By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
In a televised address on June 20, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi warned the Government of National Accord (GNA) forces in Libya that any attempt to move on the city of Sirte would provoke direct intervention by Egyptian military forces.
The interim GNA has United Nations backing. But because of the Islamist undertones running through the GNA along with its ineffective governing, Egypt has backed the Libyan National Army (LNA) headed by retired Army Gen. Khalifa Haftar. Haftar’s LNA forces attempted an assault on Tripoli earlier this year but were forced back after Turkey sent troops to support the GNA.
Energy Is the Overriding Interest for Egypt and Other LNA Backers
With Haftar’s forces pushed back to Sirte, Egypt and other backers of the LNA want to ensure his movement does not collapse along with their respective interests. For all the foreign parties involved in Libya, this is not some exercise in military training; rather, each party has a significant interest in how the Libyan conflict works out. While the interests of many of the third parties involved in the conflict include suppressing militancy, the overriding interest is energy.
The Government of National Accord Has Not Been Able to Expand Its Authority
Despite claims by rival parties, the Government of National Accord is the only government recognized by the United Nations. But because of the numerous rival factions in Libya and the rival factions within the GNA itself, the GNA has not been able to expand its authority throughout Libya. Further eroding support for the GNA is the lack of peacekeepers on the ground providing security, training Libyan security forces or helping to build the pillars of a functional government.
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While there is the UN Support Mission in Libya, it does not have all the tools necessary to make its mission a success; however, part of the problem is the GNA itself. With so many problems within the GNA and its rival in Tripoli, numerous third-party nations have looked to Haftar’s LNA as a potential replacement. Or at the very least, they might include Haftar in any post-civil war government.
Indeed, Haftar has the support of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, France and Sudan. The UAE provides the bulk of military hardware while Russia and Sudan have supplied manpower in the form of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group and Sudanese mercenaries.
Libya Has Proved to Be Fertile Ground for Militant Movements
Without a single government and the resulting chaos, Libya has proven to be fertile ground for militant movements such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. For its part, the U.S. has supported counterterrorism missions in the country in conjunction with NATO allies such as France and Italy. In addition, Washington continues a dialogue with the GNA. Beyond that, U.S. interests in Libya are minimal.
Washington is allowing its allies with a direct interest in the country to take the lead on internal developments. Part of this is a desire by President Trump to disengage from such a heavy presence in the Arab world.
But disengagement comes with unintended side effects. To wit, U.S. NATO allies and regional partners are backing rival factions consistent with their individual interests, which could potentially lead to wider, strategic problems.
The Egyptian Threat
This brings us back to the Egyptian threat. While Egypt certainly has concerns about militant Islamists in Libya, it has a larger concern about energy. In January 2019, the energy ministers of Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority met in Cairo to establish the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF).
The purpose of the EMGF is to “create a regional gas market that serves the interests of its members by ensuring supply and demand, optimizing resource development, rationalizing the cost of infrastructure, offering competitive prices, and improving trade relations.” Notably absent from the forum was Turkey.
Eastern Mediterranean Is a Geopolitical Hotspot
Turkey has expanded its claims in the Eastern Mediterranean at the expense of its neighbors. In fact, Turkey’s claims, along with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, nearly encircle Cyprus. Ankara has not been shy about using its Navy to harass members of the EMGF exploiting natural gas fields around the island nation.
Furthermore, Turkey has entered into an exclusive economic zone agreement with the GNA in Libya, thus expanding Turkish interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara may claim its support of the GNA in Libya is altruistic, but that’s not the case. Members of the EMGF have likewise made expansive claims about their respective territorial waters, making the Eastern Mediterranean a geopolitical hotspot.
It was expected that Egypt would be a transit point for the bulk of the natural gas extracted under the aegis of the EMGF for conversion to liquefied natural gas and re-export. Turkey’s moves, however, jeopardize that deal and further constrain Egypt’s need for energy.
Also exacerbating matters for Egypt is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam built by Ethiopia on the Blue Nile. Cairo claims the dam would diminish downriver water volume on the Nile and negatively affect the electricity generated by the Aswan High Dam, among other issues.
Al-Sisi has taken the matter to the UN Security Council. But there is no guarantee that Ethiopia will be swayed by such action because Addis Ababa claims the potential electricity generation from their dam is vital to the nation’s economic well-being.
Indeed, according to Al Jazeera, Ethiopia has reiterated it will start filling the reservoir next month “even without an agreement from Egypt and Sudan.”
Alazeera added that Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew told the German DPA news agency on Friday that “Egypt’s insistence on controlling the river flow” was hampering proceedings.
Egypt Threatens Military Action
Egypt has obliquely threatened some form of military action regarding the Ethiopian dam, but it is clear that Cairo is facing two crises that the government views as existential. Whether that is so is debatable, but a government that took hold after a failed revolution in the not-too-distant past is not likely to take chances.
Egypt has made its position well known. How Cairo will follow through with its threats to protect Egyptian interests, however, remains to be seen.