Egypt’s Crisis Across the Border With Libya
Egyptian armed forces on Monday carried out a predawn airstrike in Libya in response to the beheading of as many as 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by the Islamic State, the extremist group also known as ISIS or ISIL. The Egyptians attacked camps, training facilities and weapons depots belonging to the group near the Libyan town of Derna, a militant stronghold.

Egypt is understandably concerned about the extremist threat. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians live and work across the border in Libya, vulnerable to the country’s unraveling and the widening violence. The Egyptian government, which has a right to protect its citizens under the United Nations Charter, also worries about a link between militants in the Sinai Peninsula and those in Libya.

But the airstrikes marked a significant expansion of Egypt’s direct military involvement in Libya, and there is little evidence that the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has thought through its response or coordinated it with other nations, including the United States. Although Egypt is a major American ally and the recipient of billions of dollars in aid and weapons over the last three decades, a Pentagon spokesman said there was no advance warning of the Libya airstrikes and “we’re not taking a position on it.”

Egypt called this week for the United Nations Security Council to mandate an international coalition to intervene in Libya and impose a naval blockade, and urged that an arms embargo on the country, which is already awash in weapons, be lifted. The ideas have generated little support.

The likely effect of Egypt’s proposals would be to further inflame the war among non-ISIS factions and undercut a fragile United Nations peace effort that offers some hope for forging a common Libyan front against the Islamic State.

Two dominant groups are at war over Libya’s vast territory and resources, including its oil deposits. One is the internationally recognized Libyan government, which is based in the eastern city of Bayda and allied with militias under the control of Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a former Qaddafi-era commander. The other is a coalition of Islamists, extremists and regional militias called Libya Dawn, which has established a government in Tripoli after capturing that city last year.

For some time, Arab states have taken sides in this civil war, turning it into a proxy fight and fostering the very chaos in which the Islamic State thrives. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have covertly backed General Hifter’s campaign to drive out the Islamists and their allies, while Qatar and Turkey reportedly have been backing Libya Dawn. It is part of a pattern in which these countries and others have been exploiting militant groups across the region in bids to expand their own power and influence. On Thursday, the Gulf Cooperation Council voiced support for Qatar after Qatar criticized the Egyptian airstrikes and Egypt accused Qatar of supporting terrorism.

Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, cannot afford to get bogged down in a war in Libya; there are staggering challenges at home, including reviving a battered economy and combating a domestic insurgency. The United States could well be dragged into this fight if Egypt makes wrong choices and worsens an already explosive situation.

Rather than fueling divisions, Mr. Sisi and other regional leaders should be working together to reinforce the United Nations negotiation initiative, which aims to create a government of national unity that can tackle the Islamic State and other problems. In a statement on Tuesday, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy reaffirmed support for this effort and said they would hold accountable “those who seek to impede this process.” A negotiated solution is a long shot, but it could be the last chance to stabilize Libya and prevent the Islamic State from expanding its presence in the country.

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