Libya is on the edge of chaos. The architects of that chaos, a military-political alliance called “The Libyan Shield” made up of Muslim Brotherhood members, the pro-Brotherhood militias from Misrata and the murderous salafist-jihadists of Ansar al-Sharia, have seized effective control of the capital Tripoli.
Ministers have gone into hiding and the recently elected parliament had already relocated from Tripoli to Tobruk ( a port city not far from the Egyptian border) because of the lack of security in the Libyan capital. Several weeks ago, a similar Islamist alliance led by the dominant Ansar al-Sharia –which reportedly has ties with ISIS - took control of Benghazi and declared it to be an “Islamic Emirate.”
The Brotherhood which fared badly in the elections last June is now setting up a rival regime in Tripoli to that of the elected parliament. All of this lends weight to the comment by Libya’s ambassador to the U.N. that Libya was sliding into civil war.
The ongoing atrocities committed by ISIS in northern Iraq are indications of what could be in store for LibyaAbdallah Schleifer
It is a situation that directly threatens the security of Egypt. That threat is not new – last month a Libyan Islamist force with bases but an hour or so drive from the Egyptian border surged across the frontier and attacked an Egyptian border post killing 22 Egyptian soldiers. This was not the first such attack Intelligence reports from both sides of the Libyan-Egyptian border indicate that the salafist-jihadists operating in the Sinai are in contact with the Libyan salafist-jihadi terrorists circulating in the area adjacent to the border.
The Egyptian Army has intercepted arms smugglers who have attempted, over the past few months, to move arms and ammunitions into the country, presumably for the Egyptian groups that have been periodically attacking police and army personnel in Sinai and in the “mainland” of Egypt that is west of the Suez Canal.
Over the past few months, Egyptians working in Libya as well as Egyptian truck drivers transporting goods for the Libyan market have been sufficiently harassed and in some cases tortured and killed to prompt a massive flight of Egyptian expats into Tunisia for immediate repatriation .That flight was also prompted by the death of Egyptian workers caught in the cross fire between Islamist-allied and nationalist-allied militias in and around Tripoli’s airport and the collapse of construction projects.
Emad Eddin Adeeb, a columnist for the Cairo daily Al-Watan, accurately described the disorder in Libya as “an Egyptian affair” and it is Egypt that took the initiative last weekend when the foreign ministers from Libya’s neighboring states, as well as the Libyan foreign minister met here in Cairo and called for an end to the violence and stressed that all foreign parties should refrain from supplying arms “to illegitimate parties in Libya.”
That meant, according to the foreign ministers, tightening control over Libyan borders, sea ports and airports which, in my opinion, is inconceivable in present circumstances and only possible if there is to be regional or international military intervention in Libya. Such an intervention would be thoroughly legitimate given the threat of the Islamist-jihadist alliance to the national security of neighboring countries - in particular Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria.
Calling for intervention
Indeed, the Libyan parliament has called for just such an intervention and Libya’s Ambassador to Cairo Faiz Jebril has also called on the international community to help Libya to protect its oil fields, airports and other state properties. In Europe, France’s President Hollande responded immediately, calling for “exceptional support” for Libya and noting that if no action is taken “terrorism will spread across the region.” There are indications here in Cairo, circulating on the ground, that Egypt is prepared to lead an international coalition under the umbrella of the Arab League that would intervene to suppress terrorism and stabilize Libya.
The ongoing atrocities committed by ISIS in northern Iraq are indications of what could be in store for Libya if the better-armed, better funded Libya Shield alliance succeeds in a full scale civil war just as its leading element has already succeeded in Benghazi, in spite of popular support for the poorly armed Libyan Army units that moved against the Ansar al-Sharia. That failed attempt at a corrective movement by units of the army led by retired General Khalifa Haftar was a response to more than two years of terror in Banghazi as this salafist-jihadist militia assassinated army intelligence officers, journalists , human rights activists and destroyed Sufi shrines.
Already, Islamist militiamen have wrecked the Tripoli studios of private television station Al-Assima, which supported the nationalist Zintan militia. The potential for ISIS-style viciousness was already displayed in 2012 when salafist-jihadists in Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata and other cities desecrated the shrines and mosques commemorating Libya’s great Sufi sheikhs. As events in Iraq, Mali, Tunisia, Syria, Somalia and Egypt have demonstrated, that is always a sign of terrible things to come.
Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.