Egypt's war in Libya against IS: Potentials and dangers

Hany Elaasar
Wednesday 25 Feb 2015

While Egypt's national security concerns in Libya are legitimate and pressing, it must carefully weigh its options and find allies in a complicated international and regional scene

For decades, Egyptian regimes have adopted the principle of not getting involved in direct wars against terrorism outside Egyptian borders, limiting confrontations to radical militant groups in its territories. Even with the rise of the regional terrorist threat, the ascent and expansion of the Islamic State (IS) group, and the formation of an international coalition to fight the group, the Egyptian state maintains its position of refusing to get involved in military action, limiting its contribution to providing intelligence support. This is the same role that Egypt has been playing for years in the war on terror.

However, there was a fundamental shift in the position of the Egyptian state in recent days, as more Egyptians have been targeted in Libya, especially by the Islamic State group. In the same day that IS released a video showing the beheading of 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians kidnapped in Libya, the Egyptian army officially announced that it bombed targets linked to the IS group in Derna, east Libya. Also there was news of a ground operation that resulted in the killing and detaining of a number of the armed group's militants — something Cairo did not officially confirm or deny.

The move of the Egyptian state towards engaging military operations against outside terrorist groups that threaten its national security could be understood within its right to defend its security and the security of its citizens against any threat — a right granted by international law, as the Egyptian president pointed out in his speech before the raids, and as also reflected in the reactions and statements made by allies, starting from Libya and the United Arab Emirates to Russia, France and Italy. At the same time, Egypt did not underestimate the nature and sensitivity of the step it took and thus started another battle — this time political — aiming at providing an international umbrella to its military intervention through forming an international, or at least regional, alliance that would actively participate in its war against militant groups in Libya, and share the expenses of the war.

Complicated situation

In reaction to Cairo’s attempts to lobby for international intervention in Libya, five European countries (France, Italy, Germany, Spain and the UK) in addition to the United States issued a joint statement stressing the need for a political resolution to the conflict in Libya, encouraging all parties to join reconciliation talks sponsored by the United Nations.

The European/US statement made Cairo change its bid to the UN calling for the arms embargo on the legitimate government in Libya to be lifted — a demand that was not adopted by the UN Security Council after a number of countries rejected it. The Security Council postponed making a decision on the embargo to the next meeting on Libya.

Whatever the decision is in the next meeting it will no doubt reflect the complications of the current regional and international situation concerning the war on terror in Libya, and that should be taken in consideration by the Egyptian side. These complications include:

— Since 2013, Libya has been a zone of regional conflict between the Turkey/Qatar axis that supports the General National Congress representing the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, and the Egypt/UAE/Saudi axis that supports the legitimate government, its army in addition to the forces of General Khalifa Haftar. Accordingly, the axis that supports the General National Congress will try to stop any procedure that might end the current crisis in favour of the current legitimate government, as this will have a huge negative impact on its social and economic interests in Libya.

— The current military balance on the ground between all major parties inside Libya (Ansar El-Sharia, the Islamic State, Fajr Libya, the Libya Youth Movement, the forces of General Haftar, and the legitimate government’s army) should also be taken into consideration.

— The strategy of the major regional players affected directly by the civil war in Libya, namely Tunisia and Algeria, is totally different than that adopted now by Egypt, as it depends mainly on defensive measures that do not go beyond their borders.

— Some of Egypt’s allies are clearly retracting their support, or at least beginning to do so. France and Italy, for example, who expressed their support for Egypt’s right to defend its security after the airstrikes, signed with the US the statement that stressed that a political solution to the crisis in Libya is the only option available.

— There is a clear abandonment by the US administration of combating IS, which can be attributed to two main reasons: first, the approach of the US presidential elections, where US administrations in such a time focus on domestic issues in order to win the support of American voters for their parties in the election; and secondly, because the defeat of IS at this time, especially in Syria and Libya, will not serve the interests of the US but favour regimes that are not allies of Washington.

— In this context one cannot ignore the apparent US refusal of Egyptian military intervention in Libya, which could mostly be seen as a reaction of the US to Cairo’s disregard for coordinating with Washington before taking any military steps, as well as the rejection of the US administration of the Egyptian convergence with Russia, which the US sees as a threat to its interests in the region.

Possible and impossible choices

The war on terror in Libya and its complications are the main driver of Cairo in its declared and undeclared moves during the past days amid current complexities. Before the UN Security Council decides on the matter, and regardless of the contents of the Security Council resolution expected within hours, Cairo still has a number of possible options and others that could represent a grave danger to the interests of the Egyptian state.

Possible options

The Egyptian state has three options that may not be equal in their risk and ability to achieve its aims, but are, however, all capable of helping Cairo avoid any negative international reactions. These options are:

— Military intervention within the frame of an international or regional alliance that includes at the very least some European countries like France and Italy, and Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These countries are of strategic importance to the US administration, and it would even be better if this alliance is formed under a legitimate umbrella, through a Security Council resolution, or at least if it does not contradict any of the articles in the expected resolution.

— If the Security Council votes against military intervention in Libya the Egyptian side will have to continue in providing logistical and intelligence support to the army of the legitimate Libyan government, bearing in mind the arms embargo on Libya, which means that in case the embargo is not lifted, Egypt will have to maintain a high level of secrecy while providing the Libyan army with the weapons needed by the latter to finish what the Egyptian army started.

— The last choice. If the situation in Libya escalates and the threats to Egyptian national security become higher, and if this happens in a time the Security Council resolution retains the arms embargo on Libya and rejects any military intervention, Cairo will have to launch military operations against targets in Libya without announcing this officially. This is a familiar tactic in wars that was adopted by Egypt before in its war against Israel during the time of the ceasefire in the late 1960s.

Dangerous alternatives

If the Security Council issues a resolution that does not go in line with Egyptian aspirations, this, in addition to the current complications, could open the door to risky alternatives that could have negative consequences. The most dangerous alternatives are:

— Launching a military intervention alone without international support, or in coordination with major regional and international players — i.e., Saudi Arabia and the UAE regionally, and the US, Italy and France internationally.

— Undertaking any military measures that contradict the resolution but within a regional or international alliance that does not get enough international support or is not able to protect this move. Here I mean specifically going to war on Libya backed only by Russia, which is showing its support for Egypt and has announced that it will provide Cairo with all the aid needed in this war.

— The most dangerous alternative of all — and that should be avoided at any cost — is for Egypt to provide weapons to other Libyan groups fighting against IS, including the Libya Youth Movement, as this will only increase the state of political chaos, leaving farfetched any possibility of stability in the neighbouring country.


The writer is a researcher in Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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