Turmoil in Libya has thrown extra work at Egypt’s military, presenting it with a security challenge along the western border and increasing the burdens facing the army as it seeks to govern 80 million Egyptians.
The revolt against Muammar Gaddafi has left the Libyan side of the border in the hands of rebels who want an end to his rule. That is an outcome which might suit Egypt, ridding it of a temperamental neighbour against whom it fought a war in 1977.
But for now the turmoil is presenting Egypt’s military, which has been governing since Hosni Mubarak was toppled, with more concerns, including securing the frontier and absorbing thousands of Egyptian workers who have streamed back across it, Reuters reports.
“The army’s number one interest and goal is to protect Egyptian borders. The border with Libya is the most important and critical issue for the army. The army must secure Egypt’s borders with Libya,” a security source told Reuters.
The frontier stretches for some 1,000 km (600 miles) from the Mediterranean coast into the Sahara desert. The short war of 1977, the climax of several years of tension between President Anwar Sadat and Gaddafi, resulted in a decisive win for Egypt.
Since the border conflict, the Egyptian military has kept a strong presence in the region as a deterrent, military expert Safwat al-Zayyat, a former army officer, said.
Egypt’s relations with Gaddafi have oscillated since then, and nose-dived in the last week when Gaddafi’s son accused Egyptians of helping foment the uprising that has divided Libya and restricted Gaddafi’s control to the west.
The accusations of Egyptian meddling drew a rebuke from the Egyptian foreign ministry, which told Libya it was responsible for the safety of the Egyptians working in the country.
The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces said Thursday 25,000 Egyptians had returned through the country’s land border so far — a tiny fraction of the 1 million to 1.5 million Egyptians the foreign ministry said were working there.
The loss of remittances from the oil-producing state will be another blow to the Egyptian economy, already suffering the impact of a collapse in tourism caused by the turmoil unleashed by the uprising which toppled Mubarak on February 11.
“That’s the major impact on Egypt at this point: how to reabsorb these Egyptian migrants,” a Western diplomat said, commenting on the impact on Egypt of the trouble to the west.
The military took control from Mubarak on February 11, when the protests finally forced Mubarak to step down and hand powers to his generals. They are now trying forge a path towards democratic elections within a six-month timetable.
Numbering around half a million personnel, the Egyptian military is also carrying the burden of policing the country in the absence of civilian security forces which largely disintegrated in the first days of the uprising against Mubarak.
Observers say the military, its tanks still deployed in the streets of Cairo, is ill at ease with its role back at the heart of domestic affairs for the first time in decad
With close defence ties to the United States, it faced an diplomatic headache this month when two Iranian naval ships passed through the Suez Canal for the first time since 1979, worrying Israel.
To the south and east, Egypt’s other borders are far from normal. Sudan is due to split into two countries in July and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip remains a source of potential instability to the east. “Egypt’s armed forces have enforced the borders (with Libya) to prevent mercenaries or gangs or terrorists with weapons from entering Egyptian soil,” said General Sameh Seif Yazal, a former military officer and a security expert.
“The strain on Egypt’s army is great nowadays,” he said. But the military could still handle the workload, he added. The military “would only venture into Libya or anywhere else if the international community — U.N. Security Council — officially requests that Egypt gets involved,” he added.
Asked about the prospect of Egyptian army intervention in Libya, the security source said: “The Egyptian army would only intervene under the umbrella of international law, only then would this be studied.”