( Sisi ‘s visit to Sisi Barrani airforce base June 2020- Photo via twitter)
Sidi Barrani in north-western Egypt is a sleepy town that is just a quick stop for travellers heading to Libya. Yet the little town has a unique military history, especially during World War II and even after. In 1977, Libya’s Gaddafi dispatched troops and raided the Egyptian border. Egyptian President Sadat responded with airstrikes and sent forces into the Libyan territories to deter Qaddafi and teach him a lesson. The incident prompted Sadat to expand and develop the military base in the area.
Earlier this month, the Egyptian Armed Forces, including the Navy and Air Force, commenced large-scale military exercises near the Libyan border dubbed HASM (decisiveness) 2020. These exercises came days after Egyptian President El-Sisi asserted that “Libya’s Sirte and Jufra are a red-line,” in a direct response to Turkish statements made hours earlier demanding that Libyan National Army forces led by General Haftar withdraw from Sirte and Jufra.
A few weeks later, the Egyptian president repeated his remarks in a meeting with Libyan tribal chiefs. “Egypt will not allow Libya to become a new hotbed for terrorism or outlawed elements, even if it means that Egypt has to intervene directly in Libya.”
Despite the frank Egyptian statement, many within Turkey’s corridors of power laughed off the idea of an Egyptian intervention, even ridiculing Egyptians’ abilities and intentions. It is alarming to see how the Turkish invented narratives that are preventing Turkish policy makers from grasping the mind-set of the Egyptian leadership.
Three issues have contributed to such a situation.
First is the idea of illusion traders. In order to prove their relevance in the Middle East’s political sphere, Turkey-based Arab Islamists have relentlessly spread misinformation about the domestic situation in Egypt. Since 2013, Arab Islamists have convinced Turkish policy makers that they are still popular within Egypt while spreading baseless claims that the Egyptian army is weak and divided and the Egyptian president is just bluffing. Rather than scrutinizing such claims, Turkish leadership welcomed them because they fit with their own ideological vision.
Second is the myth of two fronts. A particularly common recent argument is that the Egyptian army is too preoccupied with fighting terrorism in Sinai. However, this is a fundamentally flawed myth that fails to grasp the stark difference between Sinai’s war scene and the Libyan one. It also ignores how Egypt has, to a larger degree, controlled the insurgency in Sinai and how ISIS has failed to control any town or even village in the area. In fact, one can argue that years of engagement with terrorist groups in Sinai has helped the Egyptian army engage skillfully with Libyan militias, who lack the luxury of Sinai’s geographical complexity and cannot easily hide in the barren Libyan deserts.
Third is the mediocre assessment of the Egyptian army’s capabilities: It is easy to draw false conclusions from the shallow assessment of the Egyptian military’s past and present engagements. It is true that Egypt has had bad military setbacks in the past; nonetheless, it reflected on these setbacks and learned from all of them. One of the biggest lessons was the war in Yemen in the sixties, when Nasser embarked on a war of choice and ideologically motivated pan-Arabism in a country thousands of miles away without an exit strategy. It was interesting to see how Egypt’s Sisi mentioned a planned exit strategy from Libya when he repeated his Sirte–Al-Jufra red line while addressing Libyan tribal chiefs in Cairo.
Cairo learned from its past mistakes in Yemen, but interestingly, Turkey seems happy to embark on a scenario similar to Yemen’s in Libya. Replace pan-Arabism with the so-called Mavi vatan, or “blue homeland,” and one can see the Yemen nightmare is awaiting Turkey in Libya. Transferring sophisticated military weapons and recycling Syrian militias thousands of miles away from Turkey are not cost-free endeavours. Imagine repeating that for years to come. Libya could easily become a draining black hole for Turkey, unlike any military involvement by next-door Egypt.
Over the last six years, Egyptian armed forces have destroyed 10,000 SUVs loaded with terrorists on the Egyptian–Libyan border, which is precisely why Egypt sees the civil war in Libya as a threat to its national security. Cairo may have mistakenly relied on General Haftar and his campaign within Libya’s densely populated western regions, but Egypt is now redefining its strategy to counter Turkish intervention. The Sirte–Jufra line is not only a red line for Egypt, but also a trap for Turkey, drawing it into to what will be seen as an aggressive assault on the east while pinning the Egyptian intervention—rightly so—as a defensive war.
Turkey’s lack of understanding of Egypt’s modern history and its insistence on viewing it exclusively from a historic Ottoman perspective could cost it dearly in Libya. It is time for Turkey to abandon its ideological dogma and rely on rational thinking when shaping its Libyan adventure. Even if Turkey successfully breached the Egyptian Sirte-Jufra redline, it will face angry tribes and chronic unrest.
A huge difference exists between inventing myths and believing them; the former can be a successful PR game whereas the latter can sow the seeds of a military disaster.