Egypt’s interests and options in Libya
Vienna - Egypt has significant strategic interests linked to its western neighbour Libya.
The stability of the Cyrenaica and the prevention of a terrorist threat from the region is a vital security interest. Important economic interests originate mainly from about 2 million migrant workers in Libya before the revolution (now down to about 750,000), the investments of Egyptian companies and the dire need for cheap energy.
Value-related interests, which support the interests of the other two categories, include the establishment of a secular state in Libya and the limitation of the influence of all kinds of Islamists in Libyan politics.
The situation in Egypt is characterised by a deep rift between secularists and Islamists, a difficult economic situation and dozens of terrorist attacks with more than 300 non-militants killed in 2015.
Libya is used by several terrorist groups as a training ground, logistic base and staging area for attacks. Air strikes by the Egyptian Air Force in February, after 21 Coptic Egyptians were beheaded by the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sirte, did some damage but did not reduce the capabilities of the terrorists for long.
Expected developments in Libya are dire. A political stalemate can be expected, even if the UN-brokered Skhirat agreement, in the current form, would be accepted by the internationally recognised House of Representatives (HoR) and its rival parliament in Tripoli, the General National Congress (GNC).
The HoR’s anti-Islamist Operation Dignity, which is led by the polarising General Khalifa Haftar, is not able to defeat the Islamists in Benghazi, let alone in Derna. The situation will get even more difficult as the next ISIS move will probably be an offensive towards oil facilities in eastern Sirte.
For Egypt, the outcome from all these developments is a continued security threat, probably even at an increasing level. Consequently, Egypt’s strategic objective with regard to Libya is (probably) “to prevent a radical Islamist state on its western border and to deny the terrorists the use of Libya as a safe haven”.
There are several options to achieve this strategic objective.
An immediate objective to “prevent the defeat of the anti-Islamist coalition in the Cyrenaica” could be served by a continued limited military support. This is not necessarily tied to the HoR or Haftar.
Significantly enhanced direct support could enable the anti-Islamist coalition to win the war in the Cyrenaica. But a precondition for such an immediate objective is lifting the UN-arms embargo on Libya to allow Egypt to provide weapons, ammunition and major military equipment (e.g. tanks, artillery, helicopters, fighter jets and naval units such as patrol boats). Furthermore, existing training programmes could be significantly expanded.
In the case the anti-Islamist coalition in the Cyrenaica is not able to bring the situation sufficiently under control with the help of those support measures, a direct Egyptian military intervention could become necessary as a last resort option.
This would probably include air strikes in support of Operation Dignity but could also encompass a maritime blockade of Benghazi and Derna, special forces raids and eventually the establishment of a “ground safety zone” on the Libyan side of the border to prevent the intrusions of terrorists into Egypt and to free Libyan forces for the fight against the Islamists.
A containment strategy that would end military support to the anti-Islamist coalition, concentrate on sealing off the borders and rely on the negotiation process is, in fact, no option for Egypt. Operation Dignity would most probably lose the war within months, long before any political agreement serving the Egyptian interests could be reached.
.There are probably two criteria for Egypt to step up its involvement in Libya:
The Cyrenaica gets out of control and Operation Dignity/the HoR (or a successor) are about to be defeated.
The intensity and number of terrorist attacks in particular in the Nile Delta and on the Suez Canal increase significantly due to the support from Libya.
.If the Islamic State in Libya is allowed to foster its position, boost its ranks with foreign fighters (such as the ongoing augmentation from Boko Haram) and to expand its territory, the first of these criteria could be fulfilled soon.