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Egypt is right to worry about Libya but should avoid proxy wars

Jun 23,2020 - Last updated at Jun 23,2020

A day after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi delivered a stern warning to Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) and allied militias, backed by Turkey, that Sirte and Al Jufra Airbase constitute a red line for Cairo and that Egypt was ready to defend its western borders, messages of solidarity poured in from Amman, Riyadh , Abu Dhabi and Manama. The message was clear: Egypt’s national security is off limits.

Al Sisi, who was speaking to senior military officers as well as heads of Libyan tribes at an airbase close to Libya’s borders, also said that Cairo now has the legitimacy to intervene in Libya with the intention of protecting its western border and bringing stability. But he also called for a political solution to the nine-year-old Libyan conflict based on UN resolutions, the Berlin conference and his own initiative, which he launched earlier this month.

The threat of an Egyptian military intervention was shunned by the Tripoli based GNA. The US, which backed Al Sisi’s call for a ceasefire, also warned against military escalation. At the heart of Cairo’s fears is the fact that Turkey was now extending its military influence in nearby Libya. Egyptian worries mounted when forces belonging to the Libyan National Army (LNA), loyal to Gen. Khalifa Haftar, were pushed back from most of western Libya last month. His campaign to march into Tripoli, launched last year, stumbled as Turkey stepped in, at the invitation of the UN backed GNA, earlier this year bringing in Syrian mercenaries and advanced weapons, including drones and air defence systems.

Haftar, whose forces control most of eastern Libya including Benghazi, has had the covert support of Egypt, UAE and Russia even as the UN attempted to mediate between Libya’s various parties while enforcing a weapons’ embargo. He had ignored the Skhirat agreement of 2015 and avoided committing himself to a power sharing deal with Tripoli in following meetings.

Al Sisi’s call for a ceasefire and a political solution were also rebuffed by Tripoli, whose latest military victories brought its forces to the outskirts of the strategic city of Sirte; considered the gateway to the oil-rich region still under Haftar’s control.

But Libya has become a conflict within a conflict. With foreign powers backing opposite sides, the geopolitical risks of an extended outbreak of proxy wars and even direct confrontation between foreign players have become dangerously real. Russia, which used military contractors to back Haftar, has dispatched Russian fighter jets to Al Jufra Airbase last month in an attempt to counterbalance Turkey’s rising influence. The Libyan crisis has strained ties between Ankara and Moscow.

Even the European Union (EU) is divided over Libya, with France condemning the Turkish military intervention while Italy continues to support the GNA and Turkey’s role in Libya.

Egypt finds itself in a difficult position as the crisis evolves. No friend of Turkey, Cairo has the full right to worry about Turkish backed GNA, with its Muslim Brotherhood ties, getting close to its western borders. Washington, which recognises the GNA, is wary of Russia establishing a foothold on Libyan soil.

But Al Sisi must be careful not to be dragged into an open-ended conflict in Libya. By hinting that he would be arming Libyan tribes in the east of the country, he too risks being sucked into a proxy war. Pitting tribes against tribes would deepen the Libyan wound and may result in the permanent partition of Libya.

On the other hand, the GNA must understand that by allying itself with Turkey, and backed by Qatar, it is also risking handing over whatever remains of its legitimacy to Ankara. Turkey’s agenda in Libya raises many questions and one can argue that President Recep Tayyip Edogan’s ideological beliefs will supersede the national interests of the Libyan people and the geographical unity of that country.

There is no doubt that a direct Egyptian military intervention in eastern Libya will constitute a challenge for Cairo at a time when it is embroiled in a more dangerous threat over Ethiopia’s refusal, so far, to reach a deal over the controversial Renaissance Dam.

The priority must be given to finding a political solution that affirms the principles reached in previous meetings resulting in a road map towards implementing these principles. It is also important to note that the solution must not be tied to the whims of one man. Haftar may have become more of a liability than an asset. Instead, the elected legislature in Tobruk, under Agilah Saleh, could become the interface in future negotiations. The latter had proposed an initiative of his own; one that could provide a solid ground for fresh talks.

One county that can play the role of an honest broker could be Algeria, which under President Abdelmajid Tebboune, has urged all Libyans to find a common ground away from foreign influence. Tebboune met this week with GNA’s Fayez Al Sarraj and last week with Saleh in a bid to restart dialogue. His warning to both sides that Libya could face a Syria-like scenario must be taken seriously before it is too late.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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