Egypt has outsourced much of its foreign policy forcing it to show a card that it can’t afford to play.
On June 20, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el Sisi warned of an imminent military intervention in Libya against the forces of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). He ordered his army to be ready to carry out any mission outside the country if necessary.
Stressing that Sirte-Jufra is a red line for Cairo that won't allow anyone to cross, Sisi added that, “Any direct intervention from the Egyptian state has now acquired international legitimacy.”
Many pundits rushed to draw up scenarios of an armed invasion and a possible direct Egyptian-Turkish military confrontation in Libya. However, such scenarios are far-fetched given that for several reasons, Sisi is highly unlikely to send his army to fight a war in Libya in the first place.
Arab armies in general are designed to protect the regime, rather than to fight modern wars. The military establishment in Egypt is no exception. Assuming that Sisi will send his army to Libya, he will need a valid reason to protect his position and justify his decision vis-a-vis the military establishment, in case the army gets bogged in the Libyan theatre later.
Although Egyptian officials have been promoting a false claim that Cairo is under a threat from GNA forces – which stand more than 1000 km away from the Egyptian borders – the absence of an imminent threat to Egypt’s national security from Libya will deprive Sisi of the legitimate basis needed to send his troops.
He will not risk jeopardising his position and stretching his army thin in the heart of the Libyan desert more than a thousand kilometres away from his own borders while there is no serious threat to his regime. Crucially, the generals of the military establishment will not sacrifice their luxurious life for an unjustified war in Libya.
Even if this point is ignored, Egypt still needs to secure Libyan and international support for the operation. The legitimate UN-recognised government (GNA) condemned such a step and considers it "a hostile act and direct interference that amounts to a declaration of war."
An Egyptian intervention in spite of the GNA’s position will fuel the conflict further and possibly result in dividing Libya.
When it comes to the international position, where the US stands is critical. Although President Trump can’t be trusted, the Pentagon stands firmly against a Russian presence in Libya and will likely block any Egyptian military move that would serve Moscow.
Egypt and its army are highly dependent on the American financial aid which amounts to $84 billion since 1946. In 2021, Cairo is set to take an additional $1.4 billion in military aid from the US. This means that it will need a green light from the US, and without approval, it is guaranteed that Sisi’s army will not go into Libya
Regionally, an Egyptian invasion will alarm Libya’s neighbors and it wouldn’t serve Cairo’s interesst. Over the course of the conflict, Egypt tried to undermine the roles of Algeria and Morocco in Libya. Sisi’s new initiative was announced without any consultation or coordination with these countries. Algeria in particular is currently working on a constitutional amendment that would allow its army to be deployed outside the country.
Finally, for some time, Egyptians have been threatening to use military force against Ethiopia to protect what they consider their share from the Nile river. However, as Addis Ababa proceeds in its plans to fill the “Nahda dam” next month, Sisi’s regime seems to have been strategically outsmarted by Ethiopia. Any Egyptian intervention in Libya will practically undermine Cairo’s offensive deterrence against Ethiopia and might even lead to emboldening Addis Ababa.
Having said this, there is always a possibility of the Egyptian military conducting a “show operation” right on the borders with Libya, or strikes here and there, but that wouldn’t leave strategic implications on the ground and might backfire anyway on Cairo.
If this is the situation, why did Sisi come out with such a bold warning against? When it comes to the timing, Sisi’s statements can be seen as a distraction from the most serious threats to Egypt’s national security and the embarrassing setbacks on the Nile issue – which is considered an existential threat to Egypt – and the security problems in Sinai, we well as growing economic challenges.
UAE’s trap for Egypt in Libya
Egypt’s role and influence in the region has been massively downsized since it became incorporated as a follower in the UAE-Saudi regional agenda. Cairo now has almost zero say in all the critical issues in the region whether it be Syria, Yemen, the Gulf crisis, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, and even in Libya where Abu Dhabi obviously leads the pro-Haftar camp in support of the military putschists against the UN-recognised government.
By drawing a red line in Sirte and Jufra, Sisi is actually banking on the Russian role – not on the strength of Egypt or its military – with the hope that he could score free gains out of Moscow’s which is stalling the progress of the GNA forces to Sirte and Jufra.
Sisi must have calculated that if GNA forces decided to stop, he can claim that his threat of military intervention is the reason behind it and boost his image as a power-player in the Libyan file without actually risking anything.
The other factor is that Sisi and the military establishment have been under pressure from the UAE to get directly involved in Libya. Many Egyptians are already afraid that UAE is driving Egypt into a quagmire in Libya the way it drove Saudi Arabia into the Yemeni swamp.
Since Sisi’s military coup in Egypt in 2013, Abu Dhabi has been increasing its influence in the Egyptian military establishment. Billions have been pumped in to buy loyalty and influence to the extent that Abu Dhabi is actually seen by many Egyptians as hacking the decision of the military establishment and turning the Egyptian army into a proxy army.
Those who agree with this note that the Egyptian army has been providing services to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It all started with the 2013 coup against the first democratically elected president in the history of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi; then the military operations in Sinai which is seen as a part of the “deal of the century”, then the war in Yemen, and then the support for Haftar in Libya and so on.
Indeed, Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) attended every opening ceremony of new major military bases. He is also seen as the man behind Egypt’s mega arms deals in the last few years. Despite Egypt’s dire economic situation, Sisi’s regime has been snapping up imported arms like never before. According to SIPRI, Cairo’s arms imports tripled between 2015–19, making it the world’s third-largest arms importer.
These UAE-sponsored arms deals are meant to prop up Sisi’s regime, buy influence in Western capitals especially France and Russia, and ensure that those capitals and the Egyptian army return the favour when needed – just like the current situation in Libya.
In the last six months or so, Abu Dhabi has been vocal about its desire to send the Egyptian army to Libya. Figures close to MBZ have been threatening that if Haftar failed in his mission, then the Egyptian army will achieve that mission on his behalf. They even clearly instigated Cairo to engage in a military confrontation against Turkey in Libya.
No wonder that the UAE and Saudi Arabia were the first to support Sisi’s latest military threat to invade Libya. However, given the aforementioned contradictions to military intervention, and the urgency of the Nile-Ethiopia issue, Sisi might find an excuse, after all, to escape from the Emirati trap, otherwise, we might just be in waiting for another regional UAE-Saudi-Egypt military fiasco.
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