There is no pride in Egypt’s response to the fate of its hostages. It is being lured into an open-ended battle by the Islamic State (IS) group in Libya, a sprawling organization in a fragmented country. On the other hand, perhaps the Egyptian government was seeking out this battle and is seizing on the execution of 21 Copts on February 15 as an opportunity and pretext to obtain popular endorsement to wage this battle — exactly as what happened in Jordan.
Egypt has decided to wage an open-ended “war on terror.” The country that considered its involvement in fighting terror in Sinai enough and had reservations about direct participation in the international anti-IS coalition in Iraq and Syria, offering only logistical and intelligence support, has become the spearhead of an aerial bombardment campaign in Libya.
Why will this battle be open ended? Firstly, Egypt will be operating beyond its borders for the first time, at least publicly, without a specified time frame. Secondly, there are challenges related to the configuration of Libya itself, whether in terms of its topography or its tribal and factional landscape, and the splintering of the polity in the country into eastern and western parts.
Moreover, a high-level Egyptian diplomatic source has revealed that his country is pushing for the formation of an alliance to lead the aerial bombardment campaign in Libya, comprising France, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE. The source indicated there are talks underway between Egypt and Russia to secure Russian support for the Egyptian army operations in Libya, according to the Anadolu news agency.
But before we talk about achievements and failures in Sinai, or assess the condition and capabilities of the Egyptian army, analyzing the Libyan theater shows that what Cairo has decided to do is tantamount to an adventure or gamble with uncalculated results. Indeed, the reality of IS’ presence in Libya differs from its presence in Iraq, Syria, and even eastern Egypt.
[A]nalyzing the Libyan theater shows that what Cairo has decided to do is tantamount to an adventure or gamble with uncalculated results.
For one thing, the presence of a clearly defined IS entity in those areas helps direct the war and strikes against the group, regardless of the comparative effectiveness of air strikes and ground operations. This raises questions about which IS exactly President Sisi wants to target in Libya.
Even experts on insurgent and terrorist groups say the mosaic of armed groups in Benghazi, Misrata, and Tripoli, including Wilayat Barqa (Cyrenaica), that declared allegiance to IS a few months ago, has volatile and conflicting loyalties, with tribal and regional affiliations being the deciding factor more often than not.
Even with the presence of an ally like Khalifa Haftar and his forces, this does not guarantee that Egyptian aerial bombardment will get results on the ground. Haftar’s Operation Dignity, which has been going on for over a year, has not achieved anything on the field, although intense bombardment could help him move more freely and make gains against IS and other Islamist and non-Islamist factions.
Above all, the Egyptian assumption is that the strikes will degrade IS. But in reality, the strikes would not prevent the group from continuing attacks against Egyptian interests and even Egyptian soil. As is known, Libya is home to more than 500,000 Egyptians, has a border that is nearly 1,150 km long with Egypt, and has multiple and diverse joint economic interests with Egypt.
In addition, IS can increase its attacks in eastern Egypt via its affiliate Wilayat Sinai, something alluded to in statements attributed to Wilayat Barqa. The latter group threatened to attack Egyptians in Libya, and wage attacks through the deserts of Barqa and Fezzan.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that not all Libyan political parties are in favor of the Egyptian strikes. Prominent parties like the Libyan National Congress see the strikes as violation of Libyan sovereignty — though it did not describe the international attack on the Gaddafi regime in those terms.
The so-called Mujahideen Shura Councils in the cities and areas targeted voiced the same objections, and criticized the Egyptian army for killing civilians in the strikes on Monday. They also accused Cairo of collaborating with Haftar as part of a UAE-led alliance against Qatar-backed factions.
All this leads to concerns over a backlash in Libya against Egyptian expatriates, and the possibility of kidnapping and killing Egyptians in the country, especially with the lack of any news on the abduction of 21 Egyptian fishermen kidnapped a day before IS executed the 21 Copts. In addition, there is bad blood between the two countries, particularly regarding the border region, which has become a gateway for militants and weapons to countries like Syria and Iraq. Not many have forgotten the border clashes between the two countries in the 1970s that killed 1,400 people in battles that lasted three days.
The Egyptian army cannot operate on two fronts and guarantee victory in either, let alone both, especially as it faces a protracted guerilla war.
Last but not least, putting pressure on Egypt via the Sinai will definitely limit the freedom of its army. The Egyptian army cannot operate on two fronts and guarantee victory in either, let alone both, especially as it faces a protracted guerilla war.
The Egyptian response is being deliberated from several angles, motivated by the political convictions of the various parties. The government believes for example that the Muslim Brotherhood is an essential part of the drive by IS and al-Qaeda to form a western belt hostile to the state. For their part, Islamist and other forces believe Cairo is fighting someone else’s war, despite their condemnation of the slaying of the Coptic hostages.
Meanwhile, it is no secret that all these developments are happening as the regime is trying to consolidate its power through parliamentary legitimacy and economic achievements. Any major involvement against IS could lead to negative results for the Sisi administration, while any achievement could be seen as part of the battle to consolidate the power of the ruling party.
Regarding the possibility of ground operations, informed sources told Al-Akhbar that the National Defense Council is considering the deployment of special forces to help evacuate Egyptians trapped in Libya, after an armed group gave them a 48-hour ultimatum.
This echoes what Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim told Al-Akhbar asserting that, “All options are on the table, to protect Egyptians.” He added that ground intervention was possible if necessary, provided that it followed procedures to guarantee the safety of the evacuees and forces taking part in the evacuation.
Egypt’s Misguided Drive to Wage War on the ‘Islamic State’ in Libya | Al Akhbar English.