The Egyptian parliament agreed on Monday to authorise President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to send the army on combat missions abroad to "defend Egyptian national security". The move came as the date approaches for the military operation expected to be launched by the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) to liberate the cities of Sirte and Al-Jafra from the forces loyal to renegade Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his mercenaries.
Analysts believe that this strengthens the possibility of a clash between Turkey and Egypt in Libya, prompting speculation about possible scenarios in the event that the Egyptian army does cross into its North African neighbour. How will Ankara respond to Egypt's intervention targeting Turkey's military presence in Libya and its GNA ally in Tripoli?
If the Egyptian army does enter Libyan territory to support Haftar's forces, the crisis would not be between Egypt and Turkey, but between Egypt and Libya. In other words, the confrontation will not be Arab-Turkish, but Arab-Arab. It will be between forces supporting revolutionaries and mercenaries accused of war crimes and grave violations against civilians, and legitimate forces of a government that represents the Libyan people and is recognised by the UN. Egyptian soldiers will not be facing Turkish soldiers, they will face Libyans, the heirs of the legendary freedom fighter Omar Al-Mukhtar.
Turkey does not want direct confrontation with Egypt, nor with any other Islamic country, regardless of the differences they may have. It believes that this type of confrontation depletes the two sides involved and serves the interests of other powers. Moreover, the Egyptian army is, after all, the army of the Egyptian people, although today it has become an instrument of the coup leaders who do not represent the will of the people. Tomorrow, though, the army may belong to a democratically elected government to serve the interests of Egypt and the Islamic nation. Nevertheless, Turkey will not hesitate to respond to any attack against its forces in Libya.
There are constants adopted by Ankara that cannot be abandoned, such as the need to preserve the territorial integrity of Libya and to challenge efforts to partition the country. It will certainly support the GNA militarily and technically by providing it with weapons, equipment, training and expert guidance within the framework of bilateral agreements and common interests. Its diplomats are also on hand to support the government in Tripoli.
No matter what Sisi and his aides may claim, any Egyptian intervention in Libya will be illegitimate and against the will and interests of the Libyan people. This is one of the reasons for the confusion in Cairo, which said that it was ready to arm and train the Libyan tribes, and then retracted this threat after the criticism of the international community and Libya's neighbours. The possible "Somali-isation" of the country in a bloody civil war will not only threaten those neighbouring states, including Egypt, but will also pose a major threat to the security of Europe.
Nobody in Turkey is waiting for it to be dragged into an uncertain military adventure, because it is led by a democratically elected civilian president who has long experience in government, unlike Egypt, which is ruled by a coup-leading general who lacks the lowest level of political, diplomatic and economic skills and experience, and is surrounded by a group of fools, sycophants and reckless princes. Sisi is leading his country from failure to failure. Furthermore, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reads international and regional balances carefully and uses them successfully in favour of Turkey. He would undoubtedly have no difficulty in turning the tables on Sisi if the Egyptian army crosses into Libya.
Sisi may still take the plunge, though, in the hope of confronting Turkey's support for the GNA, but he could be surprised by his regime being besieged by European, Arab and even African countries. Cairo is probably monitoring Turkish diplomacy, such as the tripartite meeting a few days ago that brought together Defence Minister Hulusi Akar with Qatar's Minister of Defence Khalid Al-Attiyah and Libyan Minister of the Interior Fathi Bashagha; and the latter's meeting in Ankara with Akar and the Maltese Interior Minister Byron Camilleri. Moreover, Mulatu Teshome Wirtu, the special envoy of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has visited Ankara and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has toured Africa.
A simple comparison between the number of ships, aircraft and tanks that Egypt and Turkey each have in order to predict the likely outcome of a confrontation is likely to be misleading. Armies depend on political and diplomatic manoeuvres to direct them appropriately and effectively. When all of these factors are considered, then the balance is clearly in Turkey's favour.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 22 July 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.