Was Egypt’s Reaction to ISIS Brutality Correct?

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    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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The Islamic State has continued its campaign of violence and intimidation by executing 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya. By doing so, IS has dragged yet another country into a growing and increasingly dangerous conflict. The swift response by the Egyptian military against suspected ISIS targets in Libya has been received well by some in the region. But not everyone agrees with the go-it-alone approach taken by Egyptian President Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. Nor do all believe that al-Sisi’s rage about the targeting of the Copts by ISIS is genuine, considering how badly the Copts have suffered at the hands of the government in the recent years. Others have argued in favor of greater regional cooperation or even a more diplomatic approach, including the stabilization of failing states in the region.

Lebanon’s Daily Star editorial staff is among those who believe that the time for talking has passed and that the Egyptian president was justified in taking military action against ISIS in Libya: “The immediate response from Egypt on Monday, with airstrikes targeting ISIS positions in Libya, represents the first time Cairo has acknowledged taking part in military action in its neighboring country. And this is exactly the sort of response that is now needed….It is too little, too late to merely keep condemning the actions of these barbarians as ‘terrorist.’…Mere condemnations and hasty short-term measures are insufficient now.”

The Egyptian intervention in Libya, for Al Arabiya’s Raghida Dergham, is now irreversible. But given the nature of the problems back home, this might not be the ideal time for Egypt to become entangled in regional conflicts: “The Egyptian and Libyan diplomatic efforts, backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, stressed the need to fight ISIS whether by U.N. Security Council authorization of military action, Arab authorization, or even no authorization from others….Egypt alone is not able to mend things in Libya sufficiently to allow it to avoid collapsing into a failed state. That task is too big, costly, difficult, and complex. Egypt might be able to crush ISIS militarily in Libya, but the problem is that Egypt needs to focus its efforts at home at this crucial stage in its history. Otherwise, Egypt could become implicated in Libya in a way that exceeds its abilities.”

But, as the editor-in-chief of Arab Times Ahmed Al-Jarallah points out, there is no need for Egypt to fight ISIS alone, since there is a great willingness on the part of the Arab countries to join in the fight: “There is a strong Arab will to fight and control terrorism without succumbing to the so-called ‘balance’ of international political interests….This means it is easy to stop DAESH if there is real determination and if the restrictions which the USA and some European countries have imposed on Arab countries are lifted….Undoubtedly, whatever threatens Jordan and Egypt also threatens the GCC countries.  Therefore, it is not strange for GCC countries to immediately announce their readiness to join in the fight, which Jordan and Egypt started against DAESH and all terrorist groups that want this nation to drown in the sea of blood.”

It is perhaps because of that willingness as well as the ongoing instability in Egypt, that in an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Tariq Alhomayed argues that Sisi should have seized the opportunity and engaged other Arab countries, instead of going it alone: “I do wish Sisi had taken a different route before deciding to hit ISIS and other extremists in Libya with full force. One would have hoped that following news of the killing of the 21 Egyptians, Sisi would have immediately called for an emergency Arab summit in Egypt to garner support for an open military campaign in Libya. During this summit Sisi could have called on Arab countries to support Egypt militarily, thereby striking a crucial blow to the extremists in Libya and helping the country resume its course toward stability….Egypt’s going to the Arab League in this instance would have played an essential role in bringing about this new stage in the organization’s history, which would have seen it give authorization to countries in the region to take more forceful stances on a number of crisis areas, such as Yemen, Iraq and Syria….it would have helped usher in a new Arab moment, reining in and exposing all those who play dicey games with the region’s destiny in order to fulfill their own narrow interests.”

Others, like Osman Mirghani, have expressed concerns that, having allowed itself to be involved in the Libyan conflict, Egypt might find it difficult to free itself from a potential Libyan quagmire: “The current airstrikes therefore count as a partial, short-term solution, they will never be enough to erase the threat of ISIS and other militant groups in Libya. However, if Egypt were to step up its current offensive and put Egyptian boots on the ground in Libya, it would allow itself to fall victim to a trap set for it by ISIS and the other extremists allied to it….What Egypt needs to do now is use its weight in the region to form a new coalition of willing and able Arab countries, in order to defeat the terrorist scourge and prevent Libya from becoming another Syria, Iraq or Yemen.”

The question though is whether Egypt could have reacted in any other way and avoided the looming confrontation with ISIS. Rasheed Abou-Alsamh seems to think so. Writing for the Saudi daily, Arab News, Abou-Alsamh notes: “Our sense of powerlessness and anger after seeing scenes like this leads us sometimes to hasty reactions that only help the IS to recruit new members. Egypt bombed IS targets in eastern Libya in retaliation the day after the massacre…. Much more than airstrikes will be required to contain the growth of IS. De-radicalization programs in Islamic communities will have to be expanded; the intervention in prisons by non-radical Muslim leaders is needed urgently, since we saw that the radicalization of many terrorists occurs within jails; an advertising campaign on television, radio and social networks against extremism must be launched across all Muslim countries and countries with large Muslim minorities, and economic aid given to poorer Muslims.”

Then there are those who question Egypt’s credibility in terms of rising in defense of its Coptic population. Accusing the Egyptian government of hypocrisy and of a double stance, Daily News Egypt’s Wael Eskandar sees the current display of nationalism at odds with the past: “How can we expect a regime that has killed its own flower-holding citizens to care about those killed outside its borders? How can we reconcile the fact that the Egyptian police set a trap for nearly 20 football fans by firing teargas into the crowd, together with mourning over the kidnapped Copts in Libya? If Egyptian lives are so precious, why doesn’t Egypt prosecute its security apparatus targeting its citizens and hold it to account?… We have no means of accountability, had there been a dereliction of duties on the part of the Egyptian government. It is increasingly difficult to understand the motivations of the regime, particularly with all the blind support it continues to be granted for its policies, many of which are murky, poor and counterproductive.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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