Egypt’s War on Sunni Supremacism Goes to Libya

With Libya still a shambles and without the United States involved, Egypt lashes out.

American defense secretary James Mattis and Egyptian president Abdul Fatah Sisi stand to attention outside the Pentagon in Washington DC, April 5
American defense secretary James Mattis and Egyptian president Abdul Fatah Sisi stand to attention outside the Pentagon in Washington DC, April 5 (DoD/Amber I. Smith)

From Reuters:

Egyptian airstrikes destroyed twelve vehicles loaded with arms, ammunition and explosive material trying to cross the border from Libya, the army spokesman said on Tuesday.

The airforce acted after hearing that “criminal elements” had gathered to try and cross the western boundary, the army statement said, without giving details on exactly where or when the strikes took place.

Despite the paucity of the initial report, it’s clear the Abdul Fatah al-Sisi is trying to look like he’s getting revenge for attacks on Egyptian Christians by Sunni supremacists, who are trying the same old terror tricks of the 1990s to destabilize the regime.

Then, Sunni supremacists like al al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya attacked mostly tourists, trying to dry up the all-important tourist industry and crash the economy.

Cat and mouse

This is part of the long-running cat-and-mouse game played by secular authorities and Islamists in Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood was initially forged in Egypt in 1928; it focused on the then-British backed monarchy in hopes of using Egypt as a means to restore the recently abolished caliphate. But they didn’t get far: Egypt is an easy place to hold with its densely packed cities cordoned off by impassable desert. (For the same reason, it’s also a very hard place to thrive in.) Unable to make inroads into the kingdom’s state, the Brotherhood watched as internal state actors, the Free Officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew the king in 1952 by coup.

They got nowhere with Nasser, too. Despite agreeing on the ejection of Britain, Nasser was a firm Arab nationalist who saw Islam as a vehicle of Arabness, not the other way around. Islamists, both peaceful and violent, ended up in his prisons.

That radicalized one Muslim Brother, Sayyid Qutb, who decided that nothing short of a Leninist-style violent revolution would restore the caliphate. Nasser had him hung in 1966, but his ideas spread like wildfire among those who saw the secular Arab nationalists as obstacles to the return of the caliphate.

Which led to the turn of the Brotherhood as a proper terror group. While Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak bashed Israel trying to suck the wind out of the increasingly Sunni supremacist Muslim Brotherhood, their security forces rounded up hardcore supporters and turned Egypt into a powerful police state. When Egypt switched sides to Israel and the United States in 1979, that police state became Western-backed, with generous military aid from Washington.

After their highwater mark in 1982, when they assassinated Sadat, Sunni supremacists groups spread globally with Qutbist ideas. Though Sadat’s killing didn’t overthrow the state — it just brought in a new, more enduring boss: Mubarak — Sunni supremacists like Al Qaeda decided they weren’t being violent enough.

Which brought on the 1990s, when Sunni supremacists butchered tourists left and right, hoping to cripple the critical industry. But Mubarak’s American friends gave him the knowhow and cover to smash the Qutbists. There were fewer holes to flee to as Egyptian security forces ran them down, with only Afghanistan and Sudan flirting with Sunni supremacist groups.

But today Libya is a crippled state while the Islamic State’s territory-grabbing has inspired “provinces” there, in Egypt’s Sinai and Afghanistan. As it goes for Sunni supremacists, it’s a much more favorable environment to wage war on their favorite apostates.

Proxy war

So now Egypt is forced to go on the offensive and it has found old enemies are now new allies. While Nasser and the Saudis despised one another — the Saudis hosted the anti-Nasser Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s — now Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo are closely aligned in their hatred of Sunni supremacists. Together they wage a proxy war in Libya, hoping to restore order via a strongman, Khalifa Haftar.

This is hardly the last strike against the Sunni supremacists festering in Libya. As the Americans care less and less about human rights, let alone intra-Arab conflicts, Egypt’s war in Libya is certain to grow.

This article originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, June 29, 2017.