War with Egypt?

Even though Sisi always said they would not just watch Turkey increase its involvement, it was believed that he would avoid a military adventure. The major fear of Sisi is that in the event that Islamist forces win in Libya, there is a possibility that Muslim Brotherhood, which he toppled in a 2013 coup, may have the chance to take revenge.

Finally, Egypt has raised the game. In order to stop Turkey, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has threatened Libya with military intervention. He said it would be self-defense against threats from militias and mercenaries supported by foreign powers. “Some think they can trespass on the Sirte-Jufra frontline. This for us is a red line,” Sisi said. Against Ankara’s “we are supporting the legitimate government” argument, Sisi talked about another legitimacy: “Any direct intervention by Egypt now has international legitimacy, whether under the UN charter on self-defense or at the discretion of the only legitimate elected authority in Libya: the Libyan parliament,” Sisi said.

He made this speech on June 20 in the Sidi Barrani airbase in the country’s western region along the border with Libya. He further urged Egyptian pilots and special forces to “be prepared to carry out any mission, inside our borders, or if necessary, outside our borders.” After restoring peace and stability in Libya, their forces would withdraw peacefully, he said. Some tribal representatives attended his speech. He said Egypt was ready to provide Libyan tribes with training and arms.

Even though Sisi always said they would not just watch Turkey increase its involvement, it was believed that he would avoid a military adventure. The major fear of Sisi is that in the event that Islamist forces win in Libya, there is a possibility that Muslim Brotherhood, which he toppled in a 2013 coup, may have the chance to take revenge. However, up until now, he had restraint when it came to his rage. Despite that, the financiers of the 2013 coup d’état, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, were pushing Egypt towards a military adventure.   

Earlier this month, on June 8, Sisi called for a ceasefire in Libya through a Russian-backed initiative called the “Cairo declaration.” He made the call together with Khalifa Haftar and eastern parliament speaker Aguila Saleh. By doing this, he created room for himself to maneuver within the international arena. The Cairo declaration was supported by many sides, but the Government of National Accord, in coordination with Turkey, targeted Sirte, Jufra and the “Oil Crescent.” While the operation was rapidly advancing, Haftar forces withdrew with almost no fighting from several places. Turkish-Russian coordination was running smoothly up until then, but broke down at the Sirte-Jufra stretch. Separately, the air superiority of Turkey, established with drones, had reached its limits. The firepower of the eastern forces started becoming effective again. It became evident that Sirte would not be taken so easily. This can be regarded as a counter brake to Russia, France, the UAE and Egypt.   

Allegedly, Russia is planning to build a land base in Jufra and a naval base in Sirte. When Turkey rejected the Cairo declaration and went on with its operation, the dialogue was blocked and Russian cabinet ministers decided not to come to Ankara.  

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent his team to Tripoli to discuss the economic pie as well as the military situation, without seeing the end of the war. When France, on the other hand, wanted to search a cargo ship on the suspicion that it was carrying arms to Libya, it was met with hostility from a Turkish frigate and knocked on NATO’s door. Sisi’s intervention threat came in the light of these developments.  

Is Sisi serious or is he bluffing? According to Egyptian sources, the Cairo administration has shared information with foreign diplomats that, if the red line is crossed, Egypt will intervene. Independently of how the threat could evolve, there could be several probabilities.

– In the name of all the forces behind Haftar, Egypt is building a “deterrence wall” in front of Turkey’s intervention. Rather, it is trying to build one. Turkey is conducting an intervention with sea and air forces whereas Egypt has a land border of 1,200 kilometers. This gives the advantage to intervention at the border-area fronts.

– With this move, Egypt is aiming to make the U.S. “return to its former stance.” The U.S. is now inclining toward Turkey so that Turkey can block Russia. The Trump administration told Sisi he was right and then turned around and told Erdoğan he was also right. This was the U.S. stance. The increasing role of the Russians in Libya alarmed the American established order. While the Pentagon was tracking Russian planes, it was also trying to nudge Trump. Now, Sisi is trying to sway Trump with the “stability and fighting against terror” card. Also, Sisi is reminding U.S. politics of the importance of their partnership with Egypt in the Middle East order. In the past years, Cairo has shown that it can replace its U.S. partnership with Russia. Further indifference from the American side is opening roads for Russians.

– The Egyptian economy cannot stand a war. Without the loans and grants from the Gulf, Sisi would not have been able to turn the wheels. If the threat becomes an intervention, it will only be possible with the financing of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.  

– After this, while two of its allies are talking about war, the U.S. is bound to clarify its stance. The U.S. stance will determine the course of events.

– The fragilities created by an intervention into Libya would throw Egypt’s domestic stability, gained through an iron fist, into turbulence. Because of this, Egypt may try its chances with a proxy war first. It may reorganize the Libyan National Army and increase its effectiveness. If needed, they can also send the bill to Haftar. The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, criticized Haftar by saying “Some of our friends have taken their own unilateral decisions.” This may be a sign that they are on another search. Also, as Sisi said, they can arm the tribes and enlarge the front. They can take an “invisible role” in a war led by the Libyan National Army. Or, they can make more use of the “non-state actors” that enable governments to be free of responsibility. This is something they already have done.

Actually, proxy wars have seen their limits in the past months. Turkey has changed the rules of the game on its side. Now, the other side is trying its chances. It is highly doubtful whether they will be able to take steps to change the dynamics of the clash.

Turkey’s foes abstain from taking the risks Turkey has taken. However, Egypt, through this declaration, has helped the Russians have a stronger hand in negotiations with the Turks. If military showdowns do not lead the different sides to the negotiation table, then Sirte-Jufra will be the “separation line.” It is a line that will make hostilities permanent. Tripoli forces do not want to sit at the table before they capture the Oil Crescent, which accommodates 60 percent of Libya’s hydrocarbon reserves. That would be a huge trump card. Those investing in the eastern forces seem determined to prevent this. After all, Libya is becoming more and more tiresome.