In less than one month, Libya is going to hold the first-ever presidential elections in its political history. It will not be an exaggeration to say that the whole world is looking forward to the success of Libya’s success in convening these elections. However, Libya’s regional neighbors are mainly concerned about the potential violent conflicts that could happen after the elections’ results are announced. One of those neighbors is Egypt, whose national security and domestic economy are directly affected by the political stability and level of state security inside Libya.
Egypt shares its longest border of 1,115 kilometers with Libya. If you look at the map, you may easily blur the line between Libya and Egypt to see them as one piece of land, with a vast desert in the middle, and a wide sea above. In the 1970s, Libya’s then-President Gaddafi made an offer to Egypt’s former President Sadat to unify the lands of Libya and Egypt into one country. Sadat’s decline to Gaddafi’s offer led to diplomatic tensions that ended up with a short episode of armed conflict, academically labeled as “the Four Days War” (21-24 July 1977). However, peace was quickly restored after the two conjoined North African countries realized that their destinies were interdependent.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the relationship between Libya and Egypt went through a tough lane. In 2012-2016, Islamist militia and terrorist organizations found a haven in the Arab Spring countries that went through civil wars, such as Syria and Libya. When the Muslim Brotherhood ruled Egypt in 2012, they released Islamist terrorists from prison, including the assassinators of President Sadat, and allowed thousands of Egyptian extremists who fought with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, in the 1990s, to return to Egypt.
In 2013, as the Egyptian military supported the people in overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood regime from power, and launched a nationwide campaign to quarantine terrorist organizations operating on Egyptian soil, many terrorists resorted to their fellow Islamist militia in war-torn Libya. From there, they launched several attacks against Egyptian policemen and military personnel, who were working at the western border cities. Therefore, Egypt cooperated with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in reassembling and strengthening the Libyan military to fight against the Islamist militia that has become a direct threat to Egypt’s national security. Hence, the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the leadership of General Khalifa Hafter was formed in mid-2014.
In December 2015, the former interim Government of National Accord (GNA) was formed by a United Nations initiative. The GNA declared LNA as an illegal militia and refused to cooperate or at least negotiate a peaceful coexistence with them. As the clashes between GNA and LNA heated, Egypt, UAE, and France took on the side of LNA, while GNA sought help from Turkey. That paved the way for the Turkish military intervention in Libya, in December 2019. Given the long-term political rift between Cairo and Ankara, Egypt saw Turkey’s intervention in Libya as a national security threat and decided to confront it alongside the Libyan eastern and southern tribes.
However, in December 2020, Egypt decided to change its policy in Libya by keeping open channels with all parties in the western and eastern territories and to directly communicate with GNA and recognize it as the legitimate interim government. Therefore, an Egyptian delegation of intelligence and security officials traveled to Tripoli to meet with GNA leaders, for the first time. When the Government of National Unity (GNU) was elected, in February, Egypt was one of the first countries in the region to communicate with it. On February 18th, the Prime Minister of the then-newly elected GNU, Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh, visited the Egyptian President El-Sisi, in Cairo, and they agreed to establish a comprehensive partnership between their sister countries to help Libya restore peace and stability, and progress with economic development.
Last week, in Cairo, the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi held a meeting with Mohamed Al-Menfi, the President of the interim Libyan Presidential Council, on the margin of the COMESA Summit. In the meeting, the Egyptian President affirmed that Egypt’s main goal in Libya is “to achieve peace and security for the Libyan brothers, and to activate the free will of the Libyan people and that the supreme interest of the Libyan state comes first, which stems from the principles of preserving the unity of the Libyan territories, restoring security and stability, and ending foreign interference.”
The current divisions between political and military factions and the wide spread of foreign mercenaries and local militia, inside Libya, threaten that any dispute over the election results may turn the country into a piece of hell, once again. We may see a chaotic scene similar to what happened in Iraq at the hands of the militia following the announcement of election results, last month. It may even re-ignite the civil war, which will be very difficult to control this time. Therefore, Egypt and all concerned neighbors in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean region need to prepare for this scenario. In parallel, the international community needs to urgently take all the necessary measures to prevent violence from re-erupting following the elections.
Also, read on Sada Elbalad