Egypt inaugurated a new naval base close to the Libyan border on July 3, something that can be described as a show of force by Cairo and a demonstration of its commitment to its war-torn neighbor. Inaugurating the naval base on July 3 was not by mistake. July 3 commemorates when in 2013 the then head of the Egyptian Armed Forces, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, responded to the demands made by protesters in Tahrir Square during the June 30 Demonstration to topple the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohamed Morsi. There is little doubt that Egypt was sending a clear message to Turkey, who was not only a strong backer of Morsi, but is also the main backer of the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood extremist organization.
During the inauguration of the new naval base in the eastern Mediterranean, Sisi, who has been president since the removal of Morsi from power, inspected the Egyptian armada and naval base.
"It is the latest Egyptian military base on the Mediterranean, and will be focused on securing the country’s northern and western front," the Egyptian president said in a statement.
The ceremony was attended by Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, and by the chairman of Libya’s Presidential Council Mohamed al-Menfi, both of whom are staunchly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey’s backing of the organization.
Egyptian authorities intend to reaffirm their central place in the region, essentially a show of force in face of Turkey’s attempts to dominate Libya. It also confirms Egypt as a major regional power, and even perhaps the greatest military power in the East Mediterranean region. It is a manifestation of traditional hard power but also a political message showing that Cairo will not tolerate attacks against its interests and national security.
Since the start of the Libyan crisis in 2011 when NATO-backed jihadist forces toppled long time ruler Muammar Gaddafi, Cairo has always been concerned about stability on its border. Sisi has never hidden his support for Libya’s Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in his struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood and other jihadist organizations.
After Haftar’s failure to capture the capital of Tripoli because of Turkey’s intervention, which was then followed by a Muslim Brotherhood counteroffensive, Sisi announced the city of Sirte as a "red line" on June 20, 2020. This caused immense anger in Ankara, but ultimately Turkey discontinued their offensive to capture Sirte, the gateway to most of Libya’s oil. Ankara understood that if Egypt intervened, Turkish forces would either be trapped in the country or forced to leave in humiliation. Turkey saw the seriousness of Egypt after its parliament approved in July 2020 for the military to be deployed in combat missions beyond the borders of the Egyptian state to defend Egyptian national security.
Despite the improvement of the situation with the end of hostilities and the establishment of a ceasefire in October 2020, the new Egyptian military base seeks to discourage Turkish-backed Libyan militias and Syrian mercenaries from resuming battles against the Haftar-led Libyan National Army, which is based in eastern Libya and closely aligned with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Apart from the military aspect of opening a naval base close to Libya, Egypt is also positioning itself as a leading player in the reconstruction of its neighbor. Cairo hopes to send more than three million Egyptian workers to help the country recover from a decade of bloody conflict. It is an initiative that has been discussed since last June. Having closed its embassy in Tripoli in 2014, Cairo has been stepping up bilateral meetings for several months, with a view of resuming trade and stabilizing the borders between the two countries.
Rejecting Political Islam, Egypt has made the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood its main security objective. Sisi does not hesitate to militarize Egyptian society in order to harden his policy against the Muslim Brotherhood and it appears that most liberals, nationalists and socialists in Egypt are content in seeing Sisi stamp out extremism.
Despite Turkey desperately attempting a rapprochement with Egypt in May, the two countries remain rivals. In fact, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was so desperate for a rapprochement that he even lamented on May 7 that “It makes us sad to see that the Egyptians are in solidarity with the Greeks.” Sisi has not forgotten the many insults he has received from Erdoğan over the years, such as being labeled an “illegitimate tyrant.” Although Erdoğan may get away with insulting German officials as “Nazis” and still have Berlin appease him, he now realizes that this same strategy of insult followed by rapprochement and appeasement from the West does not work outside of the liberal world, especially in Egypt where they take national security seriously, unlike in Western Europe.
In light of this, the new naval base close to Libya is a powerful message to Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood that Egypt will not allow extremism to permeate on its borders. The base also significantly reduces Turkish military capabilities in any potential war it may have with Egypt over Libya.
Paul Antonopoulos is a research fellow at the Center for Syncretic Studies.