Egyptian strikes in Libya reflect entrenched interests
Following an attack on Egyptian Coptic Christians in Minya for which the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility, Cairo began a campaign of air strikes against militants in Libya. Egypt said the strikes on Derna in eastern Libya and Jufra in the south were self-defence against militant training camps that pose a direct threat to Egyptian national security.
However, the strikes, which were coordinated with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), will complicate efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement in the conflict in Libya.
ISIS has a presence in Egypt and has carried out several attacks in the country. ISIS has recently targeted Coptic Christians, exacerbating sectarian tensions.
Cairo has had limited success against the militant insurgency within its borders and experts noted that the strikes in Libya were likely part of a domestic effort to present a strong reaction in response to the Minya attack. Despite Egypt’s claims, the strikes in Libya appeared not to target those responsible for the Minya attack.
The strikes in the east targeted the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, which denied attacking inside Egypt. The group’s activities have been largely limited to the city of Derna, where it has been fighting forces loyal to Haftar.
In the south, the LNA has been fighting militia forces linked to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Fighting escalated in southern Libya when militias aligned with the GNA attacked Haftar’s forces at the Brak al-Shati airbase.
While a show of strength domestically was certainly part of the equation, Egypt’s motivations for the air strikes are more complex. Egypt has rhetorically expressed support for the UN-backed process and the GNA while simultaneously providing support to Haftar in his fight against Islamists throughout the country.
Some suggested that Egypt’s coordination with the LNA indicated that the strikes were planned before the Minya attack to bolster Haftar’s position. The air strikes in effect killed two birds with one stone by allowing Egypt to claim a strong response to the Minya attack while dealing a blow to Haftar’s enemies.
Critically, Egypt’s actions could hinder recent, albeit limited, progress made towards reaching a deal between Haftar and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj after the two met in Abu Dhabi on May 2. Following on the Brak al-Shati escalation, Egypt’s attacks could provide Haftar with a pretext to continue his military campaign in Libya. Cairo’s clear decision to coordinate directly with Haftar displayed a purposeful sidestepping of the GNA, which rejected the attacks as a breach of Libya’s sovereignty.
Egypt had appeared to be adopting a policy more in line with that of the international community by hosting Sarraj in Cairo and engaging in regional efforts to reach a peaceful settlement in Libya. Yet the strikes demonstrate that Cairo’s commitment to a negotiated effort in line with the UN-led process is by no means definitive.
Egypt is seeking to benefit from an ultimate settlement to the Libyan conflict that would preferably be made on Cairo’s terms. The strikes allow Egypt to reassert its influence in Libya and strengthen its ties with Haftar over that of the United Arab Emirates. This is unlikely to be the last time domestic Egyptian interests coincide with an opportunity to strengthen Haftar’s position.
Finally, Egypt’s efforts to bolster ties with US President Donald Trump played an important role. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi immediately called on Trump to support the strikes following the Minya attack. Cairo is likely attempting to play to the administration’s focus on counterterrorism and its rhetoric in support of the Christian minority in the Middle East to solidify what it views as a much more advantageous relationship with the United States than that under the Obama administration. This spells, even more, complications for efforts to find a solution in Libya.
The United States is unlikely to condemn Egypt’s strikes. Rather, the strikes by the strong US ally play well to Trump’s stated goal of defeating Islamist extremists in Libya and his reluctance to take up a role there beyond the realm of counterterrorism. The United States has failed to call out Egypt’s failed counterterror efforts within its borders and the Trump administration is likely to view Egypt’s strikes as a positive counterterror effort.
It is unclear how Egypt’s strikes in Libya will affect efforts to reach a negotiated settlement in Libya. The GNA has been strengthened by defeating rivals in Tripoli and consolidating its hold over the city, which could put Sarraj in a stronger position to negotiate with Haftar. However, the Egyptian strikes make clear that Cairo’s domestic and international interests are firmly entrenched in Libya.