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Sisi’s visit to Europe: More than meets the eye

Egypt, Italy and France can stamp out Libyan Dawn, with its Muslim Brotherhood backing, and ISIS in Derna

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

Last week, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited Italy and France, the two leading countries in Europe’s strategic south. Sisi’s first visit to Europe as Egyptian president was not only about meeting Pope Francis but also economic and security issues. President al-Sisi was “directly told” by his interlocutors in Rome and Paris that there is considerable interest on the part of the investor community in these two countries, to come to Egypt.

Clearly, Egypt is seeking investment by Italy and France to help build the Egyptian economy but also jointly helping Sisi to support Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah Al Thinni and General Khalifa Haftar in Libya through military means. By combining efforts, Egypt, Italy and France can stamp out Libyan Dawn, with its Muslim Brotherhood backing, and ISIS in Derna who has not only declared allegiance or bayat to the Islamic Caliphate but also is staring to form the Derna Vilayat. Indeed, a new security relationship to protect the Mediterranean littoral between Southern Europe and North Africa, backed by the GCC, is developing.

The meeting with Pope France intended to restore relations between al-Azhar and the Vatican. The Roman Catholic Church had a falling out beginning in 2011 as Coptic Christians were under attack by various Egyptian groups particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. This situation, for the Egyptian president, is important to reconcile because of the need to bring inter-faith peace to Egypt for the fight against extremist threats that are emanating from the Sinai.

The heart of the Mediterranean

On the security front, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi stated strongly that the country is seeking to build a strong defense and military relationship with Egypt because of the threat from Islamic extremists, specifically ISIS and al-Qaeda franchises. Renzi argued that “Italy is absolutely convinced that the Mediterranean is not the frontier but the heart of Europe, and Egypt must be considered a strategic partner in addressing together the problems of this area. The only way to avoid an escalation of them is through very strong cooperation between Egypt and Europe.” Let’s be clear that the primary point of impact of the Libyan situation in Europe is Italy. Italy has borne the brunt of Libyan refugees and the political fallout regarding this refugees is affecting the country’s security. By uniting together, Italy and Egypt can arrest the problem through coordination of political capital and defense interests that resonate with the GCC.

Egypt, Italy and France can stamp out Libyan Dawn, with its Muslim Brotherhood backing, and ISIS in Derna

Dr. Theodore Karasik

More significantly, President Sisi’s visit to France also highlighted security concerns around the heart of the Mediterranean with Paris’ desire for Egypt playing a strong role in security of North Africa.

France has also been courting Egypt with offers of air, ground and naval platforms. France’s DCNS has already signed an estimated 1 billion euro contract for four Gowind-class corvettes to the Egyptian Navy. Officials said Paris has offered to sell Egypt upgraded French-origin Mirage-2000 fighter-jets. According to a Arab official, the plan is to actually upgrade the existing aircraft: Given the large amount of Mirage-2000 fighters in the Egyptian Air Force’s inventory, both Cairo and Paris have a keen interest in securing North Africa from the air. The use of airpower is an attractive option for both countries who will be able to more closely coordinate their air operations in the future given France’s air presence in West Africa specifically in Mali. In addition, French officials said Egypt and France would also cooperate in counter-insurgency. They said France offered training and equipment for Egypt’s security forces, particularly those deployed in the turbulent Sinai Peninsula.” French President Francois Hollande said that “Egypt is a country struck by terrorism, especially Sinai. Like many other countries in the region, Egypt is facing terrorist movements that may exist in neighboring countries. We must work together to combat terrorism.” This is why southern European countries are concerned that a rise in instability in the Arab world could lead to a sharp increase in the levels of illegal migration, are very keen to support the stability of Egypt, even at the expense of “Western democratic values.”

Focus on Libya

Clearly, the neighboring countries include the primary goal of helping al-Thinni and Haftar defeat Libyan Dawn and ISIS. The focus on Libya by Sisi in his visits to Italy and France are significant. During the meetings, the focus on developments in Libya, the meetings revealed that the “defeat” of extremist Islamic groups would have to be achieved and that a “key blow to these groups would have to start by putting pressure on the countries that finance and provide assistance to these groups to cut off resources and support.” However, a point of contention is the role of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) where Egypt is making a strong case to Italy and France that the Ikhwan are far from moderate and instead are actually making Libya worse.

It was also agreed that to help Libya get over the current phase of “total and frightening chaos” to provide direct “technical and intelligence support to the Tobruk camp” which is seen as the representative of democratic Libya. Thinni and Haftar may allegedly be starting to arm tribes for the battle of Tripoli. Their primary tribal link is with the Warfalla Tribe and its dozens of clans. The Warfalla Tribe, the largest in Libya, is seen as rather independent of the old regime and are based in historical Tripolitania. Consequently, the Warfalla are seen as able allies to Al-Thinni and Haftar at this time to retake Tripoli from Libya Dawn due to their geo-strategic location and networks to break Libya Dawn’s supply and manpower routes.

The unified approach of the three states is growing fast. Very soon, the European Union envoy on counter-terrorism affairs is expected to visit Cairo for detailed discussions on specific measures that could be pursued on the diplomatic and intelligence fronts to help with the fight against militancy. The goal of this visit is to coordinate information sharing on how best to fight and defeat Libya Dawn and ISIS in Derna in order for the Al-Thinni and the House of Representatives (HoR) to recapture Tripoli. This joint effort will be aided by Italian and French intelligence platforms already watching the situation in Libya unfold and allowing the Egyptians to act on the information provided by its new strategic allies. This intelligence helps neighboring countries, besides Egypt, to launch airstrikes on key Libya Dawn and ISIS positions.

According to an Arab official I have spoken to, the GCC states are firmly behind Cairo’s move for the “security and safety of not only North Africa but also to mitigate any infiltration of Europe’s south by the chaos and carnage in Libya.” The view from the GCC, according to the Arab official, to France and Italy, is: “You started it; you fix it.” It appears that this message is now being made operational. Overall, Sisi’s visit to Italy and France is indeed more than meets the eye: the visit helps to give the needed push for the democratically elected HoR to take power in Tripoli and to stamp out Libya Dawn, with its Muslim Brotherhood support network, and ISIS, with support from the core of the Islamic Caliphate in the Levant, in Derna before their respective presence grows out of control.

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Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Senior Advisor to Risk Insurance Management in Dubai, UAE. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets: @tkarasik

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