At times, the Libyan conflict may seem to be the result of a political blockage between diverse actors or a military contention between warring parties. However, in fact it is an extreme case of an institutional vacuum within the state structure. Egypt’s concern with the situation in Libya originates primarily from its national security interests. Libya has great significance to Egyptian national security at a time when the government is developing a new and comprehensive national security strategy.
Undoubtedly, the lack of institutional structures within the Libyan state is one of Egypt’s most crucial concerns, specifically from a military perspective. To Egypt, Libya is both a neighbouring country and a current source of security threats because it is a potential hub for radicalisation and terrorism due to its ongoing political conflict and weak state structure.
As a result, it is perfectly understandable for Egypt to be sincerely concerned with building security institutions in Libya. Institutional capacity-building in Libya is a task that Egypt might have liked to have avoided, since both the Libyan national army and the Egyptian armed forces are providing a sufficient level of border security within the context of a conflict-dominated scene.
However, such capacity-building is necessary as are the efforts that Egypt is making in the negotiations to unify the Libyan national army because of Egypt’s long-term interests in Libya. The political divisions Libya has suffered from since 2014 have had negative implications from a military perspective. Libya suffers from multiple sources of sovereignty, both politically and militarily, which in turn harm long-term Egyptian interests in the country. The core of the pre-Revolution Libyan armed forces is split between military formations in the east and west of the country.
While there is a high degree of institutionalisation in the east, clearly exhibited through the various military academies and attempts to create an institutional structure within the ranks of the national army, the west has been experiencing a completely different process of military re-shaping. Since the political division in 2014, the west of the country has not seen an institutionally organised military entity.
The main military force in the west has been the militia alliance called Fajr Libya or the “Libya Dawn”. Because of the shifting political alliances within the context of the conflict in the west, the Libya Dawn militia alliance has suffered from repeated and even systematic fragmentation. One entity that has been left behind is the force known as Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous, a former militia alliance that is currently recognised by the Libyan Presidential Council as a legitimate state force and the main military entity that helped to drive the Islamic State (IS) group out of the Libyan city of Sirte with the aid of American airstrikes.
At such a crucial conjuncture within the course of the conflict, when a political settlement is under negotiation and military alliances are being re-shaped, there are multiple possible gains for Egyptian interests behind Egypt’s attempts to re-unify the Libyan military elite into a single, legitimate and institutional entity. On the one hand, Egypt seeks the development of state institutions in Libya that Egyptian state institutions can communicate with.
On the other hand, Egypt realises that re-building Libyan state institutions, primarily security ones, is a process that requires Libyan-Libyan dialogue and a process of capacity-building for institutionalising Libyan military entities that enjoy international legitimacy. Egypt’s vision in this regard has been built on arriving at a Libyan consensus on re-unifying the Libyan national army.
An important aspect within this has been establishing proper criteria for those who may be allowed back into national army corps. Negotiations have been on-going on allowing officers who received military training during the period of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi back into the armed forces. The goal is to re-instate former personnel who have military experience.
While this intersects with initiatives for national reconciliation in Libya, it also has significant implications for the ongoing conflict in the country. Re-unifying the Libyan National Army will cause non-legitimate military entities in the west of the country to lose some experienced figures. At the same time, a military entity composed of staff who have had professional training is very different from one composed of unskilled militia men.
Re-unifying the Libyan National Army will thus establish a security institution having clear policies and not temporary and shifting interests. At the same time, a legitimate military entity in the east of the country should change the balance of military power within the conflict. Since the political divisions began in Libya in 2014, Egypt has managed to develop a set of institutional interests in Libya, with re-unifying the Libyan armed forces coming at the top of this list.
During President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s second term in office, these institutional interests are expected to materialise into Egyptian efforts to implement a political settlement in Libya that should lead to a fair and mutually acceptable resolution of the Libyan conflict.
Unifying the Libyan army: An Egyptian top priority