By Mahmoud Gamal
A previous study published by the Egyptian Institute for Studies (EIS) titled, Egyptian Role in Libya: Determinants and Tracks, concluded that the likeliness of a direct and declared intervention in Libya by the Egyptian army started to increase more than ever before.
Fourth: Motives and constraints of Egyptian military intervention:
There are several motives that drive Sisi into declared widespread military intervention in Libya at the present time. Meanwhile, there are several constraints that may prevent him from taking such a step to avoid the negative impact of intervention on his regime.
In the next lines, we will review both motives and constraints of Sisi’s intervention in Libya, as follows:
1- Security of the regime:
As we mentioned earlier, Al-Sisi addresses the Libyan file as representing an important dimension of his personal security as well as the security of his regime.
Therefore, al-Sisi considers the transfer of battles from western Libya to the east as a direct threat, as he repeatedly stated, which would push him towards intervention, especially if the military situation deteriorated, and the Haftar project collapsed in favor of the GNA forces, as this would then entail a threat to the security of his regime.
2- Internal cohesion:
Sisi suffers from several internal problems and crises due to his mismanagement of some political and economic files. Meanwhile, there are parties within the sovereign institutions (the army and security services) that stand against him and his regime and have pressured the regime throughout the past period to achieve several gains.
Given the fact that in times of wars, there is a kind of national cohesion, where inter-conflicts are completely avoided, opening the Libyan front may be an important motive for Sisi at the present time to mobilize the military and other sovereign bodies and silence dissenting voices.
3- A plan to escape forward:
The local Egyptian situation is currently witnessing many economic and security difficulties, and it is likely that it will further worsen as a result of the health and economic effects that will result from the mishandling of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), as explained at the beginning of this paper, which may result in ignition of large-scale protests.
In light of this, and with the deterioration of the situation in Libya, particularly the Haftar project that is likely to become worse during the coming stage, which the regime will consider more threatening to its security and stability, the Sisi regime may intervene militarily in the Libyan file as a way to escape the internal situation, and to preoccupy the Egyptian public opinion with another issue, i.e. defending the Egyptian national security that is at risk based on a likely control of the militants of the Libyan East, as Al-Sisi always reiterates.
To intimidate and preoccupy the Egyptian public opinion with other issues, is, in fact, a well-known policy of the Sisi regime that always adopts the “security first” strategy. The regime always takes advantage of events and use them as a scare to intimidate and preoccupy the Egyptian public opinion with other issues.
This the same strategy followed by the regime in addressing the events taking place in the Sinai through demonstrating that the state is fighting “violent terrorism” supported regionally and internationally, and that the state is working day and night to combat such “terrorism”, and therefore any failure in other files (the economic file for example) should be overlooked, and the people must bear any difficulties, especially that the regime has so far failed to address another file that really threatens Egyptian national security, that is the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam file.
4- Military geography:
Libya is a neighboring country to Egypt, and it makes sense that the Egyptian army is aware of the military geography of Libya and the eastern Libyan region in particular, being similar to the geography of the Egyptian western region.
Therefore, Sisi believes that the fact that his forces know well the geography of Libya and the theater of operations, may give them preference in managing the battles rather than the forces The GNA and their supporters in case of outbreak of battles if Sirte and Al-Jafra were bypassed by GNA forces.
In addition, the Egyptian army’s proximity to the theater of operations will also make it easier for them to maintain supplies and deploy forces during the battles more easily than the Turkish forces supporting the GNA.
5- The pretext of legitimacy:
The Egyptian army is the only army among the countries that support Haftar that may claim that its military intervention in Libya is legitimate, under the pretext of preserving the Egyptian national security on the one hand, as Sisi always reiterates in his speeches; and on the other hand, the Egyptian regime will claim legitimacy of the Egyptian army’s intervention, as it came upon an invitation from a Libyan elected parliament, i.e. the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (although it had been dissolved by the Libyan supreme constitutional court in 2014); and perhaps this pretext would also be one of the factors that other forces allied with Sisi would take advantage of to push him into battles – as their armies lack such alleged “legitimacy” and can only support Haftar with various groups of mercenaries.
6- External pressure:
There are pressures from Haftar’s supporters, especially the UAE, to push the Egyptian army to military intervention in Libya, linking this intervention to the economic support provided by Abu Dhabi to the Sisi regime, at a time when Egypt is suffering from major economic problems, that perhaps get even further worse during the coming period due to the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic.
Therefore, as a result of the worsening economic situation of the Sisi regime, Sisi will be keen not to lose an ally like the UAE; and therefore the Egyptian regime may be forced to intervene militarily in Libya as a result of the Emirati pressures.
In this case, Sisi may not be able to evade military intervention in Libya as he did in Yemen, due to the different circumstances – as Libya’s geography to Egypt is not like Yemen’s geography – and also because the Sisi regime’s relations with the UAE are much deeper and stronger than the Saudi-Egyptian relations.
1- Concerns about likely consequences:
Sisi’s declared engagement in battles in Libya will have many repercussions, as the Egyptian army may suffer casualties and losses, taking into account that the Egyptian army already suffers greatly in the face of the armed insurgency in Sinai in the face of a group of irregular militants; and perhaps when it faces regular professional military forces, losses may be much greater, which will have negative repercussions within the military institution.
Such situation may create a state of discontent against Sisi within the military for implicating the army in an ill-considered battle, which would ultimately expose Sisi to a real threat from within the army, amounting to his overthrow if the scale of losses increased and it became clear that the military adventure failed.
Some similar experiences confirm this fact, such as the experience of the Argentine president, Jorge Rafael Videla, who engaged in an ill-conceived war against the British army in 1982 after occupying the Falklands, where his humiliating defeat led to his removal from power by the Argentine army.
2- The Renaissance Dam File:
Sisi’s entry into a war in Libya at the time when Egypt suffers from his ill-management of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) file that constitutes a direct strategic threat to the Egyptian national security, may expose Sisi to great internal criticism, either within the military or among the people that may see that the threat posed by GERD far outweighs any likely threat coming from Libya, which may open doors for turmoil and unrest that Sisi does not really want.
3- An opportunity for the anti-Sisi powers within regime:
There are some parties within the sovereign institutions that stand against Sisi, and those powers have clashed with Sisi in more than one occasion for achievement of some of their goals.
The most dangerous mobilization that these parties exploited to pressure Sisi was on September 20, but Sisi then realized the danger and took some measures to contain them. However, Sisi soon returned to his old strategy of abusing his opponents, even if they were from sovereign bodies.
In this respect, Sisi’s implication in the Libyan interior and his likely defeat will give these groups an opportunity to put pressure on him once again; but this time with the aim of getting rid of him, especially after the conflict between them has reportedly become a “zero conflict”.
These parties can disseminate reports on risks posed to the nation by Sisi’s plunging of the Egyptian army in unnecessary battles which may cause great losses and have severe consequences on the army’s cohesion and ability to carry out its tasks.
From this standpoint, Sisi might think a lot before engaging in such a military adventure to avoid such a dangerous scenario.
4- American objection:
One of the constraints that could prevent Sisi from implicating in a military intervention in Libya is the American objection to such wide-range intervention to face the army of a NATO member-state (Turkey) using American weapons.
The United States is currently working to restrain the Russian presence in Libya, and does not want to let the Russians establish a project of their own there, and accordingly they understood and accepted the Turkish presence in Libya.
Therefore, the United States may object to the likely Egyptian intervention, given the fact that the Egyptian regime and the Russian Federation are working side by side in the Libyan interior, and achievement of any success through the Egyptian military intervention, and the Haftar militia’s restoration of control again is in fact in the interest of Russia, as it will maintain and may even increase Russian influence in Libya, which is likely to be encountered by an American objection.
It is worth noting that Mohamed Buisier, a former political advisor to Khalifa Haftar and an American-Libyan citizen residing in Texas, now one of the strongest supporters of the Government of National Accord, said in a post on his Facebook page after Sisi’s meeting with the elders of some Libyan tribes, that Maj. Gen. Abbas Kamel, the director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service (GIS), informed the delegation that met with Sisi that the international situation does not allow Egyptian military intervention in Libya, in addition to Egyptian fears of involvement in the Libyan conflict for years, but that does not mean that Egypt will not support them politically and logistically – and this may specifically indicate the American objection to Egyptian intervention in Libya.
The factors that may make al-Sisi’s declared intervention in Libya most likely are currently increasing, mainly to preserve the security of his regime rather than seeking to defend the Egyptian national security.
We suggest that the factors that may make al-Sisi’s declared intervention in Libya most likely are currently increasing; and if efforts to find a political solution to the Libyan crisis failed, and the GNA resumed military operations to control all Libyan lands as it has repeatedly declared, the motives that could drive al-Sisi to openly intervene militarily in Libya will further increase, mainly to preserve the security of his regime rather than seeking to defend the Egyptian national security.
Sisi has currently got no alternative but to continue to support the Haftar project in Libya, and he is not likely to abandon him for whatever reasons, even if other regional or international supportive states, such as Russia, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, abandoned him. The fight for enabling Haftar is now considered a “zero battle” for Sisi, as it represents the security of his regime.
In fact, the Egyptian regime does not trust the efficiency of any Libyan military figure for playing the role that Haftar has played so far (whereas Russians, for example, may prefer reliance on some of the former Gaddafi regime symbols).
Moreover, the Egyptian regime believes that Haftar’s disappearance from the scene may result in conflicts and splits in his camp that are not likely to entail having a single “strong leader”.
Therefore, the Egyptian regime will maintain its support to Haftar in the coming period, providing all forms of support, which has already appeared over the past months, and is likely to continue even much more in the foreseeable future.
But if Haftar retreated and became in a worse military and political position than he is currently experiencing; and if his control further declined and became limited only to Libya’s eastern scale, amid absence of a likely political solution between the conflicting parties, then Sisi would most likely resort to supporting division of Libya after losing hope that Libya could remain united under Haftar’s leadership, to make sure that Haftar remains in control of the eastern part of Libya adjacent to the Egyptian border, and preserve the security and interests of the Sisi regime.
However, if the GNA succeeded in transferring the battles to the eastern region to impose its control on all Libyan lands, and crossed the Sirte-Al Jafra line that the Egyptian regime sees as a “red line”, as the GNA repeatedly declared its intention to extend its influence and control over all the Libyan territory, the Sisi regime would intervene directly and openly with large forces in these battles, given the fact that the military support provided to Haftar’s forces, including sophisticated weaponry and even provision of foreign mercenaries, was not sufficient to resolve the conflict.
In this case, Al-Sisi is likely to justify his intervention by claiming that he seeks defending the Egyptian national security by confronting the extremist currents that attempt to control the Libyan border lands adjacent to Egypt, as well as facing the Turkish role that the Sisi regime claims to be working to destabilize the Egyptian state.
Sending Egyptian troops to Libya may also be justified by provision of support to Libyans, especially in light of the repeated statements by Aqilah Saleh that Libya needs support from the Egyptian army in its war against terrorism and mercenaries in order to preserve the Egyptian and Libyan national security – which may indicate the possibility of such intervention.
The study suggests that the motives and prospects of the military conflict in Libya are increasing with the passage of time, which will inevitably raise the possibilities of the Egyptian army’s direct military intervention, where motives for such intervention overweigh its constraints, which would, in our view, entail many risks to the Egyptian army and the Egyptian national security in general, by entering into an unplanned military adventure, and accordingly adding a new challenge to numerous challenges facing Egypt at the present time – a challenge that may seriously push the nation towards failure of the State and its inability to fulfill the essential entitlements for Egyptian citizens.
Mahmoud Gamal is a researcher and director of the Monitoring and Documentation Unit at the Egyptian Institute for Political and Strategic Studies (EIPSS).