Sisi Opens Communication Channels With “Fajr Libya” Leaders

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Fighters from the Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn), an alliance of Islamist-backed militias, stand guard on February 18, 2015 at a mobile checkpoint at the western entrance of the Mediterranean city of Sirte, which lies 500 kilometres (310 miles) east of Tripoli. AFP/Mahmud Turkia

By: Mohannad Obeid

Published Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The situation in Libya is very complicated. Egypt’s military intervention in its neighboring country — which is witnessing chaos, militias, and extremist forces — is a bold step. Will Egypt get lost in the deserts of the Middle East, or does it has enough experience and knowledge to resolve its neighbor’s affairs? Where are things headed after the Tobruk parliament boycotted the fifth session of the direct dialogue between brothers at odds with each other? An answer to this question will be provided in the coming days.

At this time of year, Libyan chants and songs usually fill every city and street. However, signs of local celebration are nowhere to be seen across the country. The “old-new” Libyan flag was not distributed to the people, as has been customary. There is no joy on the faces of the Libyans. “Allahu Akbar,” the ubiquitous greeting used by rebels opposing Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime, has almost vanished. Only the sound of bullets continues, sounding in regularly in every part of the country. This year, the anniversary of the anti-Gaddafi February 17 revolution passed without fanfare. Only the country’s new rulers held a few minor celebrations.

The first revolution is decidedly over. Gaddafi died and has become part of the past. Libya today is witnessing a new revolution led by al-Karama Party and the Fajr Libya coalition. Both parties feel entitled to succeed the former regime. During the past two years, both parties — unjustifiably — shed the blood of Libyans, and destroyed what remained of the already dilapidated infrastructure. They even targeted oil installations, the country’s only source of income. There is no trust between the two parties, as if they were not from the same country.

Instability and chaos prevail in Libya. Extremism seems to be its only growing market. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its offshoots will not miss such a convenient opportunity to create their own state or emirate. They won’t have to work in secret. Everything here is accessible: abundant weapons of various kinds; empty government headquarters looking for someone to run them again; and deserted camps waiting for someone to bring them back to life. ISIS has filled this void with ease.

ISIS in Libya is no longer a temporary phenomenon or small faction. The group has become a force to be reckoned with, and currently controls strategic areas like Sirte — a city that lies on Libya's central coast, which sits on a sea of oil and gas and hosts all government institutions. Sirte is like a state within a state. Gaddafi had attempted to move the capital from Tripoli to the city, to no avail. The city’s residents are descendents of the Qadhadhfa tribe, or tribes of Mauritanian descent; they do not feel guilt for advocating for ISIS, or at least for not fighting against it. The heavy strikes launched by NATO against them when Gaddafi was in the city, the killing of their children under the pretext of their support for Gaddafi, and the marginalization of the city and its people after the demise of the previous regime made Sirte a breeding ground and shelter for ISIS.

The situation in the city of Derna, which is located near the Egyptian border, is not any different from Sirte. Historically, the city is known for being influenced by radical Islamic thought. It has exported many young men to fight in Afghanistan, where they founded what is known as the “Libyan Fighting Group.” Many of these young men returned to Libya after the end of the jihad against the “Soviets,” with the goal of overthrowing Gaddafi. But he managed to suppress them, and killed and imprisoned many of their leaders. When the revolution against Gaddafi started, the men of Derna rose up. Its radical men reemerged and started to carry arms. Gaddafi was ousted. The “Libyan Fighting Group” split into two groups. Part of them followed Abdelhakim Belhadj, who founded the Islamic National Party. But a large part — amounting to thousands — maintained their original line, mobilized the Libyan and Arab fighters in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, established the Emirate of Derna, and declared their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

These two cities have deep ties with cities in southern Libya. Militant groups are said to be active in the southern cities of Kufra, Sabha, and Ghat, and in the endless open deserts between Libya, Niger, Chad, Algeria, and Mali, all the way to Morocco.

This general atmosphere contributed to the rapid expansion of ​​radicalism amid the chaos in Libya. These extremist groups gained ground, while maintaining contact with their branches in Tunisia. From time to time, they attack and kill security forces. They move freely in the Jebel ech Chambi mountains between Algeria and Tunisia. They have become a source of concern to their Egyptian neighbor, which is “apprehensive” of anything “Islamic,” regardless of affiliation. So how would Egypt feel about ISIS being near its borders?

ISIS was not overtly present in Tripoli. The Fajr Libya forces, which are composed of Islamic forces, are influential among hard-line parties. However, after the call for dialogue made by UN Special Envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon, the Fajr Libya forces resumed their activities. Bullets and clashes returned to the capital. The General National Congress (GNC) agreed to sit down and hold a dialogue with the parliament in the east. A suicide attack targeted Corinthia Hotel — the residence of many Western delegations — in the capital. ISIS made threats against the West and the Libyan interior, because the group knew that a Libyan agreement would not be in its interest.

ISIS stepped up its challenge against Egypt and the West by killing 21 Coptic Egyptians, whose only fault was being poor Christians trying to make a living amid the Libyan war. ISIS also threatened to invade Rome, both verbally and implicitly through the image of the sea mixed with the blood of the innocent Egyptians.

The world was shaken by the ISIS video. Europe sees that radicalism is approaching its borders via Libya’s open shores, which extend along a 2,000 square kilometer area, and could dispatch ISIS boats, among the boats carrying African immigrants. Rome, among other European countries, is on high alert. The knife-wielders who chop off heads and wear explosive belts are close. Rome is calling for an international coalition to fight radicalism in Libya.

Europe senses the imminent danger. But Egypt is the one who received a major blow by ISIS. The political and military leadership in Cairo found itself in a critical position. What can be done? What is the most appropriate response to this operation?

The Egyptian authorities convened at night. They discussed pre-prepared maps showing ISIS locations in Derna, and informed their allies in eastern Libya — the government and General Khalifa Haftar — that they were ready to carry out the attack. Egyptian jet fighters struck Derna, destroying and killing unspecified targets. The Egyptian street was enthralled. Egyptian TV channels praised the strikes. The Libyan army staff, General Haftar, and the Abdullah al-Thani government welcomed the operation. The western Libyan government rejected the attack, seeing it as an assault on Libyan sovereignty.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seeks to go farther than the raids. He called for an international coalition against terrorism in Libya, and a unified Arab decision to fight terrorism. However, he soon learned that the decision is not in Egypt’s hands. The US message saying “no” to a war in Libya was conveyed through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The reason is easy to deduce. The GCC’s condemnation of Egypt after the verbal confrontation between the Qatar and Egypt representatives in the Arab League was the first message to al-Sisi, and the withdrawal of the condemnatory statement hours later was an attempt to ease the tension.

Al-Sisi understands the West’s signals. He knows that his margin of movement is limited to mere “placatory” air strikes, and he may open his weapons caches to arm the Libyan army. Eastern Libya is not a new arena for him, since the Egyptian intelligence has worked in this area under Gaddafi and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, with coordination between Omar Suleiman — the late Egyptian interior minister and intelligence chief — and Ahmed Qadhaf-al-Dam — Gaddafi’s cousin, who was in charge of Libyan-Egyptian relations and lived in Cairo. Moreover, there are historical ties between eastern Libya and Egypt, due to their geographical proximity and intermarriages between families in the two countries. Eastern Libya might accept Egypt's collaboration in the Libyan army's war on terrorism, as opposed to western Libya, which completely rejects any role by Egypt. Also, the Libyans exhibit some kind of repulsion and superiority towards the Egyptians.

Alongside field operations, Egypt is opening communication channels with the major forces in the city of Misratah, especially with the key player there Fajr Libya. The group has previously communicated with Cairo in order to reach understandings with Haftar and the Tobruk government, after it started to feel jeopardized by ISIS following threats by the latter to enter and control its territories. The city has stepped up its security. Common denominators with Egypt are increasing.

Sources told Al-Akhbar that a delegation from the city will soon head to Cairo to meet with al-Sisi and discuss a political solution. Apparently, the city elders decided to differentiate themselves from their allies in the Fajr Libya, and seek reconciliations that can ease tension and open doors to a solution. According to informed sources, communications are underway between Misrata and Zintan aimed at reaching mutual understandings, which is a significant progress — in view of the violent confrontation between the two sides at Tripoli International Airport, which ended with the defeat of Zintan and the withdrawal of its troops to the city.

Talks are being held between Libyan forces and nearby countries. UN envoy Bernardino Leon, through the Libyan-Libyan dialogue, seeks to resolve major issues before bringing together the eastern and western forces. with the Middle West. So far, four dialogue sessions have been held, the latest one in the Libyan town of Ghadames. However, the GNC delegation did not meet with the parliamentary delegation. There are indications that this time the two parties will meet face-to-face and discuss ways to end the division, before the Tobruk Parliament decides to boycott the dialogue sessions in Morocco.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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