Egypt's projection of military power in the Middle East
By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
Since the death of its legendary leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, Egypt has been reluctant to use subversive activities and military force, or even the threat of force, as part of its foreign policy even though it maintains a credible offensive military capability. With very few exceptions (participation in the 1990 "Desert Shield" against Iraq), Egypt has abstained for more than 40 years from projecting its military forces as a component of its foreign policy.
One of the main reasons is the fact that the performance of the Egyptian army outside Egypt's sovereign borders since the end of the monarchy in Egypt in 1945, has been, to say the least, problematic: the Egyptian army suffered large losses and painful defeats during the war against the nascent Israel in 1948 and the Yemen Civil War in the early 1960s.
As a matter of fact, neither the Egyptian army nor its Supreme Command (including President Field-Marshall Abd el-Fattah el-Sisi himself)1 has taken part in a real war since 1973. Instead, the army has been active in dominating the Egyptian economy — to such an extent that it is assessed that the Egyptian army represents 30 percent or more of the economic activities in Egypt. For more than 40 years, the Egyptian army's mission as defined by its leaders was limited to protecting Egypt's borders from outside threats and to serve as the guarantor of the regime. It was the Muslim Brotherhood's mistake to challenge the Egyptian Army traditional role as the gatekeeper of Egypt that prompted Sisi to move against President Morsi.
The Egyptian army lacked experience in fighting against paramilitary armed groups or fighting inside cities and residential communities.
The Beginning of Change: Dealing Differently with Sinai and Hamas
Since his very first days as ruler of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi made it clear that his intention was to engage his army in combat in Sinai to eradicate the jihadists in Sinai, which is of crucial importance to the national security of Egypt. He sought to put an end to terrorist attacks against Egypt and uniform-wearing Egyptians. He himself survived two assassination attempts, and his interior minister had been the target of a suicide car bombing. From the very beginning, Sisi had to deal with two fronts: Sinai (and Hamas in Gaza by extension) and the chaotic situation in Libya. Sisi was unequivocal: he "meant business." Unlike his predecessors who allowed the growth of the jihadi threat in Sinai, Sisi pushed for a military confrontation to put an end to the ongoing terrorist attacks against his soldiers and against strategic targets in Sinai and at a minimum to contain the terrorist threat in Sinai.
In order to do so, he had to acquire Israel's acquiescence to a massive redeployment of Egyptian forces in the Sinai, overruling the terms and conditions set by the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel signed in 1979. Understandably, Israel allowed a redeployment of Egyptian forces in the Sinai well beyond what was agreed upon in the Camp David Accords. Intelligence cooperation between the two countries was ongoing and enabled a strong challenge to the jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula. For the first time there was a convergence of interests between Israel and Egypt over the situation in the Sinai and in the Gaza Strip.
In a series of unprecedented steps, Sisi closed almost hermetically the border crossing point with Gaza, only opening it from time to time for humanitarian reasons. Next, Egyptian army engineers destroyed almost 2,000 tunnels along the 11-kilometer border between Gaza and Sinai that served to smuggle goods into Gaza as well as terrorists, weapons, and Muslim Brotherhood activists. Having put an end to (almost) all tunnels, Sisi created a one-mile no-man's buffer zone between Gaza and Sinai. To do so, Sisi ordered the destruction of all houses in the zone and the evacuation of hundreds of families from the Egyptian town of Rafah (cut in half by the Gaza-Egypt border) which were re-located to northern Sinai, steps that no Israeli could have even thought possible to accomplish.
Parallel to these developments, Sisi reorganized the Sinai Command. Historically, Sinai was divided between the Second and the Third armies, which carried the burden to protect Egypt's eastern borders, including the Suez Canal. It was imperative to create a new Sinai Command that would be devoted solely to enforce security in Sinai while eradicating the terrorists. The new command, headed by Lieutenant-General Rushdi Askar, was given adequate troop and air support; since its creation the command has launched intensive attacks against the jihadists (not always with complete success).
Egypt was very much aware of the bond between the jihadists in Sinai and Hamas. However, unlike the Muslim Brothers who were high on the Sisi administration's enemy list, Hamas was an item left "on the shelf" to be taken care of at a later stage. The Egyptian Ministry of Justice and courts decided to designate Hamas as a collaborator of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas was accused of participating in terrorist operations against Egyptian targets inside Egypt and Sinai as well as harboring terrorist groups and Muslim Brotherhood leaders inside the Gaza Strip. Hamas was designated a terrorist organization, its assets frozen and activities inside Egypt forbidden. The designation was reversed by an Egyptian court on June 6, 2015 but so far Egypt's security policy appears not to have changed.
On the eve of Israel's "Operation Protective Edge" against Hamas in July 2014 Egypt was exasperated by Hamas and its regional sponsors.5 Israel's ground invasion of Gaza did not alter President Sisi's tough approach, even though he allowed open and harsh criticism of Israel. This tension between Sisi's adverse attitude and punitive approach towards Hamas on the one hand, and his need to satisfy the pro-Palestinian Egyptian public opinion on the other, has been evident in the gap between Egypt's policy and its pronouncements.
The Libyan Issue
Egypt's relations with Libya have been tumultuous in the course of the last 45 years. At one time they were united in the short-lived model of the Syrian-Egyptian Union of 1958, and in times of crisis they exchanged fire across the 700-mile common border. Sadat, who considered for a short time Qaddafi to be an adopted son, was at times exacerbated not only by his unpredictable behavior, but mainly by his irrational initiatives such as ordering an Egyptian submarine to sink the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner. His erratic moods and his violent unleashed verbal attacks against Egypt and its leaders resulted at the end of day in creating a situation in which Egyptian leaders ignored Qaddafi. However, as long as Qaddafi ruled Libya, the border between the two countries was relatively calm and controlled.
With Qaddafi's ousting, Libya entered a chaotic phase which prevails until today. With the disintegration of the Libyan state and the formation of two distinct and rival governments in Tobruk and Tripoli, the rise of jihadi organizations, and the emergence of the Islamic State, the threats on Egypt's western flank became concrete. The border is now North Africa's point of origin for weapons stolen from Qaddafi's arsenals, fighters, illegal migrants, and illicit goods flowing into the Levant, with profoundly destabilizing effects on the Sinai, Gaza, and Syria.
Egypt and Libya have exchanged regular delegations to discuss security cooperation. In July 2014, Libyan intelligence chief Salem Abdel Salam, Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdulaziz, and then army Chief of Staff Abdessalam Jadallah Al-Salihin met with their Egyptian counterparts in Cairo to discuss border security coordination and Libya's security situation. More recently, the prime ministers of the two countries met in Washington, D.C. for security discussions. But the implementation of any agreements has been minor so far.
Egyptian government officials have warned Libya about the dangerous implications of its failure to control the Libyan Islamist groups in the east. Pursuant to his activist political approach, in the course of 2013 President Sisi decided to assist General Khalifa Haftar, a former Qaddafi-era officer who had created a coalition of disaffected military units, tribes in eastern Libya, and federalist militias to attack Islamist forces in and around the cities of Benghazi and Darna in late May 2014. Khalifa Haftar had led Libyan forces during a disastrous war with Chad in the south. After his defeat by Chadian forces in 1987, he was taken captive for almost five years, refusing to return to Libya out of fear Qaddafi would "punish" him for his defeat. Later, the CIA succeeded in whisking him out of Chad together with 300 of his men to Virginia where he underwent special training by the CIA. After living in exile in the U.S. for 20 years, he returned to Libya and led ground forces to help oust Qaddafi in 2011.
Haftar tried to align himself early on with Egypt's military regime, fighting its own Islamists in Egypt. After Haftar's campaign began, reports surfaced of more direct Egyptian military involvement in Libya.
However, a meaningful obstacle stood in the way of Egypt. Since events in Libya in 2011, almost 1.8 million Egyptian workers left Libya to return to Egypt. The number of workers who remain is estimated today to be around 200,000. Egyptian workers in Libya have been a source for bilateral tensions and visa restrictions, and border closings by both sides have become regular occurrences. Kidnappings of Egyptian migrant workers are commonplace in Libya. In mid-October 2013 the leader of a Libyan militia abducted several dozen Egyptian truck drivers and held them hostage in the Libyan town of Ajdabya, demanding that Egyptian authorities release his relatives who were detained in Egypt on charges of weapons smuggling. The Egyptian authorities responded by closing Egypt's side of the Musaid-Salloum border crossing for a few days.
The Beheading of 21 Copts by IS as a Catalyst
Sisi would have accepted the status quo on the common border with Libya even though it worsened recently, since his main effort was focused on Egypt's domestic scene and Sinai. However, events turned otherwise: On February 15, 2015, an armed group calling itself the "Tripoli Province of the Islamic State" and claiming affiliation with Daesh (the Islamic State or IS) in Libya posted a video on the Internet showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts.
Indications of the Sisi regime's support for the Tobruk government and General Haftar provoked the recurrence of kidnappings and murders of Egyptians in Libya, especially Copts, whose Egyptian Coptic Church had declared its support for the Sisi regime.
The Egyptian press preferred to ignore the fact that the specific group executed at the hands of the Sirte IS militants was kidnapped two months earlier, but there was no evidence that the Egyptian authorities exerted real efforts to communicate with the kidnappers and comply, if at all, to their demands, or even to try to secure the lives of the kidnapped through official or unofficial channels. The video's publication greatly embarrassed the Egyptian regime, both because it had done so little to secure the release of the kidnapped, and because the event targeted Egyptian Copts at a time when the Egyptian Church had become the strongest supporter of the Sisi regime.
That same evening, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi delivered an emotional speech in which he condemned the incident and reserved the right to respond. He also convened the Supreme Defense Council in a meeting to discuss ways of retaliation. On the following day, and for the second time since the air intervention in 2014 meant to assist Haftar forces, four Egyptian Air Force F-16s carried out two consecutive raids on targets in the city of Darna, justifying the attacks by claiming Darna was in the hands of IS.
Since then, the press and social media are packed with reports about Egyptian preparations to launch a full scale military operation in east Libya. They imply a cynical use of the massive incident in order to justify such a military intervention in Libya, with the excuse of resolving the ongoing conflict in its oil-rich neighbor while in reality Sisi would be intervening in order to allow his local allies (Khalifa Haftar) to take control of the whole of Cyrenaica, thus eliminating a potential jihadi threat on Egypt.
President Sisi has many reasons against intervening militarily in Libya; the most important one is linked to the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians living and working in Libya. For these reasons, it appears that a major ground incursion remains unlikely. On the other hand, Egypt may consider the beheadings as an opportunity to pursue its regional policy, targeting existing concentrations of Islamist and Jihadist groups in North Africa without running the risk of being subjected to international condemnation.
Cairo's growing concern over the Libyan situation, the inability of Haftar's forces to achieve tangible progress, and the reluctance of Egypt to engage its forces in Libya raise another possibility: a collective Arab combined and coordinated intervention.
The Saudi Precedent in Yemen
For the first time since 1948 the so-called moderate Arab states led by Saudi Arabia have succeeded in creating a military coalition aimed at an Arab state and not linked to the Arab-Israeli conflict. While some Arab armies joined the military coalition in the first Gulf War and of late against IS in Iraq and Syria, that coalition was led in both cases by the United States and was built around the American and international forces that took part in both campaigns. The Arab forces served more as a fig leaf and a justification for the use of force against an Arab entity.
In the Yemeni case, however, moderate Arab countries headed by Saudi Arabia have come to the conclusion that they must fight for the survival of their own regimes and that terrorism identified with Sunni jihadists and the extremist ideology of Salafi Islam is the main factor for instability. Islamic organizations classified by the different regimes as terrorist groups have become the prime target of the moderate regimes.
This is the concept at the core of the pan-Arab force to be created as an intervention force to back Arab regimes under attack. President Sisi was among the first leaders to express his readiness to participate in the campaign led by the Saudis. At the same time, some pointed to Libya as being the next target for an Arab military intervention.
Similar to the events in Yemen, an Arab intervention in Libya, which would be preferential from Sisi's point of view to acting solo, requires an Arab League resolution and wide Arab support. After the Yemeni precedent, Sisi can expect total backing from Saudi Arabia and its allies regarding any future venture in Libya.
President Sisi has demonstrated since the first days of his tenure that he advocates the use of force and the projection of force in order to secure vital Egyptian national interests. Unlike his predecessors, Sisi considers the use of force justified as long as it serves to fight enemies of the regime internally or externally as in the Libyan case. Moreover, Sisi considers Egypt and its moderate allies to be the victims of a colluded effort from jihadi Islam — be it Al-Qaeda inspired or IS or any other extremist offshoot — and as such he advocates a united Arab effort to counter this danger. Acting together with other Arab armies provides the needed legitimacy domestically for such actions against an Arab state or organization.
Sisi's effort to create an Arab intervention force is but another expression of the deep change that has occurred since the ousting of Mubarak in the Egyptian leadership perception of Egypt's strategic positioning in its immediate and regional environment and vis-a-vis the western powers policing the area.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.