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A perfect gift for Egypt's failing regime

February 17, 2015 at 12:29 pm

The callous murder of 21 Copts in Libya over the weekend was a welcome gift to the military-led regime in Egypt. Like the senseless killings in Paris, it offered an opportunity for the government in Cairo to present itself as a deserving and credible partner in the great “war on terror”.

Domestically, the impact of the crime is two-fold. On the one hand, it exposes the Cairo authorities as incompetent, weak and woefully incapable of protecting its citizens. Despite numerous appeals for help to secure their release, relatives of the victims assert that the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs failed to respond adequately.

In the same vein, the killings serve as an obscene distraction from the chronic economic and political problems facing Al-Sisi’s regime. He has already started to use the outrage to solicit public support for his interventionist policies in Libya.

Whichever way the pendulum swings, the regime will always regard the domestic reaction as secondary, as long as it is guaranteed the lethal means to suppress dissent and opposition within Egypt. What really matters, however, is the level of support it receives from regional and international actors.

For all practical purposes, it is not clear how much the bombing of targets in Libya would actually achieve. The failure of NATO’s bombing campaigns in Afghanistan and that of the Assad regime against ISIS in Syria are now all too apparent. If anything at all, the unintended “collateral damage” in terms of civilian casualties will only fuel local anger and draw more recruits towards the ranks of the ISIS network.

Furthermore, a major Egyptian onslaught against Libya could have the undesirable effect of exposing the large Egyptian expatriate community there to further harm. There are no exact figures for the current number of Egyptian workers in Libya but the International Organisation for Migration estimates that there were 330,000 to 1.5 million up to the time of Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster in 2011.

In any case, Egypt’s use of airstrikes in Libya is nothing new. In August 2014, Libyan officials in Tripoli accused both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of striking targets on its territory. Both countries initially denied the accusation, though it was revealed later that the attacks did, in fact, take place. American officials said that the Egyptians and the Emiratis had collaborated to attack Islamist targets inside Libya, particularly in the eastern city of Derna.

Whereas in the past there was no public international endorsement of regional intervention in Libya, the slaughter of the 21 Copts may well be the pretext for such a move. To the same extent that regional governments have become more openly involved in the bombing of ISIS targets in Syria after the burning of the Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kasasbeh, Egypt’s Al-Sisi is now appealing for an international alliance to fight in Libya.

There are, though, two immediate concerns in the case of Libya. The first is based on the fear that Egypt will use its international support to go well beyond airstrikes and take control of oil reserves in eastern Libya. The predictable justification would be to deny a potential source of revenue to the “terrorists”.

A second concern stems from Egypt’s political alliances in Libya. It is no secret that Egypt’s former military chief, Al-Sisi himself, is allied closely to retired General Khalifa Haftar, one of the main protagonists in Libya. They share a common antipathy to “Islamists”, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood. In this light it is not clear whether Egypt is seeking retribution for its murdered citizens or just seizing a prized opportunity to support a neighbouring protégé.

Bizarrely, since the killing of the Copts, other Egyptians have been demonstrating for the release of their relatives held hostage in camps run by Haftar, Al-Sisi’s Libyan ally.

On the whole, the murderers of the 21 Copts have handed a lifeline to Egypt’s Al-Sisi. His calls for a UN Security Council meeting on Libya may well work in his favour. Much has changed in the country since the overthrow of Gaddafi and it remains to be seen whether Russia will oppose military intervention as it did back in 2011. On that occasion Russia abstained from the vote and its then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin described the UN resolution supporting military intervention in Libya as a medieval call for a crusade.

On more than one count, therefore, Egypt’s military-led regime stands to benefit from the murder of its Coptic citizens in Libya. From a public relations point of view, Al-Sisi will be able to strut on the world stage, as he did at Davos, and claim his place at the top table in this latest phase of the apparently endless “war on terror”. Militarily, it strengthens his case for more lethal weaponry from the West, which would, ultimately, be used in the Sinai and wherever else there is internal opposition to his government. Finally, there is the enticing prospect of access to Libya’s rich oil reserves. For a regime that has proved itself to be an abject failure on virtually all levels, it could not ask for more from those who are supposed to be its adversaries.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.