Avenging its Christians, Egypt Bombs Libya in first formal Campaign since 1991

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

The murder by Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) thugs in Sirte, Libya, of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians this weekend provoked the first formal Egyptian military incursion into another state’s territory since the 1991 Gulf War. Egyptian fighter jets bombed warehouses, training camps and other assets of Daesh in Derna.

Cairo-based journalist Bel Trew writes,

The Egyptian minister of pious endowments was shown on Alarabiya declaring that those who beheaded of Christians had “departed from the (Islamic) faith.” I.e. he said they are not Muslims. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been calling for an Islamic reformation that leaves no place for extremism.

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Veteran Egyptian journalist Sharif Kouddous noted:

Italy, which just closed its embassy in Tripoli, has expressed great unease with having a Daesh stronghold so close to its shores, and appears to be seeking partners for some sort of intervention in Libya. That is a touchy proposition, given the cruelty of Italy’s colonial occupation of Libya from 1911 until midway through World War II (some of the worst repression was under Mussolini).

Derna has for some three decades been a hotbed of Muslim radicalism, a tendency that was severely repressed under the former regime of brutal dictator Muammar Gaddafi. When George W. Bush invaded and occupied Iraq, young men from Derna went off to that country to fight US troops. These Libyans were one of the biggest foreign groups there, and many joined Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which after his death in 2006 became the Islamic State of Iraq and then the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Ar. acronym Daesh).

Derna’s 100,000 people do not necessarily support political Islam, and they did not vote for fundamentalist candidates in the 2012 parliamentary elections. But extremist militiamen with guns and a background in Iraq have long menaced security in the city. Last fall, some 800 militiamen declared allegiance to Daesh in Syria and Iraq, though this step was mainly a matter of re-branding themselves. The 800 had been in Derna and had been radical fundamentalists all along. The collapse of the Libyan government, however, gave the Daesh militiamen an opening to assert dominance over the city. They have gone on to take Baida and Sirte. Daesh still does not hold much territory, and these towns are small, smaller than Las Cruces, New Mexico or Tyler, Texas.

Tripoli is mostly in the hands of Libya Dawn, a group devoted to political Islam that is opposed to the extreme hard line of Daesh and has vowed to kick Daesh back out of the neighborhoods it has taken in Sirte. The Egyptian Christians were guest workers in Sirte and were kidnapped there. Tripoli is the seat of the rump parliament elected in 2012, the independents in which became more fundamentalist over time. They were defeated in the May, 2014 parliamentary elections, which returned a parliament dominated by nationalists. But the old parliamentarians refused to stand down and they and the fundamentalist Misrata militia now dominate the capital.

The newly elected parliament now meets in the east of the country, in Tobruk. Its prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, has appointed Gen. Khalifa Hiftar, an anti-fundamentalist nationalist, as minister of defense. Al-Thinni recently dismissed his minister of interior for criticizing Hiftar. Hiftar has organized elements of the Libyan National Army to fight extremists in Benghazi. Hiftar is thought to be backed by Egypt, and he welcomed the Egyptian air strikes on Derna. In contrast, Libya Dawn decried foreign intervention in Libyan affairs (though many Libyans accuse them of having foreign patrons).

The International community, including the USA, largely walked away from Libya after the latter’s 2011 revolution, whereas the country needed a great deal of help in setting up new institutions after decades of the mercurial rule of Daffy Gaddafi. Revolutionary states often fall into political violence, as with France’s Vendee after 1789, as part of the process of establishing new forms of legitimacy.

Daesh has gotten its small toeholds in Libya because of a power vacuum and because local extremist fundamentalists are happy to rebrand themselves so as to appear more fearsome and invulnerable. There is likely no actual command and control by so-called ‘caliph’ of Daesh, Ibrahim al-Samarra’i, who is wounded and in hiding in Raqqah, in Syria.

The Egyptian bombing raids are probably not militarily significant, since you can’t defeat 800 guerrillas on the ground that way. Nor do I expect Egyptian infantry to come into Libya. Egypt has its own security problems in Sinai. Egypt may become more involved in Libya, but it will likely be through air power, special operations forces, and forging alliances with more local leaders like Hiftar.

24 Responses

    • It wasn’t an intervention, it was a revolution. Revolutions are messy.

      It turned out better than Syria, where there wasn’t a significant intervention.

  1. The IS and its affiliates mainly are able to setup shop in failed states and lawless areas, or places riven by war. Somehow pushing Libya away from failed stateness would deprive IS style forces of foothold from which to expand.

    Countries need to stop the proxy war power games and instead focus on turning states into functioning entities with public participation in the process. Then, security would start increasing. Failed and/or tyrannical states, as well as vicious political wars, help breed these entities.

  2. ‘Italy … appears to be seeking partners for some sort of intervention in Libya’

    Shouldn’t Daesh be the target of a full court press by the UN?

    Is the problem that the UN couldn’t agree on how to handle Daesh in Syria? Or that Russia/China feel burned by the 2011 Libya no-fly zone resolution? Or what?

  3. Avenging its Christians, Egypt Bombs Libya …

    If we note that Daesh/ISIS/ISIL clothes their intended victims before execution in Guantanamo orange jumpsuits a reasonable conclusion to draw is they are avenging others which brings to mind Gandhi’s comment: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

  4. Setting up institutions in a wartorn country ruled by competing militia is like setting up a table in a pen of pigs and expecting the animals to observe table manners. The logic of the situation does not allow it. It is best to not foment revolution in the first place. How does Libya’s GDP now compare to before the war? Are Libyans happier? Do they have better schools and health care? Are they physically safer? Sometimes, revolution and intervention against unjust dictators are actually criminal and immoral, giving rise to atrocities greater than the evils they are intended to rectify. Libya and Syria illustrate the point.

    • Well, at least you are willing to admit that Gadafi was an unjust dictator, not a socialist saint like most people here want to believe.

      Which leaves us with the problem of what the criteria should be for a revolution. I mean, was the American Revolution criminal and immoral? John Adams said that only 1/3 of the colonists supported it. Crimes were committed against Loyalists. Parts of the country were lawless for years after Britain withdrew (i.e., the Whiskey Rebellion, the State of Franklin).

      And the real problem is that now genuine rebellions in the Middle East and North Africa immediately get stolen by a flood of jihadis backed by oil-sheikh money. That’s not the CIA or Obama; it’s a very recent development. In effect, it’s a form of imperialism carried out by out-of-control proxies. But isn’t supporting left-wing tyrants to hold these maniacs off just as hypocritical as supporting right-wing tyrants against their own oppressed people to stop the spread of Communism?

      • super390: “Which leaves us with the problem of what the criteria should be for a revolution.”

        Notice the missing “and intervention”?

        super390: “I mean, was the American Revolution criminal and immoral?”

        Neither but, then again, I don’t remember the ruling British being pushed out by…. outside intervention.

        Revolutions are fine by me, that they are, indeed, the product of the internal affairs of the state in question.

        But it’s the foreign element in so many of the recent “revolutions” that make them so problematic, precisely because so many of them seem to have more than a little of the F**k-The-EU-Nuland’s about them…..

        super390: “That’s not the CIA or Obama”

        OK, if you say so….

        • Did you even read my sentences? I was objecting to Jen Koehler saying that it’s criminal for people to revolt against their government. Which is the opposite of your fifth paragraph. I’m saying that the takeover of genuine Arab revolts by oil shiekh-backed jihadis was NOT the CIA. Which is obviously true; they don’t need the CIA because they’ve got plenty of money.

          And learn some American history. The French saved our asses against the British, and Louis XVI sure didn’t do it because he cared about human rights and democracy.

          And yes, the

        • s390: “Did you even read my sentences?”

          Indeed, as I read Jen Koehler’s, and I note that you utterly ignored the all-important “and intervention” part of that post.

          s390: ” I was objecting to Jen Koehler saying that it’s criminal for people to revolt against their government. ”

          Then you clearly did not understand what Jen Koehler was saying, because that person DIDN’T claim that it is “criminal for people to revolt against their government”.

          The claim was quite different i.e. “It is best to not foment revolution in the first place” (notice the word “foment”) and “Sometimes, revolution and intervention against unjust dictators are actually criminal and immoral” (notice the word “intervention”).

          The claim is against OUTSIDERS pushing for revolutionary chaos, because what results from such revolutions is… chaos.

          Best. Not. To. Go. There.

          If the citizenry wants to revolt then let ’em revolt, and good luck to them.

          But don’t push for that to happen.
          Don’t FOMENT revolution.
          And don’t INTERVENE once it starts.

          Pretty simple, I would suggest.

  5. Westphalianism is looking better and better all the time. There’s something to be said for a functioning government in a territorially defined state.

    R2P’ers are falling back upon the “omelette chef” type of argument. With so many eggs broken, what else can they do?

    There is no point in a UN “full court press” against ISIS. Bear in mind that a decade of “full court press” against Al-Qaeda was so successful that now we got ISIS instead.

    • Your assumption that things would have calmed down in Libya without an intervention is incorrect. Syria shows what that would have looked like, and, yes, it is worse.

      • Without foreign intervention, Libya probably would have turned out like Egypt: massacring a couple of thousands of protestors might have averted civil war. Intervention in Libya certainly added fuel to the fire by giving rebels hope and by degrading Qaddafi’s ability to fight.

        Syria has been subject to massive foreign intervention by other Arab countries, Iran, USA, Turkey, and Israel. Syria is different from Libya, though, in that it borders Iraq, another failed state created by intervention. This allowed Iraqi rebels to flow into Syria. Proximity to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states made a difference as well. Another important factor besides proximity is that Asad is Alavi and allied with Iran. This made the Arab Gulf states maximize their support for the rebels. Had Syria’s neighbors not intervened, Syria would not have been destroyed.

        • Sorry, I keep bringing this up. In August, 2011, the in country Syrian Local Coordinating Committees, who ferried communication between various areas of resistance within Syria, came out strongly against both foreign intervention and arming the non violent protesters. You are so right about foreign intervention giving false hope to dissidents who are no prepared to win a military battle against brutal regimes. The Syrian exile opposition pushed the other way, seeking money and weapons from third states. Obama didn’t want to intervene and get the US involved in another ME war. But he let so-called ME ‘allies’ do the dirty work – intervention by any other name (or proxy) is still intervention. At this time, Russia was willing to jointly call a cease-fire/peace conference, but the exilees opposed it and the State Department was unwilling to withdraw its demand that ‘Assad must go”. At that time, 2300 Syrians had been murdered by the regime. A far cry from 180,000 by Dec. 2014. Authentic revolutions take years of work, progress and reversals to suceed. Look at S. Africa. Outside ntervention is like a siren’s call toward snuffing out any movement for real change..

        • Massacring a few thousand protestors in a country with only 6 million people is all we need to avert a civil war? That’s great! I’ll appreciate that the next time a pro-American tyrant commits mass murder to defend against the threat of revolution by the poor.

    • Hard to call the last 8 years a “full court press” when we removed all our forces from Iraq and largely stood on the sidelines in Syria.

    • Westphalianism is founded on the nation-state ideology. The problem is, Marxists, Islamists, and neocons alike have made vast efforts to undermine that ideology. No one stepped up to defend it. How could they, when so many national rulers were stealing billions and installing their sons as their successors?

      We must stop living the fantasy that in the Internet age, dictators can maintain power by any means but brute force, or corporate control (i.e., China Inc., the Egyptian & Pakistani armies’ business empires, the oil sheikhs). They’re not legitimate, people can see that, they refuse to cooperate, and either disintegration or civil war occurs. You can’t stop people from changing their standard for legitimacy.

  6. So are we now at the point where the anti-war movement and the People’s Republic of China agree that all existing dictators must be maintained by force? Where was this talk when the native peoples of Bolivia were chasing their neoliberal regime from city to city? Oh wait, that was a pro-US regime.

    If I saw a single person trying to say why it’s different when it’s Arabs/North Africans, then we might learn something useful. Instead, we see endless harangues about the CIA being behind ALL Arab rebellions, with a subtext that “those people can’t govern themselves”. How about a more useful hypothesis: when Latin Americans rebel against a pro-US regime, they don’t have their movement immediately overrun by Saudi & Kuwaiti-financed psychopaths pouring in from all over the world? What we’ve got is not a problem with Islam or disgruntled Arabs. It’s a problem with the oil monarchs quite understandably deciding that they want to covertly replace the US as the regional hegemon, while the US government and citizenry are too hysterical and deluded to have a rational debate about whether we should get out entirely.

  7. But why, I wonder, do you choose Syria for comparison? How about Tunisia? No Cole-supported Western intervention there, and it’s doing OK.

    • And it’s hardly fair to describe our relationship to Syria as “non-intervention.” How many weeks has it been since we had to refresh the counter on the “X weeks since the last US supply drop was seized by Daesh!”

      The situation in Syria exists BECAUSE the US and ostensibly the rest of the West created the situation that now exists in Iraq. Everywhere the West intervenes, mindless slaughter and destruction are pretty much guaranteed to follow. The Ukrainians are finding that out the hard way, too so this is hardly a feature of the Middle East alone.

      • Oh, come on. The US did nothing in Syria for years, in fact prevented medium weapons from going in to rebels. Anti-imperialism is meaningless if it is a one note johnny.

        • When the world becomes too complicated to handle, one-note johnnies become the opiate of choice. Isolationism everywhere, interventionism everywhere, global conquest in the name of God, “The End of History”. Americans seem especially incapable of dealing with complexity.

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