Is Egypt trying to salvage Haftar’s project in Libya?
The relationship between Egypt and Haftar is not merely shaped by security priorities and arms deliveries, but it is part of a real political project aimed at eliminating political Islam.
Warlord Haftar and his Egyptian allies offered a cease-fire following a string of military setbacks. Cairo urged international support for the initiative and called on the United Nations to encourage Libya’s rival administrations for talks.
Since April, backed by Turkey, the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) has achieved significant victories while Haftar’s forces have suffered heavy losses.
Last week, the warlord sustained his most serious loss since the beginning of his military offensive in April 2019, with the UN-backed government forces driving out Haftar’s militias from the city of Tarhuna, which was the last remaining western stronghold of Haftar. The fall of Tarhuna could signal the end of Haftar’s assault on the capital.
The failure of Haftar’s assault against the internationally recognized government thanks to Turkish military support has alarmed and pushed Haftar’s patrons to call for a truce.
However, the UN-backed government rejected Egypt’s call for a cease-fire. Meanwhile, UN-backed forces have been advancing on Sirte, a coastal city and a gateway to the oilfields and the east.
In the beginning of January, militias loyal to Haftar seized large export terminals including El-Sharara and El-Feel oilfields to cut off major pipelines, aiming to choke the UN-backed government of significant revenue. In the meantime, El- Sharara oilfield, the country’s largest, restarted production.
Libya’s state National Oil Corporation (NOC) recently announced that oil exports were down by 92.3 per cent since the country’s oil blockade. As a result, Libya’s cumulative losses from the current oil blockade have neared $5 billion.
Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Russia and France have been supporting Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar and his so-called “Libyan National Army” (LNA) out of concern for their own economic and geostrategic interests. Particularly, Egypt and the UAE have heavily invested in Haftar’s ambitions to wrest control of the country. By taking a proactive role in empowering Haftar and facilitating his control over eastern Libya, they supplied vital support for his offensive against the UN-backed Government.
According to a UN report, the UAE and Egypt have constantly given high levels of support to Haftar since 2014. Egypt and the UAE have smuggled drones, armored personnel carriers, and sophisticated missile systems into Libya. Egypt has been transporting Egyptian and Emirati-made military equipment to Haftar’s forces since May 2014. Sometimes this equipment was transported by air and sometimes by land from the Egyptian western military zone adjacent to the Libyan-Egyptian border.
Cairo’s approach towards Libya is driven by numerous interests, which range from security matters and commercial considerations to ideological ambitions. From an economic standpoint, Egypt relied heavily on the Libyan economy before the 2011 revolution, as an expatriate workforce of approximately two million Egyptians sent $33 million back to their home country annually. Additionally, Libya was a reliable source of inexpensive oil and had besides invested over $10 billion in various sectors of the Egyptian economy.
The relationship between Egypt and Haftar is not merely shaped by security priorities and arms deliveries, but it is part of a real political project aimed at eliminating political Islam. El-Sisi’s view of Haftar as a bulwark against democracy is partially responsible for his ongoing support.
Although Egypt provides significant assistance to Haftar, Cairo seems to have reached out to other Libyan political leaders as well. As Egypt appears to have very limited resources to continue its support of the Haftar project, it may not put all of its eggs in one basket.
The move comes amid significant losses for Haftar, particularly his loss of a number of cities and a key military base in the west of the country. As a consequence, his heavy losses in the west have caused fractures within his eastern camp. His recent rejection of the political settlement and declaration of full control over eastern Libya, which angered many of his political allies, including Libyan House of Representatives speaker Aguila Saleh and dominant tribes such as al-Ubaidat, have been fanning the flames of discord. Therefore, Haftar seems to be up against a great challenge to maintain his position.
Despite the plenty of opportunities that have emerged over the last five or six years for a political solution to the Libyan crisis, Haftar and his international sponsors, including the UAE and Egypt, have continuously refused to consider or abide by peace proposals and initiatives.
Haftar and his backers have suffered a series of battlefield setbacks in western Libya. This could suggest that Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli is over. Haftar and his backers seem to consider political solution and cease-fire only when they begin to lose on the ground.
Therefore, Cairo’s declaration seems to be more about seeking to salvage what remains of Haftar’s project. As Egypt, the UAE, France and Russia have invested billions of dollars in this project, they are attempting to create some sort of momentum to slow down the significant military losses on the ground as UN-backed forces project power over Sirte and the oil fields in the east.
*This article was originally published in Anadolu Agency's Analysis section.
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