Recent statements about Egypt’s apparent intention to intervene in Libya caused many observers to recall the military clash between Egypt and Libya in 1977. However, today’s crisis is nothing like the one in 1977. Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi was a leader who was nothing but empty slogans. Back then, he dared to threaten Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, saying Libya would occupy Egypt because he objected to Sadat’s intention to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
In a display of demagoguery, Gaddafi sent a few hundred men to the Egyptian border and attacked the Salloum border crossing. Sadat surprised him by sending three full divisions, which took over the border crossing on both sides in less than an hour, and Gaddafi’s men fled.
Today’s crisis is also different because there is no order in Libya, and Egypt itself is confronting dangerous domestic security challenges. The current crisis is the most dangerous faced by both countries since the Salloum incident. Appeals for intervention did not come from Cairo—most of them came from Libya, which is sinking more deeply into civil war by the day. This has led to the collapse of all state bodies due to attacks from extremist groups that have targeted Tripoli and Benghazi, oil fields and ports. Libya is becoming a failed state, and a safe haven for terrorist groups which would threaten Libyans, their neighbors and the world.
This unique situation in North Africa will force Libya’s neighbors, either Egypt or Algeria, to intervene. It seems that Egypt is the most concerned, although the dangerous situation in Libya threatens all its neighbors without exception. We have been expecting some sort of Egyptian intervention in the past few months due to confrontations between the Libyan National Army and armed groups in Tripoli. However, Cairo has remained neutral. As government positions gradually fall into the hands of armed groups, it is becoming clear that due to the latter’s confrontation with Egypt, it is only a matter of time before Egypt sends its troops to Libya or these armed groups invade Egyptian territory.
The Egyptian leadership may abstain from intervention for a few months and just content itself with protecting its borders, just as Algeria is currently doing. However, Egypt knows that these Libyan groups, which are currently preoccupied with domestic battles, will eventually organize themselves and point their rifles towards the eastern border. The battle will be fought with the state of Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, whom these groups consider an obstacle in their path towards “recapturing” Cairo.
Although Algeria has issued warnings—which it seems are directed towards Egypt—that it is opposed to military intervention in Libya, the Algerian government has not yet clarified what it intends to do. Maintaining a military presence along the border will not prevent the smuggling of weapons and armed men into Egypt. Also, it will not be easy to confront armed groups once they’ve seized important posts in Libya and dug in. The question for Algeria, Egypt, Europe and the world in general is will they keep silent the establishment of an extremist state such as the one declared by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Libya? Or will they accept a situation that increasingly resembles a state of civil war, and attracts more extremists to Libya, as happened in Syria, Iraq, and Somalia?
Military intervention in Libya is necessary to prevent ISIS from establishing a terrorist state, and to preempt the outbreak of a massive, open-ended civil war. There are different kinds of intervention: it could be led by Egypt, with the participation of Arab Maghreb Union countries or, alternatively, Egypt could work in partnership with whatever is left of the Libyan National Army and other such parties.