Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1234, (19 - 25 February 2015)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1234, (19 - 25 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Facing all fronts

Libya is only one of the interwoven challenges Egypt must overcome, writes Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

Over the last three days Cairo has been busy canvassing the opinions of like-minded Arab states and its non-Arab allies on the best ways to confront the threat posed by the spread of radical militant groups, with the so-called Islamic State (IS) topping the list.

Egypt’s démarche began on Sunday, following the announcement by IS that it had beheaded 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya.

“While we have long had huge problems with Libya — the infiltration of arms and militants across the border is a major headache — this video-taped murder of 21 Egyptians required an immediate response. Our military reaction was a message we had to send but what we need to pursue now is a comprehensive plan that paves the way for the beginning of the end of chaos in Libya,” said a government official.

On Sunday evening President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi expressed his condolences to the families of the victims of the IS massacre and vowed to retaliate promptly. Hours later an army spokesman said Egyptian warplanes had bombed IS strongholds in Derna in eastern Libya, closer to the border with Egypt than to the shores of Tripoli in western Libya where the massacre took place.

“Derna is a launching pad for radical militant groups in Libya. The problem is no series of bombardments can fully eliminate the threat posed by IS. This will require a much more thorough intervention, not only military but also political given the complexity of the scene in Libya,” says Kamel Abdallah, an expert on Libyan affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

In an interview with a European radio station on Tuesday Al-Sisi said the time has come for international intervention in Libya under the umbrella of the UN.

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, in Washington to take part in an international conference on terrorism, is expected to hold consultations with his counterparts, and with members of the UN Security Council in New York, on ways to handle Libya.

“There are a host of ideas that are being proposed. We think we need to act soon before things get too complicated to attend to but of course we have to reach a consensus on a plan because any [military] intervention will have to be long term and will have to be in parallel with a political process that can establish a representative Libyan government,” says a Cairo-based European diplomat.

Egypt’s military response to the massacre of 21 Egyptian workers in Libya was coordinated with the “legitimate government” authorities based in the east of the country, say Egyptian officials. Al-Sisi described the attacks as “an act of self-defence compatible with international law”.

Monday’s air raids have already been accused of causing collateral damage.  “We know that this is something our political adversaries in Turkey and Qatar will seek to use against us and we are being very careful,” said a high-ranking Egyptian official.

Cairo has long advised caution against hasty interventions in Libya that might aggravate an already explosive struggle.

“The struggle in Libya is very complicated. It is not black and white. It has tribal dimensions, and is also fuelled by the battle between Bedouin and urban leaders over who controls oil,” says Abdallah.

“Libya is not only a neighbouring state infiltrated by radical militants from IS and other groups but also a source of work for over a million Egyptians who do not have alternative jobs to go to,” says one Egyptian diplomat.

While Libya has dominated headlines for several days it is only one of many pressing situations about which Egyptian officials worry.  

Sinai remains an area of major concern. On Tuesday the authorities announced that they are moving forward with a plan to evacuate a ten kilometre strip along the border with Gaza to allow for a more effective clampdown on militants operating there.

“It is taking much longer than was originally thought to bring the situation under control. Supplies that the militants receive from many points, including the western borders, are not making it easier,” said a concerned government official.  

The southern borders are proving porous to both militants and arms and the cooperation we are receiving from the Sudanese authorities is still inadequate, he added.

Egypt is trying to pressure Sudan to take stronger action, says the official, but it is not being overly assertive given that Cairo is trying to woo Khartoum into closer cooperation over the “devastating challenge” posed by Ethiopia’s continued work on the Renaissance Dam. Some intelligence sources say that if construction continues at the current rate the dam, which will severely impact Egypt’s share of Nile water, could be completed by the end of 2016.

Egypt is also being pressed by its close economic allies, not least Saudi Arabia, to provide help on the ground in strife torn Yemen.

If the situation in Yemen continues to deteriorate there are fears of a possible impact on the operation of the Suez Canal. But, says an informed official, Egypt remains “reluctant” to become involved in Yemen “at this point”.

“We are already over-stretched on the security front and the army faces enough responsibilities vis-a-vis internal security”.  

But how long will Cairo be able to hold off its Gulf allies given Egypt’s dire economic straits? The economic conference Egypt plans to hold in March, ahead of the first round of long overdue parliamentary elections which may yet be postponed further if the Supreme Constitutional Court rules that electoral laws need to be redrafted, and an Arab Summit scheduled to be hosted and chaired by Al-Sisi, are both likely to become venues for Egypt’s Gulf allies to press the case for Egyptian intervention in Yemen.

“We will provide technical advice and intelligence cooperation pending the convocation of the Arab Summit and meanwhile will work to draft a proposal for a collective Arab intervention in Yemen,” says an Egyptian diplomat.

As they juggle with the host of challenges facing Egypt officials can afford no mistakes. They must keep their eye on a multitude of balls — those pertaining to economic development, and those that have a direct impact on national security.  They are, after all, the obverse of the same coin.

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