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Will Sisi wage war on Libya?

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the weekend ordered his military to be ready for possible operations in Libya.

This was done publicly at an air force base in the country’s western military region, on the border with Libya. It comes after a ceasefire proposed by Egypt was rejected by Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

Egypt aims to halt the GNA’s advances eastwards to territories controlled by the Libyan National Army (LNA), backed and supported by authoritarian regimes in the region, including Egypt.

Tensions with Turkey

Many commentators in the region are dismissing Sisi’s threats as irrational, as acting on them would go against Egypt’s national security. Some say it is a diversion from his domestic failures in responding to the coronavirus pandemic or negotiating with Ethiopia over a massive hydroelectric dam project.

Yet, newly rising regimes and revolutionary states are generally more prone to wars than others, from the French Revolutionary Wars, to the war between Iraq and revolutionary Iran in the 1980s, to Ethiopia’s war on Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union as it was newly consolidating power in 2006, among other examples. As such, observers should take Sisi’s threats more seriously.

But why, in this case, would he contemplate war on Libya?

The GNA is certainly inclusive of the pro-Arab Spring revolutionaries who overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. They are the antithesis of Sisi’s regime, which came to power through a military coup in 2013. Consolidation of power by the GNA would not only add the state to pro-Arab Spring countries in the region, such as Tunisia, Qatar and Turkey, but it would also strengthen the Arab Spring in the long run and promote anti-authoritarianism in the region.

In addition, Turkey, which has been intervening on behalf of Libya’s GNA, is Egypt’s current archenemy. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan still severely condemns the military coup in Egypt and remains hostile towards Sisi, who has repeatedly criticised him and scuffed him off in international settings.

Drawing a line in Libya

Upon the anniversary of the death of Mohamed Morsi last week, Erdogan tweeted a eulogy in his memory, referencing him as a martyr and Egypt’s only democratically elected president. Turkey’s support for the Egyptian opposition undermines Sisi’s legitimacy, but what is perhaps more worrisome to the Egyptian regime is that Turkey, having militarily tilted the balance of power towards the GNA, may have military bases in Libya. Given Turkey’s record in Syria, Sisi cannot ignore the threat from Libya.

A fully consolidated GNA with full sovereignty in Libya and deeper relations with Turkey would certainly pose more of a threat to Sisi’s regime than a divided Libya. If the GNA maintains a belligerent stance, it will be more inviting for Egypt to act now, rather than wait for Libya to grow into a larger threat. A direct military confrontation in the near future should thus not be ruled out.

Sisi’s threat of military action in Libya not only aims to strengthen the LNA’s position, but it is also a signal to other countries that, with additional regional support, he may be willing to send the military in.

Sisi may be thinking of helping the LNA hold ground in the east to deny the GNA the rich oil fields of eastern Libya, the main source of income for the country. In this way, he would be drawing a line in Libya, across which GNA revolutionaries and their Turkish backers could not pass, thus giving Sisi’s Egypt a more secure buffer zone.

The need for diplomacy

The possibility of war is compounded by the fact that the GNA, understandably, has been responding with provocation towards Egypt, which has backed LNA forces as they committed numerous war crimes. The GNA also has poor communication channels with Egypt, refusing to meet online with the Arab League for urgent talks requested by Egypt.

This would have been a good opportunity for the GNA to engage more in regional diplomacy. Instead, the lack of communication only deepened the mistrust, providing more room for mutual misperceptions of intent.

Egypt, hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, recently announced a ban on discussing “sensitive” issues in public and on social media, including the pandemic, the Libya conflict, the insurgency in Sinai and Egypt’s tensions with Ethiopia over the dam. Such censorship highlights the dire political situation in Egypt.

While these factors make an Egyptian war on Libya less likely, they do not rule it out. Sisi’s threats to Libya do not mask its current challenges, but balance the threat posed by the changes occurring in Libya. Many observers point out that Sisi should be primarily focused on Ethiopia, given that Egypt’s water share of the Nile is at stake. However, it should be pointed out that Ethiopia poses no direct threat to the survival of the regime in Egypt.

Military action, many argue, would be a huge gamble, especially as the situation on the ground is quickly shifting, with the LNA losing cohesion.

Still, the GNA should be more active in its diplomacy to de-escalate tensions with Egypt if it is truly going to establish sovereignty over Libya. The GNA should try to mitigate Egypt’s perception of a threat and gain more international sympathy by highlighting the LNA’s war crimes and atrocities. The more active the GNA is in articulating its vision for a future peaceful Libya, the more likely it is to succeed in stabilising the country.

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