Libya’s internal chaos
Libya’s downward spiral towards disaster does not seem to come to an end. As the security situation in Libya deteriorates and political negotiations for a unity government stagnate, the creation of new, resilient central statal structures in the foreseeable future appears to be a very difficult task. Taking inspiration by the changes observed in neighbouring Tunisia, international support for the rebels against the Qadhafi regime was to pave the way for a new political order, embodied by the Transitional National Council (TNC). Five years later, the deep political and ideological cleavages, together with the proliferation of new militias and jihadi factions, have culminated into political polarisation with two competing legislative bodies, and territorial division1.
The internal chaos is matched by regional maneuverings, with Egypt as one of the major stakeholders. For the first time in 24 years – i.e. since the Gulf War of 1990-91 – the Egyptian Militia have engaged in military operations outside its borders, getting involved in Libya. This article aims to exploring reasons of the Egyptian “securitarian approach” to the Libyan crisis, pushed by the anti-Islamist stance of the military government of the general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and its support for the Bayda/Tobruk governing faction, with its military branch led by General Khalifa Haftar. The powerful Libyan General recently seized control over several key oil facilities in the centre of Libya’s coastline. Without wanting to spoiler any conclusion, the core of this analysis also aims to shed light on how Egypt tends to frame the Libyan problem in terms of an unfinished Responsibility to Protect (R2P) intervention (Mühlberger, 2016).
The situation in Libya is not only chaotic domestically but, due to its fragmentation, tends to spread insecurity in the region. Egypt finds itself confronted with a new geopolitical asset, feeling increasingly sandwiched between two ungoverned spaces: the Sinai Peninsula, on its own soil, and eastern Libya where Islamists have found fertile ground.
After the barbaric beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on February the 12th 2015, Egyptian President el-Sisi has asked for the same level of international military effort against extremists in Libya, as is occurring in Syria and Iraq, where Egypt is not involved. Specifically, el-Sisi has called for a UN mandate to support the Bayda/Tobruk coalition, which is internationally recognized, though the Libyan Supreme Court still recognizes the General National Congress (GNC). Al-Sisi’s call to arm of the Bayda government fighters is not just in response to the murders of fellow Egyptians at the hands of a group claiming allegiance with the Islamic State, it is also consistent with Egypt’s strong antipathy for the GNC and its ‘Libya Dawn’ movement fighters, some of whom belong to violent extremist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia (The Soufan Group, 2015).
Egyptian authorities have long expressed concern over the instability in eastern Libya and the lack of controls along the shared border. Arms smuggled from Libya have flooded Egypt’s black markets through the porous border, often reaching extremist militants in the Sinai region2. This would potentially boost the business relationship between criminal and militant groups across the remote desert of the Sahara and Sahel regions of Africa. Egypt therefore fears a spill-over into Egypt due to the rise of jihadist movements, in the aftermath of the coup d’état that in 2013 ousted the President Mohammed Morsi and its Muslim Brotherhood-backed government.
Further complicating matters, the risk of a rapid spread across the region of the Daesh, who brings with it fighters, weapons and a poisonous ideology, is another matter of concern for Egypt. But while the Daesh represents a short-term threat, the collapse of the Libyan state could have repercussions for decades. The relationship between Cairo and Tobruk is therefore not just defined by security priorities and arms deliveries, but it is a part of a real political project: eradicating political Islam. According to many observers, assuring the control of Cyrenaica by a friendly leader – General Haftar – would create a territorial hinterland for any opposition to the regime in Cairo (ECFR, 2016).
Behind the Egyptian strategy there is the logic of seeing the army as the central pillar of statehood. However, its effectiveness can be contested, since Libya lacks Egypt’s relative cohesion and long history as a unified state, nor had a tradition of the armed forces as a fundamental element of statehood. In fact Haftar, unlike el-Sisi, will hardly enjoy popularity, since Libya’s army always functioned as the last resort of the regime’s survival and is considered one of the main culprits of the civil war (The Soufan Group, 2014).
Like in every war scenario, security matters are not exhaustive to explain Egypt’s active role in Libya. Economic determinants also played an important part, as Egypt has seen its own trade interests in Libya jeopardized: Egypt has a large and growing population, estimated at 83 million in July 2009, but has limited resources, meanwhile with a much smaller population of 6.3 million in 2009, Libya is rich in oil and natural gas.
In the aftermath of the Iraqi war, with the lifting of sanctions against Libya, economic cooperation between Egypt and Libya became more open. Large foreign investments in oil and gas resources of both countries increased, and this caused also concerns in Europe. Many of the oil sites have hold out against the disaster in Libya and several regional and international powers are competing to hoard them: Egypt is among them and behind its support to Haftar there is the hope to preserve its energy interests in Libya.
The International Community “has not finished the job”
In spite of a modest success in undermining jihadi cells in the Sinai peninsula and in Eastern Libya, Egypt is still far away from succeeding in enhancing security and stability on its own soil and in the whole region, nor countering political Islam would result in eradicating the jihadi ideology. Nevertheless, the Egyptian government did not miss any occasion to blame the international community for the slow pace of political transition in Libya. Such a stance is based on the underlying assumption that the powers who aided the toppling of Qadhafi with an R2P-based military intervention “did not finish the job”, as President el-Sisi has repeatedly stated3.
After the unsuccessful efforts of the Demobilisation, Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR) Programme by UNSMIL, Cairo has consistently urged the United Nations to end the arms embargo over the whole Libyan territory, in order to allow the Libyan armed forces to enjoy legal access to equipment and to re-establish full territorial sovereignty with a state-controlled security force (Mühlberger, 2016).
As a matter of fact, the current situation in Libya cannot simply be explained as the failure of R2P action, as the Egyptian authorities tend to depict it. Indeed, it could be argued that international preventive action and post-conflict reconstruction were not considered properly4. In the post-intervention setting, aspects of institution-building, transitional justice and DDR have been greatly impeded by international interference and the clash between polarised political factions. By portraying Libya mainly in terms of a security issue, Cairo seeks to legitimise its own securitised stance and its interventionist tendencies (Ibid, 2016). Positing Haftar as a strongman capable of defeating Islamist control and of restoring dignity and stability, Cairo has already defined its policy towards Libya and it does not seem ready to change it, although it has always claimed to want to assist the UN’s efforts in Geneva. However, such a posture show all its contradictions: on one hand, diplomats and the Egyptian MFA have given assurances of their support to the UN-led political process; on the other, the security apparatus has supported Haftar even when it was clear that he was on a collision course with UN-backed unity efforts (ECFR, 2016).
Egypt does not stand out as a credible mediator in the Libyan civil war, and its action has consequences at regional level: actors such as Algeria and Morocco insist on keeping on the diplomatic track, criticizing their neighbour Egypt for impeding an inclusive political dialogue between the conflict parties. Moreover, diverging policy conceptions with regard to the role of political Islam, as well as regional foreign policy competition, are elements of general tension with Qatar.
As both Egyptian and Libyan histories suggest, moving towards an imposed stability in the face of post-revolutionary instability becomes a Faustian choice, if not accompanied by the establishment of empowered legislative and judicial institutions (The Soufan Group, 2015): with no centralized enforcement of the rule of law, criminality and warlordism will continue to flourish, like it happened in States like Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Syria, where the main benefactors of the state’s collapse have been violent extremist groups, first and foremost Daesh. Since international action in the country in 2011, however certainly set out with good intentions, precipitated in the upheaval, a more efficient action and a new approach towards Libya is certainly needed, while Egypt’s security-focused stance should be discouraged.
Msc Candidate in International Politics,
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
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1Power and territory in Libya are currently disputed between two legislative military backed governments, both enjoying of international recognition: the New General National Congress, based in Tripoli and backed by the armed groups of the Libya Dawn Coalition and the House of Representatives (HoR), based on Tobruk and supported by the General Haftar army and his allies (see the ICCT Research Paper, 2015).
4The chronological order for implementation of the three pillars of R2P is: 1) international preventive action (diplomacy and mediation); 2) assistance to states in fulfilling this responsibility through non-coercitive and coercitive means; 3) military intervention, if necessary.