Libya’s eastern-based parliament has said it would “welcome” Egyptian military intervention in the country’s civil war to counter what it described as “breaches of Libya’s sovereignty” by Turkey, which supports the UN-recognised administration in Tripoli.
The invitation to Cairo from the assembly aligned with renegade General Khalifa Haftar increases the risk of direct clashes between Egypt and Turkey and possibly other regional powers that have been seeking to shape Libya’s future through a proxy war, diplomats and analysts say.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president, warned last month that he would send his forces into Libya if the Turkey-backed forces aligned with the Government of National Accord crossed a “red line” by trying to capture the strategic port city of Sirte or the desert air base of Juffra. These are both held by Gen Haftar, whom Egypt sees as an ally against extremists.
A statement from the Libyan parliament known as the House of Representatives said on Monday night that the “Turkish occupation” represented a threat to Libya and “to neighbouring countries and at their forefront the sister Egypt”. Libya has been split between governments in the east and west since elections in 2014 and the eastern parliament does not recognise the UN-backed administration in Tripoli.
“This is very real, he [Sisi] is taking it very seriously,” said an Arab diplomat. “[The Egyptians] are on their toes watching Libya and will not allow Sirte to fall . . . People are very worried about a regional conflict.”
The diplomat explained that Egypt did not want “a Muslim Brotherhood powerhouse on its border” — a reference to the Islamist roots of the ruling party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, and fears in Cairo and Abu Dhabi that the GNA has links to Islamist groups.
Mr Erdogan has been an outspoken supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood group ousted from power in Egypt by Mr Sisi in a popularly-backed coup in 2013. The Brotherhood, which is judged to be weak in Libya, is among political groups represented by the Tripoli authorities. Turkey intervened in Libya at the request of the GNA and after securing an agreement that could enable Ankara to explore for oil and gas off Libya’s coast.
Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and France have sided with Gen Haftar, an east Libya-based strongman who launched a military campaign in April 2019 to capture Tripoli and topple the GNA.
Gen Haftar’s backers have variously supplied arms, Syrian and Russian mercenaries and diplomatic cover for the general’s campaign. While they see him as an ally in their battle against extremists, his opponents in western Libya see the makings of a dictator in the style of Muammer Gaddafi, the leader ousted by Libyans in a revolution in 2011.
The GNA forces remain outside Sirte, but Turkish senior officials have suggested that their country would aid an effort to capture the city, a gateway to important oil installations.
Mevlut Cavusoglu, the foreign minister, told the Financial Times this week that there would be no ceasefire in Libya until Sirte and Juffra had been taken by the GNA. The UN has said it is “very concerned about the alarming military build-up around the city,” with the GNA advancing to 25km from Sirte.
“I tell you, if the Turks insist on going to war, there will be war, for sure,” said a senior Arab diplomat. “It’s going to be a hot summer.”
Unlike the UAE, which has poured thousands of tonnes of weapons covertly into Libya according to diplomats and UN experts, Turkey has intervened openly on the side of the GNA, providing drones, anti-aircraft batteries and Syrian mercenaries. Ankara’s support has enabled the GNA to turn the tide of the war and push back Gen Haftar’s forces from the outskirts of Tripoli.
Claudia Gazzini, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution think-tank, said it was possible that Turkey-backed forces would try to seize Sirte and Juffra as the GNA believed that their capture would cause the implosion of Gen Haftar’s domestic alliance.
She argued, however, that Egypt was unlikely to send ground troops to fight Turkey-supported militias in central Libya, a long way from its borders. “I think Egypt might use its planes. At some point, they could use them openly to strike against GNA or Turkish targets in Sirte. These would be officially-claimed strikes.”