Analysis: Egypt left to fight alone against Islamist terrorism

While Jordan’s attacks on Islamic State after the horrific murder of its pilot were met with understanding from the West, Egypt received no such support.

Egyptian Christians in orange jumpsuits just before their execution by ISIS henchmen (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egyptian Christians in orange jumpsuits just before their execution by ISIS henchmen
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There is a thinly veiled attack against the US in a lengthy article in the February 12 issue of the Al-Ahram Cairo daily, a state-owned publication. Together with Qatar and Turkey, it is accused of acting in a hostile manner toward Egypt through its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated terrorist organizations.
European countries such as Britain and Germany are also pointed out for letting the Brothers operate freely.
This can be interpreted as a wake-up call to the West, for stubbornly ignoring the plight of Egypt under attack in Sinai and from Libya by Islamist terrorism.
When Egyptian planes struck in Libya after the massacre of 21 Egyptians belonging to the country’s Coptic Christian minority, it wasn’t only a question of reprisals but also a reminder to the West, also threatened by Islamist terrorism, and particularly to Europe just a few hundred miles from the coast of Libya.
Should nothing be done to block the progress of Islamist militias, Libya will turn into the forward base of Islamic State – leaving Europe facing an unending flood of refugees it cannot absorb and which threatens its economy and stability. The process has already started.
Yet while Jordan’s attacks on Islamic State after the horrific murder of its pilot met with understanding from the West, Egypt received no such support. A White House official declared that there must be a political solution to the Libyan crisis, and that the UN is working on it.
The Pentagon declined to express its views about the attack beyond stating that the United States had not been informed before it was carried out. It did take the opportunity to stress that the partial freeze on military aid to Egypt was still on, mentioning F-16 planes and other weapons, due to the human rights situation in Egypt.
It must be said that the human rights situation in Jordan and other Arab countries is significantly worse than in Egypt.
This was a bitter blow for Cairo. Vainly did Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri travel immediately after the attack to the UN, to stress that Islamist terrorism should be fought wherever it is. He also tried to gather support for the legitimate Libyan government, demanding the lifting of the arms embargo to that country and the extension of coalition air strikes against Islamic State to include targets in Libya. A political solution, he was told, would be the best answer.
Unfortunately, Cairo cannot afford to sit back and wait for a political solution while Islamic State’s advance outposts in Libya and other Islamist militias affiliated with the Brotherhood pursue their relentless attacks to weaken Egypt, hamper its economic recovery, and endanger its stability in their efforts to turn it into yet another failed state after Libya itself, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
The problem is that it finds itself very much alone. At a special meeting of the Arab League convened to discuss the raid by the Egyptian air force, Qatar objected to the support initially granted to Egypt.
That country’s representative accused it of abetting terrorism; in retaliation Qatar recalled its ambassador for consultations.
Worse, the Gulf Cooperation Council took Qatar’s side and rebuked Egypt, in order to avoid a new crisis and keep the Gulf countries united against their two main threats – Iran and Islamic State.
Egypt was taken by surprise, since Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are its principal sources of financial and political support in its fight against the Brotherhood.
Qatar had indeed pledged – under heavy pressure from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries – to loosen its close ties to the Brotherhood, stop Al Jazeera’s incitement against Egypt and express some form of support for Sisi, a pledge it did not fulfill. In fact, Qatar let it be understood that it was against the lifting of the weapons embargo on Libya and in favor of a political solution. Ever since the fall of Gaddafi, Qatar has been accused of assisting Islamist militias in Libya, supplying them with weapons and money.
It is an interesting situation. Arab countries are desperately trying to find a solution to the two problems that plague them and threaten their very existence: Islamic State and other Islamic terrorist organizations on the one hand and Shia Iran’s subversive activities in the region – especially in Iraq, Syria and Yemen – with the country’s nuclear program perceived as the greatest threat.
Turkey’s position is also ambiguous. It is refraining from open confrontation with Islamic State and openly courting Iran to boost its standing in the region.
Then there is the curious stand taken by the US administration, displaying a worrisome sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood and not ready to engage fully Islamic State, while apparently ready to conclude with Iran a pact that would not prevent the ayatollahs from building the nuclear bomb they so ardently desire and making the Islamic Republic of Iran dominant in the Middle East.
Where does that leave Egypt? Not only does it need to fight alone against terrorism on two fronts, it is faced by a surrealistic coalition – Qatar, Turkey, the United States and a number of European countries giving the Brotherhood priceless financial, political and media assistance.
Desperately looking for a way out, Cairo is searching for new allies. It has turned to Russia, which was only too happy to establish a new foothold in the Middle East and signed a number of agreements, including building a nuclear plant and taking part in several massive economic projects. A huge weapons deal is also in the cards, though it is yet to be finalized.
Meanwhile, Egypt has also turned to France and last week signed a contract for the purchase of 24 Rafale fighter planes and one frigate, for a whopping 5.5 billion dollars. This is a major boost to France’s ailing economy and a blow to America’s aircraft industries, but more than anything sad testimony to the deterioration of relations between two erstwhile staunch allies.
Yet Egypt is not ready to turn its back on the United States. Ever since the peace treaty with Israel, strategic military cooperation between Cairo and Washington has been a two-way street. Egypt has received massive military assistance, there were joint exercises, and American vessels have transited the Suez Canal.
Moreover, American warplanes were free to enter Egyptian air space on their way to Iraq during the second Iraq War.
More than ever, Cairo needs the US investments and technology which have so far been denied it. And so a bitter Egypt will have to go it alone.
The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt, and Sweden.