Egypt has numbers but it can't sustain a war, even with the help of Gulf funding.
It did not take the Arab Axis of Autocracy long to start issuing threats after would-be Libyan military dictator Khalifa Haftar was sent packing from the capital Tripoli last month, ending a 14-month siege in dramatic fashion.
Disturbed at the fact that democratic “upstarts” could possibly turn the tide against a formerly ascendant strongman, Egypt’s latest pharaonic leader, President Abdel Fattah El Sisi threatened the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) that his regime could launch a military intervention if the GNA’s forces capture the coastal city of Sirte in their eastward drive to secure a viable, secure Libyan state.
While Egypt certainly has the numbers, the military technology, and the backing of countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia - the financiers of most anti-democracy movements in the Middle East and North Africa - the strategic realities it faces means that Sisi’s threats are laughable and militarily unviable.
Turkey’s intervention ruined Haftar’s hopes
Firstly, it is crucial to highlight precisely why the GNA was able to rout Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) from Tripoli and its climes when it was only just about able to hold onto the capital over the past year.
Turkey’s intervention into the conflict, at the invitation of the United Nations-backed GNA in late 2019, completely turned the tide against Haftar. Where the LNA – which has enjoyed extensive support from Russia, Egypt, France, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia – was previously able to use its air superiority to seemingly strike GNA ground forces at will, forcing them to lose ground and hole up in more defensible positions within cities, Turkey’s state-of-the-art Bayraktar drones changed the course of the war, turning Haftar’s offensive into a veritable rout.
The GNA was thus able to move from purely defensive operations to a more offensive posture, reclaiming territory and key strategic assets including the Al Watiya Airbase, pushing the frontlines further eastwards towards Haftar’s Benghazi base.
It is not much of a surprise, then, that Egypt, the Emiratis, and the Saudis are becoming increasingly concerned for their Libyan ally. Turkey is already in talks with the GNA over the use of Al Watiya base as well as the naval base at Misrata, which would allow it to establish a more permanent military footprint in the Southern Mediterranean. This would mean that Ankara could not only continue to support, protect, and train Tripoli’s forces, but it would also strengthen Turkey’s strategic posture vis-a-vis its interests in energy exploration in the Mediterranean Sea which is currently being opposed by the LNA’s allies as well as Italy and Greece.
Nothing upsets an Arab autocrat’s stomach more than watching Turkey making mutually advantageous strategic alliances right in their backyard. Turkey is securing its national security interests in Syria, it is currently considering options for establishing a more stable military presence in Northern Iraq, and it now has a decisive say in the future of Libya.
Haftar’s success was seen as part of the wider regional anti-democratic push instigated by the Saudis and the Emiratis to smother what was left of the Arab Spring and to start a new age of autocracy in the region. Inversely, his failure shows how those plans can be foiled by legitimate local actors being supported by friendly powers who oppose the autocrats’ view of the world.
In short, as long as the GNA enjoys the support of the Turkish government, Haftar’s hopes for a military resolution have been completely dashed and the LNA’s backers are now scrambling to contain the damage.
The military picture does not favour Egypt
It is therefore undoubtedly in Turkey’s and the GNA’s interests to press onto Sirte and to also capture the Jufra District to the south of the coastal city.
Firstly, Sirte lies on the main road connecting the GNA’s Tripoli with the LNA’s Benghazi further to the east, and also sits on the nexus of roads heading further south to Jufra.
Securing the city means securing the roads, and in a country as large as Libya which is mostly covered by desert, control of the road networks means having the capability to more rapidly deploy mobile military units to the frontlines. It will also facilitate a defensive posture by allowing defensive deployments to be more readily supplied with fresh reinforcements and armaments. Therefore, securing Sirte in the north and Jufra further to the south would set up a defensible line which would protect the western half of Libya from further encroachments by Haftar.
Jufra is also rich in oil, and although Haftar would still control most of the oil in eastern Libya, control over Jufra would give the GNA access to a vital commodity it can legitimately trade on the global markets as the only internationally-recognised authority in the country.
Particularly for a country with such a small population of around five million, Libya has some of the largest oil reserves in the world which will open the door to increased investments and better living standards for regular Libyans who are exhausted by almost a decade of chaos and would welcome the stability.
On the other hand, and assuming Sisi decides to commit to a military intervention, he will have a force that is already pinned down in low-intensity conflict in Egypt’s Sinai and conscripts who are poorly paid and will not be motivated to fight a war on foreign soil.
The Egyptian economy is a shambles, and corruption is rife, which will pose a morale problem. The average Egyptian soldier will see that the GNA is no threat to his country, they are relatively far away, and he will not relish the idea of fighting Sisi’s war in a desert with an extended logistics and supply chain.
After all, when a third of regular Egyptians are living in abject poverty due to the economic policies of Sisi, why would they risk life and limb to fight on behalf of a foreign Libyan strongman who could not hold his own frontline?
Despite the numerical and technological superiority in land warfare, Sisi’s forces would not be able to last long in Libya. Their economy cannot finance such a war and, even if the rich Gulf Arabs were to finance them, their soldiers would not perform well due to a lack of morale and motivation that would only be compounded if they had to endure an air campaign from Turkey’s advanced drones.
As one of history’s famous commanders, Napoleon Bonaparte, once said: “In war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” The Egyptian military’s physical advantages are not to a sufficiently powerful and determinant degree to outlast the low morale of its soldiers. It is therefore all but a foregone conclusion that Sirte and Jufra will fall to the GNA, and Haftar will not receive any substantial conventional reinforcements from Sisi despite his bluster.
Similarly, the GNA is not powerful enough to drive eastwards and capture the rest of the country, and this will therefore mean that, sadly, Libya will be split in two until such day as the two warring factions can agree on a political solution.
However, and in the meantime, at least the legitimate government of Tripoli will be secure and can continue on with the business of governing.
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