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Egyptian dilemma in Libya increases as GNA advances

Osama Mohamed
By Osama Mohamed

Independent policy analyst and former researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Project (ACLED)

Posted on Monday, 15 June 2020 18:36

Egypt Libya
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, right, meets with Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, the head of the self-styled Libyan National Army on Thursday, May 9, 2019, at the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt. (Egyptian Presidency Media office via AP)

The recent strings of defeat that the Egyptian-backed Libyan National Army (LNA) has suffered at the hands of the Turkish-backed Government of the National Accord (GNA) make it highly possible that the LNA will lose the civil war in Libya.

The GNA has successfully overtaken several strategic locations in eastern and western Libya, including Tripoli that the LNA.

Given the GNA’s success was in large part to Turkey’s  support, it is worth looking into the geo-political dynamics that has brought both Turkey and Egypt to Libya. The implications of the LNA’s defeats in relation to Egypt equally warrant a closer look.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Libya

After the ousting of Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi in 2013, who was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the Egyptian government in power since then,  led by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, designated the MB as a terrorist organisation that sent many of its members to prison, or into self-exile in Turkey, Qatar and Western Europe.

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Despite the crackdown, the exiled members still have influence in Egypt where it has a sizeable following across the country. That alone is of great concern for the current Egyptian government. The close ties between the Libyan branch of the MB with the GNA has been the major impetus for Egypt’s support of the LNA and in particular several prominent  individuals. They include the current the president of the GNA’s Advisory High State Council, Khaled al-Mashiri.

President Al-Sisi expressed concern that the prevalence of MB voices in the GNA represents a real threat to Egyptian national security, especially since the MB could take advantage of Libya’s proximity to Egypt to launch guerrilla operations on Egyptian territory.

Egyptian Turkish Rivalry in Libya

Egypt’s support for the LNA has also brought it into a proxy war with Turkey which supports the GNA through military advisors, troops, intelligence, and air support.  This proxy war can also be traced back to Turkey’s President Reycep Erdogan’s opposition to the ousting of former Egypt’s former President Morsi and his government.

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With Turkey providing prominent members of Egypt’s members of the MB a safe haven, it had openly opposed President Al-Sisi ‘s government thereby straining the once amicable relations between the two countries.

Egypt has provided all kinds of support including – but not limited to – allowing the LNA to train its forces in western Egypt and to launch operations from there, especially at the beginning of the conflict.

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It also provided aerial support to the LNA using the Egyptian Airforce, albeit in a limited manner.   Nonetheless, Turkey’s use of advanced Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology, has proven to be more strategically effective, where it has changed the tide of the war that helped the  GNA advance capturing eastern Libya, despite the earlier advances made by the LNA in that region.

Should the Turkish-backed GNA fully control Libya, it will very likely lead destabilise Egypt’s eastern border that will effectively help the MB launch an insurgency on Egyptian territory.

Libya’s Oil

Cheap Libyan oil has been another major concern for Egypt that has encouraged it support for the LNA. As the LNA controls the oil-rich eastern parts of Libya, it became apparent that in exchange for Egypt’s support to the LNA, it received oil at a discounted rate.

The LNA backed government in eastern Libya had signed contracts with Egyptian and UAE-based companies to sell oil at $55 a barrel, which is less than the official price said Mustafa Sanallah, the chairman of the Libyan National Oil Corporation that is controlled by the internationally recognised government of Libya.

Therefore, it is highly probable that if the LNA loses the Libyan Civil War, oil supplies to Egypt would inevitably be disrupted, resulting in prices skyrocketing in the Egyptian market.

Military Intervention?

Political circles in Egypt have been suggesting a full military intervention to meet the challenge that Cairo and its allies face from the MB in Libya. That approach, however, will ultimately have negative results.

Egypt’s armed forces have already allocated considerable resources to meet the challenge posed by the Islamic State (known in Egypt as Wilayat Sinai) in pockets of Sinai  in its western borders.  Therefore, opening a front at its Libyan border will spread its sources thin, thereby allowing a resurgence of terrorist activity in the Sinai.

The economic stagnation and inflation that have been the defining characteristics of the Egyptian economy in the last few years is another cause of concern. Engaging in another military campaign would further erode the economy and lead to social instability that President Al-Sisi has been trying in earnest to avoid.

On the political front, a military intervention in Libya presents no advantages; and an unsuccessful military intervention could be regarded as yet another political mishap by the Egyptian government.

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This rings especially true given the unsatisfactory management of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam still looming on the horizon, a development that may affect Egypt’s share of water from the Nile River and further add to public opinion that could be used against the government.

It’s not too late for options

As the recent developments in Libya have created a growing dilemma for Egypt, its options may seem limited. But the government could consider other possibilities to relieve it of mounting pressures. These include:

  • Gradually withdraw its support from the LNA to leave the option of cooperating with the GNA openly in the future. Regardless of which faction governs Libya, it will remain a crucial future ally to Egypt due to its geographic proximity and possession of strategic resources.
  • De-escalate the conflict with Turkey while still on solid ground and re-kindle diplomatic relations. An Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement would benefit both parties and enable stability in North Africa and across the Middle East.
  • Gradually diminish its reliance on oil and develop the sustainable sources of energy, such as sun, wind, and tides, it possesses in abundance at home. For example the International Renewable Energy Agency stated that Egypt could cover 53% of its electricity from renewable sources of energy by 2030.
  • Consider changing its political strategy to focus on soft power rather than the use of hard power through its military, reviving the cultural that once made Egypt a dominant regional power.
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