Through thick and thin, the United Arab Emirates has been a longtime supporter of Egypt in the fight to defeat political Islam, until now. Libya has shown itself to be the one thing that will divide these longtime allies. When the whole world frowned at Egypt’s government for dispersing the Rabaa al-Adawiya square, located in eastern Cairo’s Nasr city, on a hot and sunny 14 August 2013, the United Arab Emirates published an official statement on the night of the massacre stating it “understands the sovereign measures taken by the Egyptian government after observing maximum restraint in recent times”.
At least 850 protestors were killed among the thousands who were there to denounce the military coup in July 2013 against president Mohamed Morsi. Egyptian security forces and military had blocked all five entries to the square in a deadly crackdown. The day was described as “one of the prominent massacres of modern history” by Human Rights Watch Executive director Kenneth Roth.
But this did not deter the UAE to support the Sisi-led coup.
‘All good things must come to an end’
“The UAE played a key role in making a military, authoritarian regime emerg[e] in Cairo in 2013. For several years thereafter, that government was supported by the Emiratis with the injection of billions into a frail economy, which had to contend with three years of political turbulence,” says Jalal Harchaoui, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.
This was the climax of UAE-Egypt relations whereby the primary objective was to defeat political Islam.
But alas, all good things must come to an end. “On Mohamed bin Zayed’s last visit to Cairo, he did not show up with a checkbook as he used to during the 2013-15 era”, adds Harchaoui.
For when it comes to military interventions in Libya, the two states have diverged with Egypt being cautious about its approach to the quagmire facing its neighbor. “In reality, Egypt has never wanted to start a land campaign in Libya and thus become involved in a slippery slope campaign. Cairo never wanted to spend money on this conflict; and it does not want to create another Sinai for itself in eastern Libya”, he says.
Egypt: Security concerns with Libya
Indeed, the Egyptians’ priority as of late has been to secure the eastern part of Libya by creating a buffer zone. Initially, the Egyptians were the first to back Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) based in Tobruk over the internationally-recognized government the General National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. Despite the Egyptian parliament green-lighting a military operation in Libya to support Haftar, Cairo was not going to launch such an offensive on Tripoli; one that was doomed to fail, and where 1.2 million Libyans live.
The LNA’s offensive on Tripoli, which lasted for over a year, has been catastrophic in the eyes of Egypt. “Egypt was particularly upset with Haftar over what it perceived to be a lack of commitment to political and security cooperation between Libya and Egypt and that the difference in strategy also extended to the UAE’s position,” reported the independent Egyptian paper Mada Masr.
“The Haftar episode in Tripoli was very frustrating because the Egyptians warned [him] not to do it. Now Turkey is entrenched in Libya, not far from Egypt” says Harshaoui.
UAE: Ideological concerns with Libya
Under President Recep Erdogan, Turkey has been accused of increasingly spreading its version of political Islam through financial and military aid across the MENA region. It has also been very welcoming to members of the Muslim Brotherhood who have fled their home countries. The organization has been branded a terrorist group in Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.
Turkish presence across Libyan territory cannot go unnoticed: they control the naval base, the air college base in Misrata, as well as Libya’s biggest airbase, Al Wataniya. They also have:
- Drones in Mitiga that can fly all the way to Sirte
- A dozen Turkish officers
- 3500 mobilized Syrian fighters
For the UAE, its concerns with Libya remain largely due to Turkey’s involvement in spreading political Islam.
“Like in any other conflict, where you have regional partners involved, there could always be different visions, but what brings together the UAE and Egypt is the threat that Libya could fall in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Dr. Elie Abouaoun, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programs at the United States Institute of Peace.
But for Egypt, that concern has taken a backseat to its initial worry over securing its shared border with Libya.
News by Agency