by Giorgio Cafiero and Emily Torjusen
External actors continue their deep involvement in Libya’s multifaceted civil war. This year, Turkey has stepped up its support for militias allied with the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. The GNA’s rival—the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), which is allied with General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA)—continues to receive backing from several Arab states, France, Russia, and Israel. Within this context, Libya’s nightmarish conflict remains an arena for a grander power struggle between foreign states seeking to impose their own visions, ideologies, and ambitious agendas on the North African country.
Throughout the Libyan civil war, Egypt has played an influential, albeit contradictory, role. When Haftar attempted a coup d’état in Tripoli in February 2014, many in Libya and throughout the region were dismissive of the commander. Yet Egypt’s leadership respected Haftar at that point and took him seriously. By the first half of 2014, officials in Cairo had reached the conclusion that eastern Libya had become a dangerous cesspool of Islamist militias that needed to be cleaned up. As Egypt’s leadership saw the situation, Haftar was the Libyan leader who could take on these “terrorist” groups.
According to this Egyptian narrative, Haftar and the LNA represent the only bulwark against extremism in Libya. The strong political support that the Libyan commander, who is a former Gaddafi regime official and a dual Libya-U.S. citizen, has received from locals in Benghazi and other parts of eastern Libya stems from common perceptions that Haftar and his LNA forces deserve credit for handling the Islamist militias operating in the east. Likewise, officials in Cairo have strongly supported Haftar for much the same reason.
In May 2014, when Haftar launched “Operation Dignity,” Egypt was the first state to fully back the LNA. But the Egyptians had no intention of spending their limited resources to finance Haftar’s campaign, so they sought additional backers. The first of these was the United Arab Emirates (UAE), whose comparatively deep pockets could provide far greater support. Two to three months into “Operation Dignity,” the UAE had already become the LNA’s main financier. By August 2014, both the Egyptians and Emiratis were directly intervening in Libya. As one Libyan expert explained, Cairo was happy to let other pro-Haftar states use western Egypt as a staging area, especially with Abu Dhabi footing most of the bill for the LNA’s weaponry.
In February 2015, Egypt effectively convinced Russia that Haftar deserved a chance and that the Kremlin needed to seriously consider the benefits of supporting the eastern commander. Last year, France stepped up its level of support for Haftar, which was largely attributable to Egyptian/Emirati efforts to convince Paris that backing the LNA was the most prudent way to address the Libyan civil war and the threat it posed to European security.
Nonetheless, although Cairo has brought several influential players into alignment behind Haftar, Egyptian officials are not naive to the LNA’s strengths and weaknesses. Cairo believes that the LNA is realistically in no position to achieve a military victory over the GNA and its allied militias. Egyptian officials view the LNA as an undisciplined umbrella group that includes several factions, like hardline Salafist forces, that they would prefer not be part of a future Libyan government. While Egyptian leaders would have preferred the LNA “liberate” all of Libya, by late 2018 they had begun pushing Haftar toward finding a peaceful settlement to the Libyan civil war. At the same time, officials in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh were encouraging Haftar to wage an all-out campaign to usurp control of Tripoli, Misrata, and other parts of Libya that were not already under LNA control.
Egypt Remains Interested in Western Libya
Cairo is aware that the UAE is focused on the war and will continue to back the LNA financially. Yet Egypt does not expect the Emiratis to rebuild Libya once the civil war is resolved. Instead, Egypt sees itself taking on much of that role. As a result, there has been a clear divergence in priorities between Cairo and Abu Dhabi with respect to western Libya. Ultimately, eastern Libya represents only a third of Libya’s population while western Libya is home to, among other things, Libya’s central bank and its National Oil Company, and Egyptian expat workers would have real opportunities in western Libya once the dust settles. Therefore, Egypt has an incentive to discourage any strategy that would ‘give up’ on western Libya and focus solely on Benghazi and other parts of the country now controlled by the LNA. For that reason, it’s Cairo’s view that Haftar should have avoided his ongoing “Operation to Liberate Tripoli” and instead pursued diplomatic avenues for gaining control of Tripoli.
Despite Egyptian concerns about the LNA’s offensive against Tripoli, which Haftar launched on April 4, Cairo believed it had no choice but to support the effort. A major concern for Egyptian leaders is that, as a consequence of his extended campaign in the west, Haftar’s grip on power in eastern Libya may weaken, possibly creating new power vacuums that could threaten Egyptian security. Acting against UN sanctions, Cairo has continued to provide the LNA with intel and military support in hopes of preventing that outcome.
Notwithstanding speculation that the Egyptian government will abandon Haftar over its frustrations with the Libyan commander, security and economic concerns indicate that Cairo will continue sponsoring the LNA as Libya’s civil war continues. As Egypt’s leaders view the Libyan civil war, the LNA is the only actor that can stabilize Libya, and one that has proven capable of expunging Islamist groups from strategically vital areas.
Haftar’s rise to power resembles that of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and the two men share similar political goals and a belief in the necessity of a strong military in order to accomplish them. Both have assumed a hardline stance against political Islam, at least publicly, and each has a vision for permanently ridding Libya and Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood. With their shared backgrounds and agendas, Haftar and Sisi are natural partners in what they portray as a struggle against extremism.
Emily Torjusen is an intern for Gulf State Analytics and an undergraduate student at the University of Washington, where she focuses her studies in politics, international relations, and Near Eastern languages and civilizations.