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Will Egypt fight Turkey in Libya?

January 9, 2020 at 10:49 am

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi meets with Commander of the Libyan national army Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, in Cairo, Egypt, on 13 May 2017 [Egyptian President Office/Apaimages]

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced recently that Turkish troops have begun moving into Libya after Turkey’s parliament approved the deployment last week. The move comes after Ankara and Tripoli struck a deal which enables the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the Libyan capital to request vehicles and weapons to use in ground, naval and air operations. It also boosts intelligence sharing and foresees the deployment of Turkish troops for three years to establish a joint control room for defence and security cooperation.

On the same day that Turkish MPs authorised the troop deployment, their Egyptian counterparts condemned the move in the strongest terms and warned about the consequences of Turkey’s planned “military intervention” in Libya. They cited the perceived threat that it poses to Egypt’s national security and the stability of the Mediterranean region. The government in Cairo insisted that it will not stand idly by while such moves take place.

On Sunday, the spokesman of the Egyptian armed forces published a statement revealing the goals of massive amphibious exercises. He said that the training was ordered by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to boost the readiness of the various branches of the military in Egypt.

The Sisi regime’s criticism of Turkey’s moves in Libya and the Mediterranean will be articulated further in a meeting of the foreign ministers of Egypt, France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus in Cairo on Wednesday. The agenda will cover the developments in Egypt’s neighbour.

READ: Turkish parliament approves deployment of troops to Libya 

The notorious Egyptian media anchors are beating the drums of war with a hate campaign against Turkey and Erdoğan. We can’t exclude the possibility that these warmongers and their preposterous statements could spark a war between Turkey and Egypt.

Superficially at least, Egypt argues that its national security is at stake. It has serious concerns that the ongoing instability in Libya, with which it shares a 1,200km border, may lead to the infiltration of radical groups into the west of the country. Thus, Egypt promotes its mission in Libya as an extension of its crackdown against radical Islamists, such as Daesh. In this, Egypt’s plan goes hand in hand with the agenda of the United Arab Emirates, which is notorious for its reluctance to accept the popularity of moderate Islamic movements, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, across the region. In 2016, the UAE air force was involved in air strikes in support of General Khalifa Haftar’s militias, the belligerent groups aiming to topple the UN-backed GNA in Tripoli.

Shockingly, the former UN Special Envoy to Libya, Bernardino León, was seeking a solution to the country’s problems while simultaneously negotiating a lucrative deal with the UAE to preside over its diplomatic academy. This arrangement was leaked by the international media and damaged Libyan public opinion about the trustworthiness and consistency of the UN peace talks at the time.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) meets Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj (L) in Istanbul, Turkey on 15 December 2019. [TURKISH PRESIDENCY/MURAT CETINMUHURDAR/HANDOUT/Anadolu Agency]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) meets Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj (L) in Istanbul, Turkey on 15 December 2019. [TURKISH PRESIDENCY/MURAT CETINMUHURDAR/HANDOUT/Anadolu Agency]

Hence, Egypt and its allies have formally joined the multifaceted conflict to boost their proxies and their own influence in Libya, while also reining-in the democratic process that could lead to a peaceful political transition.

The Egyptian regime reckons that Turkey’s main reason for signing a maritime agreement with the GNA late last year was to ensure that Tripoli does not fall into Haftar’s hands. Having an agreement with the legitimate government in Tripoli means that Turkey reserved a seat for itself at the negotiating table over gas reserves in the Mediterranean. Greece, Egypt, Israel and Cyprus were planning to exclude Turkey from its Exclusive Zones in the area.

According to Erdoğan, Turkey’s troop deployment means that “these powers will think twice before they take any step without Turkey’s consent.” He made his comment in an interview with TRT, and pointed out that Turkey’s objective was “not to fight but to support the legitimate government and avoid a humanitarian tragedy.”

This “checkmate” move is definitely a game changer, not only in the struggle between Haftar and the GNA, but also in the energy geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean. Haftar’s forces have been trying to capture Tripoli since last April and were blamed for an air strike on a military academy on Saturday that killed at least 30 people. However, the Libyan government is still steadfast in its fight against the insurgency, and enhanced further by the deployment of the Turkish forces.

Libya: GNA considers boycotting countries supporting Haftar, focusing on Egypt and UAE 

A closer look at the geography of the Tripoli-Ankara agreement reveals that Egypt’s maritime zones do not conflict with Turkey’s. According to many Egyptian strategists and economists, the agreement preserves Egypt’s rights to gas fields in the Mediterranean more than it its own agreement with Israel, Greece and Cyprus. Thus, Egypt’s problem appears to be focused more on Turkey’s role in Libya, although we are unlikely to see an open conflict between the two on Libyan soil.

The problem here is that the Egyptian regime is neither governed by international law nor compliant with international relations and agreements. The regime is looking for a way out of its domestic crises caused by its administrative and economic failure. Most importantly in the Turkish-Libya context, Egypt is now being driven by regional and Arab powers that were accused of participating in the failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. These forces may not hesitate to push the region into a comprehensive war.

It’s clear that the decision makers in Ankara are fully aware of all these dynamics. Turkish President Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin called on Wednesday for a ceasefire in Libya. The leaders want a truce from midnight on Sunday “supported by the necessary measures to be taken for stabilising the situation on the ground.” All eyes are now fixed on Egypt and the UAE to see what their reaction will be.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.