The drums of war being beaten by Egyptian President ʿAbdel Fattah al-Sisi in June 2020 ‒ in response to the Government of National Accord (GNA) forces’ advance on the Sirte-Jufra frontline towards Cyrenaica, Egypt’s declared red-line ‒ seem to have been set aside to favour a possible agreement between the parties, as a consequence of the ceasefire announced at the end of August by Libya’s UN-backed and internationally-recognised GNA.
In the light of these developments, the Libyan issue proves once again to be of fundamental importance for Egyptian foreign policy and for its regional geopolitical projection due to a plurality of factors: first, from a domestic security perspective, to avoid the spillover of violence into its territory, especially into Egypt’s Western Desert, due to the possible penetration of jihadist groups from the porous frontier bordering Cyrenaica; secondly, from an economic point of view, to deal with the consequences of the drastic decrease in remittances from Egyptian emigrants working in Libya, which represent a serious threat to Egypt’s stability and internal security that Cairo cannot underestimate. But also, to reaffirm its image as a geostrategic regional pivot ready to defend its interests in a disputed area as vital as Libya.
Following Geddafi’s downfall in 2011, Egypt supported a two-pronged strategy, playing political mediator through several attempts to support a diplomatic solution to pacify the Libyan conflict, while it never hid its logistic and military support for General Khalifa Haftar’s war against the Tripoli-based GNA of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.
In this strategic stance, Cairo aligned with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, two monarchies that have financially supported the fragile country’s economy for years and with whom Egypt created an informal pivotal alliance based mainly on a military, political and ideological-religious fight against political Islam, which is backed and boosted by Turkey and Qatar. One of the natural theatres of this dichotomous opposition was obviously Libya, where the rift between Islamist forces and the so-called secular and anti-Islamist movements was reified in the opposition between the government of Tripoli and that of Tobruk. For this reason, the Egyptian-Saudi-Emirates alliance did not hesitate to violate the ineffective United Nations arms embargo, in force since 2011, to strengthen Haftar’s forces, with the delivery of armoured vehicles, aircraft, drones and spare parts for the general’s air force.
This strategy went into crisis following the ill-planed attack by Haftar in April 2019 against Tripoli: the general attempted an all-in move to conquer power in the country, but he failed. The stalemate weakened Haftar's position and that of his supporters and prompted Turkey to intervene massively in late 2019 to support the Serraj government, repeatedly defeating the general's forces. In order to prevent Haftar’s collapse, his regional supporters, fearing losing their grip on Cyrenaica and their interests in the country, tried to resume the diplomatic path by demanding a ceasefire. On June 6, 2020, Egyptian President al-Sisi announced a new political endeavour aimed at finding a diplomatic resolution for the conflict. The so-called “Cairo Declaration” backed by Haftar and Libya’s parliamentary speaker, Aguila Saleh, proposed an intra-Libyan resolution based on a presidential council election, the drafting of a constitutional declaration to regulate elections for a later stage and the resumption of the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission under the auspices of the UN. The declaration was quickly welcomed by Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, and Bahrain, which each voiced their support for an end to the ongoing disputes in Libya. But, unsurprisingly, it provoked the strong refusal of Ankara and Tripoli. As a consequence, the diplomatic option was transformed into a warning of war against the GNA and its supporters: looking for an official call-up, which could boost its legitimacy for engaging in a battle against Turkey’s forces, on July 13, Egypt got a statement by the Libyan House of Representatives allowing the Egyptian Armed Forces to enter the country; simultaneously, President al-Sisi obtained similar support from Libyan tribal leaders. Eventually, on July 20, the Egyptian House of Representatives approved sending troops to Libya. All these moves raised the concerns of the international community: was Egypt really going to war or did its aggressive posture represent only a strategy to warn Turkey and to avoid Haftar’s collapse?
On the one hand, what could have prompted Egypt to act - besides the need to protect its western border, avoid Haftar’s downfall and roll back the Turkish forces in the west - were al-Sisi’s hopes to increase his reputation in the Arab world and domestically, since the economic and social post-pandemic crisis risks crushing his popularity. On the other, a military adventure would have created many problems: at an international level, because both the United States and Russia did not welcome direct Egyptian intervention in the Libyan affair, while the EU and UN would probably have formally condemned it. In the regional context Algeria and Tunisia, which maintained a broadly neutral stance regarding the conflict, could have seen Egyptian intervention as an unwanted escalation and a threat for diplomatic hegemony within the Maghreb. Domestically, as underlined by some analysts, the Egyptian military was reluctant to engage in a cross-border campaign with ambiguous military objectives and risk losses that could damage its credibility and fuel internal strife. Indeed, according to the Foreign Policy Research Institute report, a possible direct involvement in Libya means that “for the army, long supply lines may require fighting formations to amass stockpiles to be transported with them rather than rely on consistent resupply, given the distance from Sirte-Jufra to the border, allowing only for short offensives”. What could really represent a source of concern for Egypt is its military equipment: the country is committed to a military deterrence strategy to face national security threats coming from its western borders with Libya and challenges linked to tensions in the eastern Mediterranean region along with faltering Renaissance Dam negotiations with Ethiopia. But it needs military resources that seem unready for a protracted, exhausting intervention outside its borders, especially after the Egyptian army’s poor performance in the North Yemen civil war and the North Sinai struggle against ISIS, which highlighted longstanding systemic tactical and operational frailties. Moreover, a hypothetical confrontation with Turkey, with its highly technological defence system as a NATO member, could have represented a serious threat that could lead Egypt to have to rebalance its regional projection.
For all these reasons, it is possible to imagine that, during the summer of 2020, Cairo was ready only to launch a symbolic intervention in Libya to counterbalance a hypothetic Turkish offensive in Cyrenaica and force Libya’s warring parties into negotiations under Egyptian supervision.
Therefore, the GNA’s latest ceasefire proposal offered a chance to resume a diplomatic and political exit strategy: in fact, Egypt, as well as the eastern-based parliament of Tobruk led by Aguila Saleh, who commands one of Libya’s strongest armed tribes, had agreed to observe the truce and welcomed it. What emerges clearly is that Egyptian support for Haftar is a means not an end, functional to preseringv Egyptian interests: it seems ready to reduce its support for the general if its interests could be defended by other actors. Unlike the UAE, which in Libya exhibits only their military attitude, Cairo has above all a political strategy: after the military attempt failed, Egypt realized that it was necessary to re-launch a political and diplomatic path, showing itself as the most credible actor among Haftar’s supporters. It is not a coincidence that Egypt immediately supported the proposed agreement together with Aguila Saleh. The convergence between al-Sisi and the Libyan parliament’s speaker is based on the common intention to distance themselves both from the Haftar front, which is increasingly split and less credible, and from the UAE’s that, although they have accepted the truce, continue to support the general’s aggressive posture. Egypt could see in Saleh the most convenient candidate for a diplomatic operation and at the same time could distance itself from the Gulf monarchies whose rigidity and short-sighted geopolitical vision al-Sisi fears. Through this manoeuvre, Egypt was able to position itself as a credible interlocutor for a possible peace process also at the international level: to boost this move soon arrived the official declaration of UNSMIL deputy head for political affairs, Stephanie Williams, who praised Egypt for its role in the Libyan political crises.
At the moment, betting on a political resolution more than on a military one seems to have saved al-Sisi from a difficult-to-control escalation in Libya and re-launched the political process. However, anyone who is dealing with Libya knows that all diplomatic attempts to stabilize the country have inevitably failed and al-Sisi is perfectly aware of these difficulties. Therefore, while focusing on this diplomatic solution, he remains open to a plurality of other possible strategies and solutions. The pivotal element dictating Egyptian strategy is that, regardless of changing alliances or international initiatives, Egypt knows that it cannot abandon the Libyan conflict. Now the war drums are silent, but if the initiative should fail and the military confrontation resumes, Egypt will be ready to flex its muscles again. Whether this can lead to a conflict depends only on how important the Libyan issue is, compared to other international problems.
 “Libya's UN-recognised government announces immediate ceasefire”, Al Jazeera, August 22, 2020.
 Karim Mezran and Alessia Melcangi, “The Cairo Declaration is a false resolution to Libya’s conflict”, Atlantic Council, June 11, 2020.
 “Egypt seeks support of Libya tribes amid threat of intervention”, Al Jazeera, August 20, 2020.
 Simon Speakman Cordall, “Algeria, Tunisia on sidelines of regional diplomacy over Libya conflict”, Al Monitor, July 24, 2020.
 For more details, see, “Averting an Egyptian Military Intervention in Libya”, International Crisis Group, July 27, 2020.
 Egypt Defense Review, “Egypt’s Military Limitations: Cairo’s Options to Defend Eastern Libya” Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), July 13, 2020.
 Alessia Melcangi, “Eastern Mediterranean: Testing Egypt’s Geopolitical Ambitions?” in Giuseppe Dentice and Valeria Talbot (eds.), A Geopolitical Sea: The New Scramble for the Mediterranean, Dossier, Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), July 17, 2020.
 Egypt Defence Review, “False Hopes and False Starts: Egypt’s Efforts to Modernize its Military Industry”, Commentary, The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), July 25, 2019.
 Nora el-Tawil, “Egypt would intervene in Libya to maintain military status quo: FM”, Egypt Today, September 13, 2020.
 Ufuk Necat Tasci, “Libya’s warlord Haftar violates ceasefire, reveals his ‘insecurities’”, TRT World, August 28, 2020.
 “UN official Stephanie Williams hails Egypt’s role regarding Libya’s crisis”, Egypt Today, August 31, 2020.