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Tuesday, 15 October 2019

No entanglement

Despite the rise in political temperatures in the Gulf, Egypt should focus on its western front with Libya and Sinai

Hussein Haridy , Wednesday 22 May 2019
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On Saturday, 18 May, the Saudi government called for two emergency summits in Mecca on 30 May. According to the Saudi Foreign Ministry, the purpose of the two summits is to discuss ways of strengthening security and stability in the Gulf.

Other official Saudi sources talked about the attacks against four ships last week near the coast of the United Arab Emirates, as well as the two attacks that targeted certain oil terminals in Riyadh.

On the same date and farther to the west, the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) announced that it had received a shipment of military equipment of Turkish-made armoured carriers that were shipped out of a Turkish port according to news reports.

The same reports indicated that Qatar paid for the shipment.

The two developments seem unrelated. However, from an Egyptian point of view, these developments, coupled with the beefing up of American military presence in the Gulf, present a great strategic challenge. The urgent question is how will Egypt deal with such a challenge to its national security interests?

Cairo is a member in an ad hoc alliance with three Gulf countries that are directly affected by the ongoing military escalation in the Gulf, namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, an alliance that was formed in June 2017 to confront Qatar.

If the three countries are threatened or come under attack, Egypt should be ready to cooperate with them to contain any kind of threats to their territorial integrity and independence — a position that has been reaffirmed on many occasions by the Egyptian government since 2014.

On the other hand, Cairo is concerned with the escalation going on between the United States and Iran. So far, the Egyptian government has said nothing in this regard, which is a wise course of action. Monitoring the situation is the best possible approach right now.

The Iraqi experience of 2003 should have taught Egyptian authorities a valuable lesson; that is, to keep away as much as possible from any American military engagement in the Middle East and the Gulf.

Short of a direct attack on any member country of the Gulf Cooperation Council (minus Qatar, of course), Egypt has no interest at all to side with the Americans in military campaigns or wars in the region.

With the announcement made in Tripoli last Saturday concerning the military shipment to the GNA, there is a proxy war going on at our western front that pits us against the Turkish-Qatari axis.

It is all the more dangerous because the announcement referred to the long-term strategic goal of this shipment. Not only is the objective to stage counter attacks against the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar, but to go on the offensive across all Libya.

In other words, the war going on around Tripoli will widen and could reach the western borders of Egypt. If this comes to pass, it would mean that the Egyptian army would become engaged on two fronts, the western front and in Sinai.

The security of the western front and Sinai should be Egypt’s top strategic priority for the foreseeable future. Libya should not become our Yemen trap. The Egyptian state should not be dragged into any military campaigns outside of these two theatres.

The Turks and the Qataris would love nothing more than to involve the army in a war of attrition that would help, as the thinking goes in Ankara and Doha, the terrorist groups that are presently fighting the army in Sinai.

These are trying times for Egypt, militarily and economically. Any miscalculation would cost the country dearly.

If Egypt’s allies in the Gulf expect Egypt to take an active part in any future war in the Gulf, they should understand that the military situation we are facing on our borders with Libya and in Sinai precludes such an option. This goes for the United States, as well.

The Haftar campaign against Tripoli was poorly planned and has caused Egypt problems that should be quickly solved lest the military situation within Libya worsen and the LNA would find itself fighting on several fronts, a situation that could roll back all the military gains and political successes that Haftar has managed to achieve in the last two years, something that has helped us in securing our borders with Libya.

A top priority for Egypt at present is to make sure that the rag tag militias working for the Tripoli government are not allowed to move close to Egypt’s western borders.

Diplomatically speaking, de-escalation is the magic word to deal with the serious strategic developments in the region and in North Africa.

No one doubts the ultimate result of war between the United States and Iran, as no one had been in doubt about the war against Iraq in Desert Storm in 1991 or in 2003. What is certain is that no one could predict the long-term ramifications of a war between the two archenemies.

In the next few days till the convening of the two emergency summits in Mecca, the situation in the Gulf could worsen or the chances of de-escalation would be greater, an option that would benefit Egyptian interests.

If not, the Egyptian message in the two summits should be of solidarity with the Gulf countries against any external aggression linked with a call for resorting to the status quo ante before the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln and its support naval units in the Gulf.

From a strictly Egyptian point of view, diplomacy should be the top priority, away from any entanglement outside our borders in any kind of military operations in the East and in the West.

*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: No entanglement

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