Why Egypt may be hard-pressed to fight Islamic State on two fronts

President Sisi launched airstrikes against militants in Libya, Egypt was already battling an IS affiliate in the Sinai. The two fronts may overextend Egypt's military.

Egyptian Presidency/AP
In this image released by the Egyptian Presidency in the early hours of Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi makes a statement after militants in Libya affiliated with the Islamic State group released a grisly video showing the beheading of several Egyptian Coptic Christians it had held hostage for weeks. Egypt said Monday it has launched airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Libya following the release of the video, marking the first time Cairo has publicly acknowledged taking military action in neighboring Libya, where extremist groups seen as a threat to both countries have taken root in recent years.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government is positioning itself as a key member in the anti-Islamic State coalition, and the popular strongman appears to have domestic backing to take things up a notch.

Yet at the same time the government is signaling that its abilities are limited, and is asking Western powers for support. 

Mr. Sisi is already fighting Islamist-inspired militants at home, including an Islamic State (IS) affiliate in the eastern Sinai Peninsula. Now, with its first confirmed airstrike against IS forces in Libya, Egypt is engaging on its western flank. 

The question is whether, and for how long, the Egyptian military can, on two fronts, engage with an IS threat that seems only to be expanding.

For months, Sisi’s government has provided clandestine support to Libya’s internationally recognized but largely ineffectual government in its fight against Islamist and regional militia. More than three years after the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, the country has slid into chaos and regional powers appear to be backing sides. 

But in carrying out Monday's airstrike against the militants in Libya, Sisi was addressing primarily domestic concerns. The airstrike was in retaliation for the videotaped beheading of the Egyptian Christians by militants in Libya. Their murder united Egyptians across sectarian lines in grief and elicited calls from television anchors for Sisi to respond.

The emergence of IS in Libya's stew of violent disorder poses a real threat to Egyptian interests. Not only have militants threatened to target more Egyptian nationals inside the country, but they have also reportedly offered training to Egyptian militants in their safe havens. 

Doubts about two fronts

Until now, Egypt has barely registered in the US-led coalition against IS, insisting it needs to needs to reserve its military might for the fight in Sinai, which is under de facto military occupation. 

Before the airstrikes in Libya, members of the Egyptian Coptic Christian community expressed anguish over the government inaction to resolve the plight of the abducted laborers. In a January visit to the family homes of more than a dozen of the migrants, relatives were at a loss as to how their loved ones had been sucked into the region’s turmoil.

“He was only a worker who wanted to give his family a better life,” said the wife of a young man she identified as Bibawi. “We are just simple people with (IS) on all sides – all we can do is ask our government to keep us safe.”

While Egypt may be able to mount air raids over Libya at the same time as fighting militants in Sinai, sustained operations could prove difficult in practice. Libya's air force also participated in Monday's strikes on Derna, a hotbed of Islamist militia. 

“It is highly unlikely it would be able to do so without stretching or exceeding its capacity,” says Zack Gold of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies. “Frankly, even with increased and better trained forces, we have already seen that Egypt is not sustaining operations in Sinai for an extended duration.”

Exhortation to the West

Instead of sending warplanes over Iraq or Syria, Sisi’s government has instead offered to train other security forces, and presented its key religious institution, Al-Azhar, as the bulwark against Islamic extremism. 

But now Egypt is appealing for the US-led coalition against IS to turn its attention to Libya. In a statement issued Monday, using an Arab acronym for IS, the Foreign Ministry said “Egypt renews its call for the international coalition against the Da’esh terrorist organization ... to take the necessary measures to confront the terrorist Da’esh organization and other similar terrorist organizations on Libyan territories.”

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has embarked on an emergency mission to Washington to demand more support in the fight against IS. And on Monday, Egypt finalized a big ticket weapons deal with France, buying 24 Rafale fighter jets from its European ally.

“The Egyptian government, from Sisi down, made clear its position that the anti-IS coalition should focus on more than just Iraq and Syria,” says Mr. Gold, “and that there was an arc of violent Islamic radicalism from Libya to Iraq, through Sinai, Syria, and Yemen.”

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