Washington wary of Egypt in Libya

The first indications of how the White House will respond to Egypt bombing ISIL may come this week, reports Taimur Khan.

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New York // The emergence of an ISIL affiliate in Libya could prompt a renewed look in Washington at coordination between the US and Egypt.

The White House has maintained chilly relations with the Sisi government as questions remain over Egypt’s internal politics and what exactly Cairo has to offer in the fight against extremists.

The first clues about how the Obama administration will respond to Egypt’s bombing of ISIL targets in eastern Libya in response to the militants’ murder of 21 Christian Egyptian migrant workers may emerge this week at a three-day Washington conference on countering extremism.

On Tuesday, Cairo called for an urgent international response to back up its strikes.

After meetings at the UN Security Council, the Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, will attend the conference on Wednesday or Thursday, along with foreign ministers and other officials from more than 60 countries. White House officials said on Monday that the fight against ISIL will be discussed, but that the focus will be “bottom-up” tactics to counter the causes of radicalisation rather than military action.

Egypt’s military role in the light of developments in Libya may also feature in the meeting of coalition defence officials in Riyadh this week.

Analysts, however, doubt whether the White House will also put aside its concerns about Egypt’s role in the civil war in Libya between an alliance of militias associated with extremist groups and the internationally-recognised government. Washington sees intervention by regional powers as aiding in the chaos and undermining UN-led negotiations between the two sides.

But with Egypt now focusing its bombing campaign on ISIL-affiliated militants who have threatened Europe, Egypt is asking the international community to forge a military coalition to help fight them in Libya.

“I think the key question is whether Egypt’s public assertiveness on Libya provides an opening for greater coordination between the US administration and the Sisi government, but frankly I doubt that’s going to happen,” said Eric Trager, an analyst working on Egypt at the Washington Institute.

The US has until now urged Egypt to use restraint in its approach to the turmoil in Libya, “and it’s not clear to me that will change now”, he added.

Ashton Carter, the new US secretary of defence, was sworn in Tuesday, and has signalled a more hawkish stance than Barack Obama on a number of issues that could include Egypt.

But policy is still tightly controlled by the White House and his personal preferences on strategic foreign policy questions are unlikely to be significant factors.

The spread of ISIL to ungoverned Libya not far from western Europe’s southern borders has renewed French and Italian calls for international action. France on Monday announced the sale of 24 advanced fighter jets to Egypt, which has expressed frustration over the withholding of F-16 jets by the US.

“Without a doubt, the stability and security of Egypt are an essential base for the stability and security of countries of the Mediterranean, as well as countries of the European Union and above all, your country, which has been confronted in recent months by terrorist acts,” Egypt’s defence minister, Gen Sedki Sobhi said at the public signing of the defence deal on Monday.

Egypt’s strategy against ISIL in Libya is still unclear and has raised concerns among analysts that it could play into ISIL’s hands or backfire by creating more instability.

Mr Trager cautioned that “from Washington’s standpoint, that’s all the more reason why it should be engaging [Egypt] and working closely on devising a strategy”.

tkhan@thenational.ae