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Reports of Egyptian military campaign in Libya fuelling concerns of proxy battleground

Ever since long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi was ousted from power in 2011, Libya has been mired in chaos. Various militias that fought to topple Gaddafi have continued to operate with impunity, while the weak civilian government has been unable to rein them in. In recent weeks, fighting between rival militias has intensified, sweeping through Libya's two main cities, Tripoli and Benghazi. These rival forces are generally characterized as Islamist and nationalist, although of course these labels are over-simplistic. The secular nationalist group, under the leadership of General Khalifa Hafta, is comprised of Libyan armed forces as well as affiliated militias. The coalition of Islamist forces, known as Operation Dawn, has been making gains, setting up their own government and reviving an old parliament (there have been several attempts at establishing parliaments since 2011).

This has led to a situation where there are effectively two rival governments, with the one that was elected most recently, in June, forced to flee to Tobruk, a remote port 1,000km from Tripoli. Although this government is the only one recognized as legitimate by the UN and other international bodies, it no longer controls any of the key cities of Libya. In the capital, Tripoli, the reinstated rival (broadly Islamist) government sits. In Benghazi, the second city and the centre of the 2011 revolution, Islamist fighters – some of whom are linked to al-Qaeda – hold sway. The third city, Misrata, is loyal to the rival government in Tripoli.

Three years after Gaddafi was toppled – with the help of western intervention – many believe Libya is turning into a failed state. Although western nations are now backing away from Libya, it appears that some regional powers are being drawn further and further in to the conflict. There were reports this week that Egypt was deepening its involvement in the fight against Islamist militias. It has been alleged that Egyptian warplanes bombed the Islamist militia's positions in the eastern city of Benghazi. The AP news agency quoted two Egyptian officials saying that the use of the aircraft was part of an Egyptian-led campaign against the militia that will also involve Libyan ground troops trained by Egyptian forces and an Egyptian navy vessel. They said that the operation was requested by the internationally recognized Libyan administration in Tobruk. But in an official statement to Egypt's state-run news agency, the government denied that Egyptian warplanes were striking Libya. A Libyan lawmaker admitted that Egyptian warplanes were being used, but claimed they were being flown by Libyan pilots.

Despite these official denials, it is no secret that Egypt is concerned about the prospect of Islamist fighters seizing control of Libya. The two countries share a border and Egypt, which has engaged in a brutal crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood, views the presence of extremists near its western border as a direct threat to its national security. Egypt's military-backed regime has stated its support for the elected administration in Tobruk and has been open about its willingness to train and arm forces. "This is a battle for Egypt, not Libya," AP quoted one official as saying. "Egypt was the first country in the region to warn against terrorism and it is also the first to fight it."

If it is true that Egypt has stepped up its involvement to a direct military campaign it is a significant development. This follows reports in August that airstrikes on Islamist targets, after Operation Dawn seized Tripoli, were carried out by Egypt-UAE airstrikes. For months, analysts have warned that Libya could become a proxy battleground for larger regional struggles. Turkey and Qatar have backed the Islamist militias, while Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates support the Tobruk government and Hafta's forces, who are fighting the Islamist elements. While international attention has focused on the crisis in Syria and Iraq there is some legitimate concern about the risk of the chaos in Libya spreading to neighbouring countries. The Islamist uprising in Mali was directly linked to the Libyan conflict, and there is evidence that the weapons that proliferate in Libya are making their way all over the Middle East. In a report in April 2013, the UN warned that weapons from Libya were spreading at an "alarming rate", fuelling conflicts in Mali, Syria, and elsewhere in the region, bolstering the arsenals of extremists and criminals. It also found that weapons were flowing into Egypt, particularly to armed groups in the Sinai.

There are also concerns that the involvement of regional powers will continue to escalate the conflict. The rivalry between Qatar and the UAE has already ramped this up, with each pumping military aid to their favoured militia groups. Direct military intervention could trigger counter-intervention by allies of Islamist groups. As the world's eyes remain on Syria, Libya's civil war is worsening, and the prospect of partition or years of continued bloodshed looms large.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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