Why did Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi threaten to intervene in Libya when it is unlikely that such a threat will be translated into military operations? It is unlikely despite the fact that he regards the city of Sirte and the Libyan air base at Al-Jufra as red lines and he has broadened the army’s role to include “supporting the restoration of security and stability” in Egypt’s neighbour; the role is no longer restricted to protecting his country’s own borders and security. Clearly, he now believes that Sirte and Al-Jufra are essential for Egypt’s national security.
“Any direct intervention by Egypt has become internationally legitimate,” claimed Sisi, “whether under the UN charter on self-defence or based on the sole legitimate authority elected by the Libyan people: the Libyan parliament.” This was a reference to the parliament in the city of Tobruk, rather than the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
Sirte is around 1,000km from the Egyptian border, and the fighting for control of the city does not pose any threat to Egypt’s security. Moreover, Sisi had no such concerns when the forces of renegade Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar seized the city in January. The Egyptian President only got worried when Haftar’s militia — the “Libyan National Army” — suffered successive military defeats. The timing of Sisi’s threat, and its purpose, must be questioned, as must the possibility of it being carried out.
It seems that the stakes have changed as far as the Egyptian leader is concerned, especially after Haftar’s recent defeats. His position on Libya has shifted from presenting a political initiative at the beginning of June and calling for a ceasefire, to threatening direct military intervention. This change has goals that are not limited to the possibility of giving up Haftar in favour of other leaders, such as the President of the Libyan House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh, and tribal leaders who have influence in the east of Libya where the main oil resources and ports are located, including the crescent area with oil and gas fields.
Sisi’s threat is a message both to the Libyans and to the countries supporting the GNA, especially Turkey, which has a foothold in Libya. Turkey reached an important understanding with Italy about the situation in its former colony during the recent visit of Italian Foreign Minister Luigi de Mayo to Ankara. Italy is one of the most important international players in Libya; aside from the historical connection its foreign policy leans towards the legitimate GNA.
The government in Rome is not inclined to support Egypt’s position and the axis it is involved with. Rome also prefers to distance itself from the French and EU positions on Libya, and move towards Turkey, especially after the latter’s success in changing the balance of power in Tripoli’s favour. Italian politicians have criticised their French counterparts for their attempts to sign secret deals with Haftar for oil concessions in Libya at the expense of Italian companies.
Sirte and Al-Jufra air base are red lines for Sisi because of the intertwined interests in the struggle for international and regional influence over Libya, which smells of oil and gas. The Sirte basin is one of the largest gas reserves in the Mediterranean, and the key to controlling the many ports and oil fields, which are the focus of the conflict between the countries involved in the issue. Sirte’s significance also lies in its proximity to the vital Ghardabiya military base, as well as Al-Jufra.
These red lines match those of Russia, as Moscow plans to use Al-Jufra for its seemingly permanent presence in North Africa. According to US reports, when Russia’s Wagner mercenaries had to pull back to this base, Moscow deployed 14 MiG-29 and Sukhoi 24 aircraft to reinforce its military presence in Libya.
For Turkey, Sirte is of importance in relation to its interests stipulated in the Memorandum of Understanding signed by Ankara with the GNA last November which set out the territorial waters between the two countries. Sisi’s threat, therefore, is an attempt to thwart this MoU and deny Turkey from getting any benefit from it. At the same time he hopes to gain from the French and Russian resentment about the Turkish role in Libya.
However, there are doubts that the Sisi regime can play an active role in Libya, given its poor economic and political conditions and their ongoing deterioration. All Egypt can do is provide limited support to groups opposed to the GNA as it tries to regain control of Sirte and the oil ports and oil-producing areas that are of economic importance. They are, after all, the main source of revenue for Libya.
The justifications provided by Sisi for his threat of military intervention have no legitimacy. The conflict in Libya has no relation to Egyptian security, nor to the security of the Libyan people and the stability of their country; it’s all about international influence and interests. Hence, Sisi is unlikely to achieve his objective and his threat to intervene is not going to change anything. It will, though, continue to provide a fig leaf of legitimacy for the air strikes which the Egyptian Air Force have carried out in Libya.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 1 July 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.