Egypt Intensifies Effort to Eradicate Militant Islamists in Eastern Libya
Egypt has doubled down in its involvement in the fight against Ansar Al Sharia, with officials disclosing that Egyptian warplanes have bombed Ansar Sharia positions in the eastern city of Benghazi. The operation, they said, was requested by the Thinni administration based in the eastern city of Tobruk. State officials estimated that the operation would last three to six months and involve the use of an Egyptian navy vessel as a command center off the Mediterranean coast near Tobruk. Renegade Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, who has vowed to wipe out the Islamist militias, is not leading the operation with Cairo dealing directly with a newly appointed Libyan chief of staff.
Egypt has made no secret of its support of the elected administration based in Tobruk, viewing the presence of hard-line extremists near its western border as a direct national security threat. It had made no secret of its willingness to offer military support to the Tobruk-based government, saying it would train and arm its forces. Egypt’s direct military involvement, however, strengthens the argument 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. It is interesting to see if the Anti-Islamist faction could turn its back on Haftar, if his last ditch attempt to regain control of Benghazi fails.
It is unclear as to Egypt’s involvement can accomplish. The strikes executed by Egypt this past summer, in conjunction with the United Arab Emirates, proved to be ineffective as the Islamists managed to take control of Tripoli. With that being said, Egypt’s decision to take action in Benghazi will surely increase the level of instability in east Libya. It will be interesting to see how oil markets react to this news as most of Libya’s oil resources lie in the eastern part of the country. To read an AP story in which I was quoted criticizing the short-sightedness of the Egyptian decision, click here.
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.”