Of all Libya’s neighbours Egypt stands out as the most dangerous. Cairo now holds huge sway over Khalifa Haftar’s camp as his main regional backer to take the capital Tripoli from the Government of National Accord. The Egyptian role in Libya has surged since President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi ascended to power in 2014 following a military coup that toppled Egypt’s first democratically freely President, the late Mohamed Morsi.
The two countries share a 1,200-kilometre border and the people in both countries are interconnected through tribal and inter-marriage links. Dozens of tribes in western Egypt trace their origins to Libya and vice versa. There was a time when oil rich Libya provided some kind of economic lifeline to nearly two million Egyptian workers. In the 1970s the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi even proposed to the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser merging the two countries. Egypt, as the bigger and dominant country, has always considered Libya as its smaller but richer neighbour with economic potentials for its own wellbeing. The idea of exploiting Libya’s riches has always been in the minds of Egypt’s rulers.
In the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel, Gaddafi rushed to help Egypt. Libya supplied arms, French fighter jets and an entire artillery brigade led by no other than Khalifa Haftar himself; the rising star in the new Libyan regime at the time. Later it emerged even the rubber boats used by the Egyptian army to cross the Suez Canal on 6 October 1973 were a Libyan gift.
But in 1977 the two neighbours fought a four-day war over their borders; led mainly by Egypt’s difficult economic situation. Then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, on the advice of the United States, considered the idea of taking over eastern Libya, rich in oil and gas, to ease Cairo’s economic burdens.
Egyptian influence over Libya has always been a taken into account by policy makers in both countries. However, it had its limitations depending on how strong Libya was and how easily influenced its leadership could be. Prior to Gaddafi seizing power in 1969, Egypt was shut out by then King Idris I fearing Nasser’s huge influence across the Arab world.
Once Gaddafi came to power and Nasser died relations warmed but started to deteriorate after Sadat’s peacemaking efforts with Israel. Tripoli played a leading rule in forming the Arab coalition that boycotted Cairo over its peace deal with Zionist Israel. After a decade-long boycott both countries normalised ties again under the late President Hosni Mubarak. Libya invested heavily in Egypt by pumping billions of dollars into tourism, construction and agriculture creating thousands of jobs. Libya also absorbed thousands of Egypt’s blue-collar workforce, helping reduce unemployment.
But when Gaddafi was toppled in 2011 divided Libya became chaotic and dangerous to itself and the entire region. Egypt, still reeling after the January 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, became worried about its neighbour.
Different terror groups flocked to Libya and started targeting Egyptian worker. On 15 February 2015 Daesh, already in control of Libya’s coastal city of Sirte, beheaded 21 Coptic Egyptian workers. The following day Cairo bombed what it called Deash targets in Sirte and Derna. Between 2014 and 2018 Egypt witnessed a surge in attacks against its security forces, Christian community and churches. Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, a militant group operating out of the Sinai Peninsula, claimed responsibility for some atrocities. On 11 December 2016, Daesh, for its part, said it carried out the bloody attack on El-Botroseya Church killing 29 and injuring over 40 worshippers.
Libya became a headache for Cairo as the flow of arms and terrorists increased across the borders. Cairo was desperate for a trusted partner in Libya and General Haftar was an obvious choice; a man with historical links and great appreciation for Egypt’s role in the Arab world.
The Libyan general needed military support for his “war on terror” – as he calls it – while Egypt needed someone to help contain or, even better, eradicate the security threats across the border. President Al-Sisi saw Haftar as a helpful strongman in Libya while Haftar, nostalgic for his glorious past with the Egyptian army, believes the president will help him achieve his aspirations in Libya. Al-Sisi, Egypt’s former defence minister and now it’s hardline president, became a role model for Haftar.
Egypt became the most relentless supporter of Haftar’s war in Libya as his Libyan National Army took control of almost three-quarters of the country. When Haftar ordered his troops to march on Tripoli in April 2019 Egypt reacted by calling for a political solution but did very little to actually restrain its ally. A call Al-Sisi made again in January at the Berlin Conference, without making efforts to convince Haftar to accept a truce.
Security cooperation between Haftar’s LNA and Egyptian intelligence agencies has increased. In May last year Haftar handed over Hisham Al-Ishmaway, wanted by Cairo, without any public judiciary process.
Libyans are worried about Egypt’s long term influence over their country. If Haftar becomes president links with Cairo may strengthen and their worries maybe realised but Haftar doesn’t see the threat.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.