“We will respond as and when we see fit,” said Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi on Monday, after Egyptian planes bombed the Libyan city of Derna, considered a stronghold of ISIS. Special television reports and the headlines in Egyptian newspapers spoke of a courageous operation in which an estimated 50 Islamist militants and civilians were killed. They called it a “proper Egyptian response” to the execution of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by ISIS, which is also known as Islamic State or ISIL.
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Some two million Egyptians still work in Libya, despite efforts by Cairo to effect their return. In September the government issued an order forbidding Egyptians to cross into Libyan border, and around 20,000 Egyptians have come back. But Libya still attracts Egyptians, who can earn much more there than at home.
The air strike on Libya was meant to send a message to ISIS, but it also, even primarily, served the urgent need to reassure Egyptians, particularly members of the Copt minority.
Monday's air strike on Libya was the first for which Egypt openly took credit, but the country reportedly conducted a joint strike with the United Arab Emirates several months ago. Egypt thus joins Jordan, Iran and a number of the Gulf states in acting against the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and now Libya.
This is a “privatized” war, conducted in parallel to the U.S.-led Western coalition’s air campaign against ISIS. These countries do not coordinate their attacks with the coalition command, nor do they ask for its permission to strike. Just as Jordan carried out direct attacks against ISIS after it released a video showing captured Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kaseasbeh being burned to death, the ISIS video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts spurred Egypt to open its own front against the organization. Cairo’s war has the blessing of Libya’s internationally recognized government and the main militia battling the local Islamic militias.
Derna, in eastern Libya, is an important oil port city. Since seizing the city, late last year, ISIS has created its own government and civil institutions such as courts and public services, as it has in Iraq and northern Syria. Independent extreme Islamist militias with strongholds in other Libyan cities have joined ISIS.
The Islamic State’s method of operating throughout the Middle East has initiated numerous geopolitical innovations that include, inter alia, attacks by Arab states against other Arab states. It has thus succeeded in blurring sovereign borders in a way that no Arab leader has done since Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait in 1990.
The opening of an “official” front between Egypt and Libya is an almost natural continuation of Egypt’s campaign against Islamist extremist organization that receive regular weapons supplies through the Libyan border. According to Egyptian estimates, there are some two million illegal weapons in Egypt, most of them smuggled from Libya, with a smaller number coming from Sudan.
Terror attacks have become daily occurrences recently throughout Egypt, not only in Sinai as before. That will force Egypt to deploy large forces to defend the country’s western border, in addition to the massive deployments in Sinai and along the border with the Gaza Strip.
More serious is the fact that Egypt has now become a declared target of ISIS, which had until now made do with recruiting local Egyptian terror groups into its ranks. Now it is liable to export additional fighters into Egypt through the lengthy and porous Egyptian-Libyan border.
Such a new campaign is likely to have grave ramifications beyond the military ones. Egypt’s important tourism industry, which had begun to recover somewhat over the past year, will probably suffer a fatal blow; the Egyptian bourse on Monday lost more than nine billion Egyptian pounds, and the economic conference scheduled for next month to encourage investment in Egyptian is liable to be a flop.