With its succession crisis resolved, Egypt has taken great interest in the Libya crisis. Egypt has historically exerted strong influence in eastern Libya and is looking to use the current crisis to restore that position. Even if Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi cannot be removed from power, a de facto split in Libya would allow Egypt to fill the resulting void in the east.
STRATFOR reported in late February, early in the Libya crisis, that Egyptian army and special operations forces units were quietly providing weaponry and training to Libyan opposition forces while attempting to organize a political command in the east. In addition, Egypt has been funneling food and medical supplies to the rebel forces. Unnamed senior U.S. officials acknowledged the Egyptian support in a March 18 Wall Street Journal report, saying, “There’s no formal U.S. policy or acknowledgment that this is going on” but “this is something we have knowledge of.” A STRATFOR Qatari diplomatic source has meanwhile claimed thatEgypt is not contributing its bases to the impending NATO-led intervention in Libya.
Egypt’s interest in a post-Gadhafi regime is based on the following factors:
· Preventing a refugee crisis. Egypt is the logical country for eastern Libyan refugees to flee to in the event of an invasion from the west by Gadhafi’s forces. More than 3,000 Libyan migrants have reportedly made their way to the Sallum border crossing with Egypt and remain in refugee camps there. Aid workers estimate that some 40,000 to 100,000 Libyan refugees could rush to Egypt should Gadhafi take the rebel-held city ofBenghazi. Egypt is attempting to resuscitate its economy following its own political turmoil and has an interest in containing any fallout from Libya that could increase the burden on the Egyptian state.
· Labor market. Libya is a significant market for Egyptian laborers who cannot find work in their own country. The Egyptian Labor Ministry estimates around 1.5 million Egyptians live and work in Libya and send an estimated $254 million in remittances back home every year. The Gadhafi regime has placed heavy restrictions on foreign workers in Libya in recent years, and the Egyptian government is hoping that a post-Gadhafi government will be more willing and able to absorb its workers.
· Security concerns. Libya’s eastern region is a traditional stronghold for radical Islamists, including the al Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Though the Gadhafi regime has been largely effective in containing the jihadist threat in Libya, the current chaos opens the door for a jihadist resurgence.Egypt’s military-led regime is already on alert for the threat of Islamist militancy spillover from Gaza and has a growing interest in keeping close tabs on jihadist activity in easternLibya.
· Energy assets. Current oil production in Libya is concentrated in the east, though much of that production has been taken offline by the fighting and by staff shortages at energy facilities. Egypt has a strong economic interest in gaining direct or indirect access to these energy assets for its own internal wealth should the opportunity arise.
· Regional influence. Having resolved it succession crisis by ousting President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian military-led regime is reasserting Egypt’s role in the Arab world. It has facilitated talks between Hamas and Fatah in the Palestinian territories, reached out to Syria and coordinated with the Saudis on Iran. In North Africa, Egypt is positioning itself to be the go-to Arab power for the Europeans, who have already taken agamble on Gadhafi’s ouster and may be committing themselves to a military intervention with an elusive outcome in the hopes of retaining their energy investments in the country.
Egypt has historically exerted strong influence in the eastern Libyan region of Cyrenaica and is looking to use the current crisis to restore that position. STRATFOR’s Egyptian diplomatic sources have insisted over the past couple of weeks that the Egyptian military has been ready to intervene in Libya but has been held back by the United States. It is unclear if Egypt had the logistical capability for a deep military thrust into Libya, or if it ever seriously intended to intervene in the first place. Nonetheless,Egypt benefits greatly from appearing to be willing to defend the Libyan people against Gadhafi’s regime while distancing itself from any military intervention led by the region’s former colonial powers in Europe.
Not every power in the region would be happy to see Egyptexpand its influence in Libya. Three Arab League countries —Algeria, Syria and Yemen — voted against the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya while Egypt led the call for action. Each of these countries, especially Yemen and its embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh, fears the precedent that would be set for their own regimes should Gadhafi be forced from office. Algeria andSyria are watching Egypt’s revival in the region with particular concern. In late 1977, months after Algeria hastily negotiated a cease-fire to end a border skirmish between Egypt and Libyabefore Egyptian troops could advance further into eastern Libya, then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat broke off relations withAlgeria, Syria and South Yemen. These were the three countries that most strongly opposed Sadat’s early outreach to Israel and feared what an Egypt unrestrained by Israel would do.
Egyptian support for Libyan rebels appears to be limited thus far to armor, training, food and medical supplies. STRATFOR also has received unconfirmed reports that some Egyptian soldiers are fighting alongside Libya’s poor-performing rebel forces. There are no signs yet of Egyptian troops massing on the border with Libya, but it remains a possibility as the crisis escalates. Even if the ouster of Gadhafi is not possible — so far it is doubtful that an air campaign alone will suffice to remove him from power — a de facto split between western and eastern Libya provides Egyptwith an opportunity to reassume an influential position inCyrenaica.