Egypt’s parliament authorised the deployment of troops outside the country on Monday after the president threatened military action against Turkish-backed forces in neighbouring Libya.
The parliament unanimously approved “the deployment of members of the Egyptian armed forces on combat missions outside Egypt’s borders to defend Egyptian national security … against criminal armed militias and foreign terrorist elements”, it said in a statement.
The deployment would be made on a “western front” – a likely reference to western neighbour Libya. The move could bring Egypt and Turkey – which support rival sides in Libya’s chaotic proxy war – into direct confrontation.
Egypt, alongside the United Arab Emirates and Russia, backs eastern-based military commander Khalifa Haftar, who abandoned an offensive on the capital last month after Turkey stepped up support for Tripoli.
Cairo has flown air strikes on armed groups in Libya since the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 plunged the oil producer into chaos.
It has also supported Haftar, an ex-Gaddafi general, since 2014 when he assembled a force in eastern Libya, according to UN reports. But sending ground-combat troops would be a major escalation.
Egypt’s House of Representatives, packed with supporters of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, approved the plan after a closed-door session where deputies discussed “threats faced by the state” from the west, where Egypt shares a porous desert border with war-torn Libya.
Stephanie Williams, acting head of the UN support mission in Libya, on Monday called for an “immediate ceasefire … to spare the 125,000 civilians who remain in harm’s way and for an end to the blatant violations of the UN arms embargo”.
Her comments came following her meeting on Sunday with the president of neighbouring Algeria, Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
Turkey, meanwhile, demanded an “immediate” end to the support for Haftar in Libya after trilateral talks held in Ankara between Libyan, Turkish, and Maltese officials on Monday.
“It is essential that all kind of help and support given to putschist Haftar – which prohibits ensuring Libya’s peace, tranquillity, security, and territorial integrity – ends immediately,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said.
Haftar’s backers should “stop supporting an unrealistic and wrong project”, the UN-recognised Government of National Accord’s (GNA) Interior Minister Fathi Bashaga said.
An Egyptian intervention would further destabilise oil-rich Libya.
Egypt’s president warned in June that any attack on Sirte or the inland al-Jufra airbase would prompt Cairo to intervene militarily, purportedly to protect its western border with Libya.
The GNA denounced Egypt’s threat of military intervention in the North African nation, labelling it a “declaration of war“.
Qatar’s state minister for defence affairs met on Monday with the Turkish defence minister and Libya’s minister of interior to discuss the latest developments in Libya, Qatar’s defence ministry said.
Sirte lies 800km (500 miles) from the Egyptian border with Libya’s most important crude export terminals in between.
Cairo sees the city as a “red line” and has called for talks between Libya’s rival factions. Ankara and the GNA have called on Haftar to withdraw from the city and negotiate a ceasefire.
Regional proxy war
Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was later killed.
The country is now split between a government in the east, allied with Haftar, and one in Tripoli, in the west, recognised by the United Nations.
The conflict has escalated into a regional proxy war fuelled by foreign powers pouring weapons and mercenaries into the country.
The United States has grown increasingly concerned about Moscow’s growing influence in Libya, where hundreds of Russian mercenaries backed a failed attempt by Haftar’s forces to capture Tripoli.
In a call on Monday with US President Donald Trump, el-Sisi emphasised Egypt’s aim to “prevent further deterioration of security in Libya”, according to a statement from the Egyptian presidential spokesman. It said the two leaders agreed on maintaining a ceasefire and avoiding a military escalation in Libya.
Anas el-Gomati, director of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, said Egypt is concerned about losing its sway in Libya.
“If the GNA and Turkey want to move forward then Egypt is really worried about losing all of its influence and Haftar losing control of the vital oil resources. So it’s really about trying to create all these theatrics, smoke and mirrors so to speak, in order to get Trump to make a phone call to Erdogan. This is phone-call diplomacy at its worst, not its finest,” el-Gomati told Al Jazeera.
Egypt’s state-run Al-Ahram daily reported on Sunday the vote in Parliament was intended to mandate el-Sisi to “intervene militarily in Libya to help defend the western neighbour against Turkish aggression”.
Last week, el-Sisi hosted dozens of tribal leaders loyal to Haftar in Cairo, where he repeated that Egypt would “not stand idly by in the face of moves that pose a direct threat to security”.
Libya’s eastern-based parliament that supports Haftar also urged el-Sisi to send troops.
GNA’s upper hand
Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an offensive to take Tripoli from the GNA in April last year, but the campaign stalemated after reaching the outskirts of the Libyan capital.
The LNA suffered a blow last month when GNA forces – with Turkish air and logistics support – pushed it back and gained the upper hand in the fighting.
The Tripoli forces retook the capital’s airport, all main entrance and exit points to the city, and a string of key towns in the region. GNA troops pushed on eastward vowing to also retake Sirte, which Haftar captured earlier this year.
Seizing the strategic city would open the door for the Turkish-backed forces to advance even further eastward and potentially take vital oil installations, terminals and fields now under Haftar’s control.
After the GNA signed security and maritime agreements with Turkey last year, Ankara’s military support – including drones – helped it re-impose control over Libya’s northwest.