Egypt Facing a Two-Front Challenge as Conflict in Libya and Disagreements With Ethiopia Heat Up

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


Following the failure of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), Turkey, and Turkish-backed militias to respond positively to the Cairo Declaration calling for a negotiated and peaceful resolution of the Libyan conflict, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi issued a few days ago a stern warning against the further encroachment of Turkish-backed troops within Libya. By pointing out that Sirte and Al Jufra Airbase constituted a red line for Cairo and that his government was ready to defend its western borders, the Egyptian president appears to have raised the stakes in the Libyan conflict. However, Egypt’s troubles don’t end there, as a decade-long disagreement with Ethiopia over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) risks destabilizing the region.

Al Ahram’s Hussein Haridy welcomes the declaration of the Egyptian president, while cautioning that Mr. Al Sisi’s comments must be taken seriously by all concerned parties, including the international community, while admitting that his remarks “took almost everyone by surprise. Analysts agreed that the prospect of a major military conflict between Egypt and Turkey, unlikely a month ago, has become possible, with all its consequences on North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East…. President Al-Sisi, by raising the prospects of direct military intervention in Libya, wanted his remarks to act as a deterrence and as a warning on the gravity of the Libyan situation amid deep and growing involvement of the Turkish military in the Libyan conflict. Deterrence for Turkey not to advance eastward towards Egyptian borders with Libya. And a warning to the international community that if it does not act forcefully to rein in the Turks, then the situation could get out of control throughout the region and the Mediterranean.”

According to a recent Khaleej Times report, UAE government officials have spoken out in support of President Al Sisi, including officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MoFAIC) who “affirmed the UAE’s solidarity with the Arab Republic of Egypt in all measures taken to safeguard its security against alarming developments taking place in the brotherly state of Libya…. The ministry stressed that the Egyptian President’s concern for the necessity of restoring security and stability in Libya stems from a quintessential Arab stance, given the fact that Libya is an integral part of the security and stability of Egypt and the security of Arab states…. The ministry renewed the UAE’s call for an immediate ceasefire in Libya and commitment to the political process, reiterating that a political solution is the only way to end the conflict and achieve stability in a way that realizes the ambitions of the brotherly Libyan people.”

Writing for the Saudi Gazette, Jameel Altheyabi characterized the Egyptian position on the issue as “brave,” adding that the push-back against Turkey is more than just about who governs Libya: “His declaration about Egypt’s readiness to intervene militarily in Libya represents a move to stop the attempts for expansion of the new Ottoman regime. This expansionist move targets not only Libya and Egypt but seeks to expand and impose Turkish hegemony on Arab countries…. The sovereignty of the Arab states and their control over the fate of their peoples is a central element in the comprehensive Arab security project, which is also an integral part of global security and peace. Therefore, President El-Sisi’s brave decision was met with strong support and acceptance from Saudi Arabia…. El-Sisi’s stance also found support from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Jordan…. The Arab world won’t accept the prospect of being led by Ankara, Tehran or others, and the Arab loyal sons will destroy all the machinations of the … invaders.”

Apart from the lofty rhetoric, some observers are quick to point out that the conflict in Libya becomes of special importance to its neighbors primarily as a result of the country’s strategic access to considerable reserves of natural gas and oil. As Al Ahram’s Ahmed Eleiba remarks in a recent op-ed, “The fall of Sirte to Turkey and other hostile forces would have dangerous implications for Libya, for Egypt and for the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole. The area known as Libya’s ‘petroleum crescent’ contains Libya’s largest oil reserves, its main oil terminals and important military bases…. Were Turkey to seize control of the petroleum crescent, it would be a flagrant act of plunder on the part of a country that has made no secret of its appetite for others’ oil and gas resources…. President Al-Sisi alluded to this danger in his speech last week when he stressed the need for a just and equitable distribution of wealth among the Libyan people.”

The need to secure access to Libya’s energy reserves figures prominently in any discussion of the future of Libya. For example, as he outlines two possible scenarios for Libya, Daily News Egypt’s Mohamed El-Seidy emphasizes how important it is that both scenarios “require Egypt’s swift and firm intervention to protect its own national security and natural gas supplies in the Mediterranean. The first is imposing a ceasefire in Libya and removing all foreign forces from the country, while forming a new government that has the support of all Libyan tribes and provinces….The second scenario is an Egyptian military intervention in Libya to support the LAAF against the GNA and Turkey…. Egypt must act to balance the scale of power in Libya, in order to secure the former’s western boarder and make better use of its gas findings, either by political influence or by military intervention.”

Of course, not all agree that confrontation is the best way to resolve the current impasse in Libya. Recognizing Egypt’s right to take adequate measures to respond to Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy in the region, Osama Al Sharif argues in the pages of the Jordan Times that Egypt must nonetheless work for a political rather than a military solution: “Egypt finds itself in a difficult position as the crisis evolves. No friend of Turkey, Cairo has the full right to worry about Turkish backed GNA, with its Muslim Brotherhood ties, getting close to its western borders…. But Al Sisi must be careful not to be dragged into an open-ended conflict in Libya. By hinting that he would be arming Libyan tribes in the east of the country, he too risks being sucked into a proxy war. Pitting tribes against tribes would deepen the Libyan wound and may result in the permanent partition of Libya…. The priority must be given to finding a political solution that affirms the principles reached in previous meetings resulting in a road map towards implementing these principles.”

Unsurprisingly, Turkish commentator Burhanettin Duran is critical of Cairo’s warnings against what it considers Ankara’s expansionist policies. As he puts it in a recent Daily Sabah op-ed, the Egyptian president “seems inclined to bow to that pressure [from Saudi Arabia and the UAE] and risk a dangerous escalation. Against his country’s own interests, he sides with the Greek Cypriots and Greece regarding maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean. Having surrendered two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, Cairo now fails to stop Ethiopia from building the Renaissance Dam. Unable to ensure the safety of the Sinai peninsula, el-Sissi threatens to deploy the Egyptian army for an adventure abroad. It seems that the Egyptian ruler has forgotten the lessons of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s humiliation in Yemen.”

As Duran notes, Egypt’s challenges continue to mount, with the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) becoming a source of tension between Egypt and its neighbors, and the subject of a UN Security Council meeting just this week. Al Ahram’s Menna Alaa El-Din writes that, sensing that Ethiopia may be determined to move forward with the project regardless of whether a satisfactory agreement is reached by all the parties involved, Egypt’s foreign minister warned against the  “unilateral filling and operation of the deadlocked Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) without an agreement [since it] would heighten tensions and stir crises and conflicts in an ‘already troubled region’…. The Egyptian foreign minister’s statements came days after Ethiopia remained adamant on filling the dam in July, despite statements by Egypt and Sudan late Friday following an AU-brokered meeting that Addis Ababa will delay the filling of GERD, signaling a breakthrough in stalled talks over the dam.”

After criticizing the Ethiopian government for politicizing the debate over the construction of the dam, Mostafa Ahmady, writing in ahramonline, issues a thinly veiled threat aimed at the Ethiopian authorities regarding approaching a “point of no return”: “The Ethiopian government is playing a most dangerous game: if there is no enemy, we create one!… Indeed, the GERD is being held hostage to an internal political gamble. The incumbent government in Ethiopia, which has secured an extension to stay in office for another year until the coronavirus pandemic ‘is no longer a threat to the nation’, is apparently racing against time to fill the dam and make use of it for political gains…. In effect, those who beat the drum of war are surely not in Egypt, but rather are those who have taken rigid positions from day one of the GERD talks. A country that disavows its legal commitments by virtue of international law gets all of us closer to the point of no return.”

On the other hand, Daily News Egypt’s Taha Sakr takes a more conciliatory approach, emphasizing the shared history of the two countries as well as their shared interest in not allowing the disagreement to poison their relationship: “The political leadership of the two countries are keen to resort to wisdom and avoid conflicts and clashes between the two, to avoid a process of chaos and internal instability, especially as the two countries have gone through a transitional situation and seek full stability…. The new Egyptian policy, which was laid down by President Al-Sisi, transformed Egyptian-Ethiopian relations into cooperative and beneficial relations after it was frozen for years due to conflict and bickering…. In this context, Al-Sisi has laid down new foundations that are forming the basis of Egypt’s restoration of its African leadership in all political, economic, health, and military fields. We all, Ethiopians and Egyptians, have to trust that the wisdom of leadership in both countries will win at the end.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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