by Abdellatif El-Menawy
Egypt and all Arabs in the Gulf and North Africa want Libya to be for the Libyans, not the mercenaries coming from elsewhere.
Cairo’s message to Turkey is very clear: Any action that threatens Libya’s security and stability is also a threat to Egypt. The flow of Turkish-backed militias and mercenaries into Libya does not mean anything but an assault against the national security of Egypt, which requires a direct military intervention. This was the message President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi wanted to deliver to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Libyan ally Fayez Al-Sarraj, the head of Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA).
As he met with some of his soldiers and Libyan tribal elders in the western military zone near the Libyan border last Saturday, El-Sisi drew red lines regarding the situation in Libya. He also implied the inevitability and legitimacy of an Egyptian intervention in Libya, as the situation there poses a threat to his country’s security.
In his message to Turkey, El-Sisi said: “Any direct Egyptian intervention would have international legitimacy, as it would mean self-defense, based either on the UN Charter or on the sole legitimate authority elected by the Libyan people: The parliament.”
He added: “The main goal of intervening is to protect and secure the western borders of the state, known for their strategic location, from the danger of terrorist militias and mercenaries. The second goal is to restore security and stability in Libya, representing an integral part of the security and stability of Egypt and the Arab world. The third goal is to stop the bloodshed of our Libyan brothers in the east and the west and prepare for a cease-fire to prevent any escalation.”
El-Sisi’s messages were sharp. They came after a long period of calm, patience and waiting around. The messages also came following Cairo’s important initiative to stop the bloodshed and the escalating violence between the Libyan National Army, led by Khalifa Haftar, and Al-Sarraj’s Ankara-backed government. The messages were also very smart. El-Sisi threw a huge stone in a very stagnant lake following his previous calm and silence over the conflict in Libya. El-Sisi might have thrown this stone as a wake-up call for the international community to take a stance regarding the situation in Libya, whose wealth and existence are in danger due to the internal conflict and Turkish intervention.
On the Arab level, an urgent meeting of Arab League foreign ministers was held on Tuesday at Egypt’s request. The ministers agreed to commit to reaching a political solution in Libya, in line with the outcome of the Berlin conference and the Cairo Declaration. The ministers also emphasized the importance of a cease-fire. The ministers condemned all forms of foreign military intervention and called for the dismantling of militias in Libya, in line with the clear and firm decisions of the Arab League Council in this regard.
France has also criticized the Turkish intervention, with President Emmanuel Macron saying that Ankara is playing “a dangerous game” in Libya, thus constituting a direct threat to the region and to Europe. The White House announced that, in a phone call between President Donald Trump and Macron this week, they both agreed on the urgent need for a cease-fire and to “immediately” resume negotiations between the parties to the Libyan conflict. The US has also been pressuring the Libyan parties to stop their military escalation and commit to the cease-fire.
Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the US’ Africa mission, on Monday held a meeting with Al-Sarraj at Zuwarah airport. Townsend stressed that all parties needed to commit to the cease-fire and resume the UN-led political negotiations. The US Ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, also attended and he said the violence currently being witnessed is increasing the chances of Daesh and Al-Qaeda returning in Libya, and is further dividing the country in favor of the foreign parties.
The UN Security Council also issued a brief statement urging the parties to the conflict to commit to the cease-fire and immediately resume negotiations. The statement considered that we should be building on the progress made during the UN talks (5+5 military talks on Libya), the Cairo Declaration and the conference in Berlin. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has urged EU countries to show more interest in the naval mission to stop the smuggling of arms into Libya.
UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said: “The last thing Libya needs right now is more fighting and more foreign armies on its lands.” He also expressed the UN’s concern over the transportation of weapons from abroad and the recruitment of mercenaries.
In his speech, El-Sisi announced that he considered any attempt by the militias to take control of the city of Sirte or the Al-Jufra airbase to be a “red line” for Egypt. In the past few days, these areas have become the central warring zone between the two parties in Libya, given their strategic value. Sirte, which is about 1,000 km away from the Egyptian border, is key to the control of the ports in Libya’s oil crescent. Al-Jufra, on the other hand, is well known for its strong infrastructure, which has been renewed to store the most up-to-date weapons. The airbase is used by Haftar’s army as a main operations room, thus controlling more than half of Libya.
El-Sisi’s speech created controversy among certain sections of his own public, away from the drums of war that are banged by some. What is demanded is for Egypt not to get involved in a long-term war with Turkey, which is not expected anyway, and that any Egyptian intervention is restricted to Sirte and Al-Jufra.
The Egyptian president’s speech was not an announcement that he was waging war against Turkey, and it will not mean control over Libya, but it will mean an attempt to draw up new rules for a game that had been based on the support of regional and international parties, without direct intervention.
Turkey messed with the original rules when it deployed terrorist militias from Syria in Libya and sought to establish military bases in the country (while all Libyans remember that all North African countries fought hard to get their independence and remove foreign bases from their territories).
If Egypt is successful in stopping the Turkish infiltration in Libya without causing big losses or getting into an all-out war, it would send a strong message of deterrence to Ethiopia, with which the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam issue is still ongoing.
Several major countries are now seeking to restrain Erdogan in Libya, including Russia and France. And it will not be long before Italy stops supporting Turkey, since it will not continue to do so at the expense of its relationship with the EU. Some of these countries would support an Egyptian intervention in Libya, and others would not oppose one.
If one listens carefully to the Egyptian president, one finds that he is a man of logic. El-Sisi wanted to send two messages: One to Turkey to confirm his readiness for any military battle, and another to the rest of the world to stress that his final goal is to establish peace and stability in Libya.
The main demand of Egypt and all Arabs in the Gulf and North Africa is to dismantle the armed militias in Libya and make them hand over their weapons. They also want Libya to be for the Libyans, not the mercenaries coming from elsewhere in Africa or other conflict zones in the Middle East. This is the logic of a man whose main and final goal is establishing peace and stability.
Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. He tweets under @ALMenawy.