AL AOUR, Egypt — Egypt’s forceful response to the Islamic State’s murder of Egyptian Christians in Libya this past weekend seemed to be a welcome addition to the fight against the extremist group. But observers say Egypt’s actions since then indicate President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is focusing on his own domestic politics and not on the interests of the broader fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Concern is growing because Egypt’s tightly controlled political environment is awash with claims the Islamic State is secretly connected to Qatar and the United States, which are publicly committed to defeating the extremist group. Analysts say that although such talk threatens to damage the unity of the countries combating ISIS, it proves helpful for Sisi, as it bolsters the idea that Egypt is under threat and only he can save it.
This idea seemed to have taken hold in Al Aour, the village that was home to 13 of ISIS’s Egyptian victims.
“I have a message to Obama,” Emet Suleiman Shahata, the brother of one of the men beheaded by a Libyan offshoot of the Islamic State, told The WorldPost this week at the village’s Coptic Christian church. “Egypt will be strong no matter what our enemies do.”
Shahata and the men around him interrupted each other in their rush to explain precisely how the U.S. helped make the ISIS atrocity possible.
“The United States is the backbone of support for Qatar and Turkey, and they are backing terrorism,” Shahata continued.
Powerful institutions in Egypt have promoted these sentiments. Sisi’s delegate to the Arab League, Tariq Adel, sparked a diplomatic crisis in the Middle East on Wednesday by telling Cairo’s state-run news agency he believes Qatar supports terrorism. He made the claim after a Qatari foreign ministry official was quoted warning that Egypt’s airstrikes in Libya could harm civilians. Qatar on Thursday called its ambassador to Egypt back to Doha, its capital, “for consultation.”
Prior to Adel’s remarks, media outlets in Egypt also had promoted the idea that Qatar and the U.S. are aiding terror. On Tuesday, Middle East news site Al Bawaba published a headline that stated: “Strike Qatar…Daesh [ISIS] will fall.”
And on Thursday, the leading newspaper Al Masry Al Youm ran a cartoon showing “Daesh,” the preferred Arabic term for the Islamic State, intertwined with “USA.”
The state-run newspaper Al-Ahram ran a front-page story the same day calling Qatar, Turkey and the U.S. the “triangle of the forces of evil.”
Sisi has never fully warmed to either the U.S. or Qatar. Both governments expressed support for the elected Muslim Brotherhood-run government, a product of the Arab Spring, that Sisi and the military overthrew in 2013 in a restoration of Egypt’s autocratic old guard.
“The Egyptians feel like they’re under siege and understandably so,” Fahad Nazer, a terrorism analyst at intelligence consultancy JTG Inc. and former political analyst at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, said Thursday in an email. “Anything less than unequivocal support — especially given lingering differences with Qatar over the Muslim Brotherhood — was likely to add to the tensions.”
Like Turkey, home to the most powerful Islamist government in the region, Qatar has been connected to the Brotherhood (though it publicly denies supporting it). It has sparred with other Arab monarchies in the Gulf over that view. Those monarchies, most notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have provided Sisi with billions of dollars to shore up his regime. For them, the previous Egyptian government posed an existential threat by showing that Arab democracy and political Islam might work. They’re backing Sisi to ensure the largest Arab country remains an autocracy.
The U.S. has its own problems with the Egyptian general because of its mixed messages regarding Egypt’s return to authoritarianism. While it continues to give Egypt millions per year in largely military aid, as it has since the country signed a truce with Israel in 1979, the U.S. administration has condemned the government’s increasing assault on civil society.
The U.S. and Egypt presently have “mutual frustration,” a U.S. official told the Daily Beast this week. The Pentagon made clear on Wednesday that Egypt did not inform Washington before it flew U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to bomb ISIS camps near the town of Derna in eastern Libya.
Still, Sisi has tried to sell himself as a reasonable and important Muslim voice against the rise of extremism, a message U.S. conservatives are buying. And it looked in December like ties between the strongman and both Washington and Doha were improving, with the arrival of the first U.S. ambassador to the country since the fall of the democratic government and an apparent reconciliation between Qatar and Sisi’s anti-Brotherhood backers in the Gulf.
Sultan Barakat, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, said that though he believed Qatar’s rulers were “quite used to rhetoric that comes from Egyptian media,” the recall of the ambassador suggested a sudden increase in concern.
“He’s only returned recently to Cairo,” Barakat noted.
Nazer said in his email that relations between Cairo and Doha may be unraveling because of the change of leadership in Saudi Arabia after the death of King Abdullah in late January. The late Saudi ruler was thought to have pressured Qatar’s ruler to work with Sisi, Nazer said.
Libya has remained a major battleground for the ongoing conflict between Qatar and the anti-Brotherhood forces linked with Sisi despite the signs of regional reconciliation. The country is split between two militia-backed governments: one in the west composed of both moderate and radical Islamists, which is thought to be supported by Qatar, and a more secular Sisi-backed one in the east, which is internationally recognized but seen as too connected to the old Gaddafi regime.
It is the militia of that eastern government, based in Tobruk, that aided Egypt in its anti-ISIS airstrikes. U.S. officials said last August that Egypt and the U.A.E., the secular government’s chief backers, had covertly launched airstrikes against the western-based Islamist groups’ militias. But the Egyptian bombing raid this week was Sisi’s first overt military involvement in the Libyan civil war.
The United Nations is mediating talks between the two sides that have yet to bear fruit largely because various factions still do not see a peaceful resolution as being in their best interest, The WorldPost has learned. The Islamist militias carried out their first airstrikes against their rival on Wednesday, days after the release of the ISIS video in which the Egyptians were shown being beheaded. The same day, the secular government asked, with Egyptian support, for the U.N. to lift an embargo on the import of arms into the country. The U.S. and Britain responded late Thursday that Libya should first establish a unity government.
U.S. officials did not anticipate Sisi’s government would further complicate the civil war by publicly accusing Qatar of backing ISIS. Despite the fact that Egypt has conflated Islamists in Egypt and in Libya with the Islamic State, it is a serious escalation for Cairo to call a fellow Arab government an ISIS backer. Analysts say this rift is the last thing Washington needs as it considers how to respond to ISIS: Cairo would be on the frontlines of any effort against ISIS expansion in Libya, and a U.S. base in Qatar is the center of the U.S. air war against the militants in Iraq and Syria.
For now, the U.S. has not taken a public position on the Egyptian airstrikes or the subsequent inter-Arab spat. A spokesperson for Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, declined to comment on the situation’s impact on the coalition.
But the crisis came as a high-profile Egyptian envoy was in Washington for the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. A National Security Council spokeswoman said in an emailed statement Thursday that National Security Adviser Susan Rice had met with Egypt’s foreign minister on Thursday and re-affirmed the Washington-Cairo partnership. She did not reference the strikes in Libya, but did note that Rice said the U.S. and Egypt should cooperate in Libya to “address threats from terrorism and to promote a unified Libyan government that can represent the aspirations of all Libyans.” She also said Rice expressed U.S. concerns about human rights and political freedom in Egypt.
There were no immediate signs of other Arab states successfully repairing the rift. The Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Qatar and five other Gulf states that have supported Sisi, offered conflicting messages Thursday, posting on its site two messages from its secretary-general. The first one noted the “sincere efforts of the state of Qatar in cooperation with the GCC countries to fight terrorism and extremism on all levels” (and has apparently since been removed), and the second one indicated support for Egyptian actions in Libya while making no mention of Qatar. The Egyptian government and media outlets in Egypt said that the second statement contradicted the first — and indicated that the council did not mean to criticize Egypt’s claims about Qatar.
That means the parties directly involved likely will be responsible for restoring this rift. Either Doha will lose face by moving to ease tensions without an apology from Egypt, or Sisi will have to take a political loss and prove he prioritizes international cooperation over domestic crowd-pleasing.
Akbar Shahid Ahmed reported from Washington, D.C., and Sophia Jones reported from Al Aour, Egypt.
This story has been updated with the Egyptian response to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s statements.