battleground state

Libya is the new front between al-Sisi and Erdogan

By Arianna Poletti

Posted on January 16, 2020 16:22

 © A destroyed and burnt tank that belonged to the eastern forces led by Khalifa Haftar, is seen in Gharyan south of Tripoli Libya June 27, 2019. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
A destroyed and burnt tank that belonged to the eastern forces led by Khalifa Haftar, is seen in Gharyan south of Tripoli Libya June 27, 2019. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

Turkey and Egypt are facing off in Libya, their new battleground — with the lure of energy resources in the background, and political and religious slights front and centre.

Last September, when US President Donald Trump invited his Turkish and Egyptian counterparts to dine with him, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Recep Tayyip Erdogan simply declined.

His press office immediately clarified that he did not decline the invitation due to a problem between Washington and Ankara, but because Abdel Fattah al-Sisi would be attending the dinner.

  • “I made it clear to the US authorities that I didn’t want to be photographed with him,” the Turkish leader said following the incident.

Trump is perfectly aware that relations between the two have been icy for a long time. The trouble dates back to July 2013, when the Egyptian army removed President Mohamed Morsi from office.

A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi was allied with Ankara and, upon his death last June, Erdogan did not hesitate to refer to him as a “martyr” while pointing an accusatory finger at Sisi. Today, the two are clashing once again, this time over Libya.

Foreign intervention

In late November 2019, Ankara signed a military and security cooperation agreement with Fayez al-Sarraj’s government, which has been beleaguered by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

The problem is, Sisi supports Haftar, as the two men share the same views about military power, the same fierce opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and, above all, a border stretching almost 1,000 kilometres.

  • “Cairo backs Haftar because he’s restoring order and has an army,” said Mostafa al-Gendy, an Egyptian member of the Pan-African Parliament.

The agreement between Sarraj and Turkey has appalled Egyptians.

On 31 December, the Arab League met in Cairo upon Sisi’s request. The organisation stated that it rejected any intervention “that might enable the deployment of foreign fighters” in Libya. Afterwards, Sisi met with President Trump, President Emmanuel Macron and President Vladimir Putin, as well as with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“We are calling for the greatest restraint in the face of the dangers posed by a foreign intervention,” he said. Nevertheless, his remarks did not prevent Erdogan from having his parliament approve a measure on 2 January to send forces to Libya.

Conflicting interests

Of course, it is all very well for Sisi to condemn foreign intervention. Haftar’s advance, marked by the capturing of the town of Sirte on 7 January, would never have been possible without the support of his foreign allies.

His army received logistical and military aid from the UAE and Russia, but also from Egypt. Sisi also ordered, on several occasions, air strikes on his Libyan neighbour.

Face-to-face with Sisi, Erdogan uses the same arguments (legality, the fight against terrorism) to justify his backing of the opposite camp.

  • “Haftar is an illegitimate leader,” he explained, adding that he was ready to intervene via “land, sea or air, if necessary” to “prevent terrorists from proliferating.”

But Sarraj’s government is already using Turkish drones and Qatari weapons. In other words, once again, both sides are merely defending their interests.

As it happens, the agreement signed in late November stipulates that Turkey will be able to exercise its rights over vast sea areas off the coast of Libya – areas that may have significant oil and gas reserves – to Egypt’s dismay.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.