Libya is only one of the interwoven challenges Egypt must overcome, writes Dina Ezzat
THE HORRIFIC video of 21 Egyptians slaughtered on the coast of Libya by a faction of the so-called Islamic State has prompted widespread anger and distaste. Masses were held for the victims all across Egypt’s churches, while President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi ordered air strikes on IS targets in Libya in Egypt’s first direct intervention in the conflict.
Over the last three days Cairo has been busy canvassing the opinions of like-minded Arab states and its non-Arab allies on the best ways to confront the threat posed by the spread of radical militant groups, with the so-called Islamic State (IS) topping the list.
Egypt’s démarche began on Sunday, following the announcement by IS that it had beheaded 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya.
“While we have long had huge problems with Libya — the infiltration of arms and militants across the border is a major headache — this video-taped murder of 21 Egyptians required an immediate response. Our military reaction was a message we had to send but what we need to pursue now is a comprehensive plan that paves the way for the beginning of the end of chaos in Libya,” said a government official.
On Sunday evening President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi expressed his condolences to the families of the victims of the IS massacre and vowed to retaliate promptly. Hours later an army spokesman said Egyptian warplanes had bombed IS strongholds in Derna in eastern Libya, closer to the border with Egypt than to the shores of Tripoli in western Libya where the massacre took place.
“Derna is a launching pad for radical militant groups in Libya. The problem is no series of bombardments can fully eliminate the threat posed by IS. This will require a much more thorough intervention, not only military but also political given the complexity of the scene in Libya,” says Kamel Abdallah, an expert on Libyan affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
In an interview with a European radio station on Tuesday Al-Sisi said the time has come for international intervention in Libya under the umbrella of the UN.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, in Washington to take part in an international conference on terrorism, is expected to hold consultations with his counterparts, and with members of the UN Security Council in New York, on ways to handle Libya.
“There are a host of ideas that are being proposed. We think we need to act soon before things get too complicated to attend to but of course we have to reach a consensus on a plan because any [military] intervention will have to be long term and will have to be in parallel with a political process that can establish a representative Libyan government,” says a Cairo-based European diplomat.
Egypt’s military response to the massacre of 21 Egyptian workers in Libya was coordinated with the “legitimate government” authorities based in the east of the country, say Egyptian officials. Al-Sisi described the attacks as “an act of self-defence compatible with international law”.
Monday’s air raids have already been accused of causing collateral damage. “We know that this is something our political adversaries in Turkey and Qatar will seek to use against us and we are being very careful,” said a high-ranking Egyptian official.
Cairo has long advised caution against hasty interventions in Libya that might aggravate an already explosive struggle.
“The struggle in Libya is very complicated. It is not black and white. It has tribal dimensions, and is also fuelled by the battle between Bedouin and urban leaders over who controls oil,” says Abdallah.
“Libya is not only a neighbouring state infiltrated by radical militants from IS and other groups but also a source of work for over a million Egyptians who do not have alternative jobs to go to,” says one Egyptian diplomat.
While Libya has dominated headlines for several days it is only one of many pressing situations about which Egyptian officials worry.
Sinai remains an area of major concern. On Tuesday the authorities announced that they are moving forward with a plan to evacuate a ten kilometre strip along the border with Gaza to allow for a more effective clampdown on militants operating there.
“It is taking much longer than was originally thought to bring the situation under control. Supplies that the militants receive from many points, including the western borders, are not making it easier,” said a concerned government official.
The southern borders are proving porous to both militants and arms and the cooperation we are receiving from the Sudanese authorities is still inadequate, he added.
Egypt is trying to pressure Sudan to take stronger action, says the official, but it is not being overly assertive given that Cairo is trying to woo Khartoum into closer cooperation over the “devastating challenge” posed by Ethiopia’s continued work on the Renaissance Dam. Some intelligence sources say that if construction continues at the current rate the dam, which will severely impact Egypt’s share of Nile water, could be completed by the end of 2016.
Egypt is also being pressed by its close economic allies, not least Saudi Arabia, to provide help on the ground in strife torn Yemen.
If the situation in Yemen continues to deteriorate there are fears of a possible impact on the operation of the Suez Canal. But, says an informed official, Egypt remains “reluctant” to become involved in Yemen “at this point”.
“We are already over-stretched on the security front and the army faces enough responsibilities vis-a-vis internal security”.
But how long will Cairo be able to hold off its Gulf allies given Egypt’s dire economic straits? The economic conference Egypt plans to hold in March, ahead of the first round of long overdue parliamentary elections which may yet be postponed further if the Supreme Constitutional Court rules that electoral laws need to be redrafted, and an Arab Summit scheduled to be hosted and chaired by Al-Sisi, are both likely to become venues for Egypt’s Gulf allies to press the case for Egyptian intervention in Yemen.
“We will provide technical advice and intelligence cooperation pending the convocation of the Arab Summit and meanwhile will work to draft a proposal for a collective Arab intervention in Yemen,” says an Egyptian diplomat.
As they juggle with the host of challenges facing Egypt officials can afford no mistakes. They must keep their eye on a multitude of balls — those pertaining to economic development, and those that have a direct impact on national security. They are, after all, the obverse of the same coin.
The slaughter of 21 Egyptian workers in Libya left Egypt with minimal choices to weigh, writes Ahmed Eleiba
The posting of a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptians at the hands of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Libya prompted an immediate meeting of the National Defence Council to decide how to respond. It didn’t take long.
On Monday Egyptian planes carried out air strikes on four targets, training camps and weapons depots used by the Islamic State in Libya. This prompt reaction, though, was only the first move. It heralded the beginning of a flurry of diplomatic activity.
Egyptian officials were soon in contact with European capitals and Washington to press for coordinated international intervention in Libya to stop the spread of IS.
“We have to work together to defeat terrorism… We abandoned the Libyan people to extremist militias,” President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi told France’s Europe 1 radio in an interview aired on Tuesday.
Cairo also plans to use the counterterrorism summit currently convened in Washington to explore “ways to combat terrorism and extremism” in the world, announced Foreign Ministry Spokesman Badr Abdel-Ati.
Expanding the battle to Libya may be resisted by some states already involved in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State. They are likely to argue that the impact of air strikes in Syria and Iraq needs to be assessed before extending action to Libya. Nor has the UN envoy to Libya welcomed the possibility of international intervention.
Europe, though, may be more willing to become involved, at least to the extent of offering logistical support in the war on IS. It does not want to see a new Somalia on its southern doorstep. The UN Security Council is also due to address the crisis in Libya very soon.
Cairo is already formulating a roadmap for confronting terror, something Al-Sisi hinted at in statements to the French press.
He stressed the importance of “drying up of the sources of financing for terror in Libya and halting arms supplies to extremist groups.” Terrorists, he added, must be denied a “safe haven” in both the Middle East and Africa.
Al-Sisi also called for the arms embargo on the Tobruk-based internationally-recognised government to be lifted.
Meanwhile, military leaders from around the world gathered in Riyadh on Wednesday to discuss ways to confront IS, diplomatic sources told AFP.
The Riyadh meeting, scheduled for two days, brings together the main players in the anti-IS coalition, including Gulf states. Its aim is to provide a forum for consultation and coordination, not to make any “decisive” plans.
Intelligence and military coordination between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt has been underway for weeks, say sources, as is coordination on rapid intervention forces to confront IS.
On Sunday evening Cairo consulted with Paris, Rome and Washington, three capitals that the pre-recorded video of the murder of the 21 Egyptians appeared to directly address.
Reports from Egyptian and Libyan military sources are consistent. Egyptian Air Force F-16s carried out eight strikes targeting IS bases in the areas of Bab Shiha, Dafesh and Al-Shaari. According to General Saqr Al-Jaroushi, the Commander of the Libyan Air Force, Libyan jets simultaneously hit targets in Sirte and Bin Jawad.
Colonel Ahmed Al-Mismari, spokesman for the Chief of Staff of the Libyan Army, told Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview that “we view the joint Egyptian-Libyan operation as a strategic strike against the strongholds of terrorism in Libya.”
Preliminary reports, says Al-Mismari, suggest the strikes killed about 60 people in the IS’s top tier in Libya, including 21 foreigners. He denied reports that residential areas were also bombed.
“Some areas that may appear to be residential are actually IS strongholds,” he said.
A senior intelligence expert told the Weekly the strike beyond Egypt’s border was an inevitable response to the killing of 21 Egyptians. It was necessary, he said, to save face, provide a boost in morale and restore Egypt’s dignity. It was also important to show that Egypt’s “fight against terrorism is not conducted through proxies, but by our own hands and weapons.” Now, he added, a strategic plan must be put in place, including the creation of an international coalition.
IS’s first response to the air raids was to post a statement on the Twitter account of Wilayet Barqa (Barqa province). “The strikes by the Egyptian army did not result in any injuries,” it claimed, beyond killing the children of Derna. The statement then threatened the murder of more Egyptians in Libya and promised to step up attacks “until your blood flows like rivers not only on the coast of Tripoli but in the deserts of Barqa, Fazan and Sinai”.
“Wait and we will wait also,” the posting threatened. “This operation will not pass quietly for the knights of Sinai. God willing, we will soon hear news.”
The statement was soon followed by broadcast on Twitter of a photo of Abu Suleiman Al-Jahbazi, the man who led the beheadings.
An intelligence source said Egypt’s leadership understands there will be repercussions. More Egyptians in Libya may be killed, and attacks in Sinai are anticipated.
“We will pay a price at home and abroad,” says the source. “We will have to absorb the next attack by IS and prepare a long-term plan of action on the political, intelligence and grassroot fronts. We must be prepared for the group changing its tactics to try to surprise.”
Dispatched to Washington to participate in the US-sponsored conference on terrorism, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri will call on the international coalition led by the US against IS to extend the battle to Libya. Egyptian strategic experts, however, rate Shoukri’s chances of success as slim. Washington, they say, remains committed to a policy of “strategic patience” and wants the focus to remain on Iraq and Syria.
Ahmed Sewan, a researcher in international affairs, advises against “dependence on a US role beyond limited logistical support and approving military operations that Arab countries could carry out”. Sewan believes European countries have more motives to intervene in Libya and the Washington conference against terrorism “will not result in any [US] tactical changes.”
France and Italy both expressed support for the Egyptian air strikes and Cairo and Paris have agreed to call for “new measures” to fight IS. Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti told Il Messaggero newspaper on Sunday that Italy is prepared to deploy thousands of men to halt the progress of Islamist radicals in Libya as part of a coalition of European and regional states.
Within hours of the air strike Egypt signed a deal with France to buy 24 Rafale warplanes. Although these fighter jets will enter service in August at the earliest, a point has been made. Acquisition of the warplanes, worth $6.7 billion send a powerful message, says Major-General Kamal Amer, former head of military intelligence, not least that “we are acquiring weapons of deterrence to confront challenges abroad.”
On the Arab front, where condemnation of the slayings was par for the course, the positions of Jordan and UAE stand out.
Abdel-Khalek Abdullah, a leading UAE expert on international relations, told the Weekly “Egypt now is at war with IS and terrorism, and the UAE is providing all the assistance it can to support Egypt in this war.”
“Whatever Egypt asks for from the UAE it will receive because we are all in the same bunker and there is no other better country than the UAE to stand by Egypt.”
The fight against IS is “the battle of Arabs before being the battle of the US and world because IS targets us, our religion and our faith. The UAE is very clear that it is in the forefront of fighting this group in Iraq, Syria, Libya and anywhere else.”
Al-Mismari doubts there will be intervention by ground troops in the foreseeable future but believes “there needs to be support for the Libyan army [from an Arab coalition].”
“The battle against IS is a military, intellectual and doctrinal one. It is obviously not a one-day or one-week battle but an extended war. IS will be defeated. In the end it will be defeated at the hands of Arab moderates such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan,” says Abdullah.
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