Egypt, arms smuggling from Libyan stocks

During and after the 2011 civil war in Libya, arms and ammunition has been stolen on a massive scale. It is not terribly difficult to smuggle these weapons into Egypt. Border are extensive and porous and weakly patrolled. “Transfers from Libya of more regular and significant quantities of arms and, at times, fighters have developed towards two geographic areas: Egypt and the Sahel,” wrote the Panel of Experts, established by the UN Security Council after resolution 1973 on arms trade, military activities and Libyan financial assets of 2011 was adopted. The Panel monitors and promotes the implementation of the sanctions.

Not for all the the Libian arms smuggled into Egypt this country is the end destination. The Panel states: “Multiple sources indicate that the end destination for the majority of arms is the Gaza Strip, but this is difficult to verify. It is also likely that a smaller proportion of arms remain in the Sinai for use against the Government of Egypt by the low-level insurgency in that region. The Egyptian authorities informed the Panel that arms also dispersed throughout other parts of Egypt. While as yet unproven, it is possible that hubs along this trafficking route may in the future serve as points for onward transfers to other countries.” One of these other recepients are Syrian rebels which received big shipments of Lybian arms trough Egypt.

In January 2012 the Panel was provided information that 567 weapons and 1,132,411 bullets were smuggled into Egypt through its border with Libya.  Since then, the flows of arms into Egypt seem to have increased significantly. Lybian weapons have been seized in all parts of the country. In January 2013 the Panel got a list of seized arms and ammunition. “Since the imposition of the arms embargo, the Egyptian authorities have seized hundreds of small, light and heavy weapons systems, hundreds of rounds of ammunition for heavy weapons systems and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition for small arms and machine guns (upon request of the Egyptian authorities, the detailed list will not be published).”

The arms are smuggled through southern and the northern coastal routes, but also by boat from Benghazi and Tubruk on to Marsa and Matruh in Egypt. The traffickers are Libyans, Egyptians and Palestinian nationals.

Since the seond of 2012 the press started to write more on Egypt itself as final destination for the cladestine weapons. The Voice of America for example wrote: “Not all the weaponry flowing into Libya is going to the Gaza. The Egyptians are becoming alarmed that weapons are now being stockpiled by Egyptian Salafi groups. They are starting to uncover arms trafficked from Libya in the [Nile] Delta and believe other weapons are being stored in Sinai. It is making them very nervous.” The Washington Post points at large catches of weapons from Libya wich are transported from Libya to Egypt’s already unstable Sinai Peninsula.

Confiscated weapons run from small arms to missiles. An example is the seizure of six anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets in the Sinai peninsula, early January 2013. Armed Forces spokesperson Ahmed Ali in March 2013 mentioned (without specifying period and source of the weapons) the fact that Egyptian border guards stopped the smuggling of 8,138 guns, 450 magazines, 19 rockets and 100 bullets. These are enormous amounts. In June 2012 Egypt has seized a large weapons consignment, including Grad rockets, that had been smuggled from Libya and could have been headed to the Gaza Strip. The haul, which included 138 Grad rockets, a further 139 Grad warheads, and 400,000 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition was made in the Mediterranean coastal town of Marsa Matruh, not far from the Libyan border, Egyptian newspapers reported. Thee are numerous other cases reported.

Smuggling activities lead to violence between security forces and smugglers. Several police stations and military checkpoints have been attacked. The bloodiest of those attacks resulted in the killing of 16 security guards.  Violence is also affecting local villagers. Inhabitants of an Egyptian oasis near the Libyan border were punished by the smugglers setting parts of their farms on fire for reason they cooperated with the authorities aiming at tightening security in the region. The war in Libya thus spills over to Egypt, which is even more serious because of the unstable situation in the country.

Last year, the Netherlands gave the green light for two arms deals concerning military navigation radars and fire control radar for so-called Navy Fast Missile Craft. These ships are armed with different types of missiles and a 7.62 cm canon and a close-in weapon system. Exports from the Netherlands to Egypt are on hold but only for "any equipment which might be used for internal repression". This naval technology seems to fall outside this definition, although ongoing deliverances are supporting the military regime in Egypt. The question must be asked if a military regime, responsible for brutal murders of civilians, should not be punished by an all out arms embargo.

The arms smuggling seems to be counter argument against such a military embargo, at least on equipment used for tackling the illegal arms flows. Because part of the smuggling activities go by sea, naval vessels seem to fall under this category. The Naval Fast Missile Craft however are not for use against smugglers but “to ensure the use of sea lines of communication by Egyptian force,” which points to a higher level of military power. Moreover, Egypt has a Coast Guard “for the onshore protection of public installations near the coast and the patrol of coastal waters to prevent smuggling. Currently consists of one hundred five ships and craft.” There is no need for new navy weapons to stop smugglers.What Egypt needs most is no war near its borders and a unequivocal condemnation and punishment of a military coup.

Martin Broek 27/08/2013

Research supported by Fonds Vredesprojecten