Egypt seeks eastern Libya buffer with Turkey

Egyptian president Abdel-Fatah el-Sisi (before presidency) and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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Egypt has warned that it will send its military into Libya if necessary as a game-changing battle for the strategic coastal city of Sirte looms. Cairo has supported renegade commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and the eastern-based government throughout the conflict in Libya, but until June gave no indication it was willing to get directly involved. Before Turkey sent troops to support the embattled UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli in late 2019, Haftar’s forces appeared to be on the verge of fulfilling a promise to capture the Libyan capital and declare an all-out victory. But the Turkish intervention bolstered the depleted GNA forces, and since capturing the strategic Al Watiya airbase southeast of Tripoli in May, the GNA has turned the tables on Haftar.

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Haftar — who is supported by Saudi Arabia, UAE and Russia — has since been on the backfoot. His forces have all but retreated from northwestern Libya, and must now defend Sirte against the resurgent GNA. Preventing the city from falling to the GNA is a matter of life-or-death for Haftar and the rival government in Tobruk. Should the GNA take control of Sirte, not only would it allow the GNA to regain control of Libya’s oil exports, it would also serve as a springboard for its eastward charge towards Benghazi. The loss of Sirte would ultimately mean defeat for Haftar’s LNA and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. It would also give Turkey dibs on establishing a new military base in Libya and reassert its maritime dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean. Given that Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a keen supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which has been suppressed in Egypt ever since 2013 when General-turned-President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ousted his presidential predecessor, the late Mohamed Morsi, this potential outcome would be disastrous for Egypt.

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Egypt therefore has no choice now but to take the Libya conflict more seriously. It is however reluctant to get involved. Despite having one of the strongest militaries in the world, including a powerful navy, Egypt cannot risk getting into a direct conflict with Turkey, especially since it has more pressing security issues to deal with in the Sinai peninsula. Egypt’s capabilities may also be overstretched if its diplomatic spat with Ethiopia over the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) spirals out of control into a full-on war. The mega-dam built on the Blue Nile threatens to cut water flows to downstream states Sudan and Egypt to its north. This could put the livelihood of some 150 million people at risk, almost two-thirds of whom live along the Nile in Egypt. Egypt has warned that it will use its military against Ethiopia if necessary, and has pleaded for US mediation in solving the problem. If tensions with Ethiopia escalate, Egypt would struggle to fight two separate battles on its southern and western fronts. The Egyptian economy has also been severely hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and with Sisi’s approval rating already at a low, there are fears that public discontent could grow.

However, Egypt has been offered a lifeline which could allow it to focus more on its problems with Turkey. Ethiopia has agreed to delay filling its dam to give more time to reach an agreement with its northern counterparts. Egypt has also secured a $5.2 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in addition to $2.8 billion that was given as aid to alleviate some of the problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Yet despite receiving this help, its central bank reserves fell from $37 billion to $36 billion in May, indicating the country’s economy is in serious trouble. The global gas glut which has been worsened by the coronavirus pandemic has also dashed hopes of a quick economic recovery, as investments in Egypt’s energy sector have been put in doubt. With a booming population of over 100 million people, a large proportion of whom are young and unemployed, Egypt must consider expanding into new pastures or face implosion. An Egyptian expansion, however, must be carefully planned and implemented. One wrong move could result in disaster.

Egypt therefore cannot afford to be reactionary. If it is to confront Turkey in Libya, it will need support. Many who oppose the Turkish presence in Libya are looking at Egypt to make the first move, as the Egyptian army is the only regional force that could possibly match Turkey’s strength. Any military effort against Turkey in the region must include Egypt, otherwise it faces certain failure. However, until now Egypt itself has had no need to confront Turkey. Although Turkey is violating the claimed Exclusive Economic Zones of Cyprus and Greece, both countries Egypt cooperates with closely in the Mediterranean, Turkey has expressed no desire to infringe on Egypt’s maritime territory. If anything, Ankara has told Cairo that it believes a maritime demarcation deal between Egypt and Cyprus is actually cheating Egypt out of a swathe of sea territory. But if Turkey’s allies in Libya manage to charge towards Egypt’s border, Cairo may have a reason to take pre-emptive actions on its western front.

In such a scenario, Egypt would still be reluctant to go it alone. It would depend on financial support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but if Turkey plays its cards right with the US, these two American allies in the Arab Gulf may have to limit their support. Either way, Egypt cannot rely on Arab financial support alone. It would need the help of a nation with common interests that is willing to put boots on the ground in eastern Libya. France, for example. France is equally distressed by Turkey’s growing influence in North Africa, and is desperate for a land corridor from the North African coast to the mineral-rich Sahel region. But France too is reluctant to confront its NATO ally, especially if that means appearing to side with Russian Wagner Group mercenaries that fight alongside Haftar’s forces. Likewise, Greece wouldn’t want to enter the fray as it fears direct conflict with Turkey without a strong European resolve behind it.

The most logical thing, therefore, would be for Egypt to preserve eastern Libya as a buffer between itself and Turkish-backed forces. To ensure this, Egypt needs to exhaust all diplomatic options to prevent the fall of Sirte to the GNA. Haftar’s forces must not falter in the face of a Tripoli-led offensive. Any weakness in the wall, if exploited, could result in Egypt having a government with elements that are sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood on its borders. US support for this mission is key, and in order to secure that, Egypt has to give the US certain guarantees. This would mean addressing Washington’s biggest concern in the region — Russian influence. Currently, Turkish troops in western Libya, as detrimental as their presence is to European nations, are the main frontline force preventing Russian mercenaries marching westwards from Sirte towards the Atlantic. The further from the Atlantic they are pushed back, the better it will be for American interests. To get American support, therefore, Egypt would have to present another way to eliminate the Russian presence.

There is of course another factor at play. An economic downturn in Turkey is peddling rumours of an early election there. As the economic situation in Turkey worsens, President Erdogan’s approval rating will continue to decline. A snap election would offer no guarantees of an Erdogan victory, but it could offset a potential rebellion and buy the governing AK Party more time in power. Erdogan is certainly more likely to come out on top by declaring an election while the Turkish opposition is caught with its guard down than if he was to give them time to organise an effective campaign. Even then, an early election could result in a change of government in Turkey, replacing Erdogan’s administration with one less sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and less ambitious regarding overseas military endevours. A change in government, however, is not likely to result in a Turkish withdrawal from Libya, but it would take the steam out of the GNA offensive and open the door to a normalisation of ties between Turkey and Egypt.

Ertan Karpazli is the Editor-in-Chief of Radio EastMed.
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All views expressed by the writer are solely his own.

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