It’s Egypt, not Turkey they should worry about

As much as Cairo’s European and Arab allies need it to do their dirty work, they do not want Egypt growing strong enough to start making its own demands.

Egyptian students and Air Force Academy graduates attend the graduation of 83 aviation and military science cadets at the Air Force Academy in Cairo, Egypt, July 20, 2016. Photo by The Egyptian Presidency/REUTERS.

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Egypt’s parliament in July approved a motion that would allow the country to deploy its army abroad. The approval came after a separate approval from Libya’s eastern-based House of Representatives (HoR) to allow Egypt to intervene on its behalf in the Libyan conflict.

This sudden escalation in the Libyan war comes as a reaction to a deal struck between Libya’s internationally-recognised government and the government of Turkey late last year. The deal between the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and Ankara saw the arrival of Turkish troops in western Libya to help the besieged Libyan government survive an attempted power grab by renegade commander Khalifa Haftar, whose LNA forces fight for the parallel eastern government in Tobruk.

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The Turkish intervention turned the tides in the conflict. Prior to the deployment of Turkish troops in Tripoli, the Libyan government was on the verge of collapse as Haftar’s forces made inroads into the capital and advanced on Mitiga International Airport. Thanks largely to its introduction of cheap, easy-to-produce, disposable drones to the conflict, Turkish forces and their allied fighters helped beat back Haftar’s offensive on the airport. Then began the counterattack, as GNA forces retook much of Libya’s western coastline, Haftar’s stronghold of Tarhuna, and the game-changing Al Watiya air base. Without the appropriate air cover that the base had provided for them, Haftar’s forces in and around Tripoli started to surrender and retreat.

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For Egypt, this unexpected change in affairs was a nightmare. Egypt has backed Libya’s eastern-based government in opposition to the UN’s decision to endorse the GNA, an all-inclusive transitional government that the international body helped put together in a bid to end the conflict. Despite its international backing, however, many in Libya regarded the government to be illegitimate owing to its being elected by external powers. This stems back to the ousting of Libya’s former strongman leader Muammar Ghaddafi in 2011 at the beginning of the Arab Spring uprisings. Although many Libyans rose up against Ghaddafi’s dictatorship, the role NATO air strikes played in helping rebels oust him from power in many ways stole the revolution from the Libyan people and raised questions over the legitimacy of anyone who’d attempt to replace him. Khalifa Haftar, a Ghaddafi loyalist, was able to seize this opportunity to present himself as an Arab patriot fighting against foreign invasion and foreign-imposed puppet regimes. His rejection of political Islamists with links to the Muslim Brotherhood in the GNA, who he claims are terrorists, set him on a quest to uproot the authorities in Tripoli and bring victory to the more secularist Tobruk administration. This also made him an ideal partner for Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, a former military commander who himself came to power after deposing his predecessor Mohamed Morsi in 2013, and has worked to erase the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt ever since.

But with the GNA now on the comeback, Sisi faces the real possibility of Egypt’s western neighbour coming under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which would no doubt encourage the re-emergence of the Brotherhood in Egypt. This is why Sisi sees it imperative to his survival that Egypt prevents the fall of Libya’s oil-rich city of Sirte to the GNA, whose forces are now on the city’s outskirts, waiting for the command to attack. The help of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries, who have recently occupied important oil refineries in Sirte, was not enough to enable a Haftar victory in Tripoli, and without an extra boost from somewhere, they will not be able to defend Sirte in the event of another GNA advance. If Sirte falls, the GNA will gain the economic upper-hand in the conflict, and from there, would easily be able to move on to capture Benghazi and Tobruk before finally arriving at Egypt’s borders. Another worry for Sisi is reports that Turkey has its eyes set on establishing a permanent military air base in Jufra, which would allow the Turks to encompass the Egyptians. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has supported the Muslim Brotherhood, who are still bitter about the Sisi-led coup in 2013. Sisi therefore would not welcome a Turkish military base to its west.

Although towards the end of July, Turkey started to show signs to de-escalating tensions in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt went ahead with military drills on its western border with Libya, just days after Turkey held naval exercises off Libya’s government-controlled western coast. By not entering its troops into Libya immediately after being granted the parliamentary mandate to do so, however, Egypt is indicating that it prefers not to wind up in a direct conflict with Turkey in Sirte. Instead, Egypt hopes that Turkish-backed forces hold off on an advance on Sirte in order to not necessitate the deployment of the Egyptian army. Deployment in Libya could leave the Egyptian armed forces overstretched as they are already engaged in heavy fighting against rebels in Sinai, and could still potentially go to war with Ethiopia over a dispute about the filling of an upstream mega-dam on the Blue Nile that threatens its water supply. Turkey, likewise, has no desire to go to war with arguably the only power in the region whose military strength matches, if not surpasses its own.

Turkish-Egyptian reconciliation?

Turkey is instead hinting at incentives to make Egypt change its course. Ankara, based on its own understanding of the international Law of the Sea, has pointed out that a maritime demarcation deal between Cyprus and Egypt is cheating Egypt out of swathes of sea territory for hydrocarbon exploration. Clearly the authorities in Cairo believe that by giving concessions on its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to Cyprus, it is somehow gaining more than it is losing. Yet the absence of a maritime demarcation deal between Egypt and Greece is interesting. Both nations have been discussing the possibility of such a deal since Turkey signed its own demarcation deal with Libya’s GNA. Although the Turkish-Libyan deal doesn’t really affect Egypt’s claims to its slice of the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece sees a huge chunk of its claimed maritime territory taken away. A deal between Athens and Cairo, therefore, is vital to override the deal between Ankara and Tripoli. And while overriding the Turkish-Libyan deal would certainly remove Turkey’s incentive for getting involved in the Libyan conflict, Egypt may still want to consider its alternative options.

Since the onset of the Eastern Mediterranean gas bonanza, there have been international efforts to court Egypt into acting against Turkish interests. In the one year Egypt’s late Mohamed Morsi was in charge between mid-2012 and mid-2013, Egypt and Turkey found themselves very much on the same side. But under President Sisi, Cairo and Ankara have been at odds with each other on almost all issues. Much of this comes from Sisi’s good relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both countries that are just as eager to wipe out the Muslim Brotherhood as much as he is. Turkey, meanwhile, has enjoyed close ties with Qatar, which has also been firm in its support for the Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are concerned by Qatar’s growing influence in the world, which rivals their own. For this reason, neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE want to see the Muslim Brotherhood popping up anywehre, even as far away as Libya. But due to its distance, it is difficult for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to get involved directly in a region where they have no right to interfere. Egypt is therefore their preferred candidate to fight their overseas battles in the Mediterranean. France, Greece and Cyprus have also been trying to elicit Egypt’s support against Turkey, as Greece and Cyprus do not have the military capability to take on Turkey alone and France would not be able to do so without a powerful regional ally.

But the reality is that Egypt has very little to gain by putting out for the sake of others, and potentially everything to lose. While Sisi is ideologically opposed to Erdogan, Turkey has not set its sights on Egypt’s sovereign rights. The maritime dispute between Turkey and Greece, or Turkey and Cyprus, does not affect Egypt’s maritime claims. The problems Saudi Arabia and the UAE have with Qatar are not Egypt’s problems. Yes, preventing Turkish-backed forces in Libya from taking Sirte would be in Sisi’s interests, but both Egypt and Turkey know that a direct conflict between the two would be mutually detrimental. Egypt has over 100 million people to look after, the majority of whom face disaster if Ethiopia begins filling its Grand Renaissance Dam without an agreement. Egypt needs to expand, territorially and economically, to sustain its booming population, a large proportion of whom are young and unemployed, but the harsh deserts of eastern Libya have very little to offer Cairo besides certain death for Egyptian troops who commit to a land incursion without a source of fresh drinking water.

Egyptian re-awakening

Cairo has no need to sacrifice its soldiers for any cause besides its own, and as international demands on how it uses its military power become more and more one-sided and ridiculous, Egypt will have to learn the art of saying “no” to those pushing it to almost certain implosion, at least until it starts seeing more support in dealing with its own, more pressing issues. Once Cairo starts making demands of equal weight, it will soon realise that its allies are less willing to give than they are to take. That’s because as much as they need Egypt to do their dirty work for them, they do not want Egypt to grow strong enough to turn against them.

Egypt is home to a quarter of the Arab world. Even when at its weakest, Egypt continues to emanate an intrinsic power, charisma and influence that spreads contagiously to other Muslim nations. It is a cradle of civilisation which has remained a central point of geopolitical gravity throughout history. Combine that with its military prowess and you have a state that never has to take orders from anyone, not the least a handful of desert bedouins in the Arabian Gulf, no matter how much oil they have. And as much as the international community may want Egypt to challenge Turkey in the region, that doesn’t mean they want an Egyptian victory. They want Egypt to bring victory to them. These fears about Egypt’s power still linger even while someone as compliant as President Sisi runs the show. A worst-case scenario for Cairo’s allies would be for Egypt to actually defeat Turkey and then pick up from where they left off, as they cannot guarantee that political Islam won’t naturally rise in Egypt once again.

So, while Egypt ponders over a maritime demarcation deal with Greece, it might want to take a moment to reflect and admire itself in the mirror. Egypt may choose to ask itself what it wants, instead of just going along with what others want for it. Perhaps Turkey’s suggestion for a greater share in the Eastern Mediterranean isn’t such a bad offer after all. Together, the two nations could fairly divide the spoils of their region, and rather than exhaust all their resources fighting each other, they could focus more on how to help one another fulfill their mutual need to expand into new territories and reach new heights.

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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