When the U.S. secretary of state started recruiting Arab states to participate in the international coalition to fight ISIS, Egypt pledged its support but did not send any aircraft to participate in the American led coalition air strikes against ISIS forces as its allies Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and Bahrain have done.
Some Middle East observers found this odd since the Egyptian armed forces are the largest in the Arab world. Only one army in the Arab world was larger and more recently combat seasoned but that was Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army. The ineptitude and Shiite sectarianism of its high command and corruption of the new Iraqi army bears no comparison to the old Iraqi army that withstood wave after wave of Iranian forces attempting to overrun Basra in the incredibly bloody and protracted Iraq-Iran War in the late 1980s.
But Egypt’s president and former field marshal, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, understood well that Egypt’s struggle against radical Islamist forces was not limited to the Sinai or even to the roving band of Islamist terrorists staging hit and run attacks against Egyptian police and army posts well beyond Sinai. It is because of the potential for Libya to become a second front against Egypt which led Sisi to avoid committing any portion of the armed forces to a participatory role attacking ISIS in Iraq. Instead, ISIS or at least a Libyan terrorist force that has now pledged allegiance to ISIS is now concentrated relatively close to the Egyptian border. In both cases, Sisi’s very measured commitment to the American–led coalition and the appearance of ISIS banners raised not far from the Egyptian frontier are a double rebuke, each in a very different way, to America for its hostile or at best luke-warm response to a post-Mursi Egypt.
Simply the victim?
The problem is that Libya has too often been dismissed in global media as simply the victim of the lethal rivalries of competing apolitical militias, born in the armed struggle that overthrew Qaddafi and transforming themselves into regional or local fiefdoms rather than submitting to the new central authority. It is a picture that is only partially true, and the refusal by many to see an emerging ideological as well as war lord quality to the chaos in Libya is no longer viable.
Not after the most brutal of the Islamist militias –Ansar al-Shariah - paraded through the streets of Derna (which is little more than an hour drive to the Egyptian border) flying ISIS flags and shouting ISIS slogans.
At the rally in Derna last Sunday, Ansar al Shariah’s commanders announced its allegiance to ISIS. This is the same group held responsible by America for the killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi back in 2012 and blamed by Egyptian intelligence sources for an across the border raid this past summer against an Egyptian army post resulting in the death of 22 Egyptian soldiers. Also, there are reports that a delegation of ISIS officers has travelled from Syrian HQs to eastern Libya to establish contacts and a working relationship with Ansar al-Shariah.
This is the backdrop to the sudden visit to Cairo last Wednesday of Libya’s new Prime Minister Abdallah al-Thinni upon the invitation of President Sisi. Al-Thinni was accompanied by leading members of his cabinet for meetings with both President al-Sisi and Egypt’s Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahalb who confirmed that Egyptian and Libyan security agencies were already in continuous contact and exchanging information. But the major news was that Egypt will now undertake the training of Libya’s hard pressed post- Qaddafian national army as well as its police.
At a rally in Derna last Sunday, Ansar al-Shariah’s commanders announced its allegiance to ISISAbdallah Schleifer
“Training missions” can then be the backdoor by which friendly forces from one country can be increasingly eased into combat missions on behalf of a beleaguered ally which the legitimate government of Libya most certainly is.
It is necessary to add the word “legitimate” because there are now two rival parliaments and governments in Libya. The legitimate government was established by the new parliament elected last June – an election in which the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups had done poorly, losing the strong influence they had in the previous parliament. Rather than yield to the new situation pro-MB militias attacked the capital Tripoli.
The newly elected parliament fled Tripoli and established itself in the coastal city of Tobruk which is close to the Egyptian border where it approved a new government formed by al-Thinni. But the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood and its allies called back into session the expired old parliament which they now dominated and formed a rump rival government in Tripoli. That “state” has not been recognized by any Arab government, though there have been persistent but unconfirmed reports circulating in Libya that Qatar has been providing financial support to the militias that support this rump government.
In Benghazi the national army and anti-Islamist fighting force recruited from the national army has been battling the Ansar al-Shariah and other radical Islamist militias for control of the city since last May, but the Islamist militias have overrun that city and are now pressing hard against the pro-government forces which have been holding out at Benghazi’s airport.
There is no question that this deteriorating military situation prompted the visit to Cairo by the Libyan prime minister and his barely veiled invitation for Egypt to intervene in the battle underway in Libya. A typical headline in the Egyptian press in the wake of the meetings here in Cairo was “Sisi: Egypt fully backs Libyan government, people.” If that backing is indeed both swift and powerful, the grim military situation in Libya may soon alter for the better.
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.