Will Egypt intervene in Libya crisis?

There are reports that the Egyptian military could ally with Gen. Khalifa Hifter to eliminate Islamists in Libya.

al-monitor Gen. Khalifa Hifter speaks during a news conference at a sports club in Abyar, a small town to the east of Benghazi, May 21, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori.

Topics covered

libyan militias, egypt, border, abdel fattah al-sisi

May 22, 2014

The Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room accused unnamed regional states of supporting retired Gen. Khalifa Hifter. Meanwhile, the 319th Brigade (the February 17 Battalion), affiliated with the Libyan army's general staff, issued a declaration that Egypt is supporting Hifter's forces with weapons and ammunition. Despite Egyptian denials, Cairo has more than one reason to call for intervention in Libya, just as there are Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with an interest in preventing [Ahmad] Maiteeq from becoming prime minister, especially since he is supported by the political arm of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood.

But there are also global powers that are viable candidates to intervene militarily in Libya, along the lines of the United States and France. Several days ago, Washington transferred its special forces from their base in Spain to the island of Sicily near the Libyan coast in order to evacuate [American] citizens from Libya in case of an emergency. Still, it is not impossible that the United States would bomb clearly defined targets within Libyan territory, whether by drones or as part of an umbrella force. This is especially true after Congress approved a commission of inquiry into the case of the American ambassador's assassination in Libya, along with three other Americans, in 2012.

France — which played a major role in supporting the rebels against Moammar Gadhafi and which has forces deployed in areas not far from Libya's borders — is the other major candidate for launching a military intervention in Libya. This could come in the form of a direct intervention, providing aerial support to militias on the ground or relying on providing allied militias with weapons and logistical support. Various news outlets have discussed the possibility that a Gulf state might finance a French military campaign to attack the strongholds of the Islamist battalions in Libya, especially those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, even if the bill for the campaign reaches into the tens of billions.

As for Egypt, it is the most enthusiastic of all to launch a military strike against the armed Islamist battalions, especially those located on Egypt's borders. The Egyptian press has long promoted the so-called “Free Egyptian Army” on Libyan territory, whose existence has since been proved to be baseless rumors, discredited by the denials of the local municipalities. Nevertheless, the rumor continues to be promoted in Egyptian media outlets, and Egyptian authorities might use it as a pretext for a military intervention in Libya, depending on how the situation evolves.

Egypt is seeking to form a regional-international coalition to oust the Brotherhood in Libya. Egyptian military intervention is not unlikely, even if the Egyptian Foreign Ministry has denied it, yet neither is it a fait accompli. This is so for several reasons. First of all, the General National Congress (the parliament) in Libya is controlled by the Wifa Lil-Shuhadah [Loyalty to the Martyrs] bloc, which is close to the Islamists. They stand in addition to the 17 seats held by the Justice and Construction Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya. The alliance of these two blocs allowed for the victory of businessman Ahmed Maiteeq in obtaining the position of prime minister. The new government’s path to power was cut off before it could officially assume its duties, however.

The existence of a government loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood on Egypt's western borders posed a strategic threat to an Egyptian government led, in effect, by former defense minister and presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. That government is already locked in an all-out war against the Muslim Brotherhood, and so Sisi is attempting to form a regional [or] international alliance including both America and France, as well as Saudi Arabia and the UAE — along with an attempt to pull in Algeria — united behind the goal of overturning the government in Libya before the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood and its loyalist armed battalions take over the government.

Several media outlets have quoted an [unnamed] Egyptian security official as saying, "Egyptian forces will intervene in the event they detect a danger to the country's borders, especially since there are ongoing attempts by some elements to infiltrate across the Western border into the Egyptian interior to carry out bombing campaigns before the presidential elections, according to reports monitored by Egyptian intelligence.

Sisi had previously called upon the West, foremost the United States, to intervene militarily in Libya, even in a one-off [operation]. Likewise, DEBKAFile, reputed to be close to Israeli security agencies, relayed information that an American report expressed fears that the Egyptian leadership [might embark on] a military intervention in Libya, and exploit the recent Apache helicopter deal to seize control of Libyan oil fields to confront Egypt's deepening economic crisis. Several Egyptian political circles called for military intervention in Libya after many Egyptian workers — particularly [Coptic Christians] — were killed in Libya. Egyptian diplomatic representatives have also been subject to kidnapping, before being exchanged for Libyan detainees in Egypt.

When asked about the “Free Egyptian Army” in Libya, Sisi stated that the Egyptian army "is capable of entering Algeria in three days." If we place this remark in context, he intended to say “Libya” and not “Algeria” since the discourse widely promoted by Egyptian media speaks of a “Free Egyptian Army” in Libya and not Algeria. This lays further emphasis on the notion that Egyptian military intervention in Libya with Gulf financing and Western backing, even if it is not condemned, is one of the scenarios on the table of the Egyptian army's leadership. If the Egyptian army entered Libya and reached the Algerian borders, this would no doubt provoke Algeria. Therefore Sisi is seeking to sway Algeria into joining his “worldwide” battle against the Brotherhood.

For all of that, Gen. Hifter, the leader of the rebellion against “the Libyan parliament” and the battalions supporting it (especially the Islamist ones), denied receiving any support from Egypt or Algeria in an interview published by Saudi newspaper Ash-Sharq al-Awsat. However, one of the leaders loyal to Hifter spoke to al-Sabil newspaper on condition of anonymity, for fear of assassination. He stated, "Hifter's supporters will need the necessary support from neighboring states, whether logistical or in terms of weaponry."

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