Reports that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates launched a series of air strikes on Islamist militias in Libya in August reflected the Egyptian government's concern over the collapse of its western neighbor, as well as an attempt on the part of Arab regimes to counter the growing prominence of political Islam.
Egyptian officials have denied any role in the strikes. But many in the region believe that both countries were involved, as do the US State and Defense departments, both of which made statements to that effect before clarifying that they had been referring to "countries reportedly involved."
Since longtime autocrat Muammar Qaddafi was ousted in 2011, Libya has been held together by a complex array of militias representing different religious, nationalist, and regional interests. However, disagreements over June elections turned Islamist and nationalist factions against each other, triggering an ongoing crisis that has left the country in turmoil.
The elections led to the formation of a new parliament — the Council of Deputies, also referred to as the House of Representatives — that was intended to replace the interim General National Congress (GNC) elected in 2012. However, the Islamic factions dominating the GNC, including the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, did not fare well in recent voting and subsequently refused to accept the Council of Deputies' authority. A fight for control of the international airport in Tripoli subsequently erupted between the Islamist Libya Dawn and nationalist Zintan militia coalitions in August, leading to the alleged Egyptian and Emirati strikes on Libya Dawn positions there.
Meanwhile, a mixed group of militia, army units, and air force remnants headed by Khalifa Hiftar — a former general who commands the loyalty of most nationalist groups — continues to battle Islamist and extremist fighters in Benghazi, including the al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia militia. Hiftar has also threatened to extend attacks elsewhere in Libya.
If true, Egypt's presumed involvement in intervention should not have been a surprise. Libya's security situation has been precarious for some time, with authorities apparently unable to control the various armed groups operating in the country. There are, of course, very legitimate concerns about having a failed state with ungoverned militias and unsecured borders as a neighbor, and significant amounts of Libyan weapons have already been trafficked east.
However, Egypt's disquiet has more specific causes. Authorities see Islamist gains in Libya, Syria, and Iraq as a direct threat. The prominent role played by the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood will be particularly unwelcome in Cairo, where the military removed democratically-elected Islamist president and Egyptian Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi from power last year, then launched a brutal crackdown on his supporters.
The idea that the Libyan Brotherhood could access millions of dollars of the country's oil revenues and channel them to sympathetic groups across the border is a huge concern for Egyptian security officials, according to Issandr El Amrani, who heads the International Crisis Group's North Africa Project.
"They don't want an oil-rich Islamic state on the border that could support the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic elements in Egypt," he told VICE News.
This could also potentially result in yet more Libyan weapons or fighters bound for extremist groups currently battling Egyptian security forces in the Sinai, although the risks for Egypt are likely more ideological than imminent, according to Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy fellow and author of Temptations of Power, a book on the Brotherhood and other Islamist movements.
"It is not a very tangible threat to Egyptian security directly, although Libya could find ways to boost the Brotherhood in Egypt by destabilizing the border in some way or by providing refuge for Egyptian Islamists," he told VICE News. "The paranoia is not very tied to the realities of the threat. I think that the regime doesn't see the Egyptian Brotherhood as just the Egyptian Brotherhood, but as one component in a regional conspiracy against Egypt and the regional order that Egypt supports."
He added that this is part of a broader struggle pitting Arab autocrats and Gulf monarchies against adherents of political Islam and its more extreme interpretations.
"We can't understand what Egypt did in Libya without understanding the broader divide in the Middle East between Islamists and anti-Islamists," Hamid said. "Libya has become the site of a charged proxy battle because of this."
The anti-Islamist side will likely be happy to rally around Egypt's armed forces chief-turned-President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in this Arab cold war, after he seemingly managed to reverse the changes made by the Arab Spring to the point that his current administration is arguably more authoritarian and even less tolerant of political Islam than that of former autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The air strikes supposedly mounted by Egypt and the UAE ultimately failed to alter the course of battles in the favor of nationalist groups. Libya Dawn is still in control of Tripoli airport and Islamist militia are largely dominant in Benghazi too. But Hamid suggests that this will not be Egypt's last attempt to influence events.
"It is very clear that Egypt will continue to support Hiftar in one degree or another," he said. "I have trouble seeing the Sisi regime just saying, 'We gave it a shot, there's not a lot more we can do.' The proxy battle will continue, it's just a question of how willing Egypt is to get involved."
That's the big question. Egypt has beefed up its military capabilities recently — including the recent purchase of eight more Airbus C295 troop transports — but unilateral land action, which could suck the already economically struggling country into a lengthy and potentially un-winnable fight, seems unlikely.
"As much as Egyptian authorities don't like the Islamists in Libya," Amrani remarked, "they like the idea of a military quagmire even less, especially when resources are stretched so thin."
Nevertheless, he added, Egyptian leaders have indicated that if the Council of Deputies — which the international community considers to be the legitimate government — requests foreign military intervention, then Egypt would be willing to participate as part of a broad coalition, provided it includes other countries in the region.
"[Egyptian] officials have told me whatever international action, including perhaps ground intervention, that does take place has to be driven by Libya's neighbors," Amrani said. "They want to be able to seize the initiative and drive the response so they can influence the outcome."
The potential role of the US — a key security partner for both Egypt and the UAE — in such an operation is unclear. Egyptian-American relations have been rocky and faintly bizarre in recent months. Sisi's government has continued to push its narrative of the US government as an Islamist-supporting imperialist busybody attempting to repress Egypt. The country, meanwhile, continues to be one of the top recipients of American military aid.
The air strikes might have been another source of contention between the two countries. American officials told the New York Times that they had no foreknowledge of the attacks, and Egyptian officials denied they had taken place when questioned by US diplomats. The US government was joined by those of France, Germany, the UK and Italy in issuing a statement condemning the air strikes.
While Western leaders are concerned about the Libyan security situation, their focus on the Islamic State's advances in Iraq and Syria could distract them from intervening in Libya. Nevertheless, the prospect of Arab regimes going it alone there is unlikely to be welcomed by the US.
Meanwhile, anti-Islamist sentiment in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East may alter the balance of power in the region. Egypt and its regional allies seem determined to form new allegiances in an effort to take on what they see as a grave existential threat.
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