By Vikram Shah
On the dawn of February 16th, the Egyptian Air Force launched an airstrike on the eastern Libyan city of Derna, a stronghold of a local Islamist group affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The airstrike targeted 10 targets within the city that were used as training sites and weapons storage. Additionally, reports from Egyptian and Libyan news sources suggest that Egyptian Special Forces carried out a ground assault in Derna and captured over 50 ISIS militants and killed many more. Both attacks were carried out in response to a video the group posted on the 15th of February showing the decapitation of more than a dozen Egyptian Christians. While there are significant ramifications of this bold and decisive strike on Egypt’s foreign policy and security stance vis-à-vis the other Arab states involved in the countering ISIS’s rise, the domestic impact of this strike is also worth considering.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, former chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, came to power in 2013 by leading a coup d’état against the democratically-elected Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood faced many problems in their first year in office; chief among them, arguably, was an inability to co-opt Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority into supporting the Brotherhood’s policies. The Egyptian Copts make up close to 9% of Egypt’s population and suffered persecution during the Brotherhood’s rule over Egypt. They were one of the leading voices for regime change in 2013 and the leader of the Coptic community, Pope Tawadros II, issued an open statement of support for Sisi’s newfound leadership role. Ever since becoming President, Sisi has worked to ensure that the Coptic minority is acknowledged and protected in a dual effort to separate himself from the failed policies of the Morsi government and to maintain the support of a significant portion of Egyptian society.
Egypt’s intervention in Libya represents a significant escalation of its role in the civil war raging on its western border. Until now, Egypt has worked with the United Arab Emirates in covertly backing General Khalifa Haftar’s campaign to drive out the numerous Islamic extremist organizations and assert secular, albeit authoritarian, rule over Libya. So far, Egypt has remained relatively removed from the battle with ISIS and has focused on combating domestic terror threats originating from the Sinai Peninsula and homegrown extremism. However, the execution of 21 Coptic Christians presented Sisi with the perfect opportunity to not only strengthen his domestic support base but to also help support General Haftar’s efforts in Libya and contribute to the US-led effort against ISIS. President Sisi declared a week of mourning for the slain Egyptian Christians and has vowed to seek retribution for their deaths. Additionally, it is unlikely that Egypt will suffer international consequences for its intervention in Libya because it did so under the banner of combating extremism, even though furthering the goals of its Libyan ally.
Also important to note is the impact that Egypt’s intervention has had on its relationship with the United States. While the White House has vehemently denied backing Egypt’s actions, it has stopped its rhetoric short of blatant condemnation because it realizes that even though Egypt violated Libya’s sovereignty the country is in a state of anarchy and has been a breeding-ground for Islamic extremism for months. Additionally, Egypt has openly joined the US-led coalition against ISIS, which no doubt has improved icy US-Egypt relationships post-2012 coup. Altogether, President Sisi has been able to capitalize on a tragic event and use it to promote Egypt’s interests at home and abroad.