Will Egypt's military intervene to secure Libyan border?

As conditions in Libya rapidly deteriorate, some in Egypt call for military intervention to secure the mutual border.

al-monitor A refugee walks past suitcases belonging to the displaced at the Libya-Egypt border in eastern Libya, March 16, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly.

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security, libyan militias, islamists, egyptian army, egypt, border

Aug 8, 2014

A new danger extends along Egypt’s 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) western border with Libya. As conditions inside Libya deteriorate, especially in the east of the country, the Egyptian border is no longer threatened by the customary smuggling of weapons and drugs. Libya’s collapse — manifested in the impotence of the country’s governmental institutions — has made the entire shared border a staging ground for the spread of extremist organizations armed with weapons left behind by the [Moammar] Gadhafi regime, which they can easily distribute.

This danger has provoked a suggestion for Egyptian military intervention in Libya, to confront the threat emanating at its west. This call was not made by someone well-known for impulsiveness, but by a high-ranking diplomatic official, Amr Moussa, former general secretary of the Arab League and president of the Committee of Fifty for the amendment of the constitution. This imbues this suggestion with a certain amount of weight, despite Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s rejection of the idea of a military operation.

The danger coming from the west is compounded by an equally important danger inside Egypt. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime following the June 30 Revolution was a defeat for political Islam, and specifically for its reformist and moderate wing. This may push the supporters of the Islamist political current to be disillusioned with the moderate path — democratic methods and ballot boxes — especially since this is the third time that Islamists have had this experience. Historical precedents include the Algerian elections of 1989, the victory of the Hamas movement in the legislative elections of 2006 and the advance of the more extremist portions of the Islamist movement in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

Indeed, the current developments in these three countries could provide a morale boost to extremism inside Egypt. This is especially likely given repeated reports of the participation of Egyptian youth in the Islamic State (IS) movement. This means that the threat lurking on Egypt’s borders could find allies inside Egypt itself.

Developments in Libya therefore constitute serious challenges to Egypt’s leadership. Gen. Khalifa Hifter did not succeed in confronting such challenges in Libya, forcing Egyptian leaders to discuss options that once seemed impossible, including military intervention.

Gen. Rifat Abd al-Hamid, an expert in criminology, told As-Safir, “The conditions on the Libyan border pose challenges that must be taken into account. They represent an imminent danger to Egyptian national security on the levels of law enforcement, politics, diplomacy and the economy.” Abd al-Hamid added, “There are terrorist cells located in eastern Libya that possess weapons and materiel left over from the Gadhafi regime’s arsenal, allowing them to easily disrupt Egyptian national security. This is as dangerous as the situation on the eastern border. But luckily, the Egyptian state became aware of this danger early on. There are now reinforcements on the western border, and any violation of that border will be handled with the utmost decisiveness.”

He said, “According to international law, it is Egypt’s right to secure its borders as it sees fit,” adding, “The danger is interwoven with conditions inside Egypt. This also must be taken into consideration. This subject has been studied, and the Egyptian [security] services are aware of it. We will soon hear about the surprises that the armed forces have in store to get these groups under control.”

Yet Gen. Nabil Fouad, a professor of strategic studies, downplayed the seriousness of these events. As he told As-Safir, “There is nothing new on the Libyan border. Smuggling operations into Egypt have gone on for a long time, and they are connected to organized crime and global commerce. But the formation of the so-called ‘Free Egyptian Army’ on the Libyan border has not been proven. Nonetheless, the lack of stability in Libya has consequences for Egypt.”

He continued, “There is certainly communication between the Brotherhood inside and outside of Egypt, and the presence of al-Qaeda, IS and Libyan groups on the border represents a threat to Egyptian security. But discussion of military intervention is irresponsible, and the issues have not been carefully considered. We don’t live on an isolated island, and there are regional and international forces — as well as forces within Libya — whose responses to such an intervention would be unpredictable.”

He added, “I think that the Egyptian leadership is responsible, and it knows that this is a quagmire that we don’t need to slip into. We have experiences that we don’t want to repeat, meaning the war in Yemen.”

He said, “There are those who will recommend avoiding [ground] intervention and making do with airstrikes, but this will not be accepted by Libyans, Arabs or the international community. Libya has a government and a parliament, and their relations with Egypt is good.” He suggested, “It is possible to coordinate with various forces inside of Libya to protect the border, and it is possible to support government forces with weapons, expertise and training.”

Gen. Fouad believes that “the Egyptian forces on the border are equivalent in size to a full field army, and are supported by all types of weapons. Moreover, the Egyptian armed forces are not sect-based or ethnically based, so they are coherent, which is untrue of other, more fragile armies.”

The anticipated security risks to the western Egyptian border seem significant. But there are other dangers that have begun to make themselves known, including the economic impact of the deterioration of conditions in Libya, which threatens to deprive thousands of Egyptian laborers of their jobs in the neighboring state. It also threatens to force them to return to Egypt, which would worsen the unemployment crisis and increase the welfare burden on the Egyptian state. It would be difficult to anticipate whether or not that problem could be easily solved.

On this subject, the president of the Egyptian-Libyan Association for Investors, Nasser Bayan, told As-Safir, “The problem of the return of Egyptian workers from Libya will of course have an impact, given the crisis of the Egyptian economy. But we hope that it will be limited in scope — there are regions of Libya that have not been affected by these events, and moreover, the return of workers will only be from regions [of Libya] that are in crisis.” In his opinion, “The economic impact of what is happening in Libya will be limited given that the size of the investments between the two countries has not changed in three years, as there are no Egyptian investments in Libya, though there are Libyan investments in Egypt.”

He continued, “The flow of trade will be impacted, but that is limited to begin with and does not exceed 1 billion Egyptian pounds. Moreover, most of Egyptian companies’ projects in Libya stopped operations a while ago.”

Over the decades, Egypt’s east was a source of danger and a theater for the operations of the Egyptian security forces and military. But a new threat emerges today, which is no less dangerous than the danger of the east, and could increase. For that reason, Egyptian forces are preparing to cross the western desert, secure a border of over 1,000 kilometers, and protect the Egyptian flank, which is exposed to an opponent that will not hesitate to strike it.

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