Egyptian officials said today that parallel meetings are being held to consider military, intelligence and political moves in Libya following the air strikes executed at dawn on Monday against Islamic State targets in Derna.
The strikes were launched in retaliation to the mass killing of 21 abducted Egyptian Coptic workers, captured on a video by the militants which was released on Sunday.
The military track might take precedence over the political track at this point given the complexities of the political topography in Libya and in view of the wish of Cairo to send a strong message of retaliation – not just to the IS affiliates in Libya but also to an apprehensive public in Egypt, official sources said.
“It cannot be a one-off and we could not have taken the slaying without any reaction; it was impossible for the state to do this; public opinion would have been scared if we did not react,” said a political official.
According to the assessment offered for the consideration of national security bodies in Cairo on Monday afternoon, said another official, the strikes conducted by the Egyptian air forces at IS targets in eastern Libya were widely welcomed in most quarters of the public– “not just the Copts but all Egyptians seem to approve of the strikes.”
The 21 Egyptians, who were abducted in convoluted circumstances six weeks ago, are all members of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church.
While one Coptic activist and one security official suggested that the kidnappings were essentially designed and executed in a purely criminal fashion to allow for a large ransom, most sources agreed that there were anti-Christian motives behind the kidnap which were announced in a video put out by the abductors.
“This is not the first attack against Christian objectives and Christian individuals in Libya; it has been unfolding for over a year and we saw the attack against the church and the attack and killing of individuals,” said a source at the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral.
While acknowledging that Egyptian Copts are not the only targets of militant Islamist groups in Libya, he insisted that there is “an inevitable link between the attacks and killing of Egyptian Copts in Libya and the support that the Copts of Egypt demonstrated for the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi."
Government officials who spoke to Ahram Online said that the anti-Coptic sentiment is certainly a motive in the repeated attacks but that it is not the only objective.
These officials echoed the public statements made by the head of the executive and his top aides who say that the ultimate objective of these attacks is to challenge the strength of the Egyptian state and Egyptian authorities.
Egypt's response which “started with the air strikes today”, said one, was designed with this understanding in mind.
The next step of the military plan, the sources said, is still under consideration by the concerned military and intelligence bodies, in consultation with Arab and international allies.
“We have to be very careful; we don’t wish any of our adversaries to suggest that we have been in breach of international law by launching unilateral attacks against targets in a sovereign state,” said a diplomatic source.
The Tobrok authorities, which have limited control over parts of eastern Libya, announced today that the airstrikes conducted by the Egyptian air forces were “coordinated with the Libyan authorities.”
The position of Egypt and several other Arab and Western state is supportive of the Tobrok authorities as the ‘legitimate authorities’ – as opposed to the western Libya Islamist authorities.
The military options that Cairo is considering are also related to the safety of a large Egyptian community in Libya – which according to most estimates is well around one million Egyptians, some of whom have been working there for decades and others are married to Libyans.
“We wish to evacuate as many of them as possible; we are providing facilities for those who can reach the borders with either Egypt or Tunisia; and we have reached an arrangement with the authorities in Tunis to facilitate the matter,” said a source who is working on the evacuation plan.
He added that “if need be and if we have information suggesting that large numbers are trapped away from the borders we could consider other measures to force-evacuate them through a limited military intervention”.
This said, the government is aware that not all Egyptians wish to leave Libya – with some feeling that they are live away from the risk zone and others, especially Muslims, sensing that they are not necessarily subject to direct dangers.
Egyptian authorities have been throughout the past year calling on Egyptian workers to refrain from traveling to work in Libya but the appeal has not been heeded by some whose desperate need for employment won over their fear for their safety.
Today, Egyptian officials say that they still have to exert an exceptional effort to prohibit the attempt by some Egyptians from secure an illicit entry into Libya in search of what they might think is a safe place where they can work and live peacefully.
Meanwhile, the political track seems to be no small challenge for the Egyptian authorities. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri is on his way to Washington DC to take part in an international conference on terrorism – with the Egyptian delegation planning to review developments in Libya.
The increasing mood now in several Western capitals, especially those in the southern of Europe, is to orchestrate an international military intervention to eliminate the capacity of the Islamist militant groups. Egypt has not been supportive of this option so far on the basis that any intervention has to be a prelude for the empowerment of a strong political leader who could “take charge of Libya and manage to build a state there."
From the point of view of Cairo, a new intervention without a clear political future plan is not going to be conducive to long term stability in Libya and could actually strengthen the appeal that militant groups have among Libyan youth.
President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, said a presidential source, has been focused on the Libyan file, conducting numerous telephone consultations to consider the next move.
Meanwhile, Egyptian authorities have stepped up security measures on the western and south-western borders to avoid any infiltration by possible militants who wish to retaliate after Monday’s air strikes.
A state of alert has also been announced on the western borders which are said by intelligence sources to have allowed the infiltration of militants and arms coming from Libya into Egypt.