Egypt’s Military Limitations: Cairo’s Options To Defend Eastern Libya – Analysis

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In late June, with the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) reversing several years’ worth of gains made by the Khalifa Hafta-led Libyan National Army (LNA) in a matter of weeks, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi issued a fiery warning during an inspection of his armed forces. Sisi warned stakeholders of potential Egyptian military action in the conflict, which has the potential to spill into eastern Libya, should the GNA and Turkey, which supports the GNA, continue their campaign.

Speaking of such a possibility, the Egyptian president said, “If some think they can go beyond this line, Sirte and Jufra, this is a redline for us,” and such a development would provide the Egyptian State with “international legitimacy” to intervene. The central district of Jufra represents a vital pathway into western Libya and hosts a strategically valuable military airbase that has been vital to LNA military operations against the Tripoli-based GNA. The coastal city of Sirte, on the other hand, which sits between Tripoli and the LNA stronghold of Benghazi in the east, is key to the control of Libya’s Oil Crescent, the revenue from which has been a source of constant battle between the country’s rival governments.

Since the beginning of Turkey’s intervention in Libya in 2020, Sisi has used strong rhetoric and military posturing in the form of large-scale exercises to signal Cairo’s displeasure and to caution that he may intervene should Turkey advance into territory that Cairo deems vital to its own national security. While Cairo has backed the Khalifa Haftar-led LNA with arms, training, and political cover for more than six years citing border security concerns and counter-terror interests in eastern Libya, it has played a secondary role to the more assertive United Arab Emirates, which has been the primary supporter of the rogue general’s campaign. From the outset of the LNA’s Tripoli campaign, Egypt had enabled and facilitated both Emirati and Russian operations in Libya by allowing them to use the country’s western bases and transport arms over the border, but stopped short of playing a direct military role itself. The reversal of the LNA’s gains, however, and the threat of a geopolitical rival in Turkey on Egypt’s doorstep, which can potentially spoil Cairo’s energy interests in the Mediterranean and threaten its border security with deniable militias, has pushed the country’s leadership into a position where they may be forced to act decisively.Egypt now appears set on deploying its forces into Libya though the actual process of doing so and what these forces can realistically do is a subject of some debate. While Egypt’s border with Libya may provide the country with relatively simple scenarios for the deployment of military forces into Libya’s eastern coastal region of Cyrenaica, reaching the western Tripolitania-based line of conflict more than one thousand kilometers away is a difficult task, effectively limiting the courses of action available to Cairo. The challenge of reaching and operating military forces along the Jufra-Sirte red line, and the potential risk of escalation with Turkey, means Cairo is more likely to seek a symbolic intervention. In this scenario, the introduction of Egyptian military forces would be used to force Libya’s warring parties into negotiations under Egyptian supervision, rather than engage in any actual combat. Egypt would rather leave the defense of Sirte and Jufra to its Emirati and Russian allies, who are backing the LNA.

If Cairo does intend to move towards the Sirte-Jufra line, then it would impose several logistical and operational challenges for Egypt’s army and its relatively short-legged air force. These two military branches would likely play the most important role in any deployment. Rather than mimic Turkey’s relatively light footprint (which is partly due to limitations in geography and distance, too), Egypt’s exercise posturing indicates that any move into its neighbor is likely to include serious conventional formations, which include armored brigades, tactical fighter wings, and navy warships.

A deployment of this nature presents multiple challenges for Egypt’s military and some unique issues for particular branches of their armed forces. For the army, long supply lines may require fighting formations to amass stockpiles to be transported with them rather than rely on consistent resupply, given the distance from Sirte-Jufra to the border and the potential for disruption by Turkish armed drones. This situation will only allow for short offensives, but if supplies are exhausted, then Egypt’s ground forces may run the risk of significant loss in momentum should opposing forces not quickly capitulate in the face of conventional armored forces. In fact, even within the confines of its own borders, the Egyptian army has consistently struggled to maintain offensives against Sinai-based insurgents and other militant groups for more than two months at a time without the need for significant delays and supply buildups.

Egypt’s ground combat forces may face additional and significant challenges if the country’s air force is incapable of providing consistent air support and protection from GNA drone threats. While the array of fighter platforms that the Egyptian air force operates can reach the Sirte-Jufra line, they realistically can only do so intermittently given the distance that needs to be covered and the time that it would take to reach these areas from their western airbases. Taken together, these factors mean that time on station can be short. While there have been suggestions from observers that the Egyptian air force could use bases in Libya itself, the majority of these sites lack modern infrastructure to support sophisticated fighters; would require significant effort to properly supply units stationed there; and would lack the security of operating inside Egypt’s own borders. Only the Emirati-operated Al-Khadim is a viable possibility, though it may present capacity issues due to heavy Emirati and Russian use in support of the LNA. These concerns aside, it is some distance away from the Sirte-Jufra line.

Egyptian air strikes in Libya carried out in support of the 2015 LNA campaign on Derna and the initial push on Jufra airbase were always limited (if not completely symbolic), a symptom of both geographical challenges and Egypt’s unwillingness to expend scarce military resources on protracted air campaigns. Just as in previous strikes, the Egyptian air force will want to avoid committing its relatively shallow strategic sophisticated munition reserves in targeting GNA ground targets or Turkish air defense networks unless absolutely necessary. The latter may also moderate any prospects of Egyptian air strikes across the Sirte-Jufra line as the potential for downed pilots and the difficulty of launching combat search and rescue missions deep into Libya or enemy territory represents a major risk for both material and reputational damage.

Off the Libyan coast, Egypt’s navy may be deterred from operating within range of their Turkish counterparts in order to avoid potential confrontations. Such a scenario could turn what has primarily been a fight between foreign-backed proxies into a conventional conflict between two geopolitical rivals. Despite spending billions on warships and an amphibious project, the Egyptian navy may play a marginal role in any deployment towards the Sirte-Jufra line given the persistent presence of Turkish vessels in Libyan waters since the beginning of its intervention. The Turkish navy’s control of western Libya’s waters may prevent its Egyptian counterpart from establishing a sea-based air defense network of its own, hamper its ability to strike ground targets across Sirte, and make amphibious or air assault operations from Mistral carriers a risky endeavor.

While the Egyptian military is often considered a sleeping giant and is spoken of in terms of its strength in the Arab world, its struggles in North Sinai over the past seven years have raised concerns over its performance and overall competence. Though the prospect of intervention in Libya presents a diametrically different challenge to Sinai’s low intensity counterinsurgency, there remains a possibility that longstanding systemic tactical and operational frailties are exposed on yet another battlefield. Egypt’s previous foreign military forays have been typified by poor performance. In 1991, the army’s significant, but symbolic, deployment to Kuwait in support of U.S.-led multi-national forces had been described by former officials as mediocre and revealed weaknesses in the country’s ability to effectively command and control its units far from home. In a similar vein, the air force’s recent involvement in combat over Yemen resulted in airmen being sent for supplementary training in the United Arab Emirates after its Gulf partners cited inexperience with air-to-air refuelling operations, poor use of guided munitions, unfamiliarity working with ground-based combat controllers, and general teething issues with coalition operations.

For many of Egypt’s military leadership, the disastrous intervention in the North Yemen Civil War remains a cautionary experience that has influenced Cairo’s lack of appetite for foreign military adventures despite its emphasis on martial power and its regional projection. This institutional hesitation presents yet another limitation that may effectively stop Cairo from going beyond a symbolic intervention in Libya that would look to counterbalance Turkey. As Sisi explained in his June speech, any Egyptian deployment would principally look to force a ceasefire under the Cairo Decleration peace plan, rather than reverse any gains.

This assessment not only fits within Egyptian messaging and previous patterns of behavior, but it is also inextricably linked to Cairo’s military limitations and the real risk of a protracted exhausting intervention or the more worrying prospect of an escalation with Turkey that could lead to a conventional confrontation and possible defeat. For the current Egyptian regime, any actions that could lead to such scenarios are best avoided entirely, for fear that the image that it has cultivated domestically as a military power and from which it derives a sense of political legitimacy become irrecoverably tarnished. What this means practically is that Cairo may be content with amassing forces in eastern Libya, while the Sirte-Jufra line itself is fortified by the United Arab Emirates and Russian mercenaries should the GNA and Turkey seek to make further gains.

With that said, Egypt’s threats should not be discounted or downplayed, given the potential for escalation and miscalculation by rival parties. While Cairo has been known to redraw its red lines and redefine its interests in Libya, the brazen threat of military action from the country’s president and the very public nature of its military posturing requires some semblance of victory and assurance that its interests are not at risk before it can reasonably climb down the escalation ladder. Should this opportunity not make itself available, then the prospect of clashes in the Mediterranean between Egypt and Turkey may be the inevitable result of an inertia that forces these geopolitical foes to rise to each other’s challenges without the presence of any avenues through which they could reasonably backdown without losing face or abandoning their respective campaigns.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

By Egypt Defense Review*

*About the author: Egypt Defense Review is a pseudonym for an Egypt security defense analyst who provides critical perspectives on Middle East and North Africa security issues.

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