By Martin Hannan
July 20, 2017 is the 40th anniversary of the start of the 1977 war between Libya and Egypt, which lasted just four days.
It’s the war that has barely registered in the chronicles of North Africa, but it was a conflict which changed history and which could have had a much more profound impact than it did, if only the victors had pressed home their advantage.
WHO STARTED IT AND WHY?
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had seized power in Libya in a military coup 1969 when he founded the Libyan Arab Republic. He part-nationalised the Libyan oil industry and began a state-controlled socialist reform of the entire nation.
Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat had been friendly to Gaddafi at first but their relationship deteriorated as Gaddafi began to support revolutionary groups across the world, and it collapsed completely after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 because Sadat decided to seek peace with Israel.
Libya had developed strong relations with the USSR even as Egypt began to turn away from its old ally, and after Gaddafi foiled a coup attempt against him in 1975, Egypt allowed the failed coup leaders a residence permit. Gaddafi was apoplectic, and may well have planned the plot to overthrow Sadat’s Government which the Egyptians claimed to have foiled in 1976.
Libyans were involved in the hijacking of an Egyptair aircraft, and when Sadat revealed this, Gaddafi ordered the closure of Egypt’s consulate in Benghazi. Sadat, meanwhile, told his generals to prepare a plan for war with Libya – they completed their work just in time.
The Cold War between the two neighbours exploded into a heated confrontation in early 1977.
Having declared that Libya was now a socialist republic in March, Gaddafi ordered more than 200,000 Egyptians to leave Libya by July 1, and also organised a “March on Cairo” by loyal Libyan citizens.
With tensions at breaking point, the March on Cairo reached the Egyptian border on July 20. Border guards stopped the Libyans and it is fairly certain that Libya actually started the fighting, and attacked the town of Sallum on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast with artillery tanks and jet fighter-bombers. They took some prisoners, but found themselves in a trap.
For it was the moment Sadat had been waiting for. Three entire divisions of the Egyptian army were located nearby and fierce fighting began. The Egyptian soldiers were mostly from who had fought Israel in the Yom Kippur war of 1973 while the Libyan cohorts had little fighting experience.
The Egyptian army and air force simply rolled over their opponents. Three Libyan air bases were bombed and put out of action giving Egypt complete control of the air, and within hours the Libyan army was in retreat.
Gaddafi sent three brigades into battle, but they were savaged by the well-trained and highly-motivated Egyptian forces.
Libya, on the other hand, depended on Soviet Union experts to work their radar systems, and three of those operators were killed during a devastating air raid.
With full air cover and with superior manpower and equipment, Egypt advanced rapidly and captured several towns on the Libyan side of the border. A lightning commando assault also saw the destruction of the military training base where Gaddafi was helping foreign terrorist groups.
Yet Sadat was not ready for full-scale war and halted his troops at the border, so that the Western media claimed it was just a border skirmish and not really a war at all.
As Libyans subsequently testified, Egypt’s war was very real, but it ended swiftly. The leaders of other Arab countries called for a ceasefire and one was eventually agreed to start on July 24.
HOW MANY DIED?
In less than four days, the Egyptians killed between 400 and 450 Libyan military personnel. They destroyed 60 Libyan tanks, 40 armoured personnel carriers and around 20 Libyan airplanes.
Their own losses were 100 dead and six destroyed aircraft. It was a resounding victory for Sadat and Gaddafi was humiliated. He turned his attention away from Egypt and put all his efforts into his murderous policy of fomenting revolution in the West.
WHY DIDN’T EGYPT GO THE WHOLE WAY?
Sadat always said he just wanted to teach Gaddafi a lesson. The Colonel had accused Sadat of wanting to invade Libya and seize its oilfields, but the Egyptian President knew that other Arab states would not back him.
Had he invaded, there is no doubt whatsoever that Sadat’s army would have conquered Libya in a very short time.
All out war would have meant, however, that Sadat would not have had the time nor the ability to create the peace with Israel that he so desperately craved and which he achieved in 1979.
A little over two years later on October 6, 1981, that peace treaty cost the victor of the July 1977 war his life as Sadat was assassinated by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Gaddafi was to remain in power for a further 34 years.
Martin Hannan – Journalist