General Mamdoh Shahen speaks in the parliamentary session in Cairo that voted to send troops to neighbouring Libya © KHALED MASHAAL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Egypt’s parliament has authorised the deployment of troops to Libya in a move that threatens to raise the stakes in the proxy civil war by increasing the potential for direct clashes between Egypt and Turkey.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president, warned last month that Cairo might intervene militarily if forces of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord in Tripoli, which is backed by Turkey, advanced eastward to capture the strategic port of Sirte, a gateway to oil installations.

In a statement the Egyptian parliament did not name Libya but said it had authorised armed forces to be deployed abroad to fight “criminal militias” and “foreign terrorist groups” on a “western front” — a reference Libya.

A Turkish presence in eastern Libya would be perceived by Cairo as a threat to its national security. Ankara supports the Muslim Brotherhood ousted from power in Egypt by Mr Sisi in 2013. The Egyptian president said last week his country would “not stand idly by in the face of moves that pose a direct threat to security”.

Cairo backs Khalifa Haftar, a renegade general with a power base in eastern Libya whose military campaign to topple the Tripoli government foundered after Turkey intervened in the civil war. Ankara armed his opponents and supplied them with drones, anti-aircraft batteries and Syrian mercenaries.

Last week Libya’s eastern-based parliament, a body aligned with Gen Haftar, invited Egyptian military intervention, citing what it described as Turkish breaches of Libya’s sovereignty. On Thursday, dozens of Libyan tribal dignitaries from eastern Libya flew in to Cairo to meet Mr Sisi and deliver the same message in an apparent effort to bestow legitimacy on any Egyptian intervention. 

“There is potential for three concerning scenarios,” said a western diplomat based in Cairo. In addition to the possibility of war if the GNA and its Turkish backers tried to seize Sirte, he was concerned that a miscalculation by any of the parties could unintentionally ignite a bigger conflagration.

Another possible development would be a “teasing scenario” under which the GNA and Turkey “test Egypt’s determination”, also leading to an escalation. 

Gen Haftar is supported by the United Arab Emirates, Russia and France. His backers have variously provided arms, drones, Russian and Syrian mercenaries and diplomatic cover. Russia has stationed MiG-29 and other sophisticated fighter jets in Libya, but it is not clear, diplomats say, the extent to which Moscow would want to be drawn into a war in Libya.

“I doubt Russia would intervene directly,” said a Moscow-based diplomat familiar with the conflict. “I think they will leave the heavy lifting to Egypt and continue to play the geopolitical broker role while supporting Haftar.”

Mr Sisi has made clear that an Egyptian incursion into Libya would be aimed at cementing dividing lines and spurring talks towards a settlement. The Cairo-based diplomat said it was unlikely Egypt would take its forces all the way to Sirte, some 900km from its borders. He argued that a limited presence in eastern Libya was the likelier option, along with potential strikes by the Egyptian air force.

“My guess is the Egyptians don’t want to have any ground involvement, which could be a trap because of the distance to Sirte,” he said. “I think they will most likely make their show of determination by air, which would be more efficient and less costly.”

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