The American Kafir

2011/02/28

Egypt’s Stake in the Libyan Unrest

Filed under: Egypt, Libya — Tags: — - @ 6:00 pm

Source Link: STRATFOR

Egypt's Stake in the Libyan Unrest
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
A Libyan man carries ammunition for an anti-aircraft gun in Benghazi on Feb. 28

Summary

STRATFOR has received a number of indicators that Egypt’s military-led regime is quietly attempting to facilitate the ouster of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi through its support for Libyan opposition forces based in the east. Egypt, experiencing a reawakening in the Arab world, has a stake in trying to shape the outcome of the Libyan crisis, but, like the United States, Italy and others closely monitoring the situation, it faces the same dilemma as everyone else in trying to create a viable alternative to the Gadhafi regime, one that could actually hold the country together.

Analysis

Egypt’s military-led regime has been quietly backing opposition forces in Libya to facilitate the ouster of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, according to information STRATFOR has collected from a variety of sources in the region. Though Egypt has strategic interests in trying to shape the outcome of the Libyan crisis, it faces an enormous challenge in trying to cobble together a viable alternative to Gadhafi.

Egyptian Assistance to the Opposition

The Libyan opposition is based in and around the eastern stronghold of Benghazi, where a roughly 8,000-member force is reportedly mobilizing to traverse some 800 kilometers (497 miles) by road through the desert to depose Gadhafi and take Tripoli by force. This opposition force is a mixture of army defectors, politicians, attorneys and youth volunteers, many of whom are poorly equipped and lacking in combat training.

An immense logistical challenge thus lies ahead for this group of Libyan rebels trying to move into Gadhafi’s western stronghold in and around Tripoli — especially as Gadhafi appears to have retained significant air force support both to keep the rebels at bay and to destroy their arms depots from the air. The Libyan opposition does not appear to be alone, however. According to STRATFOR sources, Egyptian army and special operations forces units have played a key role in quietly providing weaponry and training to Libyan opposition forces while trying to organize a political command in the east. One well-placed source, whose information could not be verified, claimed that the Tunisian army is allowing armed volunteer fighters, along with Egyptian special operations forces, to enter Libya from the west through the Tunisian border, which lies closer to Tripoli than Benghazi and is a location to which a number of Libyan refugees have already fled. This reported influx of fighters would presumably be used to flank Gadhafi’s forces from the west while other opposition forces move in from the east for a potential battle over Tripoli.

While the Egyptian army has its hands full at home in trying to manage the post-Mubarak political transition, placate the opposition and resuscitate the economy after weeks of paralyzing demonstrations, the regime in Cairo has a stake in shaping the outcome of the crisis erupting next door. The Egyptian regime’s current foreign policy imperative is to contain unrest on its borders, especially as civil war in Libya could result in a massive spillover of refugees into Egypt and a resurgence of Islamist militancy in Libya’s east. Egypt still seems to be deciding what exactly is the best approach toward containing Libyan unrest, however.

At this point, it appears that the Egyptians have calculated that with Libya’s army and tribes split and with the east in the opposition’s control, Gadhafi can no longer serve as the glue that holds the fragile Libyan state together. For now, the country is in a stalemate, split between east and west, as some 5,000 well-trained and well-equipped forces loyal to Gadhafi are entrenching themselves in Tripoli and battling opposition forces in Zawiya (30 miles west of Tripoli) and Misurata (125 miles east of Tripoli). If the Egyptians organize an assault on Tripoli, the threat of civil war could rise substantially.

Weak Alternatives to Gadhafi

That is, unless, Egypt felt confident that it could cobble together a lasting, viable alternative to the Gadhafi regime to uproot and/or co-opt Gadhafi loyalists and stem the unrest. So far, this appears to be an enormous undertaking, considering the deep fissures that are already emerging within the eastern opposition itself.

Since Feb. 26, the creations of two separate “national councils” in the east have been announced, both of which are committed to a united Libya, rather than to any sort of secessionist push. The first of these, announced Feb. 26 by recently resigned Justice Minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil, has been described as a transitional government that will give way to national elections in just three months. One day after Abdul Jalil’s council was announced, Benghazi-based lawyer Hafiz Ghoga held a news conference that dismissed the notion that there existed anything resembling a transitional government in rebel-held territory. Ghoga’s National Libyan Council, he claimed, was the entity managing the day-to-day affairs of areas held by the opposition until Gadhafi fell. Abdul Jalil has since announced plans to march on Tripoli, whereas Ghoga has not. And while both councils are reportedly to be based out of eastern Libya’s de facto capital, Benghazi, Abdul Jalil is believed to hold more political sway in the eastern town of Al Bayda.

Egypt’s Reawakening and the Libyan Challenge

Coming out of its own political crisis, Egypt is experiencing a reawakening in the Arab world and appears eager to reassert its influence following years of insularity. Unlike Persian Gulf Arab states, whose power is derived from petrodollars, Egypt has real military might and regional intelligence networks with which to assert itself. Cairo already has begun using its response to its domestic crisis to reclaim its influence in the Arab world amid regional unrest — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt has publicized the fact that Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi is actively advising high-risk regimes.

In the case of Libya, Egypt is trying to position itself as the regional power that the outside world must rely on to operate in the country. Though Libya’s desert buffers to the east and west make it difficult for outside forces like Egypt to project influence in the country, Libya’s energy assets (which could come under threat should Gadhafi resort to a scorched-earth policy in trying to cling to power) and market for Egyptian labor are also likely driving Cairo’s interest in the current Libyan unrest.

Libya and Egypt have a long and bumpy history, and Libya’s worst nightmare is a powerful Egypt with room to maneuver, especially if the military is in charge. Libya’s population of 6.4 million is dwarfed by Egypt’s 80 million, and it is isolated from much of the Arab world by desert terrain. Libya’s energy assets give it internal wealth that Egypt lacks, though these resources also make the country an attractive target.

Thus, Tripoli has long been outmatched by Cairo in its bid to assume a leadership position in this region. Libya’s best chance of assuming regional notoriety and containing Egypt was to facilitate Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabist vision, with Gadhafi even going so far as to transfer aircraft to Egypt for use in the 1973 war against Israel. What Gadhafi may not have anticipated was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s strategy to make peace through war with Israel. As tensions developed between the two, a four-day shooting war broke out on the Egyptian-Libyan border in 1977 in which Egyptian forces advanced a few miles into Libyan territory before the Algerian government mediated a cease-fire. Roughly a quarter of a million Egyptian workers were then deported from Libya as Cairo forged ahead with its peace negotiations with Israel, leaving Libya (as well as Syria, Algeria and others) with a sense of betrayal and fear over what an Egypt unrestrained by conflict with Israel would mean for the region. Gadhafi tried again to forge unions with Syria in 1980, but without Egypt, these plans were doomed to fail.

Egypt sees an opportunity to re-establish its influence in Libya amidst the current chaos. Still, like the United States, Italy, France, Russia and others with a stake in what comes out of the Libyan crisis, Cairo cannot reasonably assume it will have an alternative force capable of holding the country together. Gadhafi designed his regime for this very situation: preventing any alternative bases of power from emerging to challenge his rule and keeping Libya shut off from much of the outside world. It is little wonder, then, that the outside world, including Egypt, is desperately trying to make sense of the players in country to sort out potential leaders and gauge their capabilities and trustworthiness in a post-Gadhafi regime. Egypt appears to be taking the lead in this initiative, but the fear of the unknown remains the strongest pillar to Gadhafi’s crumbling regime.

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