatar and Turkey have and are providing arms and equipment to the Tripoli-based faction. Second, it has become evident—as well as openly announced by members of the Dignity operation—that Egypt is heavily involved in assisting efforts against Islamists in both the east and, as continuous airstrikes indicate, in the west. Libya is thus becoming a proxy for a larger regional struggle that pits anti-Islamist coalitions (led by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) against the presumed supporters of Islamists (Turkey and Qatar). Such international support for the factions undermines UN mediation efforts. In particular, the backing that Egypt provides to General Haftar and Operation Dignity empowers those forces that want to continue the armed struggle until the whole country is “liberated” from those who understand that there is no military solution to the crisis, rather only a negotiated one.
Since the collapse of order in Libya, Egypt has been the most affected by the instability. The power vacuum allows extremist elements to infiltrate Egyptian territory and carry out attacks against security forces. The temptation then is very high for the Egyptian state to intervene directly in Libya and secure at least a buffer zone, but also possibly exert full control over as much of Libya’s eastern territory as feasible. An open intervention by Egypt’s military, however, would not only hinder a peaceful settlement in Libya, but also negatively affect Egypt’s interests. It would entrench the polarization of Libyan forces on the ground, further diminishing prospects for a political solution, and entangle Egypt in a war against forces that will gain wider support as the local population shifts from anti-Islamist sentiments to animosity toward a foreign invader.
Egyptian Interests in Libya
Egypt is correct to worry about its western border and the potential spillover effects of the conflict in Libya. Since the ouster of democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi by the military, Egypt has suffered from the threat of violent extremism along its borders and particularly in the Sinai Peninsula. Analysts, UN officials, and Egyptian security officers often point to the porous border as the source of heavy weapons and ammunition falling into the hands of extremists and other Islamists, including supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In July 2014, armed men attacked the Farafra checkpoint in Egypt near the Libyan border, killing twenty-two Egyptian border guards. The incident sparked outrage within the military-backed government and roused accusations that terrorists, trained in Libya, were infiltrating the Egyptian border and conducting assaults against security forces. Consequently, rumors that militants trained in Libya and Sinai-based jihadists groups were forging ties grew louder. The best-organized militant group, Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis(ABM), represents the most overt threat to the government. The group has repeatedly attacked government assets and military personnel, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of officers and the theft of weapons, vehicles, and equipment. On November 10, ABM changed its name to Wilayat Sinai, or the Sinai State, since it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Given that, only a few months earlier in June, the relatively new Libyan jihadist group Majlis Shura Shabab Al-Islam (the Islamic Youth Shura Council) in Derna also announced its allegiance to the Islamic State, it only cemented the suspicion of a link between the groups.
Concern of militant extremism only represents one part of the equation in Egypt’s interests in Libya. Another more subtle aspect involves migrant labor. The lack of economic opportunity directly contributed to the unrest that led to the January 2011 uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak, and Egypt’s authorities recognize the importance of a stable Libya in providing an outlet for their surplus labor. While exact numbers are difficult to obtain, the International Organization for Migration estimated that, by the end of 2013, the number of Egyptian workers in Libya amounted to about 700,000 and potentially reached 1.5 million, counting illegal migrants. Remittances to Egypt rank third among the highest contributors to GDP and foreign currency, amounting to $20 billion in 2013, with Libya accounting for up to $33 million per year.
Although the amount seems meager compared to that received from Gulf countries, the proximity and relative ease of entry to Libya (particularly for poor or unskilled Egyptian workers) and the widespread unemployment and underemployment in Egypt puts Libya at the top of the list of destinations for migrant labor. The conflict over Tripoli and elsewhere, however, led to a mass exodus of approximately 200,000 or more Egyptian workers in February and March of 2014. Many of these workers returned to dismal economic conditions and placed additional pressures on Egypt’s job market and local economies.
In addition to security and labor problems, Egypt also suffers from an acute energy crisis after the past three years of political and economic turbulence. Egypt became a net energy importer at the end of 2013 and owes about $4.9 billion to foreign energy companies. The country now relies heavily on Gulf state support (in both finances and fuel) to satisfy its needs. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi announced difficult subsidy reforms in July to relieve pressures on government expenditures, but the knock on effect has increased prices across the board. Libya could potentially offer a solution. With most of its oil fields in the eastern part of Libya, favorable relations with the Tobruk government could yield significant dividends in acquiring fuel at below-market value. Such a situation, however, requires a stable environment to restore production levels and ensure a reliable supply chain.
The Egyptian Response
Given such vital Egyptian interests in Libya, intervention in the conflict between the Tobruk-based and Islamist Tripoli-based rival factions seems logical. By settling the dispute, Egypt could crush—or at least better control—the cross-border militant and criminal activity, facilitate the return of Egyptian workers, and mitigate its energy crisis.
With the beginning of the Libyan crisis in May 2014, Egypt initially pledged not to interfere in Libyan affairs while calling on all militias to disarm. As the political crisis in Libya intensified, however, Egypt and its ideologically aligned sponsor, the UAE, took operational matters into their own hands. Despite repeated denials by their officials, the two countries appear to have taken direct part in airstrikes launched on Islamist positions in Libya in August and September. The strikes can only be read in terms of the regional struggle over influence in North Africa between Egypt’s backers, the UAE and Saudi Arabia on one side, and Islamist supporters Qatar and Turkey that have been accused of arming the Islamist backed GNC on the other. But they also served to squarely place Egypt in the Tobruk camp, negating its (at least rhetorical) role as an objective arbiter, emboldening Operation Dignity fighters, and cementing the confrontational stance with Operation Dawn. Egypt also announced a plan to train Libyan army fighters in October and increase security cooperation with the internationally recognized government in as effort to counter militants and insurgents. There have also been unconfirmed reportsthat Egypt has agreed to set up a Libyan internal security service.
On the diplomatic front, Egypt has been equally insistent on its intention to combat Libya’s Islamist militants. At a conference in Madrid in September, Egypt intensified its calls to keep foreign actors—referring implicitly to Qatar—out of Libya’s conflict (notwithstanding the irony of its own intervention). In President El-Sisi’s first meeting with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, he also stressed the need to support the elected government and took another overt step in choosing sides when Tobruk’s Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni and his counterpart Ibrahim Mahlab met in October in Cairo to discuss bilateral relations and security cooperation.
El-Sisi also visited France in November to discuss Libya’s situation with President François Hollande who had already expressed an interventionist bent with regard to supporting the Tobruk government. During his visit, El-Sisi urged the United States and Europe assist the Libyan army in its fight against Islamist militants to prevent instability there from reaching the scale of Iraq and Syria. Despite the Libyan Supreme Court decision throwing the legitimacy of the Tobruk parliament into doubt, over the past months Libya, Egypt, and Gulf states have advanced a full court press. This led to a reiteration of explicit support for Tobruk in December from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, insisting they do not recognize any other entity as the legitimate government in the country. The timing of this announcement coincides with Prime Minister Al-Thinni’s public rejection of UN-mediated talks and General Haftar’s imposition of extremely strict conditions for participating in the negotiations.
Consequences of Intervention
Is Egypt setting the stage for a forceful intervention in support of the government in Libya’s east? An Egyptian military intervention might deliver immediate, apparently positive consequences, such as wiping out jihadi groups that have established training ground in the eastern part of Libya. If the forces involved are strong enough, they might even conquer the city of Derna and eliminate the growing Islamic State stronghold. As part of this effort, Egypt could help the government, now limited to the cities of Bayda and Tobruk, to take their seat in Libya’s second largest city of Benghazi and earn back its credibility and prestige. From Benghazi, this newly empowered Libyan government could exert control all the way to Sirte and from there project power in an attempt to reconquer the western part of the country.
The challenges to accomplishing this are manifold, and such interference could spell negative ramifications that undermine both Egypt and Libya’s prospects for stability. First, the strength of the Islamists in the east should not be underestimated. They are very capable of holding their territory and could begin heavy guerrilla warfare against what at that point could easily and justifiably be portrayed as foreign “invaders.” This would cause further polarization in the country and fuel radical elements’ justification for taking up arms and maybe galvanize support from what, up until today, has been an inimical but largely passive population.
Moreover, should Egypt succeed in restoring the Tobruk government’s authority, the latter would face residual questions of credibility and lawfulness, since its power would have been established thanks to a foreign army. In the best-case scenario, even if it earned the larger public’s tacit approval, the opposition would not withdraw silently. There would undoubtedly be a continued resistance movement from those who have been forcibly marginalized from the political sphere, prolonging the Libyan government’s reliance on Egyptian support and thus reigniting questions of legitimacy. The continued struggle against insecurity would also compel authorities to divert resources away from infrastructure and reconstruction that would serve the long-term interests of the state and its people.
For Egypt, intervention would help cut the smuggling corridors that supply militant extremists in the restive Sinai Peninsula and other parts of the country. Egypt would also enjoy strengthened relations with the Libyan government, allowing it to reap the rewards of eased travel restrictions for Egyptian labor and profitable energy contracts. After the massive unrest and destruction of Libya’s infrastructure, Egypt could even acquire lucrative reconstruction projects for its companies. From a security and economic perspective, Egypt has every reason to contemplate military intervention.
Nonetheless, El-Sisi must ask himself if his confrontational stance toward all things Islamist may in fact exacerbate those security and economic issues he aims to solve. If Egypt establishes a buffer zone along the border or even limits itself to tactical assaults in support of the Libyan army, its resulting label as a foreign invader would provide fodder that may draw more, not fewer, jihadists to Egypt’s borders. Even if security cooperation with the Libyan government prevents infiltration into Egypt, its interests and citizens in Libya could still come under the crosshairs of angry regional and international extremists. Furthermore, the deployment of Egyptian troops to Libya’s borders would open a second front in Egypt’s war on terror, overstretching the military and drawing resources away from Sinai.
For the sake of its national interests, Egypt should limit its involvement in Libyan affairs. To play a positive role, Cairo should exercise all of its diplomatic clout over the Tobruk government to push it toward a mediated and negotiated political solution with its opponents. This, in the medium term, would guarantee Egypt’s influence over the whole of Libya in terms of economic rewards without committing its army to a potentially prolonged engagement like that of Egypt’s involvement in Yemen during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s presidency. If Egypt plays a constructive role in helping to resolve the Libyan crisis, a negotiated solution would be more conducive to creating stability and security within Libya that would finally allow it to continue its transition toward a pluralistic and participatory political system. Such a Libya would better serve Egypt’s interests, becoming an ally through the power of diplomatic support rather than armed engagement that would threaten to undermine Libya’s socio-political fabric and its potential as a strategic partner.
Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East with a focus on the politics and economics of North Africa.
Tarek Radwan is the associate director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. On Twitter: @tradwan.