Libya’s horrendous civil war has raged since 2011 and still has no clear end in sight. Egypt’s renewed support for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a key player in Libyan politics and the military for over four decades, may push the conflict into a new stage.
Currently the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) is battling the Libyan National Army (LNA) for control of the country. While the LNA, led by Haftar, has suffered several large defeats in recent weeks, they remain a formidable opponent to the GNA.
Regional states, global powers, tribes, mercenaries, and jihadists are all vying for influence in the conflict, according to reporting by the Guardian. The situation is a perfect example of a proxy conflict in North Africa, involving powers such as Turkey, Italy, Russia, France, Italy and the U.A.E. All parties have their own ambitions in Libya, from stopping migration into Europe, to securing access to Libyan oil.
In a concerning new development, on Saturday the 20th of June, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi warned that should the Government of National Accord (GNA)’s forces take the city of Sirte from Haftar it could provoke military intervention from Cairo. Egypt’s intervention could spark a new devastating phase of the conflict that could put Eygptian soldiers in direct conflict with Turkish troops who are already on the ground supporting the GNA.
Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the LNA and self proclaimed leader of Libya has only a select few international allies who he can rely on. Will Egypt prove to be one of them?
Who is Khalifa Haftar?
Khalifa Haftar’s background as a key political player in Libya is far-reaching. Originally serving as an officer under the late Muammar Gaddafi, he helped take part in the military coup that removed King Idris I of Libya from power and installed the 27 year old Gaddafi as the Libyan ruler.
Under the Gaddafi government, Haftar rose to the rank of military chief of staff and was given command of Libyan forces in the conflict with Chad between 1978 and 1987, according to CFR. In 1987, after an embarrassing defeat, Haftar and his men spent time in a Chadian prison. Here, he broke his allegiance to Gaddafi and upon release from prison opted to move to the United States.
Upon moving to the U.S., he settled in Langley, Northern Virginia and spent nearly two decades there. It is widely reported that Haftar was working with the CIA during this time.
In 2011, Haftar returned to Libya to support the uprising against Gaddafi and assumed the role of Lieutenant General with command of the National Transitional Council’s (NTC) ground forces. After the assassination of the NTC’s millitary commander in late 2011, Haftar was promoted to overall commander of the Libyan Army. This period is considered to be the first Libyan Civil War.
According to CFR, in 2014 (the start of the second Libyan Civil War), Haftar took command of a faction of the Libyan military that split from the GNA. He appeared on television to announce that he had a plan for Libya and that citizens should rise up against the elected government.
By 2017, Haftar controlled huge swathes of Libya, including the second largest city of Benghazi. He effectively controls half the country including key oil fields. Alison Pargeter, a Libya specialist at the RUSI think tank has claimed that Haftar is “the biggest single obstacle to peace in Libya.”
Who are Haftar’s Homies?
Khalifa Haftar receives support from a range of places, but few if any of those allies have proved reliable. Haftars most vocal supporters include Egypt, the U.A.E. and Russia, who have provided military assistance, printed money for him, bought oil from Haftar, and even placed boots on the ground.
Russian mercenary contractor, Wagner Group, had up to 1,200 mercenaries in Libya fighting with Haftar until May of this year. However, now that the tide appears to be turning against Haftar, as the Wagner Group repatriated their fighters and have resorted to just providing military supplies to the Field Marshall. Russian war planes are reportedly operating from bases in the East of the country as well.
The U.A.E. has been a large supporter of Haftar, supplying him with war planes and even contributing to the construction of an air base in the East of the country.
Just to complicate the geopolitical dynamics further, France has publicly expressed support for Haftar, seeing him as a shield against mass migration from North Africa to Europe. While Italy also sees Libya as key to stopping migration, they back the GNA. It is rare to have so many NATO members (Turkey, Italy, France etc) openly backing different sides in a conflict.
In recent months, Egypt has perhaps been Haftar and the LNA’s biggest supporter. The 2013 military coup in Egypt that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood brought current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power. El-Sisi is a staunch opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood and the GNA’s decision to include factions of the Brotherhood in their ranks is a red line for Cairo.
Haftar regularly visits Cairo and documents seen by Al Jazeera show that weapons and logistical support regularly flow from Egypt to Haftar’s forces. However, in recent weeks Cairo’s support has taken a new dimension with war rhetoric beginning to reach a critical point. The question remains on whether Eygptian boots will cross into Libya in support.
Will Egypt really go to war for Haftar?
The key question that should be asked around this issue is what does Egypt stand to gain from supporting Haftar?
Related to its hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo has several key things to gain from intervening in the Libyan conflict. Firstly, Cairo is increasingly worried about the role of Turkey in the conflict. Eygpt considers Turkey a regional rival due to Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey’s wider regional power ambitions.
Egypt is also worried about the stability of its border region with a mostly lawless Libya. Cairo views Haftar as a bulwark against extremists gaining a hold in the West of Egypt. Cairo is already struggling to deal with an insurgency in the Sinai peninsula and is wary of having to deal with a similar issue in it’s Western regions.
But will Egypt send troops into Libya? Many analysts think not. While Egypt has said that if the UN-backed GNA takes the key city of Sirte this will be a “red line.” Some security experts suggest this may be a bluff intended to make Turkey slow their advances in Libya. According to Ziad Akl, the director of North African studies at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, the aim of this political rhetoric is deterrence. “Egypt does not want a single Turk to cross the line into Eastern Libya,” he claims.
However, it is likely that the decision will occur above Egypt’s head. Most analysts believe that a deal between Russia and Turkey is the likely outcome of these geopolitical tensions. Although, upon failure of that deal, it could be likely for Egypt to take matters into their own hands. Despite this, analysis by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace suggests it is unlikely Cairo would take action unless it received the all clear from Saudi and the U.A.E.
Over the past decade Cairo has been cautious about sending its troops overseas. It has avoided being roped into regional proxy conflicts such as Syria and Yemen. However, the reality is much closer to home and the stakes much more personal. Border security is a high priority for the current administration in Egypt, making these threats ever more tangible. Will Egypt be pushed into following through on their threats? Only time will tell.