Man, I was really hoping to make it to Egypt one last time before I started critiquing the Sisi regime. Oh well! This regime could have as much as a decade to go, so no pyramids for me for the foreseeable. I feel like Egypt’s dictatorship forced my hand a little bit, by threatening to invade Libya to back up one of the region’s most pointless strong men, Khalifa Haftar. It’s a shame. I do hear mixed things about Egypt under Sisi. Some claim the economy has turned around, though I don’t see much proof of it. Some claim that he brings stability, but it looks to me like the sort of stability the Shah of Iran provided in the 1970s.
If your regime is based savage repression, as Sisi’s very much is, it tends to lead to bad decisions. I believe that this threatened intervention in Libya is potentially one of those very bad decisions. Today’s video lays out why Libya is a conflict that Egypt should avoid getting more involved in.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. On Monday July 20th the Egyptian parliament approved the foreign deployment of its military forces, backing up angry statements on the Libyan civil war from Egyptian President Sisi. This development has kicked up the kind of panic we usually only see over Syria. Will two solid US allies, Egypt and Turkey, fall into a shooting war? This doesn’t strike me as very likely. The announcement mostly just makes me embarrassed for Egypt.
A pair of videos I did on Egypt earlier this year prompted one of the saddest comments I have ever seen on this channel. The Egyptian commenter pointed out that in the 1950s his country was taking on France, Great Britain, and Israel and winning. Today Egypt looks to be losing out in much more minor conflicts with Sudan and Ethiopia. I don’t mean to disparage these two impressive countries by the way. It’s just got to be rough to go from the 1956 Suez crisis, when many think Egyptian defiance basically ended the British Empire, to asking for favors from countries Egypt used to push around. This is what the Libya move is really about. A desperate desire to look like a serious country again.
And Egypt isn’t threatening intervention to help Libya. They are doing it to support a corrupt strong man named Khalifa Haftar. The only thing worse that a corrupt strong man, is a failed corrupt strong man, and that’s what Khalifa Haftar is.
After spending a number of years brutalizing Benghazi, the city that the US ostensibly destroyed Libya to save in 2011, Haftar launched an invasion of the North West of the country in April 2019. The general has very little legitimacy in Libya, but he did have the backing of France, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and most importantly Russia. Famously and confusingly Haftar also has the backing of Donald Trump, which is weird because the US government position has always been that we support the official government in Tripoli. The government of national accord or GNA that Haftar is trying to destroy. Trump’s backing of Haftar makes no sense, but that’s Donald Trump for you.
Oh, and one more very important thing. When you look at this map, it may look like Haftar had control of most of the country. But, as is the case with all Middle Eastern wars, you can’t understand a thing about them without knowing where the deserts are.
And the stuff Haftar controls is almost all desert. The vast majority of Libya’s population has always been aligned with the UN approved Government of National Accord in Tripoli. That was true even before the extraordinary string of victories that has come since Turkey stepped up its intervention in January.
On May 18th the GNA recaptured the Al Watiyah airbase breaking Haftar’s encirclement of Libya’s main population center. And between June 4th and 6th, Haftar’s militias were swept out of Tarhuna and Bani Waled. Haftar’s attempt to take the country’s capital is finished. The discovery of mass graves in Tarhuna, including women and children, has broken what little reputation Haftar had left, domestically and internationally.
An insanely eventful May and June has led to a July of hardening front lines. Many observers expect further escalation, or perhaps the final fall of Haftar and the reunification of the country. As I have been telling people in the patron only news brief for 2 months now though, I don’t think this is likely. Because Libya has now fallen into a dynamic very similar to Syria.
It’s almost a mirror image of Syria, actually. Turkey supports the more locally legitimate side, while Russia leads a unruly mess of international actors supporting failed insurgent militias. The Libya conflict has become famous for its weird mismatches of weaponry, and cyberpunk aesthetic. Militiamen with anti aircraft weapons attached to their pick up trucks are shooting at each other while Russia, Turkey and US clients test out next generation versions of their killer robots. The conflict is a fascinating window on the future of warfare, until you remember that it’s also killing thousands of people.
News reports love to focus on battles between Turkey’s moderate rebel jihadists from Syria and Russia’s Wagner group mercenaries, and acts as if the outcomes of these battles determine the front lines in Libya. But they really don’t. Just like Syria, what really matters is what happens on phone calls between Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recap Tayyip Erdogan.
Don’t get me wrong, these battles are real, and people are dying. It’s possible that hundreds or even thousands more will die over Sirte and Jufra. But those deaths will just be bargaining chips for those phone negotiations between Putin and Erdogan. That’s why I believe we are stuck with Haftar until his own people in Eastern Libya get sick of him. This is also why I think Egypt’s promises of intervention are so pitiful.
By involving itself in the conflict in this way, Egypt’s military dictatorship thinks it’s setting itself up as one of the big players. Sisi imagines that it puts him on the same level as Putin or Erdogan, but that’s not what it does. What it does is put the Egyptian military on the same level as some failed Syrian rebel group. Egypt’s Parliament just volunteered its troops to be used as disposable cannon fodder on a defense contractor’s testing range. It’s deeply sad. If the intervention does happen, it will be Egyptians dying along with the Syrians and other mercenaries, not controlling the conflict like the Russians and the Turks.
Let’s switch to something a little less embarrassing. What we should be focusing on right now is the UN-approved, internationally recognized Goverment of National Accord, and what it’s going to do with the breathing space Turkey has just given them.
A lot of time and effort is going to be spent on some kind of comprehensive all Libya peace deal, but I think it’s a waste of time this year. Haftar’s supporters aren’t going to give up their chunk of influence in Libya until the GNA can make a better case for its legitimacy. So the GNA should make that case, maybe with an election.
Remember, despite what the map looks like, the GNA already controls most of what matters in Libya. There obviously hasn’t been a census in this decade, but judging from pre-war population numbers for each province, my bet is that Haftar is left controlling not much more than a million or so of Libya’s almost 7 million people, even if he holds on to Sirte.
And Libya’s devolution into another Russo-Turkish frozen conflict actually gives the GNA something it’s never had before. Real security. My sense is that the GNA collection of militias has more potential than Haftar’s mass murdering bunch of militias. This is the GNA’s opportunity to finally prove it. They need to get to work.
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