Egypt’s interests and options in Libya

Friday 30/10/2015
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi looks at a map during a meeting with pilots and crews specialists of the Egyptian Air Force near the border between Egypt and Libya, last February.

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.