Egypt’s Libya calculus
Egypt’s interests in Libya are multifaceted, reflecting strategic, political and economic concerns. At times, these interests align with those of the international community; other times, they diverge.
On the strategic level, Egypt is extremely worried about weapons and terrorists crossing its western border with Libya and aiding terrorists in the Sinai peninsula and elsewhere in Egypt. The porous Libyan-Egyptian border makes monitoring the frontier extremely difficult, frustrating Egyptian officials. Washington is providing Egypt with equipment to help deal with this serious problem.
The presence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Libya has heightened Cairo’s concerns. The gruesome beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by ISIS on a Libyan beach in 2015 brought home how very real this threat is. Egypt retaliated with air strikes against ISIS positions in Libya.
After the breakdown of authority in Libya and the emergence of two rival governments, Egypt’s policy has been to support the secular Tobruk government, which it views as an ally against the Islamist government in Tripoli — it includes the Libyan equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood — and a force that can take on ISIS.
This has led Egypt also to support the controversial Libyan military leader General Khalifa Haftar, an avowed secularist who was appointed the army chief by the Tobruk government. Some reports indicated that Egypt has provided Haftar with military equipment and soldiers, though he denied the allegations.
Until very recently, Egypt was opposed to international efforts to forge a unity government in Libya that would merge elements of the Tripoli and Tobruk factions, largely because it distrusts the Islamists. In recent weeks, with a major push by the international community, the prospect of such a unity government has come closer to reality.
Not wishing to be seen bucking international consensus, Egyptian officials have publicly endorsed the idea of a unity government. On February 9th, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, meeting in Cairo with the head of the Tobruk government, Aguila Saleh Issa, said he favoured a unity government and offered “all forms of aid to the Libyan state institutions to allow them to maintain stability and security”.
But Sisi also underscored that the international arms embargo against the Libyan national army — the forces under Haftar’s control — should be lifted. Egypt sees Haftar’s forces as the only reliable ground troops capable of taking on ISIS, which controls three Libyan cities.
The Tripoli faction, however, sees Haftar as part of the problem.
Politically, Egypt sees itself as a kind of big brother to and protector of Libya. During his February 8th visit to Washington, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, in response to reports that the United States and other Western governments were considering air strikes against ISIS targets in Libya, stated that such intervention should only come about with a request from the Libyan government because of “concern” over the “outcome of the last intervention” — a reference to the NATO intervention in 2011 that helped to overthrow Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi and led to a breakdown of authority.
Egypt wants to ensure that Libya remains a friendly state and not a source of terrorism that would keep Cairo constantly on guard. Its support for the Tobruk government was a large part of this strategy because it made that faction dependent on its assistance. Although Egypt is now supporting the concept of a unity government, it wants the interests of the Tobruk faction to prevail in a unity government.
Economically, Libya is important to Egypt because of its potential to absorb excess Egyptian labour. During the 1990s there were about 1 million Egyptian workers in Libya. Although many of these people were not employed in full-time jobs — some were street vendors selling goods from Egypt— they at least earned some income and were able to send money home.
Given Egypt’s many economic problems, Cairo hopes that Libya will again emerge as a major source of employment for the large pool of unemployed Egyptians. However, this will not happen until ISIS is defeated in Libya and the country stabilises. Egyptian officials say their policies in Libya will achieve this result but their insistence on keeping Haftar, a highly divisive figure within Libyan society, in power may undermine the stabilisation effort.