To defend itself, Egypt does not need America’s permission

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Cairo did not bomb Islamist militants in Libya, but even if it had, it’s not Washington’s business.

On 22 August the New York Times quoted unnamed officials as saying, without having any proof, that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates had carried out air raids on Islamist militants on the Libyan border.

A day later,the US government said it believed the same, this time quoting the Pentagon and four senior US officials. Additionally, Washington had a proviso: it said the attack was carried out without US notification or knowledge.

The next day, on 24 August the State Department had apparently backtracked, saying the comment on Libya was “intended to refer to countries reportedly involved, not speak for them” (whatever that means).

By that time, Egypt had vigorously dismissed the charges, its foreign minister categorically stating that Cairo “is not implicated in any military action nor does it have any military presence in Libya”.

So both Egypt and the US denied that Cairo had bombed anybody.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, Egypt had attacked Islamist militants along the Libyan border. Would such an attack be justified and, secondly, need Egypt first tell the US and maybe even ask for America’s permission?

As Libya’s eastern neighbour, Egypt is rightfully worried about the unrest spilling over the border. An unruly Libya could provide a safe haven for all sorts of militants, who have launched hundreds of attacks on Egyptian security forces throughout the past year.

In July, 21 Egyptian soldiers were killed in a skirmish near the Libyan border, in what some considered a premonition of what may be to come. Soon afterwards, Egypt’s former foreign minister Amr Moussa, one of Egypt’s elder statesmen, labelled the tumult in Libya “a major concern for Egypt”, and called for a public debate about the possibility of military intervention.

Egypt and Libya share a porous 700-mile border that makes it exceptionally easy for militants and their weapons to cross over. An unstable Libya will increase the flow of arms and militants of all kinds. Suppose an ISIL-style threat emerged on the other side of the border? Suppose ISIL somehow becomes involved with Libyan and other fighters and tries to infiltrate into Egypt? Shouldn’t Egypt try to limit the reach and impact of these Islamists, or should it first tell America? Suppose the US does not give Egypt the green light to strike? Then what?

If the US thinks Egypt should tell her first, the Obama administration should remember the foreign policy of its predecessor, encapsulated in those enshrined words, “you’re either with us or against us”. The Bush doctrine held that the United States could depose foreign regimes that represent a potential threat to the security of the US, even if that threat was not immediate. This preventive war was used to justify the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. Going by the doctrine, it could be applied to the challenge Egypt is facing from its west.

If you have the right to attack somebody before he attacks you, then Egypt, which has waged a crackdown on Islamists inside its own borders, should not hesitate to do likewise if the threat comes from abroad, even if the threat is nascent.

So Egypt does not need America’s knowledge or approval to bomb Islamist militants in Libya who mean harm to Egyptians. The US did not notify Egypt when it bombed Libya in 1986 in response to that year’s Berlin discotheque bombing, or in March 2011 when a multi-state coalition that included the US began a military intervention in Libya to implement a UN Security Council resolution. Why then must Egypt oblige the US if it is imperative for Cairo to stave off militants?

Even taking into consideration a joint US, France, Germany, Italy and UK statement cautioning that “outside interference exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya’s democratic transition”, Egypt is not interfering in Libyan affairs but is concerned over the events in Libya spiralling out of control which might eventually have a grave impact beyond Libya’s borders.

So even though Egypt did not bomb the Islamists in Libya who could blame Cairo if it had?

As for the UAE, its apparent entry into the Libyan theatre, if true, illustrates the country’s assertive regional role. Over the past decade it has built up perhaps the strongest military in the Gulf, and would like to flex its muscles in its rivalry with Qatar which is supporting Islamist movements, a position which has angered Egypt and so too the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, so much so that they withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in March, an unprecedented move among Gulf countries.

In the politics of Libya, it appears the Islamists are not going anywhere. Last week, the defunct Islamist-dominated assembly reconvened in the capital and declared a rival government — headed by an Islamist. Apparently buoyed by the success of Islamist militias now in control of the capital, representatives of the old General National Congress announced they had chosen an Islamist-backed deputy to become prime minister, a direct challenge to the authority of the new parliament. It thus looks like Islamists are setting up shop for a long stay in Libya.

Egypt did not bomb the Libyan Islamists. It wants to stop them, yes, but not that way. To that end, Egypt has said that it and other neighbouring countries were seeking to reach a political solution to the crisis in Libya through dialogue with all parties in the conflict. The two governments stress that the crisis must be solved by Libya’s regional neighbours — without intervention by non-Arab states.

Egypt wants the Libyan militias disarmed in an effort to be sponsored by both regional countries and international support. Egypt welcomed a call by the UN Security Council for Libya’s neighbours to inspect all cargo entering and leaving the country to ensure it does not contain prohibited items or weapons, stressing that Egypt would work to bring stability to Libya. As such, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has offered to train Libyan police and army units inside Egypt. Egypt will also introduce its initiative at a ministerial meeting to discuss the situation in Libya in Madrid on 17 September.

Egypt’s problem is not with the Libyan government or people but with the militants that the Libyan revolution spawned. Libya’s warring militias and warlords are currently causing the worst violence in the country since the 2011 uprising which ousted Muammar Gaddafi. The country has become highly dangerous and it is just around the corner from Egypt. This is an issue of national security.Thousands of Egyptian expat workers have already fled home from Libya because of the violence there. Egypt has a duty to safeguard the Egyptians still in Libya. It has a duty to safeguard Egyptians living in Egypt. It does not need anyone’s blessings.

Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.