Egypt tightens border security amid Libyan unrest

Following former Gen. Khalifa Hifter’s campaign against armed Islamist groups in Libya, Egypt has partially closed its eastern border and is trying to avoid any negative repercussions of this unrest.

al-monitor A vehicle crosses the sand dunes of Egypt's western desert near the border with Libya, Feb. 3, 2002. Photo by REUTERS.

Topics covered

libya, islamists, foreign workers, egypt, diplomacy, border crossing, arms smuggling

May 26, 2014

On the morning of May 16, the forces of Khalifa Hifter, a former Libyan army general, began a military operation dubbed "Libya's Dignity" against what he described as "terrorist" groups in Benghazi. The operation later moved to the capital, Tripoli, and has left dozens dead and hundreds wounded.

The current turmoil in Libya is directly affecting its eastern neighbor, Egypt. The two countries are linked by a shared land border stretching nearly 1,200 kilometers (745 miles), besides the presence of thousands of Egyptians living and working in various Libyan cities.

Libya's border with Egypt

On May 20, the Egyptian authorities decided to close the Egyptian-Libyan border. This decision bans Egyptians from traveling to Libya, and forbids Libyans from entering Egypt until the security situation becomes stable. Maj. Gen. Abdel Moneim Saeed, the former head of operations for the Egyptian armed forces, told Al-Monitor that closing the border was an inevitable step. He noted that the border was closed to protect Egypt from arms smuggling operations to and from Libya, especially in light of the security vacuum in Libya and the inability of the Libyan side to control these smuggling operations.

Preventing arms smuggling into Egypt was not the only reason for the Egyptian authorities to decide to close the border. Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia — three of Libya's neighbors — had all agreed on closing their borders with the latter to prevent what they called "jihadists" from entering into Libya. These countries also tightened security on their maritime borders with Libya.

As the armed conflict in Libya between Hifter's supporters and armed Islamist groups expands, reports have emerged about the potential intervention of the Egyptian military, in coordination with the Libyan side, through striking specific targets inside Libya. Yet, Saeed adamantly denied this, saying that the Egyptian army is only concerned with the Egyptian interior and protecting Egypt's borders with its neighbors. 

Regarding trade via the Salloum border crossing, which links Egypt and Libya and is closed, Egyptian Minister of Transport Ibrahim el-Demiri issued instructions during a cabinet meeting on May 22, preventing the exit of transport trucks from all Egyptian ports that are heading to Salloum with the intent of entering Libya. He called on all trucks carrying goods from production sites within Egypt to abide by the same principle and not move from the production sites until further notice.

Egyptian workers amid the unrest

Libya is a country that attracts many Egyptian laborers, and because of the risk that the armed battles could pose to Egyptians residing there, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called on Egyptian citizens to stay away from areas of conflict. Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdel-Atti told Al-Monitor that the Foreign Ministry has requested that Egyptians in Libya not venture outside the areas where they live and work.

Abdel-Atti added that the situation in Libyan cities had not reached the level of danger whereby the Egyptian authorities would call on their citizens to return. He noted that the decision to close the border included exceptions, allowing Libyans in Egypt to return to their country as well as allowing Egyptians returning from Libya to enter.

According to Abdel-Atti, the Foreign Ministry does not have confirmed information regarding the exact number of Egyptians in Libya. However, he noted, "I think their numbers exceed 1 million." He also confirmed that the Foreign Ministry had called the foreign ministers of the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia and Algeria to discuss the latest developments inside Libya and how to get out of the current crisis. He said that these calls led to an agreement on a number of future steps, yet Egypt will not disclose them at this time.

Abdel-Atti said that the Egyptian Embassy in Libya has created emergency phone numbers to receive the complaints and distress calls of Egyptian expatriates in Libya.

Meanwhile, the Libyan side in Egypt, represented by the Libyan Embassy in Cairo, declined to issue any statements about the current events in Libya or relations with Egypt. The office of Libyan Ambassador to Egypt Fayez Jibril told Al-Monitor that the ambassador had returned to Libya for consultations, and Libyan officials in Egypt are refraining from talking to the press. 

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