Libyan threat to Egypt grows
EGYPT, which has yet to quell Islamic terror in northern Sinai, is now facing a similar threat from Libya – a country that has not had a functioning central government since 2011, when NATO air strikes helped bring about the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, writes World Review Expert Zvi Mazel.
No thought was given to how to set up a new, democratic regime to replace the dictator, who for decades had kept together the country’s motley tribes and regions. Soon, a full-blown civil war was underway. As ethnic and tribal fighting tore the country apart, Islamist groups – especially Islamic State, or Daesh – moved in and began developing terrorist bases. Libya is now perceived as a threat by its neighbors, first and foremost by Egypt, but also by Tunisia, Algeria and the countries of Africa’s Sahel region.
Under Mr. Qaddafi, two million Egyptians worked in Libya. Today, about 750,000 of these guest workers remain. Most fled the fighting and returned home, swelling the unemployment rolls and adding to Egypt’s economic and social problems. Others sought refuge in third countries, with many joining the migrant wave to Europe.
The frontier between Libya and Egypt – 1,200 kilometers of difficult desert and mountain terrain – presents a serious security challenge. By mid-2014, according to Egyptian media, terrorists were concentrating in the Western desert, turning it into a danger zone. These groups included affiliates of Daesh.
Twice in 2014, the Egyptian border post at Farafra, an oasis town in the southwestern Wadi el Jadid province, came under attack; 27 soldiers were killed. In May 2015, in the same region, Egyptian warplanes mistakenly strafed a tourist caravan, killing eight Mexican citizens and four Egyptians. Operations in the vast stretches of desert along the Libyan border and the Sinai have shown the Egyptian soldiers are woefully unprepared for guerrilla warfare. The military desperately needs specialized training and equipment, which the United States has so far been unwilling to provide.
Libya is now split between two governments after the disputed parliamentary election of June 2014. The newly elected House of Representatives, recognized by the international community, has its seat in the eastern port city of Tobruk and is under the protection of the Libyan national army led by General Khalifa Haftar. The New General National Congress (GNC), based on the previous parliament elected in 2012 and dominated by Islamic movements, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, is under the protection of “Libya Dawn” – an umbrella movement of non-jihadist Islamist militias from Tripoli and Misrata. The GNC has picked up international support from Turkey and especially Qatar, which provides money and weapons.
Islamic State moved on to Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown on the Mediterranean, and then steadily extended its control over the entire central coastal regions and to the south. Egypt had hoped to draw the world’s attention to the threatening situation in Libya. These hopes were dashed by more urgent priorities elsewhere. Ultimately, Cairo decided not to publicly acknowledge its limited military involvement (especially the airstrikes) which has been denounced by the international community. The prevailing fear was that an outside interference would only exacerbate Libya’s civil war.
President El-Sisi’s call for a broad international coalition against Islamist terror everywhere, including the Sinai Peninsula and Libya, also fell on deaf ears. The U.S. stuck to its Mesopotamia-first policy, continuing the coalition bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria while ignoring Egypt’s plight. Washington and the European Union prefer to act in Libya through the United Nations representative to that country, trying to bring together the two warring parliaments in order to form a unified government.