Egypt’s leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has threatened to intervene militarily in neighbouring Libya if Turkish-backed forces capture Sirte, a strategic port and gateway to important oil terminals.
The warning adds to tensions in the war-torn, oil-exporting north African country that has become a proxy battleground for regional and international powers. Weapons and mercenaries have poured in to all sides, stymieing UN efforts to forge a negotiated settlement and ensure compliance with an arms embargo.
In televised remarks after inspecting military units at an army base near the border with Libya, Mr Sisi warned that the fall of Sirte or the inland Jufra air base would be a “red line” for Egypt.
Any Egyptian action in Libya would “have international legitimacy” because it would be self-defence against “threats from terrorist militias and mercenaries”, he told soldiers.
“If the Libyan people . . . asked us to intervene, this would be a signal to the world that Egypt and Libya are one country, one interest,” he added.
Cairo backs Khalifa Haftar, the eastern military strongman whose 14-month offensive to seize Libya’s capital Tripoli was thwarted largely because Ankara helped his opponents. Gen Haftar had to pull back from Tripoli’s outskirts after Turkish drones inflicted losses on the battlefield. The drones were used to back up militias aligned with the UN-recognised Government of National Accord.
Mr Sisi also said hostilities should cease on current battle lines and called for “talks and negotiations” to reach a solution to the crisis.
The president’s tough talk is “a message to Turkey that there are regional powers opposed to its intervention in Libya”, according to Ziad Akl, director of north African studies at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, an Egyptian think-tank.
“The aim is deterrence; Egypt does not want a single Turk to cross the line into eastern Libya,” he said. “It wants to relaunch negotiations. If Egypt intervenes, I think the last option would be boots on the ground.”
Mr Sisi urged Libyan tribal leaders attending his address on Saturday to send their youths to Egypt where “we would train them, prepare them and arm them”. Cairo has also asked for an Arab League foreign ministers meeting to be held on Monday to discuss Libya.
Egypt has been alarmed by the intervention of Turkey, which it considers a regional foe because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood group, which Mr Sisi ousted from power in Egypt in 2013.
Another concern for Cairo — and the main reason it has supported Gen Haftar — has been weapons and armed religious extremists pouring across its western border from mostly lawless Libya, Mr Akl said.
Turkey has sent its GNA allies weaponry including drones and anti-aircraft batteries. It has also dispatched military advisers, personnel to operate the drones and Syrian mercenaries to beef up anti-Haftar forces.
Gen Haftar’s side has benefited from extensive arms transfers and diplomatic support from the UAE, Egypt, Russia and France. Moscow has supplied mercenaries and stationed sophisticated fighter jets in Libya after Gen Haftar’s defeats, in a warning to the Turks to limit their advance to north-west Libya.
Analysts say a ceasefire in Libya will depend on whether Russia and Turkey can reach an agreement first. Mr Sisi’s belligerent tone might reflect concern that Russia would accept a takeover of Sirte, said Wolfram Lacher, senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“Threatening intervention is also a way for Egypt to get back into the game to prove it is still a relevant actor and prevent Turkey and Russia from dividing it up between themselves,” he said.