Will Egypt Send Troops to Libya?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 17

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (left) with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (right) (source: al-monitor.com)

On July 20, the Egyptian Parliament authorized the deployment of Egyptian armed forces outside of the country. The bill made no mention of Libya (Arab News, July 21). Nonetheless, the authorization serves as a proverbial shot across the bow for Turkey and Qatar, which support Libya’s Tripoli-based and UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).

The authorization followed the failure of the Libyan National Army (LNA), based in the east of the country, to take GNA-held Tripoli. The LNA is led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Russia. Yet, despite this support, the LNA’s fourteen-month offensive on Tripoli failed. In June, GNA forces launched a counter-offensive that pushed LNA forces eastward.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared in a televised address in June that Egypt would respond if GNA forces crossed a “red line” extending from Sirte to the inland area of Jufra (Egypt Independent, June 21). Sisi declared Egypt had a right to secure its border with Libya and defend Libya and Egypt against “foreign schemes.” While Sisi did not mention Turkey or Qatar, it was clear that these two countries were his primary concern.

Parliamentary approval for the deployment of Egyptian troops and Sisi’s rhetoric suggest military action might be imminent. This is unlikely, at least for now. It is more likely that Sisi’s rhetoric is saber rattling designed to appeal to his domestic and foreign audiences, namely the UAE and Saudi Arabia. As a career army officer and former director for military intelligence, General Sisi, and his circle of advisers, are aware of the grave risks posed by a large-scale deployment to Libya. Both Egypt’s ongoing war in Sinai and the experience of its intervention in Yemen in the 1960s will check enthusiasm for a war in Libya.

Sinai and Yemen: Lessons Learned

The Egyptian military and security services have been fighting al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS)-linked groups in the Sinai Peninsula for ten years. Despite deploying more than 40,000 mainline troops from the Egyptian Army and thousands of police and security forces to Sinai, the Egyptians struggle to combat a small number of terrorists and insurgents. [1] The most prominent terrorist group in the Sinai, Wilayat Sinai, an affiliate of IS, has fewer than 1,000 active operatives. Yet, attacks by the group persist (al-Monitor, May 7).

The early years of the insurgency in Sinai (2011-2015) were particularly painful for the Egyptian Army. The army was designed and equipped to fight a land war with Israel. It was not prepared to engage in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations. This role was filled by Egypt’s Central Security Forces (CSF) commanded by the Ministry of Interior. However, due to the CSF’s inability to manage the threats in Sinai, the Egyptian Army assumed the leading role in combatting insurgents and terrorists in Sinai.

The fighting in Sinai made the inadequacies of the Egyptian Army clear. Despite air support, overhead surveillance, vast numerical and military superiority, the Egyptian Army failed to secure a small number of roads, towns, and bases. The army’s lack of nimbleness has hampered its ability to respond to rapidly evolving threats. As has long been the case, command and control in the Egyptian Army is subject to bottlenecks at the top. Field grade officers and even general officers rarely act without approval from senior officials in Cairo. The officer heavy nature of the army also means motivated and empowered non-commissioned officers are rare. Additionally, the army relies on large numbers of poorly trained and often illiterate conscripts who leave the service as soon as they are able.

Few of these problems have been adequately addressed. The army remains a top-heavy force geared for fighting large scale land battles. Even in that role, the Egyptian Army would underperform due to a persistent lack of realistic training.

The Egyptian Army’s performance in Sinai and the institutional memory of Egypt’s involvement in North Yemen’s civil war (1962-67) contributed to President Sisi’s decision not to participate in the ground war in Yemen’s current civil war. While Sisi and his government vocally supported Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s armed intervention in Yemen, they never sent troops.

The Egyptian experience in what was then North Yemen’s civil war—known as Egypt’s Vietnam— continues to inform Egyptian policy. Instructors and professors at the Egyptian Military Academy (Sisi’s alma mater) and the Command and Staff College examine lessons learned from Egypt’s costly war in Yemen. Despite deploying 70,000 soldiers, the war ended in a stalemate that cost the lives of at least 20,000 Egyptian servicemen. Involvement in Yemen also contributed to Egypt’s defeat by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

High Risk, Low Reward

If Egypt were to deploy a large force to Libya, it would face many of the same challenges it now confronts in Sinai along with the problems associated with intervening in a complex civil war. The war in Libya mirrors the current war in Yemen. Like Yemen, Libya is riven with divisions and armed militias supported by foreign powers abound. Navigating these kinds of internecine wars is difficult. Winning in such a war, no matter how narrowly defined, is rare.

The blowback from deeper Egyptian involvement in Libya might be more significant than the results of its 1960s-era intervention in North Yemen. The war in Yemen was 1,200 miles away. Those who opposed Egypt in Yemen were not able to take their fight to Egypt. By contrast, Libya shares a largely unguarded 693-mile border with Egypt. Illicit networks, the stretches of which reach from Libya to Syria, make abundant use of the deserts and mountains that the border passes through to smuggle weapons and other contraband.

Weapons traced to Libya routinely turn up in Sinai, Upper Egypt, and much further afield. [2] Libya-based militias fighting against the Egyptian-backed LNA can—and likely will—tap into and use these illicit networks to carry out attacks in Egypt. Many of these illicit networks are linked with Sinai-based insurgent groups. Egypt could see an intensification of its ongoing war in Sinai as a result of covert support from Libya-based militias and their foreign backers. In the face of overt large-scale Egyptian actions in Libya, it is unlikely that the war will remain within Libya’s borders.

Even more significantly, the Egyptian Army is unprepared for the kind of war it will need to fight in Libya. The army has failed to defeat a few hundred insurgents in Sinai where it is fighting on home ground from well-defended and easily supplied bases. In Libya, Egypt’s military will need to engage multiple militias with shifting loyalties while defending hundreds of miles of vulnerable supply lines. Egypt and Libya fought what is referred to as the “Four Day War” in July 1977. The skirmish ended in a truce but the Egyptians struggled to supply the armored columns they deployed to their desolate border with Libya.

Underperformance in Libya and what could be visible defeats will erode the domestic and international views of Egypt’s military competence. Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen has demonstrated the inadequacies of its armed forces. Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional foe, has learned a great deal about Saudi vulnerabilities. In the case of Egypt, where the army plays a more significant role in national narratives, widespread perceptions of the army as incapable or weak will be even more damaging.

Outlook: Limited, Covert, and Tribal

Rather than pursue a high-risk deployment, Sisi and his government will most likely continue to fight a largely covert war in Libya. Egypt is providing arms and training to tribal militias that support the LNA. This is in addition to the air support and Special Forces troops that Egypt already uses alongside the UAE and Russia to support core LNA forces.

In July, Sisi and members of his government hosted members of Libya’s Supreme Tribal Council in Cairo. The meetings are part of Egypt’s attempt to strengthen its relationship with those influential and powerful tribes fighting alongside General Haftar’s LNA. At the same time, Egypt wants to distance itself from Haftar who it views as erratic and unreliable. Tribal elders at the meeting said they supported Egyptian deployments to Libya as the only way to end the civil war (Middle East Monitor, July 16). If Egypt deploys large numbers of troops to Libya, it would tip the scale in the LNA’s favor, but it would not end the war. Instead, Egypt would find itself mired in a war that it cannot afford while fighting alongside unreliable allies.

President Sisi has proved himself adept at maintaining the critical financial aid provided by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in exchange for low-risk Egyptian military support in Libya and Yemen. In Yemen, Egypt provided some naval and air support, but little more than that (al-Ahram, March 26, 2015). Egypt’s involvement in Libya is more extensive but will remain limited due to Sisi and the military’s understanding of the risks associated with a large-scale deployment. Such a deployment would do little to achieve Egypt’s stated aims in Libya. Instead, Egyptian troops in Libya could further compromise border security and may strengthen support for the UN-backed GNA. While many Libyans might welcome Egyptian soldiers, a significant number would see them as invaders.


[1] See: Michael Horton, “Crossing the Canal: Why Egypt Faces a Creeping Insurgency,” CTC Sentinel: July 2017.

[2] See: Nicholas Marsh, “Brothers Came Back with Weapons: The Effects of Arms Proliferation from Libya,” Prism: The Journal of Complex Operations, National Defense University: Volume 6, No 4.