America is once again getting a lecture from a client state in the Middle East. This week’s lecturer is Egypt’s president-in-waiting, a man who should be before a court in The Hague for the worst repression in his country’s modern history.
In the tug of war between light weight values and heavyweight strategic interests, its a given that U.S. commitments to Israel, the Camp David Accord and the Suez Canal win hands down. But even if those alone form the lodestar of U.S. engagement with Egypt, the alarm bells should now be ringing in the Pentagon.
Abdel Fatah al Sisi, the military commander who ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected president not only wants the U.S. to restore military aid to his country to combat a growing insurgency in the Sinai peninsula – fuelled each day by the scorched earth tactics of the Egyptian army. He is demanding no less than a second Western intervention in a neighboring country – Libya.
The general who awarded himself the title of Field Marshal told FoxNews.com that by refusing to deploy forces to help stabilise Libya after the overthrow of Colonel Gadafy in late 2011, the U.S. and Nato had created a vacuum which left Libya at the mercy of extremists, assassins and murders: “History will judge you severely,” he declared. He said that America’s unwillingness to help Egypt battle the largest Islamic insurgency in the country’s history and to help contain civil war in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, had created fertile ground for religious extremism which would be a disaster for both the U.S. and Arabs alike.
Sisi’s message that Eastern Libya was hosting “jihadi training camps” which were working hand in glove with the Muslim Brotherhood, did not come out of the blue. Egypt’s media have been awash with reports about something called the Free Egyptian Army. Derna, in Eastern Libya had become a bastion of international jihadists, led ,we were told, by an Emir – Sharif al Radwani, whose senior commander responsible for coordination with foreign sponsors and intelligence services was Ismail al Salabi, a member of al Qaida’s high command.
No sooner had the sirens sounded about jihadis massing on Egypt’s borders, than they were dismissed by Libya’s deputy defence minister Khaled al- Sherif : “The story is untrue. We have seen no proof… the word army implies large numbers which cannot be easily hidden.” The story was also dismissed by Noman Benotman, president of the Quilliam Foundation which works to counter extremism.
Derna has indeed been claimed as the training ground for groups like Ansar al-Sharia, which Washington holds responsible for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and a group calling itself the Army of Islam. That there are jihadis in Derna is not disputed. The numbers however are, and there is no evidence of militants massing in battalions and brigades to attack Egypt . Benotman said they can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
The motives for the Egyptian Army to intervene in Libya should not be taken lightly, least of all by the U.S. defence secretary Chuck Hagel who is under the impression that the 10 Apache helicopters he has now agreed to supply Egypt will be used in the Sinai, not on the Libyan border. He said it was in the U.S. national security interest to build the capacity of U.S. partners in the region to counter terrorist threats. Apart from Apaches, Hagel’s move allows the U.S. to release a portion of the annual $1.3bn in military assistance, tailored to deal with security in the Sinai.
Sisi has already made his intentions clear on Libya. The former Libyan army general Khalifa Haftar said that Sisi had offered military intervention to shore of the coup that the Libyan attempted to mount, but which failed. Haftar told the Libyan news agency Ain Libya that the Egyptian army had offered to deploy troops to control the oil fields in al-Hilal. After the coup failed, Egypt denied involvement.
It goes without saying that a military dictator who is driving Egypt on the road to perdition is bad enough. But by dragging in other failing states like Libya who are awash with arms, Sisi is becoming a major source of regional instability. What he is attempting to do in Eastern Libya imperils the security of everyone. We have already seen how the arms that flooded in Libya fuelled an insurgency in Mali and the civil war in Syria. Does Hagel want to add Egypt to that list? Is that in the U.S. national interest?
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This article was written for and first published on huffingtonpost.com
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