Two anonymous Egyptian officials have revealed to the Associated Press that Egyptian aircraft have been bombarding positions in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, as part of a counteroffensive against an alliance of Islamist militias that took control of the city in late July. Libyan lawmaker Tareq al-Jorushi confirmed the reports, adding that the planes were being flown by Libyan pilots.
The assault throws cold water on UN-sponsored peace talks in the city of Ghadames on the Algerian border, which had yielded a joint call for a ceasefire by rival politicians.
With the world's attention so focused on what the Islamic State is up to in Syria and Iraq, the conflict steadily building in Libya hasn't received much attention. Since the most recent round of elections in June, Libya has plunged into all-out civil war. Amid the violence, the newly elected House of Representatives was forced to relocate to the eastern town of Tobruk under the protection of General Khalifa Haftar and his "Operation Dignity" coalition of Libyan army, navy, and air force units supported by allied militias — in particular, by powerful paramilitary units from the town of Zintan.
The opposing coalition of largely Islamist factions from across the country, in combination with units from the city of Misrata, rejected the outcome of the June elections, and took control of the capital of Tripoli and most of Benghazi in July. Fighting under the collective banner of "Operation Dawn," these factions installed their own rival government in the capital under the title of the defunct General National Congress (GNC).
Operation Dawn has allegedly received weapons from Qatar, Turkey, and Sudan — all active state supporters of regional Islamism, and of the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. In August, airstrikes on Islamist positions in Tripoli were blamed on Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, both of which are strongly opposed to Islamist influence in post-Arab Spring countries. The apparent confirmation of a joint assault by Libyan ground troops and Egyptian-supplied air support exposes the regional dimensions of the fight for Libya's future more starkly than ever before.
Until Egypt's intervention, neither the Dawn nor Dignity forces had the strength to win outright. This stalemate was the basis for the UN's mediation, and an opportunity to get Libya's attempt at democracy back on the rails.
Inevitably, the labels assigned to both sides — Islamist and anti-Islamist — do little to explain the complexity of the various interests involved in this fight. Many among the "Islamists" who took Tripoli, for example, don't consider themselves to be any such thing. On the other side, some of the politicians who have ended up sheltering under the shaky protection of Haftar — including current Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni — had previously branded Haftar an outlaw.
Those best served by the labels are those least interested in the grey areas they obscure. They include Libya's Islamist hardliners of Operation Dawn, as well as Haftar, his Zintan allies, and his patrons among the regional Arab dictatorships like Egypt. In many ways, their continued survival depends on the idea that they, and only they, can prevent an Islamist takeover of the entire Middle East.
Egypt's intervention in Benghazi allows Libya's Islamists, who had hijacked Libyans' hard-won chance at democracy, to claim that the Islamists are the true defenders of the Libyan revolution.
The Islamist bloc within the GNC worked tirelessly between 2012 and last June to obstruct any democratic progress that threatened to exclude them from power. In the process, they helped to ratchet up Libya's militia politics to dangerous new levels.
Former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was kidnapped by the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room (LROR), a militia group convened and funded by the ambitious Nouri Abusahmain, then president of the GNC and who was closely allied with the Islamist Al-Wafa bloc within the GNC. It was the LROR that led the assault on Tripoli International Airport in July — which evolved into an assault on Tripoli itself — in reaction to their patron's loss of power in the June elections and their consequent loss of access to hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds.
In allying with Haftar and the House of Representatives, Egypt appears on the surface to be supporting Libya's fledgling democratic institutions. But a quick glance at the record of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is enough to draw other conclusions about his views on Arab democracy. Sisi, who came up through the ranks of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) before deposing President Mohamed Morsi in a bloody military coup in 2013, belongs to the old guard of Arab dictators who use the threat of Islamism to impose martial law and one-party rule. Sisi's coup pre-empted the opportunity for Egyptian democracy to eject the wildly unpopular Muslim Brotherhood government — an eventuality that would have undercut the premise for the existence of the SCAF and the huge and lucrative military infrastructure it manages.
Egypt's intervention in Benghazi allows Libya's Islamists, who had hijacked Libyans' hard-won chance at democracy at every turn, to point to the House of Representatives' allegiance with Sisi as proof that the Islamists are the true defenders of the Libyan revolution. Their patrons in the region, most notably Qatar, can now support them more readily than when Libya's troubles appeared to be purely internal, thereby adding more fuel to the fire and threatening a much wider regional spillover. Although Qatar has made a public show of easing back on its regional sponsorship of Islamists, it seems unlikely that it will completely abandon its allies in Libya, whom it has supported with weapons and money since the beginning of the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi's regime in early 2011.
The House of Representatives has made a deal with the devil. Libya is a country of 6 million inhabitants with the ninth-largest oil and natural gas reserves in the world. Egypt is a country of more than 80 million whose struggling economy is largely dependent on tourism — which is now not much more than a trickle — and the Suez Canal. Sisi's aircraft did not fly over Benghazi for free. If the House of Representatives is dependent on Sisi for its own defense, then what basis does it have for refusing his demands, whatever they may be — and whatever they may mean for Libya's future?
Haftar himself has claimed that he has handed over command of his forces to a new Libyan Chief of Staff. However, the House of Representatives had adopted Haftar's premise of fighting to eradicate "terrorism" — the terrorists being anyone allied with Operation Dawn. The Egyptian officials who spoke to AP said that Egypt's involvement in Libya will not last more than six months, which brings to mind rhetoric that accompanied other interventions against the threat of violent Islamists in the Arab world that wound up lasting far, far longer.
In reality, the beneficiaries of this latest escalation in Libya's civil war — Libya's Islamists, Sisi, Haftar and his associated militias — have set themselves mandates for endless fighting. Those stuck in the middle — ordinary Libyans — now stand to have their opportunity for a peaceful democracy ripped to shreds by Cairo and Doha while the domestic clients of these regional powers tussle over the scraps.
Follow Alaa al-Ameri on Twitter: @AlaaAmeris