By Amr Khalifa
Twenty one Egyptians were victims of a war crime in Libya. In the jaded hallways of international relations, opportunity knocked for Egypt’s Al-Sisi.
Whether air strikes, that began a mere 15 hours after the posting of the video of the beheading of the 21 Egyptians, are successful or disastrous militarily, politically, this is a dangerous proposition for the faltering Egyptian strong man. As words find their way to paper, Egyptian Prime Minister, Ibrahim Mehleb, made his way through a funeral in Egypt’s south for one of the nation’s martyrs. For a government that did virtually nothing for families of the slain Egyptians as they sought help, this is a golden opportunity to paint an image of a responsive regime. In politics, appearance is everything, the Egyptian regime recognises this utilitarian view; for Al-Sisi, the Libyan tango is an opportunity on a silver platter. In dancing badly only the dancer’s ego maybe crushed, but political tangos can have far more sinister consequences.
Chaos and extremism have a symbiotic relationship. For extremism to flourish it needs large sectors of the vulnerable, and in the aftermath of a Libyan revolution the numbers of those without economic recourse, a nation divided, and a country lacking central authority provided the perfect theatre for an expanding cancer: the Islamic State. For all intents and purposes, Libya is split in two: an internationally accepted government in eastern Libya and an Islamist version calling Tripoli, the capital, home. In this decentralised environment each side has a plethora of militant groups, with varying levels of armament, funding and organisation, under its purview. To say that the Libyan political landscape is as complex now as Lebanon was forty years ago at the outset of its civil strife would be an apt description.
Nonetheless, historically, the Libyan labour market has seen a mutually beneficial relationship between the two neighbouring nations. Whether it be teachers, doctors or manual labour, Egyptian workers have been the dominant linkage between Egypt and Libya. So the fact that Egyptians went looking for economic fortune in Libya is, in and of itself, nothing new. ‘’Including during times when Libya is deemed a pariah state…Egyptian officials actively lobbied the United States and the United Kingdom to end UN sanctions and the international blockade against Libya”.
But the complex Libyan template was likely too complex for a group of 21 Copt labourers to firmly grasp. Hailing from the same village, Al Our, in Minya, where 13 of the 21 executed Egyptians originated from, Egyptian labourers still say they will venture to Libya in search of economic hope- even though the Egyptian government has officially forbidden travel to Libya. Economic hardship is such in Egypt that it explains how and why impoverished Egyptians are willing to risk life and limb to secure a living wage in Libya.
More significantly, the Egyptian economic puzzle coupled with the dreadful security situation, point to why president Al-Sisi was so keen in delivering a military message in record time after the savage video posted by IS. For Al-Sisi, in the short term, two birds are hit with one air strike. Occurring early in the day, the strike served to refute charges that Egyptian blood is cheap. That the blood of its own citizens is not a primary concern is a very dangerous charge for the presidency; particularly, when that such a charge had begun to emerge from within Al-Sisi’s camp of supporters-not merely dissidents. Disenchanted voices had grown particularly loud after two recent massacres. One served to highlight lack in military preparation in Sinai, where approximately 32 Egyptian soldiers were killed by Sinai State, IS affiliate, and another showed continued police brutality when 22 fans football fans were killed by Egyptian police.
The goal of silencing voices shouting regarding the cheapening of Egyptian blood was accomplished when the likes of comedic actor Hany Ramzi responded to the strike by saying “it is the first time I feel that Egyptian blood has a high price“. Diversion, as an accomplishment, is Al-Sisi’s second gain in these political schemata. Throughout history, autocrats, of all political leanings, have used foreign forays, of varying size, to dissuade domestic audiences from a focus on an increasing mountain of problems back home.
Indeed, with an all important economic conference scheduled for next month in Sharm El-Sheikh, traditionally the site of Egypt’s most important summits, viewed by Egypt watchers, as a possible life line to a president who has come out stumbling out of the gate, unity is a crucial get. Al-Sisi’s Libyan foray will unite supporters and foes alike behind the army, and by default Al-Sisi, as a show of support after such a horrific tragedy. This unity of purpose may very well bring a much needed stability prior to the conference. But in tackling the Libyan conundrum in such a way, Al-Sisi has left himself open to a two front war against IS, to the east in Sinai and to the west in Libya. Such unenviable positions have rarely spelled success for leaders.
No analyst can claim a crystal ball capable of predicting how far Al-Sisi will march down this Libya tunnel. In fact, some news reports hinted that while boots on the ground were not an option now, presidential sources indicated to the BBC that “airstrikes on IS in Libya will continue”. Realistically, military strategy of the best sort is inherently pliable to flex to events on the ground so it is understandable that the military and Al-Sisi cannot precisely, at this juncture, define what may come next. But therein lies the problem: once you commence the tango with a highly strategic enemy, such as IS, you become hostage to a highly violent, inflammatory narrative and where this takes you no one know. This is the risk Al-Sisi faces with this sojourn and the question is can Al-Sisi afford to add to a long list of problems?
No matter how one approaches Libya, in its current state, it is nothing short of a dystopian dichotomy. With Islamist/jihadi elements on one side and a central government, in control of very little, supported by the west and Al-Sisi on the other, the current scenario in Libya does not lend its self to resolution with any kind of immediacy or political clarity. It doesn’t take much of an intellectual leap to understand that Al-Sisi, who has consistently lumped entirety of Islamist camp together sees Libya as an ideal paradigm to continue to lump jihadi elements such as Ansar al-Sharia, Libyan Dawn and IS with the Muslim Brotherhood. It is no secret that Al-Sisi’s intelligence has, previously, argued that there are camps in eastern Libya where militants affiliated and allied with the Brotherhood.
President Al-Sisi may use the current situation to strike out at these camps. Even though the Egyptian presence in the Libyan labyrinth may inflame the Libyan civil strife, Al-Sisi stands to gain because the move will likely inflame anti Islamist rhetoric in Egypt. In the current state of division that rules Egypt, for Al-Sisi, this is an important short term gain. Not all is what it seems: while there was no subterfuge in yesterday’s strike militarily, much exists politically in this dance.
“Any Egyptian to emerge in the street, his neck will fly,” an Egyptian was told by a Libyan shortly after the strike. Sadly, Al-Sisi did not consider carefully enough what may happen to the 250,000 Egyptian necks, according to the Egyptian bureau of statistics, currently, on the wrong side of the border. Some unofficial estimates put that figure at well over one million Egyptians currently on Libyan soil. How long and how deeply Al-Sisi remains enmeshed in the Libyan tableau will go a long way towards determining whether he is permanent fixture in the hallways of the Egyptian presidency.
One can only hope a reasoned, multi-pronged approach, takes hold in the coming months in the Egyptian executive. Lest Al-Sisi forget, there were 26,000 reasons lessons learnt, the hard way in Yemen, during Nasser’s tenure, why interference in a neighbour’s affair is a potentially deadly proposition.
For a nation that has seen more than its share of tragedy, Egypt must hope more isn’t lying in wait in Libya.
Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist recently published by Ahram Online, Tahrir Institute, Muftah and Mada Masr