What does Egypt's 'declaration of war' in Libya really mean?

What does Egypt's 'declaration of war' in Libya really mean?
The GNA have denounced Sisi’s televised statement on Saturday, perceiving his warning to intervene as as a 'declaration of war'.
4 min read
22 June, 2020
The GNA perceive Sisi's Saturday statement as a 'declaration of war' [Getty]
Egypt is set to escalate its military involvement in Libya, which has so far been restricted to training and other forms of military support to Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who toured an air base near Egypt's 745 mile western border with Libya, warned the UN-backed Government of National Accord against crossing the Sirte-Jufra frontline with Khalifa Haftar’s eastern-based LNA, describing it as a "red line".

In a muscular display of military readiness, Egyptian state TV was awash with scenes of fighter jets and helicopters taking off under his auspices. "Be prepared to carry out any mission, here inside our border – or if necessary, outside our borders," Sisi ordered air force pilots and special operations personel.

The GNA have denounced Sisi's televised statement on Saturday, perceiving his warning to intervene as a "declaration of war". The US has also voiced opposition to military escalation in Libya, calling for a ceasefire.

The UN-backed Tripoli government has made rapid gains against strongman Haftar's forces due to ampilified support from its backer Turkey. The GNA has reached Sirte, ex-Libya leader, Muammar Gaddafi’s former hometown and a strategic access point to Libya’s key oil fields.

What will Egypt's intervention look like?
Egyptian government sources who spoke to The New Arab’s Arabic-language service have denied the possibility to direct land or naval intervention in Libya.

So far Egypt has provided arms, training and logistical support to Haftar’s self-styled Libya National Army. According to an Egyptian military expert, using the pseudonym Egyptian Defence Review, Egypt has supplied "everything from Cold War-era tanks, fighter jets, helicopters, and assorted ammunition... from their own reserves and in contravention of a UN arms embargo on the country".

The limited intervention would be a symbolic show of force over the territory east of the country, allowing Egypt to save face in the conflict after the crushing expulsion of Haftar’s forces out of the country’s west. The Libya-Egypt border has long been a chaotic battleground of rival administrations, militias and jihadists even since the 2011 downfall and killing of dictator Mummar Gaddafi.

Sources who spoke to The New Arab said that this could take the form of air strikes to repel the advance of forces loyal to the Turkey-backed GNA, a tactic it used against the Islamic State group in the eastern Libyan city of Derna in 2015. Egypt has already been suspected of using French-made Rafale strikes against forces loyal to the UN-backed government in previous incidents.

What next for Haftar? 

According to The New Arab, prior to Sisi’s statement, meetings between were held in Cairo between Egyptian intelligence officials and the Tobruk-based eastern government and local tribesmen. In the meetings, where requests for Egyptian intervention were reportedly put forward, tribesmen also raised the issue of Haftar’s removal.

Analysts see Egypt’s faith in Haftar as already waning. Tarek Megerisi, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, has told Associated Press that Egypt will look for other options to secure their interests as they become less and less certain that he (Haftar) will win”.

Egypt and Russia may work "together on political alternatives to Haftar that may be able to save their spheres of influence in eastern Libya," said Megerisi.  One such alternative figure is Aguila Saleh, the speaker of Libya's eastern based parliament, and who has lately been at loggerheads with Haftar.

What about direct confronation with Turkey? 

With media reports of back-channel communication between Turkey and Libya concerning agreements on the Libyan conflict and the eastern Mediterrenean, sources told The New Arab that Egypt will be careful not to engage Turkey – GNA's main backer - in a direct confrontation.

Ankara signed two important deals with the Tripoli-based government last year - one affirming its military support in the conflict and the other delineating maritime boundaries in the contentious eastern Mediterranean.

Egypt has much to gain from the Turkey-Libya maritime deal. The other option - a deal with Greece - would see Egypt lose around 10,000 square kilometres in the energy resource-rich eastern Mediterranean.

Yet the UAE, which propped Sisi into power, has pushed Cairo to instigate a military confrontation with its long time regional foe in Libya.

On Sunday, the UAE's foreign ministry stated that the UAE "stands with Egypt in all its measures to protect its security and stability from the repercussions of the disturbing developments in Libya, according to Arabi21.

In a statement through state news agency SPA, Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry also said the kingdom supported Sisi's remarks and stood "by Egypt in its right to defend its borders and people".

The statements show the extent of ideological conflict long stoked by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh - Sisi’s longtime backers - against Turkey.

Turkey, for its part, has vowed to continue supporting the GNA's push for Sirte and urged Haftar's forces to withdraw from the city for a "sustainable ceasefire".

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