Since the spread of turmoil and chaos in the Arab region, Egypt’s national security has faced increasingly grave threats from all directions. If at first the most serious emanated primarily from the northeast, the most dangerous now loom from the directions of Libya and Ethiopia. They have excited intense concern and discussion in intellectual and journalistic circles, and among the public at large, except for an errant minority serving the interests of Ankara’s ط imperialist project who have made it their job to mock Egyptian abilities and sap morale on the Libyan front, and paradoxically to goad decision-makers into impetuous actions on the Ethiopian front. But rather than dwelling on such contradictory attitudes, I will focus on the two major trends in Egyptian public opinion with regard to the Libyan and Ethiopian challenges: one conservative and the other imprudent. I will presume good faith and sincere concern for Egypt’s interests and welfare in both cases.
The conservatives understandably fear the consequences of direct military intervention in Libya. They caution against a repetition of the Egyptian experience in Yemen in the 1960s and warn that the terrorist militias and mercenaries in Libya are backed by the second largest army in NATO. Now, firstly, there is vast difference between the two cases. Egypt’s intervention in Yemen was part of Gamal Abdel- Nasser’s pan-Arab project and motivated by the setback in that project due to the breakup of the union with Syria. It could thus be said to have been an offensive military action. In Libya, by contrast, military intervention would be unquestionably defensive, especially given that Egyptian national security has already been jeopardised from that direction on numerous occasions and Egypt has twice been forced to take action beyond its borders. Second, unlike Yemen, Libya is right next door to Egypt, which presents great logistical advantages. Third, direct intervention in Yemen began slowly, using ground forces, and without sufficient study. When the actual situation became clear, Egyptian troops in Yemen increased to 70,000, although they would be reduced by about half in a subsequent phase. Possible intervention in Libya would not begin with a ground offensive.
Recall that when the president told the armed forces to be ready for operations abroad, he was at a recently inaugurated airbase speaking to the air force, even if the tenor was more general. The president also spoke of training and arming young men from the Libyan tribes which, in turn, responded enthusiastically to these remarks. This brings me to the fourth observation, which is that Egypt is very clear about the “red line” it has drawn, and the ninth largest army in the world is very capable of carrying out the threat to act against forces that overstep that line. This fact has given prevalence to a scenario favouring aversion of escalation and, indeed, stimulated widespread international action to promote a ceasefire. But what would happen in the event that equations turned sour? Clearly, if others cannot help deter terrorism, Egypt will have no choice but to act in defence of its national security, regardless of the sacrifices. Egypt and its army have a long and honourable record of victorious battles against adverse odds. The October War is a prime example. Egypt is ready to act, if necessary, especially in light of history’s lesson that appeasement is the worst response to an expansionist hegemonic project. One would think Western powers would be more conscious of this lesson, given how their policy of appeasement helped unleash Hitler and World War II.
With regard to the crisis surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), I am disturbed by commentaries that urged recourse to military action on the grounds that the military balances between Egypt and Ethiopia are in our favour. As sincere as I believe these commentators are in their concern for Egypt’s welfare, their view is dangerously over-simplistic. I should stress, firstly, that any decision to undertake military action is primarily political one and, accordingly, should be subject to political calculations before military ones. A prime factor to be borne in mind, in this case, is that Egypt is a country that respects and upholds international law, which means that any military action would need authorisation from the UN Security Council or the African Union. Such authorisation would not be forthcoming. If Egypt were to act unilaterally, it would be called to account and risk losing its base of African support. The question of Ethiopia’s right to development versus Egypt’s right to its fair share of Nile water is not as clear cut as the question of the terrorist threat from Libya, which almost all members of the international community acknowledge and oppose.
Some will remind me that I have frequently spoken of collusions against Egypt and cited reports of certain countries that have tried to use Ethiopia to settle their scores with Egypt, and they will ask me why I do not invoke “defence of national security regardless of the sacrifices” in this case. To me the answer is clear: because the political and economic loss would be overwhelming. Does that mean that we should accept less than our rights? Of course not. But who said that use of force has to be limited to bombing the dam? What about economic pressures and sanctions? Surely these would be easier, more cost effective and more potentially successful in the event efforts fail to produce a negotiated solution. And who said diplomatic efforts have totally failed? Let us recall that Egyptian diplomacy has achieved no small progress in this dispute during the past six years. A major landmark is the agreement on the Declaration of Principles of 2015, which has become a binding legal frame of reference. Then last year Egypt succeeded in internationalising the issue by bringing in the US as a mediator in collaboration with the World Bank. This effort culminated in a draft agreement initialled by Egypt and snubbed by Ethiopia. Egypt then took internationalisation to a level that made Ethiopia panic — the UN Security Council (UNSC). At which point the African Union stepped in, if only to pre-empt the UNSC.
Ethiopia exposed the weakness of its position in the UNSC. In contrast to Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s forceful arguments, the Ethiopian delegate could only reiterate feeble excuses for rejecting UNSC intervention. Moreover, a number of UNSC members made it clear that they opposed any unilateral action on the part of any party in this dispute, which is exactly the thrust of the Egyptian-sponsored resolution. While it is difficult to depend on a definitive stance from the UNSC, we are still at the beginning of the road and there are other options available. Egypt’s position will grow stronger the longer Ethiopia remains stubborn and inflexible. What is important is to sustain our efforts until we achieve our goal.
The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly