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Egypt – UAE: Has Libya come between the longtime allies?

By Stephanie al-Hakim
Posted on Thursday, 21 January 2021 15:17

Soldiers loyal to Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar stand in formation during Independence Day celebrations in Benghazi, Libya
Soldiers loyal to Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar stand in formation during Independence Day celebrations in Benghazi, Libya December 24, 2020. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori/

Through thick and thin, the United Arab Emirates has been a longtime supporter of Egypt in the fight to defeat political Islam, until now. Libya has shown itself to be the one thing that will divide these longtime allies.

When the whole world frowned at Egypt’s government for dispersing the Rabaa al-Adawiya square, located in eastern Cairo’s Nasr city, on a hot and sunny 14 August 2013, the United Arab Emirates published an official statement on the night of the massacre stating it “understands the sovereign measures taken by the Egyptian government after observing maximum restraint in recent times”.

At least 850 protestors were killed among the thousands who were there to denounce the military coup on July 2013 against president Mohamed Morsi. Egyptian security forces and military had blocked all five entries to the square in a deadly crackdown. The day was described as “one of the prominent massacres of modern history” by Human Rights Watch Executive director Kenneth Roth.

But this did not deter the UAE to support the Sisi-led coup.

‘All good things must come to an end’

“The UAE played a key role in making a military, authoritarian regime emerg[e] in Cairo in 2013. For several years thereafter, that government was supported by the Emiratis with the injection of billions into a frail economy, which had to contend with three years of political turbulence,” says Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.

This was the climax of UAE-Egypt relations whereby the primary objective was to defeat political islam.

READ MORE UAE: How Mohammed Ben Zayed has transformed the Arab world

But alas, all good things must come to an end. “On Mohamed bin Zayed’s last visit to Cairo, he did not show up with a chequebook like he used to during the 2013-15 era”, adds Harchaoui.

For when it comes to military interventions in Libya, the two states have diverged with Egypt being cautious about its approach to the quagmire facing its neighbour. “In reality, Egypt has never wanted to start a land campaign in Libya and thus become involved in a slippery slope campaign. Cairo never wanted to spend money on this conflict; and it does not want to create another Sinai for itself in eastern Libya”, he says.

Egypt: Security concerns with Libya

Indeed, the Egyptians’ priority as of late has been to secure the eastern part of Libya by creating a buffer zone. Initially, the Egyptians were the first to back Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) based in Tobruk over the internationally-recognised government the General National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli.

Despite the Egyptian parliament green-lighting a military operation in Libya to support Haftar, Cairo was not going to launch such an offensive on Tripoli; one that was doomed to fail, and where 1.2 million Libyans live.

READ MORE Egypt’s parliament approves military intervention in Libya

The LNA’s offensive on Tripoli, which lasted for over a year, has been catastrophic in the eyes of Egypt. “Egypt was particularly upset with Haftar over what it perceived to be a lack of commitment to political and security cooperation between Libya and Egypt and that the difference in strategy also extended to the UAE’s position,” reported the independent Egyptian paper Mada Masr.

“The Haftar episode in Tripoli was very frustrating because the Egyptians warned [him] not to do it. Now Turkey is entrenched in Libya, not far from Egypt” says Harshaoui.

UAE: Ideological concerns with Libya

Under President Reycep Erdogan, Turkey has been accused of increasingly spreading its version of political Islam through financial and military aid across the MENA region. It has also been very welcoming to members of the Muslim Brotherhood who have fled their home countries. The organisation has been branded a terrorist group in Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

READ MORE Egypt: ‘The Muslim Brotherhood has never been more disconnected from society’

Turkish presence across Libyan territory cannot go unnoticed: they control the naval base, the air college base in Misrata, as well as Libya’s biggest air base, Al Watiya. They also have:

  • Drones in Mitiga that can fly all the way to Sirte
  • A dozen Turkish officers
  • 3500 mobilised Syrian fighters

For the UAE, its concerns with Libya remain largely due to Turkey’s involvement in spreading political Islam.

“Like in any other conflict, where you have regional partners involved, there could always be different visions, but what brings together the UAE and Egypt is the threat that Libya could fall in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Dr. Elie Abouaoun, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programs at the United States Institute of Peace.

But for Egypt, that concern has taken a backseat to its initial worry over securing its shared border with Libya.

READ MORE Libya is the new front between al-Sisi and Erdogan

Cairo has thus expanded its political network in the east with Aguila Saleh but also in the west with the GNA adds Abouaoun.

“When, in June 2020, Sisi declared Sirte-Jufra a red line, observers could notice one thing: Haftar was not standing next to the president. Six months later, it is somewhat of a humiliation for the Egyptians to visit Tripoli and discuss the reopening of an embassy there, knowing that the Turks are militarily present in that territory,” adds Harshaoui

Bottom line

For Egypt, the war in Libya started when a video was released by the Islamic State (IS) showing its militants executing 20 Coptic Christian Egyptians and a Ghanaian Christian on a Libyan beach in 2015. Egypt’s military did not hesitate to retaliate hours later, by bombing terrorist training camps in Libya.

Two years later in 2017, Copts were once again targeted when gunmen attacked a bus in central Egypt, killing at least 28 people and wounding 25 others. It was also claimed by IS. Once again, the Egyptian military attacked Libya.

“In the first years after 2013, Egypt lacked a foreign policy of its own back then. Plus, it had to look after its image and show it [was] ready to retaliate inside Libya by bombing IS and al-Qaeda from the sky. Yet, if we are having this conversation now, it is because Egypt is finally realising it is its own man. It cannot rely on any “big brother”; it must have its own realistic foreign policy”, says Harshaoui.

For that reason, Egypt has switched its foreign policy in Libya from offering words of support and encouragement for Haftar, to crossing over to the west side and dealing directly with the GNA. That move alone has already cost it its one-time close ally the UAE.

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