Egypt and Libya: It’s crunch time as jihadists threaten both countries

The inability of the transitional government to establish security has been particularly notable in eastern Libya

Abdallah Schleifer

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The devastating struggle underway in Gaza seems to have overshadowed, in media coverage, the battles being fought in Libya in both Tripoli and Benghazi – battles which already have had ramifications for Egypt measured in blood. A little more than a week ago, 22 Egyptian soldiers were killed when gunmen from the Libyan side of the border with Egypt drove across the border and attacked an Egyptian Army checkpoint in Wadi al-Gedid.

The loss of life was shocking but the attack is the ultimate result of two related failures of the transitional government that has ruled Libya since the fall of Qaddafi; to disarm the militias that rose up against Qaddafi (and curiously grew in number and size after he was overthrown) and to create a new, strong army and new, efficient security force.

The inability of the transitional government to establish security has been particularly notable in eastern Libya which borders Egypt

Abdallah Schleifer

The inability of the transitional government to establish security has been particularly notable in eastern Libya which borders Egypt. So, it seems to have become a concentration point for jihadists and to my understanding a safe haven for members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who managed to flee across the border following the military intervention a little more than a year ago that deposed the Brotherhood-dominated government of Mohammad Mursi. And in Libya, I believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is allied with the jihadist militias - which are particularly strong in the eastern Libyan cities of Benghazi and Derna – which is within easy driving range of the border with Egypt.

Egyptian State Security officers say there are jihadists training camps in eastern Libya not far from the border and, according to Reuters, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the terrorist group operating in the Sinai against both Egyptian army and security forces, has established contact with the jihadists forces in eastern Libya.

The Wadi al-Gedid attack indicates that jihadist forces – energized it seems by the recent success of ISIS in Iraq - are starting to wage war on two fronts against Egypt.

What is to be done?

What will happen now that those elements in the new Libyan army, such as the air force and the special forces which I think would be most likely cooperate in tightening up security along the border and even moving against the jihadist training camps, are already engaged in battle with the powerful Ansar al-Sharia jihadist militia in Benghazi as part of the anti-Islamist Libyan armed force under command of General Khalifa Haftar? On Wednesday, the Special Forces suffered a serious loss in the fighting there. In Tripoli the anti-Islamist militia allied with General Haftar is under heavy attack from Islamist militias that have moved up to Tripoli from Misrata.

So what is to be done? The fate of Libya at this moment is uncertain. If the fighting tilts in favor of the Islamist militias, the situation will become even more dangerous since the jihadists, working with the Brotherhood as I understand it, will be able to consolidate power.

What is particularly curious is the apparent inattention of the Obama administration is the involvement of the leading and well-armed Libyan jihadist militia Ansar al-Sharia which was responsible for the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Despite this, Washington seems to be focused on escalating the new Cold War it has started with Russia over the Ukraine, rather than expressing any significant concern about the prospect of a possible jihadist government in Libya.

Egyptian President Sisi has already declared that the attack on the border check-point will not go unpunished. And given the paralysis of government in Libya, I feel that Egypt would be well within its rights to move now against the training camps, and against the concentration of jihadists in the city of Derna who have spawned these camps, with all the fury of its armed forces.


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.

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