The reasons Egypt did not react to Turkey’s intervention in Libya

Questions are being raised about the usefulness of the mighty “Egyptian military deterrence”, which has turned into a financial burden to the country.
Friday 05/06/2020
A file picture shows Egyptian Army’s armoured vehicles on a highway to North Sinai during a launch of a major assault against militants, in Ismailia, Egypt. (Reuters)
A file picture shows Egyptian Army’s armoured vehicles on a highway to North Sinai during a launch of a major assault against militants, in Ismailia, Egypt. (Reuters)

CAIRO–On Friday, Speaker of the Libyan Parliament, Aguila Saleh, was in Cairo meeting with Egyptian officials, just two days following Libyan National Army Commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s visit to Cairo, and just hours following the LNA’s statement confirming its withdrawal from the vicinity of Tripoli.

These diplomatic moves come amid international efforts seeking to resume the political process in Libya as Turkey persists in its support to the GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. In the meantime, Egypt’s position remains shrouded in mystery, for it wasn’t clear whether it would intervene in Libya to protect its interests or it had serious concerns hindering this step.

Observers of the developments on the Libyan scene noted that Egypt did not react to the dangers emanating from Turkey’s military intervention in Libya and the ensuing injection of thousands of terrorists and mercenaries. Egypt seemed to refrain from plunging unprepared into an adventure, even though the situation west of its borders represented a direct threat to its national security.

In fact, the danger to Egypt’s national security is becoming imminent and serious, as Ankara and its local proxies continue to expand their control of more Libyan territory, and as the Libyan army retreats from the vicinity of Tripoli. It is quite clear that Ankara will not stop at what it has achieved so far and may continue progressing beyond Tripoli and Tarhuna, taking advantage of the mysterious regional and international silence. The Egyptians fear that Turkey, through its positions in Libya, will repeat from Libya the scenario of having the Muslim Brotherhood harass and target Egypt from Sudan since the time of the late President Hosni Mubarak.

Cairo had previously warned against foreign intervention in Libya, and of the consequences of the expansion of the activities of terrorist groups there. It has always rejected the Muslim Brotherhood’s domination of political power in Tripoli and did not hide its support for the Libyan army. Libyans look at Cairo as their main ally in their battle to defend their country from Turkish hegemony, but so far, Cairo has not gone beyond issuing brief statements rejecting the prospects and consequences of a military escalation.

During his visit to Cairo this past Wednesday, Haftar held talks with Egyptian officials about the latest developments in Libya, but what leaked of the consultations says that the talks focused on returning to the military negotiations known as the 5+5 talks that were welcomed by the United Nations. Haftar, however, did not hide that he was in Cairo looking for greater and broader political support.

A file picture of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, right, meeting with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the head of the  Libyan National Army, May 9, 2019 in Cairo, Egypt. (AP)
A file picture of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, right, meeting with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the head of the  Libyan National Army, May 9, 2019 in Cairo, Egypt. (AP)

News reports regarding the visits had mentioned that the Libyan army commander came to Cairo with a raised ceiling of requests to counter Turkish intervention, including requesting quick action from Egypt to lift the ban on arming the Libyan army since his opponents in Tripoli had unlimited and open support, including the participation of Turkish forces in the fighting, by the own admission of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Friday, in statements to local newspapers.

Egyptian sources believe that, following the recent setbacks suffered by the LNA, Haftar lost part of his military and regional momentum, disappointing those in Cairo who had bet too soon on his victory. Still, it is not yet clear why Egypt has refrained from using its military machine to repel the Turkish incursion in Libya that threatens its interests.

Cairo seems to be too silent regarding the Turkish presence in its backyard, and it knows that Erdogan’s ambition will not stop at Tripoli, and that his eyes are on Libya’s oil.

Cairo’s silence is detrimental to Egypt’s good reputation among many Libyans, as well as to the jobs of hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Libya.

However, Egyptian sources say that the Egyptian authorities in charge of the Libyan file are well aware of the minute details of the crisis in Libya and of its various intersections at the local and international levels. They point out that Cairo has not closed its lines of communication with some of the rival parties, while maintaining its unwavering support of the Libyan National Army. Cairo has remained open to the positions of the relevant international powers, and even on those of some local forces that do not agree with its overall vision. They say that the situation in Libya is not conducive for a clearer or more biased position than the current one.

Of course, Turkey had picked up on Egypt’s hesitation and the multiplicity of its open options and built its direct intervention on them. Ankara was sure that Cairo was not ready to start a guerrilla war in Libya, no matter how serious the threats became in Libya.

It wasn’t just the Libyans who had questions about Cairo’s hesitation, for they always believed that the Egyptian forces would rush to their rescue. This question is now on the mind of many inside and outside Egypt.

Questions are also being raised about the usefulness of the mighty “Egyptian military deterrence”, which has turned into a financial burden to the country. If the powerful Egyptian army, which is among the ten most important armies in the world, does not lift a finger while the threats coming from Libya are within its sight, then what’s the use of accumulating advanced weapons?

The Arab Weekly sought answers to the question from various sources. One answer stood out, and that is the Egyptian army is not prepared for gorilla warfare.If the army’s campaign against terrorist groups inside Sinai has taken all this time, then we can imagine the time it will take it to face them in Libya, especially when you have long and open land and sea borders with Libya, and a good concentration of extremist organisations facing it.

Informed political sources told The Arab Weekly that there was a definite feeling inside official circles that there is a conspiracy to drag Egypt into the Libyan quagmire. Entering this quagmire may be easy and the path to it already paved, but getting out of it is another story and definitely not guaranteed. The country risks to be dragged into a long war of attrition that will wipe out the past and current efforts to build a modern state, and will revive and revitalise the extremist organisations.

In addition, like it or not, Libya remains a zone of influence of traditional international powers that will not allow any Egyptian intervention to bear its fruit and implement Cairo’s political vision for Libya, a vision that tends to support the regular armies and to defeat Islamist forces in North Africa. This means that an Egyptian intervention is likely to be followed by widespread harassment, which may poison Cairo’s relations with its neighbours. It must be kept in mind that airstrikes alone will not produce any effective results if not accompanied by massive infantry movements. And this is where the real danger lies because of the likely number of casualties.

Cairo realises that Libya is a key item on the agendas of some major international powers, and it is in the interest of these powers to ward off Turkish ambitions to some extent. And if they had kept silent about the Turkish incursion, they would eventually have to confront themselves Erdogan’s ambitions which threaten their economic interests, and bear the costs of their short-sightednessalone.

Egyptian military circles think that the Turkish presence in Libya is a threat to the ruling regime in Egypt, while the expected threat from Ethiopia, due to the construction of the Renaissance Dam, is one that jeopardises the fate of the Egyptian state. The latter, therefore, has priority over the former, and any military intervention in Libya at this time opens the way for Ethiopia to implement its project without consideration to Egypt’s vital interests, and encourages other countries of the Nile Basin to duplicate Ethiopia’s experience.