Egypt and Libya’s tumultuous relationship since 1969

By Mourad R. Kamel
Posted on Wednesday, 1 July 2020 13:31, updated on Wednesday, 8 July 2020 11:58

Moammar Gadhafi salutes as he appears with Egypt's Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser, left, in Suez, Egypt in 1969. (AP Photo/Farouk Ibrahim)

Egypt presented a new peace initiative for Libya in June in support of Marshall Khalifa Haftar. Cairo has been taking a more influential role in the conflict between the internationally recognised government, the GNA, and Haftar’s LNA. But why is Egypt further involving itself in the affairs of Libya?  The answer comes from the historical relationship between these two neighbours.

After his attempted coup d’état in Tripoli in February 2014, Khalifa Haftar – a former protégé of the American CIA who fell into disgrace – earned the contempt of many Libyans. In Egypt, on the other hand, the leaders immediately took him seriously and even respected the commander who promised to attack “terrorist” groups.

At the time, Cairo considered – and still does – that eastern Libya, which stretches from Sirte to the Egyptian border, had become a dangerous hideout for Islamist militias. Haftar – the Eradicator – had to be given the green light.

READ MORE – Egypt and Turkey head-to-head in Libya, stalemate looms 

But this perceived security threat is not enough to explain Egypt’s growing role in the Libyan civil war since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

To really understand what’s involved behind it, one needs to study the composition of the Egyptian-Libyan relationship: admiration, disappointment, then anger and reconciliation.

Admiration: Gamal Abdel Nasser, the fallen idol

Gaddafi was just a student in the Fezzan region of southwest Libya when his hero Gamal Abdel Nasser, then president of the Arab Republic of Egypt, emerged victorious in the battle of the Suez Canal against Israel, France and the United Kingdom in 1956. “He came from a modest family, but he listened to Nasser’s speeches on pan-Arabism and nationalism with great admiration. He was a great admirer of the Egyptian head of state,” says Jalel Harchaoui, a political scientist and researcher at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague.

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser waves in response to cheering supporters as he moves through Port Said to raise the Egyptian flag over the Navy House on 18 June 1956 (AP Photo, File)

At the same time, US President Eisenhower’s plan to forge friendships with Arab nationalists in the post-colonial era failed. “Even though he was helped by the United States, Nasser decided to side with the USSR,” says Harchaoui. Thousands of Soviet soldiers settled in Egypt. But the defeat to Israel in 1967 changed everything for the Egyptian leader. “His ideology died in that lost battle, and Egypt lost the Sinai and had to withdraw from Yemen,” he adds.

Nasser was already weakened when, in 1969, Muammar Gaddafi and Abdel Fattah Younes overthrew Idris I, then king of Libya. At their side was a young officer from Ajdabiya, in the east of the country: Khalifa Haftar.

Just after the revolution of 1 September 1969, three days later, Gaddafi went to Cairo with the hopes to meet his teacher,” says Harchaoui. But Nasser was already politically dead, and had not been aware of a potential revolution in Libya.

At the age of 27, Gaddafi then proclaimed himself as leader of Libya. “Nasser was horrified. He was afraid because what he saw was a crazy figure. Certainly charismatic, but moody,” says the political scientist. The Egyptian president was not very supportive of the new Libyan leader. “He [Nasser] helped the Algerians in the 1950s when he was at the peak of his career, but by 1969 he was weak and his ideology was dead,” he explains.

Disappointment: Anwar Sadat, from peace to rupture

After Nasser’s death in September 1970, his vice-president Anwar Sadat took power. While Egypt officially had no ties with Israel, Sadat sent secret messages to the Hebrew state in February 1971. He asked them to return Sinai to Egypt, and in return would sign a non-aggression pact,” explains Harchaoui. Sadat wanted to show that he was different from Nasser, and that Israel needed this pact because Egypt was the largest, most populous and most influential Arab country. Israel never responded.

The following year, the new president expelled nearly 20,000 Soviets from Egypt, in what was a nod to Washington. “It was a bit like the song ‘Will you sleep with me?’laughs Harchaoui laughs.

READ MORE How the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago resonated across Africa

According to the New York Times, it was “the most severe diplomatic setback the Soviet Union had suffered since it began buying friends and influencing non-communist developing nations. Egypt received no response from the United States either on the recovery of Sinai or on the proposed non-aggression pact with Israel.

On 6 October 1973, the battle of Yom Kippur also known as the October war, broke out. “October 1973 was a gradual rise in power orchestrated by Sadat, who asked other Arab countries – Algeria, Syria and Libya – to help him. Which ones accepted?  “Gaddafi liked to hear Sadat talk about going to war against Israel. He saw in him a Nasser 2.0, which was naive,” adds Harchaoui.

US President Jimmy Carter waves to crowds in Banha, Egypt, accompanied by President Anwar Sadat during their train trip from Cairo to Alexandria on 9 March 1979. (AP Photo)

In reality, Sadat was trying to distinguish himself from his predecessor at all costs. Nasser was close to the USSR? So Sadat expelled the Soviets and tries to get closer to Washington. Nasser lost in 1967? Sadat tries to appear victorious from the October war. Nasser imprisoned the Muslim Brotherhood? Sadat grants them freedom, seeing “Nasserism” as his real opponent.

“When Gaddafi sends an expedition to help Egypt, he quickly notices that Cairo is not really trying to win the war, and that Sadat was using this military spectacle to relaunch his discussions with Israel”, says Harchaoui. Green with rage, the Guide called his troops home in January 1973. When Sadat strikes the Israelis by surprise on October 6, 1973, in the middle of Ramadan, “Gaddafi panics. A second expedition is sent to the front; Khalifa Haftar is part of it.”

READ MORE Egyptian dilemma in Libya increases as GNA advances

However, Gaddafi’s first assessment of Sadat is correct: the primary objective of the Egyptian president was to frighten Israel to better negotiate the peace treaty he had in mind. Both Libya and Algeria felt betrayed. That bitter taste remains in their mouths to this day.

The relationship between the Guide and Sadat is clearly deteriorating. The latter, in an interview with the Associated Press, accuses Gaddafi of wanting to isolate Egypt from the Arab world, and speaks of a “great conspiracy” of which Gaddafi is said to be “the agent”.

A four-day war breaks out between the two neighbours in 1977. Thanks to the diplomatic efforts of Algerian President Houari Boumédiène and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a ceasefire is declared.

Sadat eventually makes peace with Israel, but pays a high price for it with his life. On 6 October 1981 he was assassinated by the most radical cells of the Muslim Brotherhood. “You can’t be friends with Jamiat al-Ikhwan on the one hand and work with Israel on the other,” concludes Harchaoui.

The torch is passed on to then Vice-President, Hosni Mubarak.

Anger and reconciliation: Hosni Mubarak, the course is set for peace

Mubarak came to power with the halo of his military glory: he was commander of the armed forces during the 1973 victory over Israel. At first, the man is not a big fan of the Libyan Guide. He makes international headlines after tricking Gaddafi to admit in taking part in an assassination attempt on the former Prime Minister of Libya, Hamid el-Baccouche who was exiled in Egypt. Mubarak also accused Gaddafi of “financing international terrorism.”

In May 1984, a serious incident took place in Tripoli. The National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a political opposition group to the regime, attacked the Bab al-Azizia complex, the private residence of Muammar Gaddafi. The event shook him given he was forced to realise that he could be attacked by force in his home,” says Harchaoui. So Gaddafi decides to take a step towards Mubarak and to cultivate friendship with his neighbour.

It takes time to get closer. It wasn’t until the end of the 1980s that the efforts bore fruit. The Guide helped Egypt to rejoin the Arab League following its exclusion in 1979 after its peace deal with Israel. Gaddafi then continues to grease the wheels through bribing everyone seen as official, including the mukhabarat (secret service).

READ MORE Crisis in Libya: Egypt turns to Arab League for support of its peace deal

Gaddafi also announces the construction of a pipeline from Tobruk to Egypt – a project that never materialized. Finally in October 1989, Gaddafi makes his first visit to Egypt in 16 years.

At the same time, Mubarak had succeeded in re-establishing relations with Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Palestine. In 1990, the Foreign Ministers of the Arab League agreed to return the headquarters of the institution to Cairo. “Mubarak greatly appreciated coming back to the Arab League, it gave him the opportunity to work again to build an Arab world. It is thanks to Gaddafi that this was possible,” says Harchaoui.

Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak with US Representative Bill Young greets in Tallahassee, Florida. (Mark Foley/ Wikimedia Commons)

But Mubarak remains grateful when his Libyan neighbour finds himself in trouble through low oil prices, the effect of US sanctions, the war in Chad and growing internal resistance. Gaddafi was already facing several challenges when, in 1990, Khalifa Haftar and some of his 700 men were kidnapped after disastrous losses in the south. The Guide disavows his commander of the expeditionary force.

Haftar defected when he promised Chadian President Hissane Habré that he was now a determined opponent of Muammar Gaddafi. Supported by the US, he sets up a task force at the Libyan border. The overthrow of Habré by Idriss Déby Itno in 1990 thwarted his plans.

Gaddafi demanded that the soldier be handed over to him. “The CIA ex-filtrates Haftar in the State of Virginia, and he is made an American citizen just like 300 other men of the Libyan national army,” adds Harchaoui.

A year later, in 1992, Mubarak offers to mediate. He sends an Egyptian delegation to Washington with a message of reconciliation for Haftar. The meeting took place under American supervision. “The role of Mubarak’s Egypt was therefore very important in rehabilitating Muammar Gaddafi on the international scene.”

Starting in the 1990s, reconciliation between the two neighbours was sealed. A common destiny was forged even as both underwent seismic changes through the fall of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

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