Relations between Cairo and Tripoli went through bouts of political volatility at the beginning of ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s rule before improving and taking on a more conciliatory nature during the last two decades under Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi. With the exception of Qaddafi’s 1977 attempted incursion on the border between the two countries, the Libyan state has not represented any real danger for Egypt up until the dictator’s death. With US reports of Egyptian airstrikes already taking place over Libya, and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi denying Cairo’s involvement, the question remains over what Egypt can or should do to safeguard its borders.
The security situation in Libya, which has deteriorated since Qaddafi was killed, has represented a major challenge for Cairo, particularly because of weapons left behind by his collapsed military. Arms smuggling across Egypt’s porous western border has seen an unprecedented increase, bringing with it types of weapons previously unknown to Egypt’s black market. Among the weapons now sold illegally in Egypt are heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons, whose catastrophic effect has shaken Egypt’s stability in some centers of societal unrest. For instance, Soviet-era machine guns were recently used for the first time in a tribal conflict in Aswan, and such weapons are also being used to reinforce takfiri elements in Sinai.
Libyan weapons have contributed to the chaos and tribal fighting seen in Egypt by strengthening armed takfiri groups which have clearly demonstrated hostility towards Cairo in the wake of the struggle between the current Egyptian regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. These groups await opportunities to infiltrate the borders to carry out terrorist operations deep inside Egypt, and it is possible that they were involved in the killing of over 20 Egyptian soldiers at the Farafra checkpoint near the Libyan border last month. In addition, the indirect danger facing Egyptian workers in Libya quickly turned into direct targeting and potentially even assassinations based on their Egyptian identity following the fall of Mohamed Morsi’s government in Egypt in 2013.
For Egyptian policymakers, the Libyan issue is further complicated by the fact that it is not confined to armed takfiri groups; rather, these groups represent one aspect of the larger picture of the Libyan crisis. The reality is that Libya in its entirety has become a state of militias with numerous different affiliations, and these militias are far more powerful than the official state. Perhaps the convening of the new parliament in the city of Tobruk, 1,500 km east of Tripoli, is symbolic of this power inversion, with the official state being pushed to the sidelines while the sound of the militias’ bullets—which hold real power in Libya—reverberates in the heart of the capital.
El-Sisi’s recent statement, as well as statements made during his visit to Russia in which he rejected foreign interference in Libya, might be interpreted as having already determined the matter of Egyptian military intervention, at least in official terms and until further notice.
Since 1952, the Egyptian military has engaged in two main military interventions on foreign soil. The first was carried out in Yemen in support of the revolution against the traditional regime, which was backed by Saudi Arabia at the time. This experience ended in failure, to the point that many analysts claim that the reasons for Egypt’s defeat in June 1967 go back to the depletory effects of this intervention. The second was carried out jointly with other Arab and Western states, led by the United States, to liberate Kuwait in the early 1990s; this intervention was successful and increased the status of the Egyptian military in the eyes of the Gulf states, thus making up for the effects of the first intervention.
The first choice available to Egypt is unilateral, direct military intervention in Libya. This option could take on one of three scenarios:
1 – A full invasion with a determinate end target of enabling a government loyal to the Egyptian regime, or at least approving of its intervention, and supporting this government until it is able to exert full control over Libya’s domestic affairs. This would include a process of forming and then training the Libyan military in preparation for transferring to it the work of maintaining security following the withdrawal of Egyptian forces.
2 – A deep incursion by Egyptian forces to allow for the creation of a secure corridor along the border with Libya, in order to preempt any potential infiltration of Egypt by armed groups.
3 – Targeted air strikes, potentially accompanied by limited land operations, against positions held by these armed groups. The timetable for ending these strikes would not be linked to the end of Libya’s internal crisis, and the strikes would principally aim to thwart the ability of armed organizations to infiltrate Egyptian territory and carry out terrorist operations.
The first scenario would require five to ten years at the least to see positive results. In addition, no Libyan partner exists who could be relied upon to lend the required legitimacy to the intervention and whom Cairo could continue to support in the wake of this intervention. This is particularly true now, following the utter failure of Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan general who attempted to wrest power from the leading General National Congress.
In weighing this option, Egypt must also consider its economic situation, its military capabilities, as well as potential international repercussions, least of which would be the imposition of severe economic sanctions on the regime if it were to attempt such an undertaking. In addition, the political and societal situation in Egypt has been unstable since January 2011, and has been further exacerbated in the wake of the ouster of the former president last July. Finally, the tribal links that unite Egyptian citizens living in the governorates bordering Libya (Matrouh and al-Wadi al-Gadid) and Libyan citizens across the border increase the likelihood of public rejection within Egypt for such an intervention and could even lead some Egyptian citizens from these governorates to use violence against military establishments and personnel if their relatives in Libya were to be targeted.
Moreover, there is the danger of the Egyptian military being stretched thin and its capacities depleted across more than one front—with a precarious security situation faced in Sinai.
In addition, the scale on which operations in Libya would take place is enormous, and there is potential for the Egyptian military to be drawn into protracted wars of attrition between gangs. The Egyptian military is not prepared for the fierce combat in which it would have to engage against militias whose weaponry and equipment resemble those of regular armies, yet who follow no known tactics that might be predicted except for in the form of street battles, a type of warfare in which the Egyptian military has never truly engaged. Cairo certainly understands all of these factors, in addition to others, and is thus aware that it cannot resort to this option, at least at this time.
The article was first published in Atlantic Council