The Egyptian army is short on military successes, and that history may give some military officials pause for thought.
Egypt’s autocratic President Abdel Fattah el Sisi recently threatened Libya’s internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) with military action should they advance towards the strategic city of Sirte.
The former general, who came to power after the July 2013 coup that overthrew the country’s only democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was speaking after dramatic advances by the Tripoli-based GNA against warlord, Khalifa Haftar, a Sisi ally.
In recent months, the GNA, backed by Turkey and its fleet of drones, has claimed territory around Libya, banishing Haftar’s forces towards the eastern part of the country.
Sirte, home to former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, would be a symbolic and strategic milestone for the GNA.
Such successes have become a major source of worry for Sisi and his backers, especially those in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
“If some people think that they can cross the Sirte-Jufra frontline, this is a red line for us,” Sisi said, adding that his country’s intervention would be justified if invited to do so by the warlord Haftar, who has no legal basis to invite such involvement.
‘Cracks’ within the army
For all of Sisi’s bluster, it remains unclear whether he can take any effective action to slow the GNA’s advance.
Some Egyptian analysts even argue that Sisi’s plans, if truthful, may not receive much support from Egypt’s powerful generals. Such military officials may believe that a possible defeat in Libya could lead to repercussions for the Sisi regime at home.
“It is more than likely that Sisi’s policies in Libya are creating cracks and dismay in the army but he will of course continue to try to clamp down on this,” said Dr Maha Azzam, head of the Egyptian Revolutionary Council and a former fellow at London-based Chatham House.
“The Egyptian military whether among it’s officer class or rank and file would not welcome Sisi’s policies or declaration of war on Libya however the General Command today is more a rubber stamp for Sisi as he has tried to ensure that those who surround him are yes men,” Azzam told TRT World.
Azzam is not the only observer who predicts discontent within the army.
“According to military law, they [generals] have no right to say no [to Sisi]. But they may disappoint him because they know very well that this would not be an easy journey in an open space like Libya,” said Hamza Zawba, a political analyst and the former spokesman for Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party.
Since the 2013 military coup against the country’s first-democratically elected president and government, the Egyptian population has increasingly dealt with both economic and political difficulties.
The Egyptian military suffered during its long and tiring campaign in the Sinai Peninsula against armed groups, including allies of the Daesh terrorist group.
“Conscripts and the lower ranks of the army believe that they are being used as cannon fodder in an endless war in Sinai evicting Egyptians from their land. Now they see Sisi using them to kill fellow Arabs and Muslims who are under the tutelage of a warlord,” Azzam observed.
‘Declaration of War’
Any Egyptian intervention is likely to be fiercely resisted by the GNA, which described Sisi’s threats as a ‘declaration of war’, at a meeting of the Arab League last weekend.
Given the likely harm Egyptian soldiers face, Azzam argues that there are few pretexts justifying taking such risks.
“Both the rank and file and the Egyptian public have no appetite to wage war against their Libyan brothers and one that is not being waged for Egyptian interests but for other regional powers and for Sisi’s own survival,” said Azzam, referring to Sisi’s Gulf backers, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who support Haftar both militarily and politically.
The Egyptian army, which used to be regarded as the most powerful military in the Arab world, has lost much of its prestige for its losses in Sinai and its poor record on human rights, such as the Rabaa massacre in 2013, which killed nearly a thousand people following the coup against Morsi.
“Sisi’s adventures into Libya are a continuation of his own coup against the legitimate government of Egypt in 2013; he has now engaged against the legitimate government of Libya,” adds Azzam.
Zawba further argued that Libya’s complex terrain and long border with Egypt could create instability should Sisi go ahead with his promised campaign.
“If the geography is not in your favour, you don’t know who you are fighting. Are you fighting with people, tribes, revolutionaries or government forces? You are going to fight against ghosts,” Zawba told TRT World.
Egypt needs only to look at some other of its Gulf allies have walked into quagmires in their respective forays across the Middle East. In Yemen, a Saudi-UAE axis is fighting to a stalemate with Iran-backed Houthi rebels. In Libya, despite tens of millions of dollars worth of arms shipments, Haftar has failed to maintain territorial gains.
Nevertheless, Azzam believes that driven by a desperation to stamp out the possibility of a successful democratic example in the Middle East and the Arab world, the Egyptians and their allies will continue taking risks.
“This is an attempt by Sisi and his allies [the UAE and Israel] to ensure that the hope of democracy and freely and fairly elected governments in the region does not succeed. Sisi’s role is to ensure that there is no revival of the Arab Spring,” Azzam concluded.