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Op-Ed: Egypt increases intervention in Libya with revenge bombings

The strikes on IS positions in Libya were in retaliation for the execution by the IS of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. A video was posted on line that purported to show their execution. A senior US defense official told ABC News: “This was not a coalition strike. This was a decision made by the Egyptian government and I have seen no indication the U.S. was involved in any way.” Guidelines issued by US President Obama last year authorizes airstrikes only within Syria and Iraq. So far Egypt has not contributed to strikes in Iraq or Syria. Officials also maintain that they are not aware that Egypt gave any notice to the US that the strikes would take place.
The attacks hit not just IS bases but residential areas in Derna killing at least seven civilians, as shown in the appended video. Derna has been bombed before by the Tobruk government and air force units loyal to Haftar. As recently as this January a Greek ship was bombed in Derna port killing two crew members and wounding two others.
Egypt has been accused of being involved with air attacks in Libya before including several bombing attacks on Tripoli which the US claimed at the time were carried out without any notice given to the US. There have been other raids as well including on Benghazi. The raids were all part of the aid that Egypt gave to General Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity against Islamists in Libya, including not just IS or radical jihadists such as Ansar al-Sharia, but more moderate Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Haftar appears to take President el-Sissi of Egypt as his model and the internationally recognized government in Tobruk echoes the Egyptian and Haftar line about its opponents: The government portrays all its opponents as extremists, while Libya Dawn sees the government as agents of the pre-revolutionary ancien regime. Haftar himself is a Sisi-like figure who, in a recent New Yorker interview, smilingly suggested he would be open to the presidency if the people so demanded.

As part of Operation Dignity, launched in May of last year, Haftar allies burned down the parliament buildings. A warrant was issued for his arrest. The acting Prime Minister at the time was Abdullah al-Thinni. Now al-Thinni is Prime Minister of the Tobruk government who applauds Haftar’s anti-Islamist efforts and according to Juan Cole made him Minister of Defense: The newly elected parliament now meets in the east of the country, in Tobruk. Its prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, has appointed Gen. Khalifa Hiftar, an anti-fundamentalist nationalist, as minister of defense. Al-Thinni recently dismissed his minister of interior for criticizing Hiftar. Hiftar has organized elements of the Libyan National Army to fight extremists in Benghazi. Hiftar is thought to be backed by Egypt, and he welcomed the Egyptian air strikes on Derna. In contrast, Libya Dawn decried foreign intervention in Libyan affairs (though many Libyans accuse them of having foreign patrons). Note that Cole calls Haftar an anti-fundamentalist nationalist. However, as with the Tobruk government, he considers all his opponents extremists including groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. There is no hint in Cole’s account of Haftar’s ties to the CIA and the US. While he may not now have ties to the CIA it is quite possible that he may still be connected with them. His past involvement in described in part by a new article in the New Yorker: By 1988, he had aligned himself with the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a Chad-based opposition group supported by the C.I.A….As military commander of the Salvation Front, he plotted an invasion of Libya—but Qaddafi outflanked him, backing a disruptive coup in Chad. The C.I.A. had to airlift Haftar and three hundred and fifty of his men to Zaire and, eventually, to the United States. Haftar was given citizenship, and remained in the U.S. for the next twenty years. The article suggests that when Haftar returned to Libya he was on his own and had cut ties with the CIA. No evidence is given for this: By then, the C.I.A. had evidently loosened its ties with Haftar, and, when he returned to Libya, in March, 2011, he was on his own. Nevertheless, Haftar’s enemies accuse him of being a C.I.A. plant, a traitor, and a vicious killer, and of seeking to install himself as a latter-day Qaddafi.

Egypt has decided not to promote a UN resolution asking for foreign intervention in Libya. However the resolution that is being proposed would lift the arms embargo on shipment of arms to Libya. Of course this would apply to the internationally recognized government in Tobruk and the arms would go to Haftar and his troops. This provides international support for arming one side in what is becoming a civil war. At the same time, the UN is trying to act as if it is neutral when it organizes dialogues between the government in Tripoli and Tobruk and their associated militias.There were new talks started a week ago but there is little coverage of what is happening or what is planned for the future. Italy has pressed the UN to act more swiftly to try to find a political solution. Given support from Egypt and now the ability to import arms legally, Haftar and the Tobruk government may feel that they do not need a political solution. The other side can simply be portrayed as Islamist terrorists as is the narrative in Egypt. The Tobruk government will welcome Egyptian help for Haftar. The Tobruk government gave Haftar the green light to retake Benghazi and Tripoli some time ago.

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