Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi went to the border with Libya on Saturday to boost his army’s morale before sending them to fight against a foreign enemy. The visit was given a lot of media coverage.
However, Sisi’s speech to the troops betrayed his nerves. He was a man concerned about the major losses of his ally across the border, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
Al-Sisi believe that the potential loss of Sirte and Al-Jufra to the Government of National Accord violates his “red lines” and Egyptian national security, and thus justifies his army’s intervention in Libya. At 1,000 kilometres from Egypt, Sirte is actually closer to Tunisia. With its military air base, Al-Jufra is closer to Algeria and Tunisia than to Egypt, so why did Tunisia and Algeria not declare the two cities to be their red line?
Look at the politics of the situation. Egypt’s position on the conflict in Libya is biased and dishonourable; Sirte and Al-Jufra become a red line only when they may fall into the hands of the internationally-recognised GNA. However, Sisi sees nothing wrong with them being under the control of the rebel Haftar.
Moreover, if Sisi is sure that Sirte and Al-Jufra are on the verge of falling, does he not conclude that Haftar is finished and out of the game? If the two cities do fall to the GNA, and Sisi carries out his threat to intervene with deep infiltration of Libyan territory and air strikes, it will be a military, political, strategic and moral disaster.
What and who will the Egyptian army fight in Libya’s vast deserts and geographically distant cities? Egypt’s senior army officers should remind Sisi that the time of conventional warfare is over; that experience over the past thirty years or so has provided no war which ended due to purely military action; and that the world is moving towards new kinds of conflicts. They should remind him that the US, with its vast military resources and backed by international alliances, had to admit failure in two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and that France is drowning in the quagmire of Mali and the African coast.
As for air strikes, there is no hope for them. The Egyptian air force can bomb Libya for half a century, but it will achieve nothing. Again, senior officers should remind their president that air strikes are helpful but not decisive. They should advise him to learn from the ongoing Saudi experience in Yemen since 2015, where Saudi Arabia has been practically, morally and politically defeated. If Sisi goes ahead with air strikes in Libya, its western neighbour will become Egypt’s Yemen, and the Egyptian President will have committed moral and political suicide, just as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has done in his own neighbour.
No less pressing is the question of Turkey’s presence in Libya. Has Sisi considered that? Does he think it will stand idly by and watch as his forces attack Turkish allies? Can, and will, Egypt bear the cost of fighting a war against Turkish forces in Libya?
Someone must be pushing Sisi to commit political suicide in this quagmire. Is it the UAE, which also pushed Bin Salman into Yemen and then abandoned him in order to implement its own agenda? Is it Russia? Is it perhaps the two of them, the first by promising funds and the second weapons? We cannot overlook the role of France which, when the time comes, may guarantee to Sisi that half of Europe will back his move and provide a veto at the UN if necessary.
Fortunately for Egypt and the region as a whole, there are accumulated domestic and regional conditions that do not serve Sisi’s adventure nor facilitate its implementation. They appear at first sight to be disadvantageous for the Egyptians, but if we look deeper, we find that they may actually protect them from Sisi’s folly, forcing him to slow down before reaching the brink of the abyss.
These conditions have shifted the centre of the crisis from Egypt towards the Gulf. Egypt is in trouble at home and abroad, and the last thing it needs is a new war with an unpredictable endgame. The crisis with Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam is consuming a lot of Cairo’s diplomatic time and effort. Domestically, there is an economic crisis while the Egyptian army is exhausted by its war of attrition in the Sinai Peninsula, which has gone on for too long against a constantly renewing enemy. Before thinking about a war in Libya, Sisi needs to overcome these crises, most notably the economic collapse and the lost confidence of the people of Egypt after seven years of his rule during which their country’s conditions have worsened and its status has declined.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 23 June 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.