Egypt is sounding the drums of war in Libya, but any military incursion faces daunting military and political obstacles.
Libya's UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), has declared Egypt’s threat of an invasion as a “hostile act” tantamount to a “declaration of war.”
The spat comes after Egypt’s autocratic leader, President Abdel Fattah el Sisi, warned the GNA that any move to take the strategic towns of Sirte and Jufra could result in Cairo invading its neighbour.
“I don’t believe that Sisi’s statements are serious,” said Dr Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based Middle East political analyst.
“I wouldn’t imagine him sending his army more than 1100 km away from the Egyptian borders to Sirte especially with the total absence of a justifiable reason,” added Bakeer, speaking to TRT World.
Egypt’s return to a leading role in Libya, following months in which Cairo took a backseat to the United Arab Emirates, it has not, however, meant the Gulf country giving up on its regional designs.
“The UAE wants to convince Sisi to intervene on behalf of Haftar and is willing to finance the military operation. On the other side, Egypt might become very vulnerable if they really intervene,” says Omer Ozkizilcik, a security analyst for the SETA Foundation.
“The Egyptian army will be forced to build up a very long supply route,” warned Ozkizilcik, speaking to TRT World.
The geography of the terrain would make a military incursion deep into Libyan territory a logistical nightmare for a country that has not seen a conventional war in decades.
Continuing battles between Egyptian security forces and militants in the Sinai Peninsula have further exposed weaknesses in the country's military. In May of this year, fifteen Egyptian soldiers were killed by militants, and hundreds of soldiers have met the same fate since 2013.
Unlike in the Sinai, where militants operate largely through hit-and-run attacks, in Libya, Egyptian forces would be going up against the GNA, a much better-armed force, that along with Turkey’s backing would make for a strong opponent.
“The more the Egyptian army has to deploy west of Libya, the more it will become vulnerable against air defence systems,” says Ozkizilcik.
“The move would be diplomatically difficult as it will be a direct violation of international law and could not be justified as self-defence as there is nothing which threatens Egypt,” he adds.
The GNA's forces are on the outskirts of the strategic town of Sirte which sits on the coast of central Libya.
If captured, Sirte would open the door for the GNA to take hold of the country’s “oil crescent” and give the Tripoli government access to seize the oil ports of Sidra, Ras Lanuf, Marsa al-Brega and Zuwetina, where eleven oil pipelines and three gas storages converge in the Mediterranean.
While the GNA is likely not strong enough militarily to reach Benghazi, its capture of Sirte would give the internationally-recognised government better leverage at the negotiating table.
“I think a decisive battle will happen at Sirte and Jufra in which both sides will be weakened but one side will win. After that, a real political solution may begin, especially if the GNA is in front of the oil crescent,” said Ozkizilcik.
Haftar’s capture of the ‘oil crescent’ in 2019, gave him control of over 60 percent of the country's oil and gas riches and with it, undermined the GNA.
The oil in Libya is being sold by the National Oil Corporation. The money is then sent to the country's central bank who then re-distributes the funds in a certain proportion with the GNA gaining the larger portion and Haftar’s militia gaining a lower amount.
If the GNA were to strengthen its access to hydrocarbons, it could further strengthen its rule over the country and access to the necessary funds.
A conflict too far
Egypt is facing several international challenges, including dealing with Ethiopia which has almost finished building its $4 billion hydroelectric dam that would divert water from the Nile.
Cairo has threatened to use force to stop Ethiopia building it, and Bakeer says that involvement in Libya would lead to a further deterioration in Egypt’s security.
“Once involved [in Libya] it would be impossible for the Sisi regime to deal with the Nile issue with Ethiopia where there is a serious national security threat for the Egyptian state."
“I believe his statements aim to obstruct the progress of the GNA forces towards the East and to push towards a swift ceasefire to save Haftar. There is also an aspect where he aims to divert the attention away from his failure to deal with the Nile issue with Ethiopia,” he says.
Egypt has been in negotiations with Ethiopia and Sudan for more than a decade over how to update a colonial-era treaty which gives Cairo the majority share of the water, as well as a veto option on projects that could impact its perceived water security.
With little-to-no success to show on the Ethiopian front, Sisi has ratcheted-up the rhetoric on Libya.
Sisi has never hidden his support for Haftar and in believing that the Libyan conflict can be resolved through conflict.
Egypt’s ability to chart an independent foreign policy in recent years, has been constrained by a reliance on the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both of whom are the country’s main financial backers.