- Associated Press - Thursday, October 16, 2014

BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) - Egypt’s military involvement in Libya underlines Cairo’s concerns about the threat posed by Islamic militant groups operating near the two nations’ porous border, as well as home-grown jihadis who rely on their Libyan comrades for weapons. Above all, Egypt aims to prevent these groups from linking up.

As fighting continued for a second day Thursday in Benghazi, where residents reported Egyptian warplanes have been pounding Islamist militia positions, analysts warned that Cairo’s foray into the ongoing fighting in Libya could deepen the turmoil there.

Egyptian and Libyan officials have denied Egypt was carrying out airstrikes, while the United States, which maintains a naval force in the Mediterranean that includes surveillance aircraft, has not confirmed the aerial campaign.

Egypt’s military involvement reinforces the notion that Libya has become a proxy battleground for larger regional struggles, with Turkey and Qatar backing the Islamist militias while Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates support their opponents.

U.S. officials confirmed over the summer that Egypt and the UAE were carrying out airstrikes against militia positions in and around the Libyan capital, Tripoli. Egypt denied involvement, while the UAE said nothing publicly.

Egyptian military intervention in Libya has long been anticipated since the election in June of its new president, former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who has striven to restore Egypt’s traditional role as the region’s chief player.

But it has also been dictated by the growing threat from weapons and militants illegally crossing the desert frontier between Libya into Egypt, where Egypt is determined to prevent Egyptian and Libyan militant groups from linking up on its soil.

Egypt has been battling a burgeoning insurgency by Islamic militants since the ouster last year by el-Sissi of the nation’s first freely elected president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi. Authorities have since cracked down on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, killing hundreds of its supporters and jailing thousands.

The post-Morsi violence began in the Sinai Peninsula, long a bastion of dissent and militancy that borders Gaza and Israel, but later spread across much of the country with bombings and assassinations.

“This is bound to exacerbate the fault lines and push the other side toward more militancy,” Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said of Egypt’s involvement in Libya.

Libya is complex, with a mixture of hard-core jihadi groups, but a lot of those Islamists are into participation in the political process,” added Wehrey, a frequent visitor to Libya.

Jason Pack, a Libya expert at Britain’s Cambridge University, also warned of the complexity of the Libyan conflict, saying Egyptian involvement could have unforeseen consequences.

“Egyptians are making the same mistakes in Libya that the West made in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Pack said. “They support one side over the other. But in Libya the divisions are not between Islamists and non-Islamists. The conflict is very complex.”

Libya is witnessing its worst spasm of violence since Moammar Gadhafi’s regime was overthrown in 2011 by NATO-backed rebels following an eight-month civil war. Militias born in that conflict have since challenged successive governments, which have failed to integrate them into the army and security forces or rein them in, leaving armed militiamen to operate outside state control with impunity.

In June, after Islamist factions fared poorly in parliamentary elections, militias supporting them launched a broad offensive that ended with Libya’s two biggest cities - Tripoli and Benghazi - falling under their control. The elected parliament and internationally recognized government was forced to set in the eastern city of Tobruk as the militias in Tripoli revived an old parliament and formed their own government.

Since Gadhafi’s ouster and the overthrow of Egypt’s long-time ruler, Hosni Mubarak, in Arab Spring uprisings, Egypt has become a major transit route for smuggled arms and militants across the Egyptian-Libyan border. Rockets, anti-aircraft guns, mortars and artillery that flooded Libya during the civil war have found their way to the Sinai and into the hands of the militants fighting army troops and police there.

Through an elaborate network of underground tunnels under the Sinai-Gaza border, some of those weapons have also reached Gaza’s militant Islamist groups, including Hamas.

Since his rise to power, el-Sissi has repeatedly warned that the upheaval in Libya poses a serious threat to Egypt’s national security.

Over the past year, Egypt’s army has stepped up its patrolling along the frontier with Libya, cracking down on smugglers and beefing up security. In Sinai, it has destroyed most of the tunnels leading to Gaza and intensified its campaign against the militants.

Still, a brazen attack by militants in July killed 22 army soldiers in Egypt’s western desert near the Libyan border in one of the deadliest attacks on the Egyptian army in years. El-Sissi vowed then that the attack would not go unpunished.

In an interview with The Associated Press last month, el-Sissi blamed the West and NATO for backing the rebels fighting Gadhafi’s forces then withdrawing with the “job incomplete.”

“Weapons should have been collected, the army and security agencies should have been rebuilt, and there should have been help in setting up a democratic system that satisfies all Libyans. That never happened,” he told the AP.

As the Benghazi fighting continued on Thursday between a coalition of Islamist militias and government troops backed by armed residents, masked and armed civilians set up checkpoints across the city to guard their neighborhoods.

Army supporters used garbage dumpsters, tires and cars to barricade streets as they searched passers-by. Most shops were shuttered, although a few bakeries, pharmacies and coffee shops were open early in the morning.

The Egyptian airstrikes were greeted with mixed reactions on the ground in Libya.

“If I were el-Sissi, I would do the same,” said former rebel commander Fadallah Haroun, who supports the Libyan army’s Benghazi offensive. Libya’s eastern frontier, he said, is “Egypt’s strategic backyard and it is better to secure it before chaos spills across the border.”

“If you ask people here, they would support Arab involvement to restore stability and stop the daily bloodshed. A lot of blood has been spilled here,” he added.

Mohammed Gaballah, a 23-year-old activist in Benghazi, said he opposed foreign involvement.

“I am against turning Libya into a stage for settling scores among international and regional players. This will only increase the proxy war,” he said.

Michael reported from Cairo.

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