Libya’s Proxy War And The Changing Geopolitical Balance Of North Africa
On 20 July 2020, the Egyptian parliament unilaterally voted in favour of the possible use of the country’s armed forces abroad. It is clear that these armed forces will be used in one place only – Libya.
In early July, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi promised to send troops to Libya to support “the restoration of security and stability”, stating that “[a]ny direct intervention by Egypt has become internationally legitimate”. He now has a mandate to openly support Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army. Some believe that the decision should also be taken as a signal to Ethiopia, where a large dam is currently under construction that could change the Nile’s water level.
On 10 July, Egyptian troops conducted a large-scale military exercise near Libya’s border codenamed “Hasm 2020” (Firmness 2020), which also served as a message to Erdoğan and a test of the Egyptian army’s combat capabilities. The manoeuvres included land incursions and coastal operations.
On 20 July, al-Sisi met with the leaders of various Libyan tribes at a conference in Cairo entitled “Egypt and Libya: one people, one face”, where they discussed different forms of military support from Egypt, including the transfer of weapons to tribes for self-defence.
Western experts fear that such a rebalance will significantly complicate security in the Eastern Mediterranean. It should be pointed out, however, that the stable security regime was destroyed by the West itself in 2011, and the current situation is far from stable. Turkey is openly supporting Libya’s so-called Government of National Accord (GNA) through the provision of military aid. Not everyone in the West is happy with Recep Erdoğan’s opportunism, however. On 6 July, 69 Members of the European Parliament wrote a joint appeal calling for economic sanctions to be imposed on Turkey and on Erdoğan personally. Besides Libya, mention was made of Turkey’s aggression in Iraqi Kurdistan, northern Syria, and the suppression of democratic opposition. An active opponent of Turkey’s actions is France, as represented by President Macron. France also initiated Operation Sea Guardian off the coast of Libya under the guise of combating piracy and terrorism. An incident occurred soon after the operation began in which a French ship suspected a Tanzanian-flagged cargo vessel of illegally carrying arms and stopped it for inspection. The vessel was being accompanied by Turkish frigates, which carried out radar targeting on the French ship several times, essentially threatening a missile strike. The incident was documented and referred to NATO. When added to the scandal surrounding the change in status of Hagia Sophia museum (Egypt’s spiritual leaders condemned the Turkish government’s decision) and Erdoğan’s rhetorical support for Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia (there are rumours that groups of pro-Turkish militants who previously fought in Syria and Libya have already been deployed to Azerbaijan), the situation appears to be extremely tense. Not just for Turkey, either, but for NATO as well, since Egypt’s possible military operations and Erdoğan’s potential call to action will be perceived and evaluated differently by the alliance.
It is generally believed in the US that Turkey meets only one of NATO’s criteria – it has a market economy. In all other respects, Turkey does not meet NATO requirements. Yet the alliance has still not developed a mechanism for excluding its negligent members. So, any confrontation with Turkey could be lengthy and exhausting for all NATO members, leading to new tensions and differences of opinion.
A direct conflict between Egypt and Turkey in Libya would be a particular issue for the West and, more specifically, for the US. Since both Turkey and Egypt are officially allies of America, it would create a difficult dilemma for Washington, which has recently been suffering from a lack of adequate foreign policy solutions.
As for Libya’s neighbours, Tunisia is showing the first signs of a political crisis, where tensions are on the rise between the Islamist Ennahda party and the opposition. Ennahda has 52 seats in parliament (out of a total of 217) and represents the largest political force. On 14 July 2020, Ennahda said it would seek a vote of no confidence against the country’s prime minister, Elyes Al-Fakhfakh. The day before, Al-Fakhfakh had declared his intention to reshuffle the cabinet, which would not serve the interests of Ennahda. It is worth noting that Ennahda is ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood, so it supports Libya’s GNA, which is currently at war with Khalifa Haftar, and is a natural ally of Turkey. Officially, Tunisia adopts a position of neutrality with regard to Libya, but the escalation in Libya and some outside assistance for Ennahda could lead to a new wave of violence in the country.
Algeria also supports the GNA, and the Algerian president has spoken out against a possible transfer of weapons to Libyan tribes. The Algerian government does not support anyone directly and insists on the need for UN resolutions. Yet Algerian troops have been deployed to the border with Libya, and the country’s defence ministry has stated that an Egyptian intervention in Libya will be regarded as an attack on Algeria.
Finally, it should be mentioned that, as well as Egypt, Haftar has the support of Russia and the United Arab Emirates. Moscow denies any involvement of Russian troops in military clashes in Libya. There is clear political support, but there are also differences of opinion, too. In April 2020, for example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Russia did not endorse Haftar’s statement regarding the transfer of power to his army.
The involvement of the United Arab Emirates is particularly annoying to Turkey, since the “Arab Switzerland” was important to Turkey for carrying out financial transactions. But the red line regarding support for the Muslim Brotherhood (although the movement is not homogeneous – numerous factions exist within it, some of which have spoken out against both active participation in Egyptian politics since the beginning of the Arab Spring and the use of violence) became the main reason for supporting different sides in Libya. Assistance provided by the United Arab Emirates has mostly been in the form of money. Although following Haftar’s recent defeat by Turkish troops and GNA forces, support has been reduced. The UAE believes it happened solely because of Haftar’s wilfulness, since military actions needed to be coordinated with donors.
Besides NATO, current feuds could affect both the work of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which includes all these countries, and the Arab League, whose headquarters are in Cairo.
Finally, mention should also be made of the historical memory factor. For many centuries, the Ottoman Empire controlled these countries, and it did so with little regard for local traditions and customs. There is some hostility in the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa regarding Turkey’s ambitions as a regional leader. Turkey’s version of Islam is regarded with latent suspicion, at the very least, if not open antipathy. The national revival of their countries and peoples is also directly linked to both their liberation from the oppression of European empires and from Turkish rule.
Therefore, although there are not yet enough visible changes happening and the confrontation surrounding Libya is being put down to a conflict over energy resources and political influence, more attention should be paid to the consequences, considering the powerful undercurrents in the region’s geopolitics. It is time for those actors actively involved in world politics to develop additional scenarios and use the available tools and means to create adequate operational capabilities in the region.