Egyptian intervention in Libya risks greater regional repercussions - analysts

The proxy war fought between two Middle East coalitions in Libya risks escalating regional tensions if Egypt intervenes in the war-torn country, according to analysts who spoke with the Guardian on Friday.

Turkey and Qatar support the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in its battle against the eastern forces of General Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia, among other countries. Analysts say Turkey’s military contributions were vital in helping the GNA reverse the gains made by Haftar’s 14-month offensive to capture the capital Tripoli.

Following the advance of GNA-allied and Turkish forces towards the strategic coastal city of Sirte, where Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army is entrenched, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi on Saturday ordered the Egyptian military to prepare for any mission, including in neighbouring Libya, in what experts and officials called a direct warning to Ankara and Tripoli.

Analysts who spoke to the Guardian shared their views on whether or not Egypt would deliver on such a threat.

Although the Egyptian military has been “very conservative” on engagements abroad, Cairo has deep concerns over its border security with Libya, said HA Hellyer, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Carnegie Endowment.

“If Cairo decides to move, it would probably do so coordinating with the rest of its own regional axis, particularly (Egyptian allies) Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” Hellyer said.

Anas El Gomati, director of the Tripoli-backed Sadeq Institute, agreed that Sisi would intervene if partners such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE provided military and financial support for his operation, but also if Russia, another country that has reportedly bolstered Haftar’s forces, allowed the GNA-LNA frontline to push east past Sirte.

“This would be a ground offensive towards the border and will try to push the GNA and Turkey away from claiming the oil crescent in Libya stretching from Sirte to the gates of Benghazi,” El Gomati said, speaking of Libya’s lucrative oil reserves.

Soner Çağaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, called the current chapter of the Libyan conflict “a proxy war on two levels”.

“Firstly between (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan and Sisi, who are each other’s nemesis in the Middle East,” he said.

Diplomatic ties between Ankara and Cairo have simmered even before their Libya involvement, after Erdoğan threw his support behind the Muslim Brotherhood, a political pan-Islamist group that Egypt and its Gulf allies view as a terrorist organisation.

“Sisi is a secularist general who locked up political Islamists and Erdoğan is a political Islamist who locked up secularist generals. They can’t last in the same room together for 20 minutes,” Çağaptay said.

The political scientist said that Erdoğan also sees the Libyan conflict as a proxy war with “a newer regional foe”: the UAE.

Hellyer highlighted the significance of the Middle Eastern countries intervening in Libya.

“It’s important to link this to the wider ‘cold-war’ within the broader Arab world, where over the last few years, there have been two coalitions that have coalesced. Turkey, Qatar and a certain brand of Islamism on the one hand; and Saudi, UAE, and Egypt on the other,” Hellyer said.

“The war in Libya cannot be properly understood without appreciating that.”