The 2011 Arab Spring created a serious challenge for the decades-long combination of military dictatorships and oil monarchies ruling Arab countries. The swelling desire of the Arab people to live a dignified life under civilian governments of their choosing soon faced a counter-revolution backed by the United Arab Emirates in Egypt, the largest Arab country.
Indeed, “the reversal of the democratic tide in Egypt by the military coup in 2013 was the beginning of a systemic assault on Arab peoples’ aspiration for democratic rule,” Esam Omeish, the President of the Libyan-American Alliance, told Inside Arabia.
In October 2011, Libya got rid of a military dictator who ruled with no state institutions for almost 40 years. It was then that Haftar reemerged in Libya making a name for himself as a military strongman taking his lessons from the Egyptian general Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. The latter had come to power in 2014 following a military coup that toppled the country’s first freely elected president, the late Mohamed Morsi.
The first Egyptian military intervention in Libya occurred in February 2015, one day after ISIS-linked armed fighters, who controlled the Libyan coastal city of Sirte, beheaded 21 Coptic Egyptian workers.
“It was a major direct military intervention conducted with Egyptian F-16 fighter jets that resulted in over 80 deaths in Sirte and Derna,” said Omeish.
Haftar immediately found a great ally in Sisi as he sought to defeat various militias in Benghazi setting the country in chaos. He also secured the recognition of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France, and Russia.
Under the explicit guise of fighting terrorist groups, Sisi began to flex his military muscles to in reality counter any democratic threat in the neighborhood. The Muslim Brotherhood in particular was viewed as his primary target since his power grab at home.
“The threat of a potential democratic transition in Libya pushed the Egyptian president to back ex-general Khalifa Haftar.”
“The threat of a potential democratic transition in Libya pushed the Egyptian president to back ex-general Khalifa Haftar in his quest to rule Libya by force and help Sisi in his campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood,” Omeish added.
Because no one fears a democratic and free Libya more than Egypt and the UAE, Egypt became the main gateway for providing Haftar with weapons from the Emirates as well as training, intelligence, military advisors, and logistical support for his campaign to take over the country.
As the old proverb says, “birds of a feather flock together,” thus Haftar saw a role model in Sisi. Encouraged by the flow of weapons through Egypt, he launched his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) to seize Tripoli—rather than participate in a UN-sponsored conference, scheduled for April 2019, whose aim was to draw a political roadmap for Libya.
“Both Sisi and Haftar are working against democracy, their primary goal is developing a political system that supports their authoritarian thinking, justifying their one-man-rule as a push for stability while it has been proven that such kind of system provokes instability,” William Lawrence, Professor of Political Science at American University, told Inside Arabia.
Sisi justifies his support for the renegade Libyan general as a way of protecting Egypt from Islamist militias, but experts say Haftar has more Islamist fighters in his forces than the UN-recognized Government of National Accord.
Professor Lawrence said the US and other Western powers pressured Egypt to stay out of Libya, so Sisi adopted a strategy that is both secret and blatant.
“Egypt has been breaking the UN embargo by being the conduit for a whole lot of UAE and others’ military support for Haftar.”
“Covertly, Egypt has been breaking the UN embargo by being the conduit for a whole lot of UAE and others’ military support for Haftar, with a significant increase over the last five months and that will continue ‘til there is a significant political process or an actual ceasefire,” Lawrence said.
Egypt is taking a page out of Turkey’s playbook by aiding General Haftar to affect negotiations. On the one hand, Sisi is quietly backing the LNA militarily. On the other hand, he is overtly supporting a negotiated solution, provided his side has the upper hand.
That objective was clear when President Sisi announced his Cairo Declaration, calling for a ceasefire after the Turkish-backed GNA forces won successive military victories over Haftar in western Libya. Sisi called on all militias to disband and turn their weapons over to the Libyan National Army.
Omeish argues that the Cairo Declaration was dead at its inception. “It was based on some unrealistic goals by assuming that General Haftar, who committed a lot of war crimes in Libya, using his own militias, should be the de facto commander of the Libyan armed forces. Haftar should not be a part of the solution,” Omeish added. “Egypt should instead work with the Eastern parliament to introduce political leaders who can negotiate a political solution, not the one who had repeatedly negated all offers to reach a political solution.”
Professor Lawrence praised one aspect of the Egyptian initiative, which brought the two sides of the Eastern government – Haftar and parliament speaker Aquila Saleh –together and convinced them to resume UN-sponsored talks after declaring a ceasefire. But Lawrence said Egypt is not in a position to force a solution nor to be the main broker of one.
“Egypt is not in a position to force a solution nor to be the main broker of one.”
Meanwhile, the Egyptian military hinted that Sirte is a red line not to be crossed, but Professor Lawrence warns against such posturing: “The fact that several neighborhoods in Sirte are already occupied by the GNA forces creates a possibility that the Egyptian leadership is going to have some eggs on its face if Sirte does fall to the GNA forces backed by Turkey,” he explained.
Lawrence added that saber-rattling by the Egyptian military won’t help reach a political solution in Libya. Omeish ruled out any Egyptian military involvement in the battle for Sirte that could pave the way for negotiations. He said Egypt picked the wrong side when it branded the UN-recognized GNA Islamist apologists controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. That just isn’t the reality on the ground.