December 2017

Egypt’s Perspective on the Libya Crisis

By Prof. Robert Springborg, Sr. Associate

Robert Springborg is Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, and a non-resident research fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. Until October 2013, he was Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and Program Manager for the Middle East for the Center for Civil-Military Relations. His publications include Mubarak’s Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order; Family Power and Politics in Egypt; Legislative Politics in the Arab World (co-authored with Abdo Baaklini and Guilain Denoeux); Globalization and the Politics of Development in the Middle East (co-authored with Clement M. Henry); Oil and Democracy in Iraq; and Development Models in Muslim Contexts: Chinese, ‘Islamic’ and Neo-Liberal Alternatives. He has worked as a consultant on Middle East governance and politics for USAID, the U.S. State Department, the UNDP, and various UK government departments. He has also advised various intelligence organizations in the United States and has served as an expert witness in courts in the UK and Australia on criminal, civil, and immigration cases.

2017 witnessed a partial shift in the Egyptian approach to the Libyan crisis. Previously it had heavily weighted its joint military support with the UAE for ‘Field Marshal’ Khalifa Hafar’s Libyan National Army, correspondingly devaluing diplomatic approaches to resolving the conflict. By the end of 2017 Egypt had brought these two approaches into closer balance. In January 2017, it hosted the tenth meeting of foreign ministers of Libyan neighboring countries, which was also attended by the then UNSMIL’s Head, Martin Kobler, the Secretary General of the Arab League, Ahmed Abu al Ghaith, and the African Union and the Arab League’s representatives to Libya. This initiative was followed by subsequent diplomatic undertakings, including hosting a meeting in February of General Haftar with the head of the Government of National Accord, Fayez al Sarraj. In March as part of the Arab League meeting to discuss Libya, Cairo arranged side meetings with various interested parties. In September Egypt announced its intent to assist in the “re-organization” of the Libyan military, implying thereby its attempt to make Haftar’s forces a more truly national institution.

Relative success rather than failure seemed to be driving the shift from military intervention to diplomacy. Haftar’s forces on the ground enjoyed substantial gains in and around Benghazi in 2017. Coupled with that consolidation and expansion was the growing popularity not only of Haftar, but of the forces he commands. A poll taken in late 2017 revealed overwhelming support for the Libyan National Army as compared to that for the internationally backed Government of National Accord, and for Haftar as opposed to that for Sarraj. Libyans seem to be finally tiring of the political and military chaos of the past several years and strongly desirous of order being imposed by a strong national armed force. Moreover, their strong antipathy to external intervention is directed primarily at western nations, not at Egypt, which appears to enjoy at least quasi-legitimate status as a player in the Libyan political game.

The replacement of UNSMIL head Martin Kobler by Ghassan Salame in September also added to the diplomatic momentum driven by domestic factors and increasingly supported by Egypt. A much more skillful and engaged diplomat, not identified with any particular internal or external actor, Salame immediately set about building support for his declared intent for Libya to hold new elections in 2018. Cairo strongly endorsed the plan, no doubt in part because it perceives that Haftar, who has urged early elections, will be the big winner.

In sum, 2017 has been a year of relative success for Egypt’s policies toward Libya. It has effectively shifted from a military to a diplomatically led approach, while not only maintaining its strong operational linkages with Haftar’s forces, but positioning itself to be a key mentor for the future upgrading of those forces into a true national army. The shift reflects its confidence that the Libyan actor it has backed most directly, i.e., Haftar, will ultimately succeed over what are in effect the other two “governments” in the country, thereby enhancing Egypt’s position not only in that country, but in the Middle East more generally. The implied subordination of Libyan Islamist forces would be counted in Cairo as a major domestic and foreign policy success.