Algerian anxiety about Egyptian strikes in Libya
Tunis- Egyptian air attacks against radical Islamist targets in Libya have Algerian leaders bristling over Cairo’s expanding scope of action in North Africa. Egypt’s strikes have also raised fears among Libyans about a new regional game of influence that could leave their country cut up by neighbours and foreign powers.
After Egyptian jet fighters bombed bases held by radical Islamists, in retaliation for the May 26 massacre of Egyptian Christians, the Algerian Foreign Ministry announced that the diplomatic gathering in June would “assess the situation in Libya in the light of the recent developments at the political and security levels.”
The killing of 29 Christian Copts in Egypt and the massacre of 22 people at a pop concert in England in the same week by a suicide bomber with ties to radical Islamists in Libya refocused attention on Libya as a springboard for jihadists.
Nowhere is this concern felt more acutely than in Egypt, where perpetrators of previous attacks have been identified mostly as locals. Cairo has, however, expressed great anxiety over extremists entering Egyptian territory from Libya.
The jihadists who attacked Egypt’s Christians had trained in Libyan Islamist militant camps, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Libya, which has been mired in conflict and lawlessness since the ouster of dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, has proven an easy location for the Islamic State (ISIS) and various radical Islamist factions to establish bases. Their presence has brought frightening implications for Libya and heightened fears among its neighbours.
Tunisian jihadists trained in camps in Libya before sneaking into their home country to carry out attacks in 2015, including the killing of 38 tourists at a Tunisian beach.
While Libya has received limited foreign assistance to stem the expansion of radical Islamists, it has transformed into a crowded field of foreign protagonists that are backing, through intelligence assistance, money, weapons or air strikes, one or more of the various militias and political forces involved in the conflict.
In 2016, various foreign powers were engaged in a battle between ISIS fighters and Libyan forces in Sirte. The United States conducted air strikes, Britain provided intelligence and logistical support and Italy helped with medical assistance.
The United States also sent jet fighters to strike an ISIS base in Sabratha in 2016, killing an estimated 40 operatives.
Egypt’s recent moves added a dimension to the web of foreign intervention and triggered speculation that Cairo’s ally in eastern Libya, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who leads anti-Islamist forces, could gain support.
Security observers pointed out that Egypt had yet to announce the end of its air campaign, which targeted Islamist bases that Haftar had been trying to take over for months.
The head of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al- Sarraj, and his backers feared the raids could embolden Haftar to join militias vying for control in Tripoli.
Such a development would draw other countries to side with rival forces in western and southern Libya, effectively turning Libya into another battlefield in the war against “Islamist extremism.”
Military experts said that Libya’s geography, Arab rivalries and division between the United States and Europe in the West make any military solution to the Libyan conflict unlikely.
Libya’s GNA, especially, was reportedly angered by Egypt’s strikes.
Diplomats in the Maghreb speaking on condition of anonymity said Sarraj called Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s Chief of Staff Ahmed Ouyahia in the middle of the night to ask Algiers to plead with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to stop the air strikes.
“The air strikes in Libya will not solve the security issues of Egypt,” Bouteflika told Sisi in a written message, two diplomats in the region said.
Algerian security analysts said Sisi was using the attack on Egyptian Christians to turn Egypt into a “night vigil state” in the Middle East and North Africa.
“The Egyptian president, whose country badly needs US aid, has clearly accepted to be the military subcontractor of the Americans,” Algerian security analyst Sadek Sahraoui said. “The attack against the Copts appeared to have given the pretext for the Egyptians to endorse the policy to be the policemen in the region.”
Alilat Yazid, another security analyst, said the Egyptian air strikes prompted Algeria to call for the June meeting.
Diplomats from Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia have been trying to broker a solution to the Libyan conflict and have convened multiple times in recent years. The three countries’ foreign ministers met in Tunis early this year to urge Libya’s military and political factions towards reconciliation. However, the foreign ministers of Egypt and Tunisia did not show at a ministerial meeting on Libya hosted by Algiers in May.
“Libya has reached a crossroads. It faces the danger of fragmentation or the spectre of colonisation or domination by neighbouring countries whether they are Arab or African of parts of Libya under the pretence of fighting terrorism and securing their borders with Libya,” said Libyan writer Wafa al-Baraki.