Issue No.1209, 14 August, 2014      13-08-2014 07:42PM ET

Egypt and the Libyan quagmire

Libya is staring disaster in the face, write Ahmed Eliba and Kamel Abdullah

Egypt and the Libyan quagmire
President Al-Sisi stands with his Russian counterpart at a ceremony on board the missile cruiser Moskva in Sochi on Tuesday. Some observers have interpreted the newly boosted Russian-Egyptian relations as a move away from the American-dominated west on the part of Egypt, but the rapprochement might have more to do with Egypt’s efforts to diversify its sources of military and economic support
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Fragmented since the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, Libya is on the brink of collapse. In Benghazi retired General Khalifa Haftar launched his military campaign, Operation Dignity, on 16 May. On 13 July Salah Badi, another former military officer and one-time member of the General National Congress (GNC), launched a counter campaign, Libya Dawn.

As the situation continues to deteriorate, diplomatic and military delegations have been shuttling between Egypt, Libya and Algeria. The Libyan situation was high on the agenda of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s recent trips to Algeria, where he took part in the African Summit, Sudan and, this week, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

In Egypt officials say attempts to drag the Egyptian army into Libya aim to repeat the failed scenario of Egyptian involvement in Yemen in the 1960s. Recently, interim Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni called for Arab and international intervention.

It is something Cairo is determined to avoid. Egypt will not intervene in Libyan affairs, Assistant Foreign Minister for Neighbouring Countries Mohamed Badr El-Din Zayed told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“What Egypt will do is offer support to the Libyan people to try and overcome the security and political dilemmas facing them,” said Zayed, who flew to Libya this week to meet with senior officials and the speaker of the Libyan parliament. He stressed the need for Libyans to halt the violence and set in motion a comprehensive national dialogue involving all political forces. Egypt, he said, would offer what help it could to ensure the success of such measures.

A high-level intelligence source told the Weekly that urgent measures were needed to secure Egypt’s border with Libya. Special Forces, backed by satellite surveillance technology and rapid deployment teams, were on standby to counter any attempts to infiltrate Egyptian territory or smuggle arms across the desert.

 During his recent visit to Sudan Al-Sisi stressed the importance of cooperation over border security, according to Sudanese politician Al-Mahboub Abdel Salam. Joint security measures were now being put into effect to prevent any crossborder incursions.

Retired General Mohamed Ali Bilal, commander of Egyptian forces during the war to liberate Kuwait, does not think it necessary for the US to set up mobile monitoring bases, as it is trying to do in Algeria, in countries neighbouring Libya. “With the bases it already has in the Gulf, with its aircraft carriers and spy satellites, Washington is already able to deal with the Libyan situation. More than this begs many other questions.”

Ali Saleh, an expert on Libyan affairs, says the US already has a larger presence in Libya than many imagine.

“The operation that led to the arrest of Abu Khaltu and his transfer to the US demonstrated the extent of the US’s presence in the Libyan arena,” Saleh said. “It has led many to harbour suspicions about current developments in Libya and what the US is really up to.”

Bilal cautions against any outside intervention in Libya, warning of negative repercussions for any regional or Arab party that tries to get involved. The threats along Egypt’s borders are serious, he says, but Egypt’s response has been encouraging.

“Egypt has evacuated citizens from the affected areas. It is focussing on securing borders and preventing the import of extremism and terrorism,” Bilal explained. “In spite of limited resources we are doing the most we can with what is available, and we are being helped by friendly nations to monitor border areas using satellite surveillance technology.”

Speaking by phone from Tripoli, Libyan scholar Abdullah Al-Bakoush said that the security situation in Libya had become “like quicksand.”

He added, “Though international powers realise this, some regional parties are intent on propelling Egypt into the Libyan quagmire.”

The reason the international community balks at intervening in Libya, according to Al-Bakoush, is the absence of a strong party on the ground that might, with support, be capable of bringing the situation under control.

He warned that any Egyptian military intervention would lead to losses on both sides, saying, “Egypt has a very large expatriate community in Libya. Intervening militarily would place these people at risk since they would be easy prey for roaming Libyan gangs seeking revenge.”

A senior Libyan official who spoke on condition of anonymity disagreed. While Egyptian intervention would have some negative repercussions, he argued, they would be outweighed by positive ones, not least the creation of a solid force that could reverse the deteriorating security situation.

Egyptians, he insisted, were being alarmist over the potential impact of the security situation in Libya. “The eastern area, from Tobruk to the Egyptian border, is one of the most stable areas in the country. That was why the new parliament held its first meetings there.”

The border area is “secured socially”, he said. Tribal ties will prevent any extremist organisations establishing roots.

“It is an area with no record of infiltration by extremist elements, certainly not on the scale being portrayed in the media in Egypt.”

The region is a stronghold of the Senussi movement which is “well known for its tolerance and moderation.”

He told the Weekly, “The official Libyan position with regard to the question of Egyptian intervention can be summed up thus: we are seeking open-ended security cooperation with Egypt within the framework of which Egypt helps us build the capacities of Libyan army and police force.

“The Libyan government would like Egypt to help it bring the security situation under control. But any discussion of Egyptian military intervention must take into account the high risks this would entail for both sides.”

Since launching Operation Dignity General Haftar has made no secret of his admiration for Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and the boldness of the Egyptian army in removing Mohamed Morsi. Haftar has said on a number of occasions that he would like the Egyptian military to support his forces as they “purge Libya of terrorism and the Muslim Brothers.”

His desire for Egyptian military backing will have grown following advances made by the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, which succeeded in taking control of Benghazi after seizing Special Forces camps under the command of Colonel Wanis Boukhamada, one of Haftar’s allies.

In the west, meanwhile, Bedouin militias battling for control of Tripoli would also have no objection to military intervention if it helps them eliminate their adversaries, the Islamist Libyan Shield brigades loyal to the coastal city of Misrata. The situation in western Libya, though, is far from simple. Both Misrata and Zintan territory are surrounded by a belt of enemies.

Zintan has problems with neighbouring tribes, most notably the Amazigh and the Mashashiya. Misrata’s tribal enemies include the Warfala, Tarhuna, Tagoura and Zintan. Such traditional animosities make it particularly risky to intervene on behalf of any side. Libya has become a huge tinderbox.

President Al-Sisi has since affirmed Russia’s commitment to the unity and independence of Libya, asserting that the Russian position conforms with that of Egypt on the need to refrain from intervention in Libyan affairs.

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