Last week, following Egyptian air strikes against a Libyan Islamic State (IS) group stronghold in Derna, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Minister of Defence Sedki Sobhi visited the western military zone to assess the combat readiness of troops deployed there.
They conducted an aerial inspection and met with tribal elders in Marsa Matrouh who agreed to help security forces in the fight against the cross-border smuggling of arms and people.
A military spokesman reported that El-Sisi discussed ways to stop cross-border terrorist infiltration with a group of pilots, specialised teams and auxiliary units. He lauded the skills and combat readiness of the air force, congratulated pilots for their successful strikes against terrorist militias and asked them to be ready for other missions.
The president also stressed his appreciation of the role of tribes and clans in Marsa Matrouh in promoting Egypt’s national interests, their efforts in helping restore stability and security and the full support they have shown the Armed Forces. The Matrouh tribes and clans “complement the armed forces in its performance of duties to protect the land and people of this nation,” said El-Sisi.
According to sources, the army and police along the border with Libya have never been more combat-ready.
Deployments have been increased since the killing of 22 border patrol soldiers in Farafra last June. Egypt has accepted an offer from Moscow to share imagery from Russian satellites to help monitor the border.
Libyan forces are also working to secure the border with Egypt, says a Libyan military source, though he warns that numbers are limited and the equipment inadequate for the task, given the ongoing international arms embargo against the legitimate government of Libya.
General Ahmed Al-Mismari, spokesman for the office of the Libyan chief of staffs, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the war in Libya is now raging on four fronts.
“We need the support of the Egyptian army and we need to coordinate at the highest levels with the Egyptian command,” he said.
Al-Hussein Al-Masirri, a Libyan journalist at the Mayadeen Foundation, told the Weekly that while the smuggling of people across the borders has declined it still occurs.
Speaking by phone from Derna, he said: “Some members of tribes will smuggle people across the border for a fee of 6,000 Libyan pounds per person.
Most of those now illegally crossing into Egypt are Yemenis and Saudis.” He added that the IS franchise in Libya is run by a Yemeni with a Saudi deputy.
The main aim of the security precautions along the western border is to avert a repetition of the situation along the eastern border with Gaza. A senior military source told the Weekly that until recently the western border had presented a much lower level of threat. That, though, has changed with the rise of transnational terrorist organisations now converging on Libya, taking advantage of porous borders.
“No country, however powerful, can stem the tide,” he says, adding that the international community is failing to address the worsening situation in Libya “on the pretext that UN envoy Bernardino Leon has to be given time to bring the parties to a political solution.”
Last week Cairo hosted a dialogue of Libyan civil society forces. The meeting, held at a hotel in 6 October City, brought together representatives of groups holding diverse views. The Weekly met with five of them, all of whom agreed that Libya’s borders and domestic situation constitute a national security dilemma for both Libya and Egypt.
A Libyan diplomat who took part in the forum said: “One paper that was presented contained a working plan that underscored the importance of the UN playing a role in Libya through a multinational force tasked with preventing the spread and smuggling of arms.
“The paper also argued that it would be possible to assimilate all political forces, Islamists included, in a broad-based national unity government, but only on condition that Islamist militias relinquish their weapons.”
Another Libyan participant was not convinced. “Most of those attending now oppose re-assimilating the Islamists in the political process because they don’t trust them,” he said.
“The moment that Daesh [IS] proclaimed its presence in Derna the conviction grew that the Muslim Brothers would use it as a card to play against national forces. It does not want to assimilate in the political process but seize control over it.”
He pointed out that when Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdel-Fattah Moro visited Libya to dissuade the Libyan Muslim Brothers from such designs “the Libyan Muslim Brothers agreed not to escalate confrontations but the moment the Tunisian delegation left the country they broke the agreement and shelled Al-Abraq airport.”
While the US and European powers remain opposed to military intervention in Libya, Egypt has indicated willingness to expand its aerial operations against IS group in Libya in coordination with Libyan authorities.
Arguing that such operations are consistent with Egypt’s right to self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter, Egyptian diplomats are trying to persuade members of the international coalition formed to fight IS group to factor Libya into the equation. They warn that delays in confronting IS group in Libya will in the end result in greater costs that everyone will pay.
The same Libyan diplomat warns that UN envoy Leon’s diplomatic plans are unlikely to yield positive results.
International law expert Ayman Salama believes there is a drive in the United Nations Security Council to issue a resolution undermining Cairo’s campaign to broaden the mandate of the international coalition to include Libya.
Meanwhile, it appears that Arab support for the Egyptian position will amount to little more than words, with the UAE being the exception. Jordan, which had offered to contribute troops, is unlikely to act without first gaining the approval of international powers, Washington foremost among them.
Al-Masirri sums up the situation thus: “Qatari-Turkish support has enabled IS to take control in five areas of Libya till now.
IS group will be able to grow and attract more extremists unless something is done to halt its expansion. But no action appears on the horizon.”
Cairo last week hosted military delegations from Libya, Tunisia and Algeria in an attempt to secure its borders. It is also working with Sudan to the same end.
*This article was first published in Ahram Weekly