Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

‘Double jeopardy’

As concern grows over Islamic State’s expansion in Libya, Cairo is mulling its options, writes Dina Ezzat

‘Double jeopardy’
‘Double jeopardy’
Al-Ahram Weekly

Intelligence reports from Europe and the US suggest that Cairo has more reason to worry about the expansion of the Islamic State (IS) group in Libya than it thought just a few weeks ago.

“We know IS was growing in Libya. Our people on the ground have reported that it is not just gaining new territory but is fast recruiting militants both within Libya and from neighbouring states, especially Tunisia and Egypt,” said an informed official source.

He added that IS has been running down some operations in Syria in the wake of Russian air strikes and transferring them to Libya. Now, he says, Western intelligence offered to Egypt has increased Cairo’s concerns. “It paints a very disturbing map of IS expansion and potential lines of extension. It looks bad.”

Over the last six months Egypt has expanded military and security deployment along its Western border. But informed sources say the length of the border, and the complicated tribal networks on both sides, make it almost impossible to seal.

The same sources say that Egypt is now reviewing its options in regards to Libya, with two objectives in mind: to prevent IS expansion closer to Egypt, and to consolidate a national Libyan force capable, with the help of Egypt and other “like-minded” states, of slowing down IS advances in the oil-rich North African state that has been without any central authority for close to five years.

As far as the second objective is concerned, Cairo has agreed with concerned southern European countries that — “for lack of a better choice”, as one European diplomat put — troops loyal to Khalifa Hafter are the only option.

 “We know that Hafter has little credibility and very limited military capacity but our Egyptian friends seem to think he has a network comprising remnants of the [former] Gaddafi regime that could offer the foundation for a sort of Libyan army to combat IS,” added the diplomat.

“For now the securing of southern Europe’s shores from possible infiltration by militants is a top priority and if this means we have to [work with] Hifter,” said another European diplomat.

 On Monday, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said advances by Islamist militants in Libya pose a new threat to Europe and could unleash a new wave of refugees, adding she would not rule out deploying German troops in the North African country.

 Privately, European sources acknowledge that assistance has been lent to some recent military operations in Libya, including last week’s air strikes targeting IS. Western intelligence assessments recently shared with Egypt make clear that without outside support, Hafter will be unable to hold off IS for long. While that support could include Western components, the US and European position is that it will have to be conducted within an Arab framework.

According to Cairo-based European sources, the last few months has seen a number of military operations in Libya conducted by Hafter’s forces with help from “concerned neighbours” to the north and south of the Mediterranean.

But to halt the advance of IS across Libya — and not just to the border with Egypt — will require a more systematic intervention. And that, say European sources, will inevitably involve troops on the ground helping the central government that is currently being assembled under the auspices of the UN mediation mission.

Egyptian political and official sources say that there are two views in Cairo about the next move on Libya: one view supports the upgrading of intelligence cooperation with allies in Libya, in parallel with more strict borders security measures; and the second favours a more aggressive approach that would include limited military operations in Libya on the basis of the global war against IS and the defence of Egyptian national security.

 Egyptian diplomats say the consensus in Cairo, for now at least, is to offer support to the Libyan government which, once formed, could request help from the UN, the African Union or, possibly, the Arab League.

Egypt is already hosting a number of leading players in any future Libyan government and is keen to promote the selection of others. Cairo’s involvement in the process is a cause of concern in some other North African capitals, where it is argued that Egypt’s role could jeopardise the process of Libyan reconciliation.

“To end divisions in Libya it will be necessary to accommodate moderate Islamic factions, even if Egypt is not happy about it,” said a North African diplomat.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri met with the Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Al-Dayeri to discuss developments in the Libyan political process. The meeting convened as mediators in Tunis asked for two extra days to finalise the selection of a Libyan unity government based on the agreement reached in Morocco in December.

Martin Kobler, the UN envoy to Libya, issued a statement this week asking “all Libyans” to work with a temporary security committee, convened under the auspices of the Security Council, to help facilitate a political agreement.

Egyptian diplomats say they are not seeking to influence the current process behind closed doors but have openly shared Cairo’s concerns with Kobler.

“We worry more than anyone else because we are closest to the source of threat. We already have to worry about militants on our eastern borders. Now we are facing a double jeopardy, with threats to the east and the west,” said one Egyptian diplomat.

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