Wary of Turkey’s involvement in Libya, Cairo prioritises diplomacy

The deployment of Turkish troops in Libya, Cairo said, would “negatively affect” stability in the Mediterranean.
Sunday 05/01/2020
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) presides over the National Security Council, which convened to discuss potential escalations arising from foreign military intervention in Libya, January 2.(Egyptian Presidency)
Assessing options. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) presides over the National Security Council, which convened to discuss potential escalations arising from foreign military intervention in Libya, January 2.(Egyptian Presidency)

CAIRO - Egypt condemned passage by Turkey’s parliament of a measure that allows Turkey to send troops to Libya. The deployment of Turkish troops in Libya, Cairo said, would “negatively affect” stability in the Mediterranean.

In a statement January 2, the Egyptian government called on the international community to urgently respond to the move.

The statement came minutes after the Turkish approved a bill submitted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rsulting from a security memo signed between Ankara and the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.

The agreement calls for Turkey to send troops to Libya at the request of the GNA. It had sought Turkish support on November 19 to repel Libyan National Army (LNA), which has been moving towards Tripoli.

Egypt is developing a diplomatic and military military strategy as a shield against the risks of Turkey’s possible military deployment in Libya.

The plans include shaping an international consensus against Turkey’s involvement in Libya and backing multinational efforts to reach a negotiated settlement for the Libyan crisis.

In talks with other world leaders, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stressed the need for international efforts to end the terrorist threat in Libya, bolster state institutions in the country and protect Libyan resources.

Sisi also called for an end to foreign interference in Libyan affairs. He had phone conversations with French President Emmanuel Macron, US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The flurry of diplomatic contacts occurred less than a month after Turkey signed security cooperation and maritime boundary delimitation agreements with the GNA. The maritime boundary delimitation document prevents Eastern Mediterranean countries from exploring natural gas or extending pipelines in the region without approval from Turkey.

Turkey offered military support, including personnel carriers and unmanned aerial vehicles to militias affiliated with the GNA, which is led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

Cairo sees direct Turkish military involvement in Libya as a potential harm to its interests.

“Turkey’s military presence in Libya is a direct threat to Egypt,” said Nagui al-Ghortifi, a former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister. “Turkey strives to besiege Egypt and the deals it signed with the GNA give it the opportunity to do this.”

On December 16, Sisi said Egypt would not allow anybody to control Libya. “Libya is an issue of national security for us,” he said.

For Egypt, the threat was made more imminent when, three days later, the GNA requested military support from Turkey.

All belligerents seem to hurry to change the situation in Libya before Turkey can deploy troops in support of GNA militias.

The LNA, which controls almost three-quarters of Libyan territory, started a campaign to take control of Tripoli last April.

Turkey is reported to have sent hundreds of battle-hardened jihadists and pro-Turkish militiamen from Syria to Libya to fight on the side of pro-Sarraj Islamist militias in Tripoli, something the GNA denies.

An additional concern for Cairo is control of energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey has been seeking to avoid being excluded from the region, especially after Egypt signed a maritime boundary demarcation agreement with Cyprus and has been said to be preparing another with Greece.

In early 2019, Egypt formed a forum of gas producers and consumers in the region that does not include Turkey. It plans to collect gas produced in the region, process it and export it to Europe.

The legality of the deals Turkey signed with the GNA has been questioned but Turkey wants to use the agreements to block Egypt’s Eastern Mediterranean energy ambitions and guarantee itself a stake in the region’s potential natural gas bonanza, analysts said.

“This is why Egypt is very concerned about the new Turkish moves in the region,” said Samir Ghattas, the head of the Middle East Studies Centre think-tank.

There are no clear answers to what Egypt can or will do to prevent Turkey from gaining ground militarily in Libya. Egypt, analysts said, could obstruct Turkish military shipments to Libya but that risks a direct military confrontation.

The Egyptian Navy has conducted activities off Egypt’s Mediterranean coast and plans joint drills soon. It is also increasing security on the Libyan border.

Cairo seems to be prioritising diplomatic efforts to contain Turkey’s designs. It is trying to form an international alliance against foreign intervention in Libya and its possible consequences, especially in terms of jihadist threats.

In conversations with Trump and Merkel, Sisi said extremist militias in Libya pose a threat to Libya and the entire Mediterranean region. He called for giving the LNA the chance to remove terrorists from Libya and prevent foreign interference in Libyan affairs.

Given the international wariness about Ankara’s intents, Cairo is likely to receive support from many world capitals. “Egypt coordinates with the European Union and I believe it is making gains,” said Libyan affairs specialist Abdel Sattar Heteita. European officials have objected to Turkey’s military plans in Libya.

“Moscow and Washington will likely side with Egypt, given differences between Ankara and these capitals, on one hand, and the destructive effects of Turkish policies in the region, on the other,” he said.

13