Islamic State targets in Libya bombed by EgyptEgypt has to address many ‘security’ challenges, even if we used this term in its narrowest meaning. For the first time in the history of the country, state forces and non-state forces threaten the frontiers and the outlying areas (the Sinai), non to mention to specific character of the challenges launched by Ethiopia in relation with the question of water resources which are vital for the country. Although it has improved, the situation on the banks of the Nile continues to be dangerous because of the presence of a minority political force – the Muslim Brothers – who have some hundreds of thousands of members and who have not forgiven notable parts of the population of Egypt for having ‘delegated to the army powers to fight against terrorism’ and thereby having prepared/approved the bloody repression of Rab’a (14 August 2013, when there were hundreds of deaths). In order to bring about the fall of the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood is ready to use any means, including terroristic violence and acts of sabotage.
Although it is more and more a minority force in the country, it has strongholds and bastions, some of which are to be found in the outskirts of the capital. At the moment a peaceful solution is still not in sight and the security solution, despite its growing and at times impressive effectiveness, is displaying its limitations. However, for the moment one can affirm that the regime has won the battle in the valley and that the manoeuvres of the Muslim Brotherhood have only increased the rejection to which they are subject.
The Jihadists threaten the Sinai and the border with Libya. In the Sinai they were divided into different formations and on questions of doctrine and political tactics, but the harsh blows that were inflicted on them led them to regroup under the aegis of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a formation affiliated to al-Qaida and later to Isis. This formation occupies only the eastern areas of the northern coast, that is to say the Arish/Rafah strip, in addition to a small part of the north-eastern territory, and in particular the area of the al-Hallal mountain and the village of Shaykh Zuwayd. This group, a mixture of foreign fighters, Jihadists of the valley and sons of a number of tribes of the Sinai, has some thousands of fighters – estimates oscillate between 5,000 and 22,000. It has had heavy losses – more than a thousand deaths – and its supply and communications channels are regularly interrupted. Hitherto, however, it has periodically managed to rise again and ‘project’ its forces with the precise organisation of murderous operations from its stronghold.
What is certain is that it can rely upon support in the Gaza strip and at least upon the ‘positive’ neutrality of the al-Qassam brigades. It is also certain that this group has managed to obtain the ‘silence’, whether willing or otherwise (according to the case in hand) of the tribes, brutally executing people accused of ‘collaborationism’. In the region the security question is made even more complex by difficulties in obtaining informers because of a certain closure on the part of the world of the tribes. This lack of information often pushes the authorities to employ brutal repression or collective sanctions which are, in fact, counterproductive. However, one should not think that all the tribes of the Sinai have adhered to the Jihadist cause (such has not been the case) and it should be acknowledged that the army has achieved some important successes and has made notable advances, even though the road is long, if not interminable.
The challenge of Libya is a different one. Libya has become a gigantic arms market and supplies both sub-Saharan Africa and the Gaza strip and the Sinai. Isis has established itself in Derna and Sirte. In its ranks it has 5,000 fighters, some of whom are Libyan, but the majority are Yemenite. The solution of an ‘external military intervention’ is risky and nobody in Egypt wants it, but it cannot be ruled out completely. The ideal would be a political solution that allows the formation of a bureaucracy, the reconstruction of the Libyan army, and the disarming of the militias. On this point, however difficult it may be, all the neighbouring countries agree, even though Egypt at times gives the impression of rejecting this idea and of being tempted by the solution of a cushion zone. The problem of the authorities in Cairo seems, rather, to be the role that should be attributed to the Libyan Muslim Brothers in a possible national governing coalition. Indeed, they claim a status that is probably in line with their military power but this power is far greater than their electoral support, as emerged at the last elections. Disruptive unknowns are also represented by the ability of the Muslim Brothers to keep open communication channels with the Jihadist militias as well as relations with the international organisation of the Islamist galaxy. The lack of trust is expressed in many ways: for example the blows inflicted from Egypt against Isis were coordinated with the legitimate (but not minority) power and not with the Libyan Muslim Brothers who were not told about them. These last reacted by spreading contemptible lies, attributing the decapitation of the Copts to the Egyptian secret services and arguing that this crime was not committed in Libya. It is too early to know if the opposing situations, the rival ambitions and the absence of real state organs will be insurmountable obstacles. In addition, the Islamist militias have exploited disagreements between the neighbouring countries. Tunisia does not have any army and this is something that makes it more inclined to look for an agreement with the Islamists.