WASHINGTON - Libya’s civil war and its role in regional stability have become more uncertain since June 20 when the Egyptian parliament authorized its troops to cross the border to help the forces of General Khalifa Haftar against Turkey-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
Egypt’s military intervention attempt in eastern Libya, some observers say, is largely prompted by Cairo’s increasing fear of Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State (IS), gaining a foothold at home if the GNA defeats Haftar’s forces in Libya.
“Egypt is very worried about militias; it is fighting extremists in Sinai and there have been extremists captured who have been linked back to militia groups in Libya and trained back in Libya,” Mirette Mabrouk, the director of the Egypt Program at the Middle East Institute, told VOA.
Egypt shares a 1,200-kilometer, porous border with Libya that, Mabrouk said, is a major security concern for the Egyptian government.
While Cairo’s decision was spurred by the Turkish introduction into the Libyan civil war, concerns of cross-border militia infiltration into Egypt increased in recent weeks after the odds shifted in favor of GNA in its battle against Egypt’s ally, the Libyan National Army, she added
The Egyptian parliament has said it approved sending troops to the western front with Libya to defend its national security.
Condemning “regional powers support to radical forces,” Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry recently called on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to stop the danger of terrorist organizations in Libya.
Egyptian local media has blamed the Turkish intervention in Libya for an increase in attacks in the northern Sinai Peninsula by terrorists, such as IS, who roam its western borders.
Originally known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the Islamic State in Sinai province was formed in 2011 with an initial goal to fight Israel and “free” Jerusalem. The group shifted its operations to target the Egyptian army in 2013 after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was ousted in a coup by the current President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.
Egypt has since failed to completely defeat IS despite large-scale counterterrorism operations in Sinai and joint security cooperation with Israel in the region.
Last week, the Egyptian army said it thwarted a terrorist attack in northern Sinai, killing 18 IS militants. However, independent local media reports said IS has claimed killing 40 soldiers and occupying four villages in the area.
Some experts say that by sending forces to Libya, el-Sissi hopes to secure Egypt’s western border from militant infiltration and prevent a resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood. They say Cairo sees a real threat from the recent victories of Libya’s GNA, which includes Muslim Brotherhood allies, such as the Justice and Construction Party.
Egypt designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in late 2013, a decision strongly condemned by Turkey, which has hosted many of the group’s members since they fled Egypt.
In 2019, el-Sissi asked U.S. President Donald Trump to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, a move Turkey considered an attack on democracy in the Middle East.
El-Sissi, according to Hafed Al Ghwell of the Foreign Policy Institute, has “serious reasons” to fear that a Turkey-backed GNA rise to power in Libya could embolden the Muslim Brotherhood.
“He placed tens of thousands of the group’s members in jail and the opposition is still out there. Therefore, there is a serious fear that any potential rise of political Islam in Libya will impose a threat on Egypt,” Al Ghwell told VOA.
Al Ghwell added that an army intervention by Egypt into Libya is unlikely to favor el-Sissi’s government, which is also dealing with an IS threat, the Egyptian-Ethiopian dam dispute, and the deteriorating economic situation caused by the coronavirus.
Egypt is unlikely to go as far as engaging in a direct confrontation in Libya, some experts say, especially because such a move could risk a direct regional war with Turkey. However, a more probable scenario is for Cairo to establish an Egypt-friendly area in eastern Libyan.
“There is a possibility that the military would seek to establish a buffer zone similar to the one Turkey did in Syria. The ramifications to the Egyptian moving troops like that regardless of the reasons can backfire, there will be some dissent by the military,” Al Ghwell said.
The U.S. in the past has called on the warring parties in Libya to return to a U.N.-led cease-fire and political negotiation.
In a meeting last month with the GNA leader, Fayez Al-Sarraj, U.S. Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland and Commander of U.S. Africa Command, General Stephen Townsend, warned that “the current violence fuels the potential resurgence of ISIS and al-Qaida in Libya, is further dividing the country for the benefit of foreign actors, and prolongs human suffering.”
The concern about Libya becoming a haven for militants has grown in recent months after reports of Turkey and Russia sending mercenary groups into the conflict.
During an Egypt-Libya tribes conference in Cairo last month, el-Sissi vowed that “Egypt will not allow Libya to turn into a hub for terrorists and a refuge for outlaws even if this required Egypt’s direct interference in Libya to prevent it.”
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Tunisian IS members are among the fighters transferred from Syria to Libya. The Syrian war monitor claims that the total number of militants Turkey has transferred to Libya is 16,100, including 2,500 Tunisian jihadists.
A report by the U.S. Defense Department in mid-July found that as of the end of March, about 3,500 Syrian mercenaries were in Libya to support the GNA.
The report, however, said it found no credible information that the fighters were members of IS and al-Qaida, and that some of them in Libya were supporting the Russian Wagner Group.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in February said the Syrian fighters in Libya belonged to the Syrian National Army, a Turkey-backed Syrian rebel group founded in 2017 to fight the government of Bashar al-Assad.