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Understanding Egyptian Policy Toward Libya

Egypt’s policy toward Libya has been driven by legitimate security concerns, economic ties, a desire for stability in its western neighbor, and the political and ideological goals of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi and his backers, who seek to sideline the Muslim Brotherhood at home and abroad and install strong-armed rule in Libya as a bulwark against instability. Contradictions in Cairo’s position—supporting the United Nations-led political dialogue while offering thinly veiled support to the self-styled leader of the “Libyan National Army,” Khalifa Haftar, along with the Eastern Libyan government—can be explained in light of these multiple interests and how, in the eyes of Cairo, they converge in the person of Haftar and his vision for the country.

The first concern, security, stems first and foremost from Egypt’s long border with Libya, a frontier that has been unguarded even in the best of times. Now it is a major transit route for the movement of extremists and the smuggling of weapons, drugs, and people, facilitated in part by tribal and criminal ties that transcend the border. Even before the 2011 Libyan Revolution, Egyptian authorities voiced concerns about instability in Eastern Libya and the lack of controls along the common boundary. After 2011, arms trafficked from Libya swamped Egypt’s black markets, reaching Islamist militants in the Sinai region. Thus, Egypt intensely fears further spillover onto its territory of jihadist militias, criminal groups and activities, and refugees.

To combat the security threat, Egypt has found a willing ally in Haftar. Cairo has worked closely with Haftar and supplied him with weapons, intelligence, and logistical support, though the Egyptians do not necessarily control all of his actions. In addition to their support for Haftar, the Egyptians have also pushed for a political solution, so there is some evidence of a difference of opinion within the Egyptian state and military, or at least a hesitancy to embrace him wholeheartedly. But on the whole, the alliance with Haftar, as well as unilateral Egyptian military action in Libya against the Islamic State and other targets, reflects Cairo’s security-centric approach.

But Haftar also represents for Cairo much more than a willing security partner. Indeed, he embodies a convergence of Egypt’s ideological, political, and security goals: He is fighting the jihadists (even as he includes some Salafi militias in his ranks), but Haftar also takes a Sisi-modeled, uncompromising line on the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, the relationship between Cairo and Tobruk is not just defined by security imperatives, but is part of a larger political and ideological project, which is the eradication of political Islam. In the same vein, Egyptian strategies in Libya reflect the Egyptian regime’s ideological preoccupation with the centrality of the military as a locus of stability and national identity. Like Sisi, Haftar is an unapologetic believer in strong military rule, and distrusts politicians and parties.

Economic factors also play a central role in Egypt’s calculations toward Libya. With growing instability in its western neighbor, Egypt has perceived its trade and commercial interests in Libya as endangered. Egypt has a large and growing population but limited resources. Egypt’s dependence on Libyan oil increased exponentially after the first Gulf War and sanctions against the regime of Saddam Hussein. Later, international sanctions against Libya were lifted, enabling further imports of Libyan oil to Egypt. Many Egyptian elites see Haftar as the best hope of preserving access to Libyan oil.

A secondary economic interest concerns the tens of thousands of mostly poor Egyptian guest workers who have remained in Libya despite the chaos and in spite of Egyptian government warnings, and who provide a valuable source of remittances. There is a history of mistreatment of Egyptian migrants and workers in Libya spanning decades. In this sense, the shocking beheadings of 21 Coptic Egyptian guest workers by the Islamic State in 2015 are just the most flagrant in a long list of abuses, and kidnappings and other violence continue today. The history of Egyptian workers in Libya dates back to the organized migration of Egyptian professors, bureaucrats, and other professionals to help build the Libyan state shortly after Muammar al-Qaddafi came to power. In more recent decades, unskilled Egyptian workers have gone to Libya in large numbers, and the welfare of Egyptian laborers in Libya has been subject to the geopolitical machinations between Tripoli and Cairo. The presence of large numbers of Egyptians in Libya complicates the anti-terrorism, pro-Haftar focus on Egyptian foreign policy toward Libya, yet little concrete action has been taken to protect Egyptian laborers, despite rhetoric emanating from Cairo.

The third concern of the Egyptian state vis-à-vis Libya is stability, and Cairo has been actively involved in the international diplomacy around forging a political compromise among Libya’s myriad factions. Cairo’s leverage over Haftar in particular has made Egypt’s role indispensable in the United Nations-led peace process that took place is Morocco in 2014 and 2015, and Egypt is also central to European Union-led efforts to combat human trafficking and illegal migration in the southern Mediterranean. Sisi is well aware of this indispensability and seeks to play it up as a part of a larger effort to restore Egypt’s past role as a major regional power broker.

Despite the Sisi regime’s ideological affinity for Haftar, more recently Cairo has made seemingly genuine efforts to reconcile Haftar and Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, the Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord of Libya. What looks like a contradictory approach makes a lot of sense when seen from Egypt’s deep and multiple interests in Libya as outlined above. The question is how sustainable such a policy will be in the longer term. The administration of President Donald Trump has taken a harshly anti-Islamist line, and Trump’s apparent affinity for Sisi suggests that Cairo’s pro-Haftar line may find stronger support in Washington. The Egyptian foreign minister recently met with American Vice-President Mike Pence to discuss U.S.-Egypt security cooperation. Thus, close ties between Trump and Sisi—as evidenced by Sisi’s visit to Washington next week—could push the administration to place its unconditional support behind Haftar and his anti-Islamist fight, which could have consequences for a lasting peace in Libya.