Egypt’s president Abdel Fatteh el-Sissi is calling for a United Nations intervention in Libya against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) affiliates, an escalation in rhetoric that analysts say could foil a delicate peace process and push tumultuous Libya into full-scale civil war.
Sissi made the remarks in an interview with France’s Europe 1 Radio on Tuesday, a day after his government launched unilateral airstrikes in the Libyan city of Derna, where a local militia that calls itself the “Barqa Province” of ISIL is based. Those strikes, Sissi explained, were “a kind of self-defense” for the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian migrant workers — albeit by a separate ISIL affiliate elsewhere in Libya — depicted in a graphic video this week.
"We will not allow them to cut off the heads of our sons," Sissi said. “I think there is no choice” but for a U.N.-backed coalition to join Egypt in stamping out the “terrorist” militias."
His comments came on the fourth anniversary of Libya’s uprising against ex-dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was executed in the streets of Tripoli in 2011 on the back of NATO strikes. The country has since devolved into a chaotic scramble for power by an array of localized militias, most of them spawned during the anti-Gaddafi uprising.
Libya is now effectively split between two rival governments: one in the capital, Tripoli, which is allied with self-described Islamist forces and, Sissi alleges, tolerant of ISIL's affiliates in Libya; and another, anti-Islamist body based in the eastern city of Tobruk, which has the staunch backing of Egypt and several Western powers.
But analysts do not believe Sissi has in mind a surgical counter-terror operation against the ISIL presence in Libya, which constitutes just three of the country's innumerable militia groups. Rather, his idea of an intervention would more likely be aimed at channeling global anti-ISIL sentiment towards substantive support for Tobruk’s military allies, spearheaded by ex-Libyan general Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army. Sissi has long been accused of arming Haftar's forces under the table; now they believe he wants to overtly build them into a force that can vanquish the Tripoli alliance.
“The killing of the Copts was of very serious concern, but it also provided a good excuse for Egypt to up its military involvement in Libya — something it has hinted at for a while now,” said Claudia Gazzini, Libya analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Sissi, a former general who rose to power when Egypt’s military removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013, has long regarded the rise of self-described Islamist factions in Libya as a national security threat to Egypt and the region. Since taking the reins in Cairo, he has overseen a fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood, declaring the group a terrorist organization and trying to link its ideology to violence in the Sinai Peninsula.
Domestically, his case for intervention in Egypt's neighbor may be bolstered by growing anti-ISIL sentiment. Shortly before the brutal murder of the Coptic workers, an armed faction that claimed to be ISIL's outpost into the Sinai killed 30 security personnel in a suicide attack. Sissi has argued these groups have their roots in lawless Libya, which provides them a lifeline of arms and fighters just across the border.
“There is this narrative of a big Islamic conspiracy worldwide that Sissi wants to fight against,” said Karim Mezran, a Libya specialist at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. “He wants to drag the international community into a so-called peacekeeping operation in support of his side.”
Though the U.S. and other Western powers are wary of the Tripoli government, and particularly its alleged ties with Libyan ISIL affiliates, it is not clear who would sign onto this so-called “peacekeeping” force. France, which led the 2011 NATO strikes in the country, has made overtures to Sissi and recently sold Egypt 24 fighter jets. But other countries may have cold feet about staging another intervention, seeing as how those strikes helped birth Libya's current turmoil.
The Egyptian escalation also comes at a particularly delicate moment. The two governments — Tripoli and Tobruk — signed a cease-fire deal last month, with the goal that some sort of unity government could be reached in the coming weeks. Even talk of foreign military intervention could jeopardize a hoped-for deal, since Haftar will be less likely to compromise if he anticipates greater support.
Still, even in the absence of an international coalition, there are fears that more unilateral Egyptian strikes or even a ground invasion could be on the horizon. Last summer, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates staged isolated airstrikes on Tripoli-aligned factions in an unprecedented move many saw as testing the waters for future unilateral actions in the region. Monday's strikes were the deadliest Egyptian action yet, killing up to 60 ISIL fighters as well as, reportedly, civilians.
“It’s the usual story: There is an enemy at our borders, so everybody quiet down and don’t criticize the government,” Mezran said. “But this will be disastrous. Siding with one side against another will only push the country towards civil war.”
Egypt's foreign minister, Sameh Shukri, has been deployed to New York to consult on the case for intervention at the UN. He may argue that combating ISIL outposts in Libya is a natural extension of the the U.S.-led coalition effort already striking the group’s vast strongholds across Syria and Iraq, however spurious that analogy.
“I think Egypt is either aiming for a UN mandate for military intervention, or an outright denial so that it legitimizes Egypt going in unilaterally,” said Gazzini. “Either way, it’s a dangerous gamble to go into Libya, with all its various factions, and think that you can support one side without a peace deal already in hand.”