Libya and Egypt’s Unique Relationship9 min read

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After Egypt and Libya gained independence in the 1950s, the two respective states maintained a mutually cooperative relationship. With regards to foreign policy and regional security, the two neighbouring countries viewed each other as key players. When Gaddafi assumed power in 1969, his initial goal regarding Egypt was to try and create a partnership with Egypt both within the region and in the broader Pan-Arab community. Unfortunately for Gaddafi, he would prove more dedicated to promote his goal than either Nasser or his successor Sadat. Later, tensions arose due to Egypt’s reconciliation with the west and eventually by mid 1970, Egypt had become Libya’s biggest enemy. The three following events set the backdrop for the modern relationship between Libya and Egypt: the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and its aftermath, the 1977 Libyan-Egyptian border clash and the 1992 sanctions against Libya and the current ongoing clash of securing the Libyan border. Experts suggest that the former event was crucial as it precipitated the breakdown between Libya and Egypt. This article will seek to provide an insight into the critical Libyan-Egyptian relationship.

In 1969, military coups brought new regimes to power in Sudan and Libya. The new leaders, Ja’far an-Numeiri and Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi along with the president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein, met in December 1969 in Tripoli. On 27th December of that year the “Tripoli charter” was published which was to be the basis of cooperation between Egypt, Sudan and Libya. Despite the death of Nasser in September 1970, Egyptian participation in the unity talks continued under Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat. Gaddafi moved to assume Nasser’s mantle as the ideological leader of Arab nationalism and at the request of its new head of state, General Hafiz al Assad, the unity talks was expanded to include Syria. At the time Numeiri had “temporarily” pulled out of the talks and so the three heads of state of Libya, Egypt and Syria went on and signed a draft constitution in August that was overwhelmingly approved in referendums in all three countries. The Tripoli charter culminated into the promulgation of the federation of Arab Republics on September 2nd 1971. The agreement was seen as a big step towards greater Arab unity.

Sadat was named the first president of a council of heads of state that was to be the governing body for the Federation of Arab Republics (FAR). The FAR officially came into existence on paper on January 1, 1972. Broad plans were drawn up to provide for a full-fledged merger affecting the legal systems, laws, employment, armed forces, and foreign policies of all three countries. For Gaddafi, FAR was a critical step to accomplishing his ultimate goal: the comprehensive union of the “Arab Nation.” Unsatisfied, Gaddafi initiated talks with Sadat for a full political union between Egypt and Libya, which would merge the neighboring countries into a single state within the framework of the FAR. At the time, Egypt’s population was 34 million whereas the population in Libya was under 2 million. However, Libya’s annual per capita income was fourteen times that of Egypt. Its fiscal reserves in 1972 were estimated at more than the equivalent of US$2.5 billion, at least ten times the amount held by Egypt.

Gaddafi began to use oil revenues to build up the Libyan armed forces, purchasing Mirage III jets and other equipment from France. Many of the fighters were transferred to Egypt where Egyptian pilots were training in preparation for a fresh strike against Israel to recover territory lost in the 1967 Six-Day War. Gaddafi envisioned the combination of Libya’s wealth and Egypt’s manpower and military capacity as key components for the success of the Arab struggle against Israel. However, within no time obstacles to the merger arose, most notably the disagreement between the two leaders over a time scale for the union. Gaddafi called for immediate unification, whereas Sadat insisted on a step-by- step integration and thorough preparation of the union. In July 1973, Gaddafi organised a 40,000 Libyan march on Cairo to further pressurise Egypt into acting faster, however the march was turned back about 200 miles from Cairo. Nonetheless an agreement was signed on August 29th . On September 1st 1973, the merger was set for final action. Yet, the date passed with barely any notice in Cairo, as many Egyptians and Libyans had become resistant to the project. For example, some Egyptians felt that the proposed merger would give Gaddafi excessive control over Egypt’s destiny.

The union failed whilst the federation became increasingly less significant. Meanwhile Egypt and Syria had steadily drawn closer to each other, growing increasingly distant. For example, they failed to include Libya in their plans for the 1973 war against Israel, which came to be known as the Yom Kippur war. Despite initial success, the Israelis quickly moved from defense to attack as Gaddafi criticised Egypt and Syria’s methods in the war. Gaddafi was further appalled when Sadat agreed to a cease-fire after the successful Israeli counteroffensive. Gaddafi found it increasingly hard to hide his disapproval for what he saw as Sadat’s lackluster management of the war. After the Yom Kippur War, the relationship between the two leaders further degenerated. Sadat inaugurated a pro-western stance including a policy of accommodation with the Israeli government, in exchange for the return of Sinai with its oil fields and for substantial amounts of aid. Gaddafi and other Arab state leaders viewed Sadat’s peace negotiations with Israel as unacceptable and a clear betrayal of the Arab world.

Relations between Egypt and Libya continued to decline throughout 1974 and 1975 as Sadat openly criticised Gaddafi who had been threatening to take action against Egyptian workers in Libya. With mutual accusations being thrown in both directions, hostilities between Libya and Egypt reached a high point in April-May 1977, when demonstrators in both countries attacked each other’s consulates. Gaddafi accused Egypt of provoking a war so that it could seize the Libyan oil fields. In June 1977, Gaddafi ordered the 225,000 Egyptians who were working and living in Libya to either leave the country or face arrest. On July 21st 1977, an exchange of gunfire began by troops along the Libyan-Egyptian border. This was followed by a raid on the village of Sallum carried out by Libyan forces. A four-day war proceeded in which both sides used tanks and airplanes in several battles along the desert border. Sadat had ordered three divisions to head to the Libyan border when he was made aware of the advances of Libyan tanks. The three divisions beat back the Libyan brigades as a number of Libyan aircrafts and equipment were destroyed on the ground during Egypt’s attack. Additionally, the Egyptian army stormed across the Libyan border and managed to capture some key border towns. Eventually, Algeria’s president, Houari Boumediène, and Yasser Arafat, intervened as mediators and both sides agreed to a ceasefire on July 24, 1977. Nonetheless, both countries suffered losses of men and material. Despite the fighting coming to an end, a rift between the two states remained. Conservative Arab states sympathised with Egypt, while the pro-Soviet Arab states sympathised with Libya. Later in November 1977, Sadat visited Israel as Gaddafi joined the rest of the Arab world in denouncing the Egypt-Israel peace treaty which was formed on March 1979. A year later, Libya constructed airfields and fortifications on the border with Egypt and in June 1980 Egypt declared martial law in the border area with Libya. In 1981, Sadat was assassinated at a military parade in Cairo and was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak.

Under Mubarak, Egypt’s relationship with Libya started to steadily improve. From 1989, Egypt sought to re-normalise its relations with the Arab world. Meanwhile, Libya agreed to reopen its labour market to Egyptian workers. In July 1998, Mubarak allegedly flew to Libya to meet with Gaddafi, who was recovering from a hip operation. In July 2000, both Libya and Egypt agreed to work with the Atlanta-based Carter Center to help reconcile a conflict between Sudan and Uganda. After a “plenary meeting” between the heads of states of the two countries in 2001, a joint higher Egyptian-Libyan Committee was created. This resulted in the signing of nearly a dozen “agreements, executive programs and protocols on cooperation in the commercial, economic and investment fields”.

The 25th of January in 2011, famously referred to as the “Day of Rage”, ignited 18 days of mass public protest across Egypt, ultimately forcing the resignation of Mubarak. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took power until elections were held in June 2012, which brought in Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood as President. However, soon after protests resumed in June 2013 as the public pressed once again for regime change. The military acted to stabilise the situation and removed Morsi from the government, calling once again for elections and for the draft of a new constitution. In the May 2014 elections, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi won the presidency. Egypt went in the direction of a secular military-dominated government. In Libya, popular uprisings against Gaddafi began on February 2011 in Benghazi after violent clashes escalated in Benghazi and Tripoli. By October 2011, Gaddafi was captured and killed and The Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) proclaimed its governance over Libya. After the ‘Arab Spring’, relations between Egypt and Libya entered a turbulent phase as disputes related to security and each country’s ability, or rather inability, to control terrorist operations escalated. The summer of 2014 saw Libya’s fragmented state descend into another civil war as numerous groups fought for control over different regions of the state. Egypt has been affected by this instability Libya’s instability. Egypt has become a pathway for arms trafficking between Libyan Islamists and Salafi-Jihadist groups operating in the Sinai.

After decades of a controversial relationship, experts predicted that with the fall of Mubarak and Gaddafi, relations between Libya and Egypt could potentially become closer. However, as the years have gone by, this has proved otherwise. Political realities and ideological differences have led to a continuous contentious relationship between the two neighbouring states. However, the rise of Daesh and porous border control could be viewed as motive for the two states to work together. A vacuum of opportunity exists for both Libya and Egypt to work together to solve the shared threat of Daesh. The shared task of securing their 700 miles long border as well as Egyptian opportunities for investment in Libya should provide the means through which the two states can come together and build on a mutual beneficial cooperative relationship.