With Islamic State violence spreading rapidly into Libya, the Obama administration finds itself under increasing pressure to downplay human rights abuses carried out by the Egyptian government in favor of trumpeting Cairo as the next major Sunni Muslim Arab partner willing to take a military stand against the extremists.
“It’s tricky,” one U.S. official told The Washington Times on Friday, requesting anonymity in order to speak freely on the matter. “While there are certainly concerns with respect to the human rights issue, we do have Egypt’s back” in the fight against the Islamic State. The terrorist group also is known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, and the Arabic word “Daesh.”
Critics, however, say the administration waffled last week on whether it supports the Egyptian air force’s unilateral pounding of Islamic State targets inside Libya in retaliation for the group’s beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians.
Lower-level officials at the White House and State Department tried to avoid the issue, but there were signs that some senior officials are beginning to see Cairo as the go-to regional ally should the Islamic State’s activities continue to spread across North Africa.
“Egypt is an increasingly critical partner in these efforts,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Thursday after he and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.
“We met together with Minister Shoukry to talk about the subject of Libya,” said Mr. Kerry, who asserted that the beheadings of Coptic Christians in Libya was “yet another example of the evil of ISIS, Daesh, and it is galvanizing people … to take action to stamp out this kind of terrorist activity and this terrorist group.”
Mr. Kerry stopped short of openly praising Egypt for responding with airstrikes, and he made his comments after other administration officials said the Egyptians neglected to alert Washington before carrying out the strikes on targets in eastern Libya on Monday.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi suggested more strikes may be in the works if Cairo feels threatened by the Islamic State’s rise in Libya, which shares a porous border with Egypt to the west. Mr. el-Sissi also called for a U.N. resolution mandating that the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq begin striking the extremists in Libya.
Egypt’s specific role in the coalition remains a subject of debate in Washington. An official close to former Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, whom President Obama tapped last year to lead the international coalition against the Islamic State, declined to comment on the matter Friday.
“It’s best we let Egypt speak to its own contributions to the coalition,” said the official, who acknowledged that Gen. Allen has not visited Egypt since early October, when he stopped in Cairo to drum up support for the effort from leaders from the Arab League.
The Islamic State, meanwhile, is a Sunni Muslim extremist organization. And some analysts say they are confused by how the Obama administration has sought to highlight the role played in the coalition by moderate Sunni Arab states, such as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, while seeming to ignore Egypt.
It is a situation that may best be explained by the administration’s fear of appearing to back an authoritarian regime in Cairo just four years after Arab Spring demonstrators ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak.
Washington provides Cairo with $1.3 billion in annual military aid, making it second only to Israel as a recipient of such U.S. support. Mr. Obama and several members of Congress have been wary of the relationship since 2013, when Mr. el-Sissi — then an army field marshal — overthrew the government of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
During the nearly two years since, Egypt has held an election in which Mr. el-Sissi won a suspicious 97 percent of the vote, and has imprisoned and sentenced hundreds of Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death. The crackdown on the Islamist political party has been so fierce that some human rights groups accuse the el-Sissi government of crushing dissent in a way that has jeopardized any real chance at democracy in Egypt.
But Cairo has sought to justify its actions by pointing to the threat of Islamic extremism, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, where groups have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in recent months. While Egypt’s military for years has struggled to contain extremists in Sinai, significant gains have been made over the past year — but they often have involved heavy-handed tactics that elicit outcry from human rights groups.
Concern about those tactics is likely what prompted the Obama administration’s delay last year in delivering 10 U.S.-made Apache attack helicopters to assist in Cairo’s counterterrorism campaign. Analysts say the delay so frustrated the el-Sissi government that the Egyptian president has spent much of the past year pursuing unprecedented weapons deals with partners other than Washington.
Egypt recently announced its first purchase of fighter jets from France, and Mr. el-Sissi has shown increasing warmth toward Russia by making multiple trips to Moscow and rolling out the red carpet in Cairo two weeks ago for a rare visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Those developments served as a backdrop last week when Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, reminded reporters that the U.S. did release the 10 Apache helicopters to Cairo in August, but stressed “there are certain items, larger, more conventional items, that are still on hold, given the political developments [in Egypt].”
“I mean, it’s a complex relationship that we have with Egypt,” Adm. Kirby said. “But we recognize that they face a significant terrorism threat, and we’re constantly, you know, working through that with them.”
The threat only seemed to grow last week. On Friday, Islamic State fighters in Libya appeared to respond to Egypt’s airstrikes by setting off three car bombs that ripped through the eastern Libyan city of Qubbah, killing at least 40 people.
Some argue such developments present urgency for the Obama administration to seize on Cairo as a regional leader in countering the group’s spread.
“We shouldn’t be using problems with Egypt’s human rights record, as an excuse to withhold financial or military aid,” said David Schenker, a counterterrorism and Arab politics analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “That’s not a policy objective that will protect our interest, which is to see Egypt stable.”
“There is concern in the administration that Egypt is pursuing a scorched-earth policy against extremists,” Mr. Schenker said. “But if you look at the region, we have increasingly few friends and allies in this war against ISIS, and even fewer who are Sunni Muslim Arab partners.”
“Egypt is a critical one of those partners and we should be helping them,” he said. “We should be happy they’re bombing inside Libya. How come we’re applauding the Jordanians for bombing ISIS targets inside Syria, but we’re sending a message to al-Sisi not to do anything?”
The Obama administration, Mr. Schenker added, is missing an opportunity to helping the Egyptian’s “shape their counterterrorism policy so it is more effective and has less collateral damage.”
“This is something we can do,” he said. “Is it hard to work with the Egyptians? Yes. But given the deterioration in the region, I think we have to work with the allies we have.”