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Egypt’s Sisi risks a quagmire in Libya — and that’s not in the US’s best interest

A mantra in police training is never to pull a gun unless you are prepared to use it. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt has brandished his weapon in Libya, threatening on Sunday to intervene in that country’s east if forces based in the west move past the city of Sirte on the central coast. Sisi is not playing from a position of strength, though. And Libya is far more likely to be a trap for him than a springboard to victory.

Libya has faded from U.S. attention in recent years, and perhaps Egypt even more so. The Middle East’s problems have seemed intractable to many, and not worth any more U.S. lives or dollars. Even if one accepts that argument, a problem for Egypt is still a problem for the United States. Egypt’s population, its geographic location and its cultural weight make it a powerful force in things that Americans care about worldwide, from counterterrorism to nonproliferation. It is no coincidence that both Russia and China are investing in stronger relationships with Egypt.

As for Libya, the country has been in chaos since the Arab uprisings almost a decade ago. Dictator Moammar Gadhafi fell after 42 years in power, leaving behind few institutions and a host of criminal networks that trafficked in refugees, arms and whatever else they could get their hands on. In time, rival governments emerged. The country’s western government was a product of United Nations negotiations in 2015 that sought to resolve competing political and economic claims; the eastern government grew out of an elected parliament that rejected the U.N. agreement and is aligned with Khalifa Haftar, a former Gadhafi crony who defected, became a CIA asset, and then returned to Libya with an eye on power. 

Haftar proved to be a skillful diplomat. He was able to win support from Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and at times enjoyed support from France and from President Trump, too. The basis of his appeal was an argument that only he could save Libya from chaos and lawlessness. Jihadi groups, human traffickers, smugglers and others were rife in the country. The world needed order to flow out of Libya, in addition to oil, and he was just the leader to impose it.

And yet, Haftar proved a better diplomat than a general. The troops he commanded abandoned (and then sometimes rejoined, and then sometimes re-abandoned) him as conditions changed. Despite large-scale foreign assistance, his march across the country was uneven. His efforts to capture Tripoli, in Libya’s west, were unsuccessful. Even more damaging to his interests, he attracted substantial Turkish support to his enemies, empowering and emboldening them. Haftar could fight but he couldn’t win, and he has been steadily losing territory.

With the prospects of Haftar’s victory receding, his supporters have had second thoughts. The UAE seems to be exploring an alternative leadership, and Russia — always opportunistic in Libya — appears to be pulling back support. France seems to have concluded long ago that Haftar wasn’t strong enough to be a good strongman, and Trump’s support for Haftar — reportedly expressed in a phone call in April 2019 — appears to have evaporated.

That leaves Egypt’s Sisi clinging to Haftar. Sisi certainly has interests at stake: Tens of thousands of Egyptians work in Libya, and hundreds of thousands worked there in the past (and may in the future); lawlessness in Libya crosses the border with Egypt. More tendentiously, Egypt claims the Tripoli government is shot through with Muslim Brotherhood members. Sisi forced the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt in 2013 and continues to see the organization as an existential threat.

So, he has drawn his line in the sand at Sirte: Should the forces of the Tripoli government come any closer, he will intervene. 

Sisi probably hopes his threatened intervention will help speed Libya’s partition. Partition wouldn’t be a bad outcome for Egypt, by some calculations. It could put a friendly country on the border and allow Egyptians to flow back to support the Libyan oil industry. It also would re-establish Egypt’s reputation as a regional diplomatic and military power after years of apparent decline.

And yet, Egypt’s intervention is a big gamble. Part of Libya’s attraction to outside intervention is its oil wealth, and partition of the country would make dividing the oil spoils a blood sport. South Sudan’s tragic recent history is a haunting example of how partition sometimes goes wrong.

Equally daunting is Egypt’s military performance. Egypt has fought an insurgency in the North Sinai for almost a decade and has been unable to notch a convincing victory. Local populations in North Sinai see Egyptian forces as invaders from the Nile River Valley. It is hard to see why Libyans wouldn’t have a similar allergy to a military force from the East.

Finally, Egypt has the Gaza example to contemplate. The Egyptian army moved into the Gaza Strip in 1948, in the aftermath of Israeli statehood. Egyptians initially posed as liberators, defending Palestinians from the depredations of an expansionist Zionist state. But Egyptians soon soured on Gaza, and Gazans soured on Egypt. Egypt lost Gaza in the 1967 war, but there was little love lost on either side. For decades, Egyptians complained about smuggling and other illegal activities coming through Gaza, and they complained that the Palestinian leadership there wouldn’t follow their lead. Ultimately, Egypt cracked down on the 7.5-mile border, increasingly hostile to the Hamas government that rules Gaza. There is little goodwill.

Sisi seems to be betting that brandishing his gun will make Egypt the kingmaker in eastern Libya, demonstrate that he is the preeminent leader in North Africa, and return Egypt to its rightful place at the center of world events. Egypt has the largest army in Africa, and the former field marshal in Cairo’s presidential palace seems eager to win a quick victory.

In fact, Sisi is more likely to stumble into an intervention that will be harder to get out of than it was to get into. The intervention is unlikely to be neat; the military’s performance is likely to be spotty, and the resultant occupation could last for years.

Rather than cling to Haftar’s failing military efforts, Sisi should look beyond him to a leadership that can settle Libya’s civil war. It may be less satisfying for the former military leader, but Egypt’s success in Libya cannot be won from the barrel of a gun.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank focusing on defense, national security and international relations issues.

Tags Abdel Fattah al-Sisi Africa Donald Trump Egypt Khalifa Haftar libya Libyan civil war Tripoli

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