Another dictatorship joins the war on ISIS

February 19, 2015

Egypt's air strikes in Libya against militias affiliated with ISIS are another stage in a war that has jumped from the Middle East to North Africa, writes Eric Ruder.

A DANGEROUS new phase in the metastasizing war on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began this month after the release of a video showing the grisly beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya on February 15.

Egypt's military regime responded with air strikes on the city of Derna in eastern Libya, where an Islamist militia announced last fall that it had joined ISIS. The air assault is the most dramatic sign yet of Egypt's growing involvement in the civil war that has engulfed Libya since 2011, when a NATO bombing campaign backed rebel forces that ousted the regime of Muammar el-Qaddafi.

The instability that followed the NATO intervention in Libya created the conditions for armed militias--Islamist extremist ones, in particular--to flourish, just as they have in the aftermath of the years of U.S. war and occupation in Iraq.

Last year, Barack Obama returned to the scene of multiple U.S. war crimes in Iraq when he ordered a new military intervention against ISIS forces. The U.S.-led bombing campaign--which also involves such democracy-loving Arab regimes as Jordan and Saudi Arabia--soon spread to Syria. Now, it threatens to jump to a new continent.

Egyptian warplanes are striking ISIS targets in Libya
Egyptian warplanes are striking ISIS targets in Libya

Libya has been mired in violence for several years, but that hasn't stopped hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from crossing the border to seek work. Egypt's Coptic Christians are an oppressed minority that account for about 10 percent of Egypt's population, but in some places, they are a much larger proportion of the population.

For example, 13 of the victims beheaded in the ISIS video are from the Egyptian town of el-Aour, which is half Christian and half Muslim. Like many towns in southern Egypt, el-Aour is a desperately poor farming village, where people live in mud huts or cinder-block structures, and where jobs are very hard to come by.

Abraham Bashr Aziz, a 19-year-old from el-Aour, was working in the town of Surt, Libya, when he witnessed the kidnapping of 21 fellow Coptic Christian laborers by ISIS fighters several weeks ago. He is now back in el-Aour, but as terrified as he was to hear his friends' screams when they were captured, he also feels trapped at home. "I need to live," he said. "We're not going for tourism; there is no work here. Look at this village."

THE BEHEADINGS gave the regime of Egyptian President Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi the perfect opportunity to pose as a defender of Coptic Christians. Speaking on national television, Sisi declared that his government would choose the "necessary means and timing to avenge the criminal killings."

But such statements are hypocritical and self-serving. The Egyptian state has a long history of scapegoating Coptic Christians to blunt popular anger at poverty and repression--and of directing violence against Coptic communities to serve as a pretext for repressive laws. During Christmas celebrations in the two years leading up to the 2011 revolution in Egypt, some 30 Christians were killed--and many people believe that state security forces played a direct role in the killings.

Sisi is using the cruel murder of Egyptian Christians as a pretext for intervening in Libya's civil war to ensure that forces sympathetic to his hated rival, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, don't end up in control in Libya. According to the New York Times:

Nearly three and a half years after the ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, two rival coalitions of militias are battling for control over Libya and its vast resources, including nearly $100 billion in financial reserves, untapped oil deposits and a long Mediterranean coast facing Europe. In the absence of any effective government or even a dominant force, a multifaceted proxy war has erupted as rival Arab states back competing militias and extremist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State seek to expand their operations.

On one side of this proxy war is a loose network of militias known as Libya Dawn, which has the backing of Qatar and Turkey. According to investigative journalist Jon Lee Anderson, Libya Dawn:

is an uneasy coalition; it includes former al-Qaeda jihadists who fought against Qaddafi in the 1990s, Berber ethnic militias, members of Libya's branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a network of conservative merchants from Misrata, whose fighters make up the largest block of Libya Dawn's forces.

On the other side is Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who was an officer in Qaddafi's military until 1988 when he aligned himself with CIA-backed rebels who plotted a coup against the former dictator. During most of the last two decades, he continued working with the CIA--until his recent return to Libya, he was living in Virginia.

Haftar's forces, which are known as the Libyan National Army, control the eastern half of Libya, but not the notable towns of Derna and Benghazi. Meanwhile, Libya Dawn controls much of the rest of the country, including the central cities of Tripoli, Misrata, and Sirte. Haftar has the backing of Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Sisi is now calling on the United Nations to authorize a coalition of nations to wage war on Islamist forces in Libya. Egypt has already been aiding Haftar with covert bombing campaigns against his Libya Dawn rivals. Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, has joined the call for UN intervention, but has practically no significant military forces of its own.

THE SPREAD of ISIS's influence far beyond Iraq and Syria represents a further setback for the wave of Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. After the fall of U.S.-backed dictators in those two countries, popular uprisings threatened to topple autocratic rulers in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.

Four years later, the counterrevolution is firmly in control. Egypt and Jordan, which enjoy backing from the West, are locked in a confrontation with ISIS, al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups. The war between authoritarian dictators on the one hand and jihadist militants on the other has reinforced the strength of each in turn, leading to an increase in sectarian violence and state repression.

By contrast, the Egyptian revolution that overthrew the dictator Hosni Mubarak brought together Muslims and Copts, men and women, students and workers to protest a corrupt and repressive U.S.-backed military regime--and to demand jobs, better wages and basic democratic rights.

ISIS's targeting of Christians in Libya was carefully chosen to provoke both the West and Egypt's Sisi. If ISIS can draw the U.S. and Egypt into a direct conflict, it will further enhance its prestige and capacity to recruit, while engaging Western powers and the Arab regimes they back on a terrain of its own choosing. ISIS is also hoping to stretch the Egyptian military, which is currently engaged in fighting with an ISIS affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula to the east.

With a growing number of Americans critical of Barack Obama's handling of ISIS, the president may want to push harder for congressional authorization for the use of military force. But this would only ratify what the Pentagon has already been doing on Obama's orders. So far, the U.S. has carried out more than 2,000 air strikes against ISIS targets and put 3,000 troops on the ground.

But U.S. intervention created the conditions for ISIS militants to thrive. More death and destruction from what Dr. Martin Luther King called the world's greatest purveyor of violence is exactly what the region doesn't need.

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