A stall on the North African coast between rival factions in the nine-year civil war in Libya is threatening to drag the powerful Egyptian military and increase tensions between some of the most relentless enemies of the Middle East.
Diplomatic efforts intensified in Europe and regional capitals this week to prevent Cairo from entering the conflict, a move that would spark distant reactions such as Ankara and Abu Dhabi.
The hype over Libya’s fate escalated after the Libyan National Army (LNA )’s rapid withdrawal of warlord Khalifa Haftar last weekend after his failure in the last 15 months to seize the capital Tripoli from the government of national agreement ( GNA) supported by Turkey.
The two sides are now squared on the outskirts of Sirte, where Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed in 2011, after an advance that shifted momentum in the war and questioned Haftar’s ability to overthrow the Tripoli government.
The GNA has now advanced less than 30 km (18.6 miles) from Sirte, taking positions near the city’s power plant while the LNA, supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, has incorporated itself into urban areas where the Libyan dictator was hiding with his entourage in 2011 while his four-decade rule was crumbling in the face of a military intervention led by the United States and the British.
The chaos of the next nine years drew regional states, global powers, tribes, mercenaries and jihadists, all attempting to carve out a stake from the potentially wealthiest state in North Africa.
The country is now divided from east to west between the two factions and their supporters. The parliamentary spokesman for the east-based faction – with the forces commanded by Haftar – on Wednesday invited the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, to follow up on his threat to invade if the western-based GNA forces also supported from Qatar and Italy, further advance towards Sirte.
Sisi’s threats to defend Egypt’s borders were met by calls from the Arab League for a new respite, but in the positions of the GNA west of Sirte it seemed more ready to continue with progress against Haftar’s retreating forces.
“They had been on the outskirts of Tripoli for a long time and killed people with bullets,” said Fawzi Khairallah, a fighter who speaks to the Guardian over the phone. “And when it came time to move, all they could do was run backwards for 300 miles. I am a destroyed force. “
Whether Egypt invades Libya is hotly debated within the country. Anas El Gomati, director of the Sadeq Institute, a thinktank supported by Tripoli, said: “Sisi will only enter if Russia leaves the GNA and Turkey beyond Sirte and if it has the military and financial support of another partner such as the United Arab Emirates United / Saudi.
“This would be a land offensive towards the border and will try to distance GNA and Turkey from claiming the oil crescent in Libya that extends from Sirte to the gates of Benghazi.”
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute, described the current phase of the conflict in Libya as a two-level proxy war. “First of all between Erdoğan and Sisi, who are mutually nemesis in the Middle East. Sisi is a secular general who has imprisoned political Islamists and Erdoğan is a political Islamist who has imprisoned secular generals. They cannot last together in the same room for 20 minutes. “
Secondly, he said, Erdoğan sees it as a proxy war with the United Arab Emirates, a new regional enemy.
Turkey also clarified its intention to recover billions of dollars in Gaddafi-era debt from the construction sector which collapsed when the dictator was ousted. Part of his deep investment in Tripoli is rooted in the desire for a friendly government to help him and benefit from future contracts.
Mohammed Ali Abdallah, senior adviser to the GNA, said that the Egyptian position could ignite the crisis. “Egypt must be part of the solution in Libya and not part of the problem, as it has been in recent years,” he said. “Their proposal as it stands reduces the chances of peace and risks further fracturing Libya.”
GNA control over Libya’s oil fields is considered both unsustainable for Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in its confrontation with Turkey. “If that happened, they are both humiliated and cannot afford it,” said a regional diplomat. “Egypt will act belligerently, but Turkey should call for its bluff. They are 800 miles from their border to Sirte. What will they do about it? I say they will sue for peace. “
HA Hellyer, an associate colleague of the Royal United Services Institute and Carnegie Endowment, said: “In general, the Egyptian army is very conservative about commitment beyond its borders – which is why they have not seriously engaged elsewhere in the past ten years, such as Yemen or Syria.
“Cairo is not going to abandon that kind of attitude, but at the same time, it has an extraordinarily serious view of security along its border with Libya. If Cairo decides to move, it would probably do so by coordinating with the rest of its regional axis, in particular Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“It is important to link it to the wider” cold war “within the wider Arab world, where two coalitions have coalesced in recent years. Turkey, Qatar and a certain brand of Islamism on the one hand; and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt on the other. The war in Libya cannot be properly understood without appreciating it. “