It is mid-June and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has just completed an inspection of military units at an airbase close to the Libyan border.
He is scheduled to give a speech that will be broadcast on national television to onlookers both in his own country and farther afield. Alongside a diplomatic snafu over Egyptian workers detained in western Libya, prominent voices in Egypt’s media have sounded off on the need for a stern and direct response in the neighboring country, if “the terrorist militias and their Turkish supporters” disregard Egypt’s “red lines.”
When Sisi does speak, the TV cutaways to soldiers standing at the ready beside rows of tanks stretching toward the horizon make his words all the more concrete: Egypt is demonstrably prepared to intervene militarily in Libya, if necessary.
“Any direct intervention from the Egyptian state has now acquired international legitimacy,” the president tells the audience gathered at the airbase. “The line that we have now, let us all respect it and hold talks to end the crisis. If some think they can go beyond this line, Sirte and Jufrah, this is a red line for us.”
Today, Egypt has secured combat readiness — both for a ground intervention and for possible airstrikes against specific targets — but continues to carefully assess the developments in Libya in order to decide whether or not it would opt to make such a military move into Libya to halt the Turkish-backed GNA advance, according to two Egyptian officials who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. What constitutes this assessment, sources and analysts tell Mada Masr, may be more complex than the president’s show of military might suggests, however, and there remains a series of political, diplomatic and military considerations for Cairo to exhaust before it ventures into a Libyan military adventure.
The emergence of Sirte — a strategic gateway to major oil facilities — and Jufrah, which houses a key airbase from which forces aligned with the Libyan National Army can protect Sirte and project power into the southwest — as crucial battlegrounds in Libya was a rapid development after the collapse of the LNA’s 14-month bid, backed by Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France and Jordan, to take the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
Just under three weeks before his speech warning of direct intervention, Sisi had stood at the podium in Cairo’s Ettehadiya Presidential Palace, flanked by the once self-styled strongman Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar who had watched from the Egyptian capital as his troops executed a strategic withdrawal from their last stronghold on the outskirts of Tripoli, and the newly ascendent Aguila Saleh, the head of the eastern parliament who had long supported Haftar, but whose rival political roadmap has caused tension between the two figures.
The three men had gathered together on the stage to hand down a political initiative that would kickstart political negotiations, usher in a ceasefire and ensure the LNA’s autonomy by nullifying the 2015 United Nations-brokered agreement that had created Haftar’s chief rival in the war on Tripoli: the Government of National Accord.
Egypt’s proposed deadline for a ceasefire was met with defiance from the head of the GNA Fayez al-Sarraj, and the battle for Sirte has continued to drag on. For Cairo, Sirte’s fall is a looming threat that Turkish-backed GNA troops should use the city as a launching point for further incursions into the east, inching ever closer to Egypt’s porous western border.
On the same morning in early June, Sisi, Hafta and Saleh met, the GNA, which turned the tide in the war with backing from Turkey and thousands of ethnically Turkish Syrian mercenaries, launched an assault on Sirte and Jufrah. GNA forces had advanced to Sirte’s western entrance by the end of the day on June 6, and anticipation swelled that the emboldened GNA forces would quickly take the city they had lost to the LNA in January. However, the LNA was able to rally and push back the attack.
A GNA field commander stationed in Sirte tells Mada Masr that GNA operations in Sirte and Jufrah have steadily slowed since their auspicious start in early June, before coming to an effective halt as calls for a ceasefire and a return to the negotiating table mounted. The freeze in movement on the front lines came after the field commander was told by GNA military leadership, which is coordinating with Turkish consultants, to slow their push to avoid coming into direct conflict with Russian-deployed mercenaries linked to President Vladimir Putin, who pulled back from the frontlines of Tripoli in May but are now coordinating operations out of air bases in Jufra, 358 kilometers south of Sirte, and Ghardabiya, 15 km south of Sirte.
A high-level official in the Tripoli government confirms that “there is no green light from Turkey to begin military operations.” However, the Turkish defense minister visited Tripoli to meet with GNA officials on Friday.
Russia and Turkey, who have backed opposing parties in the conflict, are engaged in discussions to ensure their forces don’t come into direct conflict and to try to find a formula for a peaceful solution, according to an informed foreign diplomat. However, there also seems to be a disagreement about where the potential Turkish and Russian spheres of influence will start and end, as high-level talks planned for June 14 between Russia and Turkey were “rescheduled.”
During the lull in fighting, Russia has worked to bolster Sirte’s defenses, making what once seemed like an imminent victory for the GNA a much “costlier experiment,” says Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the Clingendael Institute.
According to Abdul-Hadi Dara, a military spokesman for the GNA, more than 11 cargo planes carrying weapons, mercenaries and six Russian Pantsir S1 air defense missile systems have arrived in Sirte to fortify the city. There have also been accounts of the arrival of potential Scud-B tactical ballistic missiles from eastern Libya.
Ali al-Jamal, a fighter with the GNA forces who recently came back to Misrata after a month on the front lines in west Sirte, says that “gaining control of Sirte has become more and more challenging.”
The GNA’s uphill battle is not only complicated by the Russian surge but by the fact that old fissures within the patchwork of western forces nominally aligned with Tripoli have resurfaced.
According to a prominent figure from Misrata, while some of the forces who deployed to the capital to fend off Haftar’s offensive have returned to their cities, others have set up camp south of Tripoli looking to gain economic and political control, as militias have done before.
The draw for control of the capital has dampened the turnout to the front lines of Sirte. “We received support but most of the forces in Tripoli have not joined us,” the Misrata figure says.
How does Egypt intervention fit into these developments?
Speaking independently, the two Egyptian officials say that Egypt has received assurances from several international players that Turkey is not going to push the GNA to move much further east.
One of the officials adds that this is not to say that a deal is done. “We are monitoring the situation, and we have to be very sure,” the official says.
Harchaoui doubts that Egypt is militarily or economically prepared to engage in an open conflict with Turkey, citing Turkey’s “nimble navy and two almost-ready bases in Libya,” alongside the economic strain Egypt is under due to the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What’s noteworthy regarding the Sirte-Jufrah red line announced by Sisi is that such a red line may wind up being protected by non-Egyptian, non-Libyan actors in the end,” says Harchaoui, pointing to Russia and logistical assistance from the UAE. “All in all, the toughest part of the work is being performed by actors other than Egypt.”
Russia’s leading role in Sirte also complicates the potential for Egyptian intervention and the bellicose rhetoric Cairo has directed toward Turkey. Russia remains committed to ensuring that all parties involved in Libya recognize that every country has its strategic interests, that Turkey has its strategic interests just as Egypt has its interests, the informed foreign diplomat says. Russia is trying to push for “a collective approach” to find a peaceful solution.
After a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Saleh Friday, Russia announced that it would reopen its embassy in Libya, though it would operate from neighboring Tunisia for now.
“If things escalate, Egypt’s Armed Forces may confine themselves to stepping into the eastern part of Cyrenaica. After all, neither Turkey nor the GNA has any interest in the east. So Egypt may choose that area to deploy and do a bit of chest-thumping,” says Harchaoui. “That would also be a way for Cairo to push LNA-affiliated brigades to go to Sirte, which they haven’t done in large numbers so far.”
For Claudia Gazzini, a leading researcher on Libya with the International Crisis Group think tank, Egypt is not necessarily opposed to Sirte being handed over through negotiations with a symbolic GNA presence in the city afterward. However, Egypt does not want a Turkish-backed offensive to take Sirte for fear that members of the former Shura Council, Benghazi refugees, and Islamists who fight among the GNA forces will use Sirte as a site to move further into the east, she adds.
While Sisi’s remarks on June 20 regarding the potential for Egyptian intervention made headlines, a less prominent statement from the president was as telling.
In the speech, Sisi stated that Egypt is reading to “train and equip tribal youth under the supervision of tribal leaders.”
What does Sisi mean when he refers to Libyan tribes?
According to Gazzini, there are at least two options, the first of which would see the mobilization of large Libyan tribes who were displaced from Libya over 100 years ago and have now settled in Egypt’s west. However, such a move would provoke many tribes in eastern Libya that Egypt is working with. “This is a longstanding fear among smaller eastern tribes who fear the return of powerful tribes from Egypt,” Gazzini says.
Another option, Gazzini notes, would be for Egypt to back a tribal contingent in Libya under the direction of Qadhafists. Egyptian officials and Libya sources say this second option is emerging as a possible Egypt-guided force in Libya.
Both Egyptian officials say that there open channels with Libyan players would could be a part of Libya’s political future, noting that Saif al-Islam Qadhafi, the son of ousted ruler Muammar Qadhafi, is one of the figures who is being “considered by some international players.”
Egypt, according to the officials, is not against the inclusion of Qadhafists, even if their attention is not focused on Saif al-Islam.
Support for the Qadhafists, according to both officials, is not about support for the former colonel but about the considerable tribal influence it would bring. Aguila Saleh is currently opening channels with leading Qadhafists toward this end, the sources say.
A leading Qadhafist and former Libyan Armed Forces officer confirms these talks, saying that some segments of the network of former regime figures, including Qadhafists who fought under Haftar, are in talks to coordinate with Egyptian efforts to form a force from the Libyan tribes to defend eastern Libya.
How will this affect Egypt’s potential for intervention in Libya?
According to a third Egyptian official, it is certain that the tribes will have a bigger role, and there are talks about deploying a tribal force to Sirte, which Egypt believes will help de-escalate the tension between the GNA and LNA, as they would serve as an influential third party with connections on both sides.
“The presence of the tribes in Sirte would also help in reassuring Cairo of the situation on the ground, and that would obviously reduce the chances for a direct Egyptian intervention,” the official says.
The final component of Egypt’s political calculus in intervening concerns the financial situation of the eastern government, which is saddled with the debt it has used to bankroll the LNA but is unable to generate new revenue sources with oil facilities shut down and an oil revenue collection framework that deposits all money directly into accounts managed by the central bank under the GNA.
Solving the economic situation in the east centers on two issues. First, there are ongoing negotiations to resume the flow of oil that has been cut off since January 2020, when Haftar shut down oil pipelines in a bid to apply pressure on the GNA. The losses come in at about US$6 billion, according to the estimates from the GNA’s National Oil Corporation.
The second component would be to try to find a resolution for what an economist familiar with the financial situation in the east says is now 50 billion Libyan dinars (around US$35.8 billion) in debt that the eastern government’s finance ministry has been selling to a parallel central bank in the east in order to bankroll the LNA. A settlement would require the central bank in Tripoli to recognize and absorb the debt in the east, a costly venture for a government and military operation that the GNA has seen as illegitimate, Gazzini says.
Finding a resolution to these economic issues is paramount for all those countries that want to see the LNA survive, including Egypt, as without a resolution the LNA would be unable to continue vital security operations in the east of the country, according to Gazani.
While there have been some steps made to resolve these issues, there remain several sticking points that need to be ironed out.
Some of the LNA’s foreign backers would welcome a resumption of oil production before moving on to the larger question of debt, Gazzini says. However, others would like to see a settlement on the debt first.
Egypt has played an active role in trying to tackle the resumption of oil in recent weeks, holding extensive discussions with Paris, Rome and the United Nations Special Mission in Libya to ensure that oil fields resume production for the “benefit of all Libyans,” without allowing oil revenues to become “revenues for the militias that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sent to Libya,” says a fourth Egyptian source.
There were signs that a deal was progressing last week. The NOC had issued instructions to all operating companies on June 20 to start preparing to resume operations. And several tribal elders in the east held a meeting last week to discuss the planned resumption of oil production, with a source close to the discussions telling Mada Masr that a deal hinged on a “fairer” distribution of oil revenue to each of Libya’s three historic regions.
However, there remain some hiccups and disagreements to be ironed out.
The outcome of the tribal elders’ meeting fell short of resuming oil production. Instead of opening the tap, the tribes announced on Monday that they had delegated the task of communicating with the global community and the UN to the LNA leadership in order to reach an agreement “for solutions to prevent oil revenues from reaching the hands of terrorist militias.”
The NOC responded to the tribal elders’ statement on July 1, saying that the force majeure, which was originally imposed on January 18, 2020, will remain in place until eastern forces in control of the facilities permit the operating companies to resume export.
According to Gazzini, the negotiations have been rife with confusion due to divergent expectations from various actors.
Those in the east are pushing for a deal that would guarantee a redistribution of oil revenue and ensure international supervision over an escrow account held outside Libya, Gazzini says. Haftar and voices in the east have long complained — and tried to bend the existing reality in their favor through force — that the way Libya’s vast oil wealth is divided is unfair.
As a result of a system put in place under Qadhafi, all proceeds from legal exports of hydrocarbons are received in US dollars and funneled straight into accounts held at Western financial institutions, Harchaoui explained in a 2019 article. The Central Bank of Libya in Tripoli (under the GNA) controls access to these accounts.
According to the third Egyptian official, neither the LNA nor the eastern parliament are willing to allow the oil fields to resume operation without a final agreement on oil revenue distribution, as they need to be sure that the revenues will be truly distributed in fairness to all Libyan groups.
However, while revenue distribution has been discussed, the main tenet of the current deal that the US and UN are pushing for would see all oil money deposited in an NOC-controlled account for 120 days, while the eastern central bank and the western central bank hold negotiations to try to find a solution to the east’s debt.
If all sides are able to find a solution to these problems, they would still have to smooth things over within a factional GNA, with the Central Bank of Libya in the west being a major impediment.
A source in the Central Bank of Libya says that bank officials are opposed to the plan to place oil revenues in an NOC-controlled account, as it is a move that would see them lose control over the heart of the Libyan economy.
“We strongly reject that the Libyan people’s money be tied to a vague path that plunges everyone into chaos. The dispute over revenue distribution may not be settled if this solution is applied, and we may find ourselves facing an even worse and more complicated political crisis,” the source says, criticizing what he perceives to be the NOC’s willingness to entertain a potential regional allocation of oil money.
In a meeting with high-level Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during a visit to Turkey last week, CBL Governor Sadiq al-Kabir discussed his opposition to any plan that would change the legal framework of oil revenue collection, according to the source.
Possibly to allay some of this tension and knowing the influence the GNA has in the future of Libya, the first two Egyptian officials confirmed information shared by a Cairo-based Western diplomat that Egypt has been trying to build its own alliances within the wider ranks of the GNA.
GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha is considered one of the prime figures that Egypt has been talking to in the west of the country, says an informed Libyan political source.
The political will to push through resuming oil production will be a litmus test for the shape of economic negotiations to come and whether Egypt will be able to facilitate a debt resettlement agreement to ensure that the LNA can survive.
If negotiations fail, it would imply that Egypt may have to resort to military intervention, Gazzini says.
The first two Egyptian officials agree with this sentiment, saying that if GNA forces were to halt operations on the outskirts of Sirte and the Libyan oil fields are re-opened in a way that secures an equitable division of Libya’s oil revenue, it would be less likely for Egypt to pursue a military option, at least in the short run.