The Five Pillars of the Egyptian strategy towards Libya

The Five Pillars of the Egyptian strategy towards Libya
Wed, Mar. 9, 2022

CAIRO, 9 March 2022: The outbreak and development of the Libyan crisis represented one of the difficult tests that Egypt faced over the past decade.

This difficult test was compounded by the fact that Egypt did not have the luxury of using a trial-and-error approach to different courses in dealing with the crisis in Libya.

The direct result of failure in this test would have meant the emergence of a "failed state" in the Egyptian neighborhood, which would have doubled the cost of internal and external burdens that affect the country's national security in the first place.

The Egyptian state’s assessment at the time was that there was an external project to weaken Egypt by targeting its strategic surroundings, especially since the explosion of the Libyan crisis coincided with successive explosions in the region and critical internal political transformations inside Egypt.

Egypt's concerns at the time derived from the fact that Libyan stability is a cornerstone for Egyptian national security, in addition to the importance that Egypt attaches to the relationship and common interests between the two countries.

From this perspective, the main challenge for Egypt in this test was to prevent the disintegration of the Libyan state and preserve its cohesion as a unified state.

The Egyptian policy toward Libya aimed at preventing the state of violent collapse and destruction of the structure of the Libyan state as a result of the external military intervention of NATO and international parties and some regional parties from rupturing of the country.

This challenge defined and dictated the Egyptian strategy towards the Libyan crisis, which was translated into specific policies by the Egyptian government from day one of the outbreak of the crisis.

Th Egyptian strategy towards the Libyan crisis can be addressed along the following axes.

First, it is worth noting that Egypt made the first breakthrough in dealing with the Libyan crisis by restoring internal balance inside the country with the successful 30 June, 2013 Revolution.

Indeed, Egypt could not play an active role in the Libyan arena under the internal conditions pre-30 June, which had imposed on Egypt, and in particular on its military, the adoption of a defensive policy to prevent the spread of the manifestations of chaos in Libya to the Egyptian arena.

In addition, the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime and organization in Egypt weakened the movement of Political Islam and its allies in Libya.

Consequently, the restoration of internal stability in Egypt and the gradual restoration of its natural position at the regional and international levels strengthened the country's role, tools and ability to act in the Libyan file in general.

The various indicators of Egyptian involvement in the Libyan crisis over the past decade, especially the last seven years, reflect the features and dimensions of the country's strategic vision to achieve its main goal of restoring the state and its stability in Libya.
This strategic vision was based on five pillars, which can be addressed as follows:

1- Rebuilding the "hard nucleus"

The security challenge in Libya was, and remains, to one degree or another, a major dilemma before the process of restoring civil peace, and consequently establishing a state of stability in the country.

This challenge forced Egypt to engage in the process of rebuilding the security institutions that collapsed with the collapse of the authority in 2011, especially the military institution, so that it can carry out its functional role of securing borders, combating terrorism, and controlling the home front that suffered from chaos.

These were the tasks that Egypt focused on since the beginning of the crisis in Libya. Indeed, the first foreign visit made by the head of the Egyptian Transitional Military Council in 2011, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, was to Libya, and focused on the priority of Egyptian-Libyan joint action in the issues of border security and Libyan internal security.

It is worth noting here that the problem of reconstruction and the unification process in Libya remained thorny due to the absence of a military institution in the country after the collapse of the regime of Colonel Moammar Gaddafi's regime.

Consequently, Egypt supported the General Command of the Libyan National Army that was formed in 2014 in the east of the country.

The nominal army chief of staff that existed in the west of the country did not play a role in confronting the phenomenon of the growth of armed militias and their dominance over the public sphere, and, in fact, incorporated these militias.

Despite this, Egypt hosted meetings between the two sides (2016-2019) to unify these separate military entities on a professional basis into a unified army as part of a vision for a general structure of the Libyan army.

Egypt also adopted a position on the necessity of the exclusion of militia and factional elements and the inclusion of those who had a military record before 2011 or those who obtained military qualification from military academies in a unified Libyan army.

This vision was consistent with international and UN standards regarding rebuilding security institutions after the end of conflict and civil strife, and paralleled the launching premises of the Joint Military Committee (5 + 5).

2- The priority of a political solution

One of the key principles enshrined in the Egyptian strategic vision is the adoption by various Libyan sides of the political solution as the only way to settle the crisis - a Libyan decision that reflects a national will - and the abandonment by all sides of resorting to military solutions.

Indeed, Egypt has been keen on upholding the principle of a political solution to the Libyan crisis since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011 and throughout repeated attempts at implementing various transitional stages all the way up to the current stage.

This keenness was reflected Egypt's efforts to preserve the ceasefire agreement and to help Libya cross the bridge to political stability.

Egypt has concluded in light of the Libyan experience over the past decade that the Libyan situation requires the imposition of the prioritisation of a political solution, especially given the multiplicity of actors and fronts on the arena, which meant that there were always competing perspectives and schemes for the future of the country.

It also meant that while there was always a possibility on the ground to forge an agreement between the Libyan parties, the conditions for implementing what was being agreed upon among them, however, did not exist most of the time.

This was evident when the Government of National Accord (GNA), which was formed through a key role played by Egypt in hosting rounds of negotiations in the lead up to the signing of Skhirat Agreement in 2015, failed both to honour its commitments to implementing the entitlements of the political agreements reached prior to its formation.

It was also evident when the GNA failed to adhere to the clauses of the political agreement sponsored by Cairo in 2018 on a one-year road map that ends with presidential and legislative elections.

The Egyptian strategy was premised on the view that whoever presents the vision to end the Libyan crisis must also possess the tools for its implementation, ie the ability to compel the different parties to adhere to implementing what was agreed upon.

The soundness of the Egyptian view was evident in the success of the First Cairo Declaration of June 2020 that finally advanced the Libyan settlement process after six months of non-compliance by all Libyan parties with the decisions of the Berlin Conference in January 2020 and the collapse of the roadmap for a settlement reached in Berlin in March of the same year, in addition to the resignation of the UN special envoy to Libya Ghassan Salameh.

Moreover, the Second Cairo declaration, which was articulated by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in his crucial speech in July 2020 and defined what Egypt considered to be the "red line" for its national security vis a vis the actions of certain players in the Libyan arena, confirmed the correctness of the Egyptian vision as it decisively paved the way for the cessation of the war and the resumption of the political process through negotiation.

3- Ending external interference

The Egyptian vision focused on the cessation of foreign interference in Libya as one of its basic principles for resolving the country's crisis, and stressed the need for the international will to transform from an approach of trusteeship over Libya and committing violations against its sovereignty into becoming a catalyst for rescuing Libya out of its crisis.

To achieve this goal, Egypt worked with various international powers, such as the United States, European powers, and Russia, to find solutions for the Libyan crisis, starting in the Palermo Conference in Italy in November 2018.

The Palermo Conference represented the first attempt at making a breakthrough in controlling international interactions in Libya followed by the first Berlin Conference in January 2020 that was held after the Tripoli War and constituted the point of reference for the current transitional stage.

Egypt played an active role in the Monter and Geneva meetings, and also hosted the rounds of meetings to discuss the necessary economic, political and military tracks to support the UN road map in order to prepare the ground for the settlement process.
In the first stage of the Libyan conflict, outside intervention was "destructive". At a later stage, outside intervention turned into a "proxy war" and a war of competing interests. At the current stage, it has turned into a "cold war" and jockeying for power between international and regional powers.

In this current stage, the United States focuses on the Russian presence, in addition to the development of a gray area in Turkish-Russian relations on the Libyan arena that is characterised by understandings at times and tensions at other times.

In addition, outside intervention intensified through the establishment of foreign military bases in Libya, which carried serious political implications. In other words, the patterns and forms of external roles in Libya underwent metamorphosis more than once, but they never ceased to exist and always manifest themselves in political ways.

Consequently, Egypt has been betting on Libya reaching a stage of stability that could lead to the reduction of international presence on the Libyan arena and has been using various tools to achieve this goal.

4- Restore Libya to its role as a normal country

Egypt has been seeking to end the state of international trusteeship on Libya in accordance with Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations in order to allow the country to exercise its role as a normal state on the internal, regional and international levels; and to manage its external relations according to its interests and not as a subject to the will of others.

The return of the ability of the Libyan state to exercise its natural roles would represent the main indicator of the state's recovery after a long period of crisis, as far as regaining its national decision-making prerogatives and sovereignty, as well as managing the tools at its disposal.

In this context, Egypt has worked to support efforts to strengthen the Libyan internal front by strengthening the tools of force at the disposal of the state, reunifying institutions, and pushing national reconciliation efforts, in addition to supporting Libya's return to play its role in the regional sphere.

The absence of Libyan role in the regional sphere affected the balance of power among its neighboring countries, and created a deep void in security in the Sahel region and the eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, the return of Libya to its normal status would both serve Libya's interests, in the first place, as well as Egypt's interests.

5- Establishing a strategic partnership

Conflicts and crises constitute by their very nature a transitional stage at the level of relations between states from the vantage point of their impacts.

Egyptian-Libyan relations have been based on governing foundations, including the considerations of shared history and geography.

However, the perspective of what constitutes common interests between the two countries has in the past fluctuated between concurrence on common traditional economic interests, especially the role of Egyptian labor in Libya, and, at times, divergences due to the political repercussions of Libya's crisis with the West throughout most of the rule of the previous regime.

Moreover, those common interests were impacted by the need to put in place security arrangements to tighten the control over the long borders between the two sides.
However, the circumstances that Libya went through in recent years have imposed on the two sides the need to develop a new perspective on their relationship.

This new perspective, which does not neglect the facts of history or geography, is predicated on the understanding that the two countries must co-engineer their common interests in a comprehensive manner, taking into consideration specific geopolitical, security and economic dimensions within the framework of the reconstruction project.
These new perspectives on the relationship between the two countries guided the important recent visit of the Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madboul to Tripoli, which witnessed the signing of about 11 agreements and protocols.

In conclusion, Egypt has adopted a unique policy of engagement in the Libyan file. Unlike the rest of the other powers that relied on their military tools, Egypt engaged in the Libyan file using a balanced variety of methods.

Cairo's approach to the crisis in Libya was diversified and ranged from exercising “strategic patience” as part of a defensive policy during the early stages of the conflict to adopt a policy of "strategic deterrence" in order to reduce the intensity of the conflict, draw a ceasefire line, and lay the ground for making arrangements to start the security and political process in the more recent stages.

Indeed, Cairo has acquired sufficient experience to deal with the challenges that still exist on the Libyan arena.

Written by: Ahmed Eleiba

Researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies