The Arab Springs that started with the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia with the aim of bringing about democratic reforms in countries of the Middle East and North Africa, soon took a turn for the worse in several countries, whether it be the devastating violence in Syria or the failed democratic reforms in Tunisia.
Libya is one of the countries affected by this process of reform and got caught in the vicious cycle of political turmoil and violence. The crises that we witness today in the North African country traces its roots back to two major events. The first one being the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi following a NATO-led airstrike. The second was the murder of US Ambassador, Christopher Stevens, after which the United States decided to unilaterally withdraw its forces from the region.
This string of actions left the seat of power empty and up for grabs, which essentially made Libya ground zero for competing extremists, local militia, tribes, and UAE backed groups. As these clouds of chaos gathered over Libya, the country got divided between two major factions. The UN-recognized Government of National Accord led by Al-Sarraj, and the Libyan National Army, which has established the eastern part of the country as its stronghold.
With the country being split between the two forces in the last decade, we have seen an upsurge in foreign involvement. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, it was the United States that established its presence in the country. But in recent times, the two powerhouses entrenched in the region are Egypt and Turkey. Ankara has used the proxy war as an excuse to flex its military muscle, as general Abdel Fatah of Egypt found an ally in General Khalifa Haftar who led a successful campaign in 2013, and took control of Benghazi and the eastern parts of the country. It is believed that the conflict in the country is one that is based on ideological grounds as well as Hafter would bring Libya under the same military control prevalent in Egypt while on the other hand, Turkish backing of the GNA would bring about a similar instability, as seen as in Idlib and Northern Syria as a result of Turkish rule. Both sides have been involved in a prolonged standoff, which has completely ignored the civilians who now have been caught in the crossfire for the last decade.
The recent escalation in tensions, with the increase in Turkish assertiveness and the withdrawal of General Haftar’s forces from the west, has led to a new equilibrium in the decade-long conflict. The Turkish involvement has brought about a paradigm shift in power, that could prod Egypt and Russia into reevaluating their support for Haftar and considering a possible compromise in Libya, especially keeping in mind the very recent Cairo Declaration on the 6th of June.
The Libyan conflict poses a significant challenge to Egypt’s domestic stability and political legitimacy. In the past, and especially the months following the recent escalations, the Egyptian President, Fatah al-Sisi has been vociferous about his support for a military solution to the conflict. Several reasons exist for Egypt’s increasing interest in Libya and support for the Libyan National Army, but the most essential reason is the desire to control and stabilize the asymmetrical threat along the 1,115-kilometre border that separates the two countries.
While Turkey, an extremely important international player in the conflict has been increasing its presence in Libya, Egypt has been simultaneously increasing its military defenses, with the launch of several military measures, which include the heavy deployment of troops and the recent military exercises by the name of ‘Raad 24’ at the Slalom Checkpoint, intending to guard the porous border, through which the Egyptians believe that the Jihadist elements have been penetrating the country. With al-Sisi as the Egyptian president, many have drawn parallels between him and his ally Haftar, who share profound ideological similarities and in particular share a political aim to combat political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood. But the recent developments in Libya have made al-Sisi’s political credibility and prowess untenable. The UAE- Saudi Arabia relationship is primarily responsible for the deterioration for the Egyptian influence in the region, since Egypt mainly relies on the aforementioned relation, as the Gulf financial support is essential for Egypt’s stability, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic as the country recorded a daily rise of 1500 infections per day. However, the political incompetence and egoistic policies of the UAE-Saudi Arabia relation have been seen in the Middle-East on a range of issues in the past and Cairo seems to be running out of patience, especially with Turkey being the key supporter for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.
Another complicating factor in the turmoil is the recent deterioration in the relations between the Egyptian al-Sisi and the leader of the Libyan National Army, General Haftar. Egyptian ambitions have been undermined by Haftar’s weak political and military leadership. Prime examples of this are his defeats in Watiya and Tarhuna. The Egyptians have found themselves at an impasse, regarding Haftar’s leadership in the Western parts of the country, especially his fourteen month-long campaign to take control of the capital. Lastly, the Egyptians do not see eye to eye with the Libyan National Army when it comes to their flirtatious tactics with the Gulf Nations, whose support as aforementioned is of vital significance to maintain Egyptian stability in the post COVID world.
The Russian moves in the country and the multi-billion-dollar deal with Italy could further add to the existing complexities. While Russia would have loved to avoid getting its hands dirty in Libya, it cannot however accept a complete defeat of Haftar and his forces. There is a high probability of Haftar acting as a pawn for the Russians if they want to achieve an upper hand, as this may have far-reaching regional implications, specifically in the Syrian conflict where both Russia and Turkey again find themselves standing at the opposite sides on the battlefield. Strategically, Egypt could look to align with other partners to not only curb Turkish presence but more importantly secure its borders. However, this is highly unlikely since there is no alternative available, and supporting Haftar at least for a short or medium-term is a functional way to check Turkish maritime influence in Libya and the Mediterranean as well.