Will Egypt Succeed in Countering Turkish Influence Through Talks With Tripoli?
Tuesday, January 19, 2021
by Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts
On January 10, Salah Eddine Namrouchin – the Defense Minister of the Tripoli-based Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) – paid a visit to Ankara and discussed with his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar issues about enhancing strategic and military cooperation. The visit was very controversial, just as the Turkish military presence in Libya is. It could also be seen as a response to Egypt’s outreach in December which is not a good outcome for Cairo.
An Egyptian delegation of intelligence officials and diplomats visited the Libyan capital of Tripoli on December 28. Headed by the Egyptian deputy chief of the General Intelligence Service, Ayman Badea, the delegation met with the GNA’s Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha and other officials. This has raised some eyebrows because it was the first visit of its kind in six years – Cairo has been supportive of the Tobruk-based Libyan Parliament and the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is at war with the GNA. The purpose of the meeting with the GNA was to discuss the ceasefire with the LNA. This ceasefire was signed in October and was brokered by the United Nations (UN). Ways of enhancing cooperation in security and intelligence matters were also discussed, as well as the possibility of reopening the Egyptian embassy in Tripoli. Egyptian and GNA authorities also agreed on resuming flights between Tripoli and Cairo in the near future.
The Egyptian delegation made it clear that it wants all Turkish bases out of Libya. It is also against all Turkish arms exports to the GNA. This is important too as it explains why Egypt decided to make its first diplomatic contact with the GNA.
On December 26, the Turkish Defense Minister visited Libya to also meet with GNA officials. Turkey has been providing drones, munitions, and armored vehicles to the GNA. A large military base in the Al-Watiya region on the Libyan-Tunisian border has also been established. This base in fact has been the target of criticism: some claim it could actually provide support for Turkish gas and oil drilling operations in the eastern Mediterranean. Such operations are controversial. Besides, Turkey has sent military advisers and 10,000 Syrian mercenaries to assist the GNA.
Just as is the case in Western Sahara, this situation is yet another front of the current proxy war between Turkey and a coalition of Arab states. In the Libyan case, once again we see France aligned against Turkey. Since the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya to topple long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi, the country has been struggling to recover. In fact, since 2014 there has been a civil war between the Tripoli-based GNA and the eastern-based LNA.
Turkey is in fact GNA’s main backer (along with Qatar). The GNA received a two year mandate by the UN Security Council to be the interim government of Libya, but this expired in December 2017. It is also supported by the US. LNA, in its turn, is supported by the UAE, France and Russia as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Greece. Tensions rose further when on December 28, Turkey issued a threat against LNA forces, headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. During a surprise visit to Tripoli, Akar stated that Haftar (who was described as a “war criminal” and “thug”) should know that Turkey would retaliate against “any attempt to attack Turkish forces”. This took place only two days after Haftar himself urged his troops to drive Turkish soldiers out of Libya – describing them as “colonizers”. The Turkish parliament previously approved the extension of the deployment of its troops in Libya for extra 18 months.
Cairo has supported the LNA (supplying it with important arms deals) because it suits Egyptian interests to have the eastern portion of Libya ruled by a friendly government. LNA-controlled eastern Libya could then be a kind of buffer zone. Egypt worries that a continuation of the conflict will give Islamist groups in Libya, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, greater influence in the country.
The LNA has been through some difficulties and perhaps this has forced Cairo to rethink its position. In July, for example, LNA commander Haftar attacked the GNA-controlled capital of Tripoli, in an Egyptian-backed offensive. It was repelled due to Turkey’s intervention by deploying over 10,000 Syrian mercenaries and using drones. Egypt is concerned that the GNA could advance towards the coastal city of Sirte (currently controlled by Haftar), a strategic oil gateway close to large oil terminals. This is why Sirte became a red line. Cairo is urging GNA and Turkey to end their military campaign and to start peace negotiations, but preserving the LNA and Haftar is still an Egyptian priority. Cairo’s moves in Libya are also an attempt to counter Turkish influence by attempting a kind of courtship move to pull the GNA a little closer to Egypt and away from Ankara.
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