Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi does not see eye-to-eye with Washington over the need to intervene militarily in Libya, the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the roles played by Qatar and Turkey in the region.
The Saudi government’s unease is centered on a perception that a negotiated nuclear deal with Shi’ite Iran will strengthen its key regional rival, whose intervention is already evident in Syria and Lebanon through its Hezbollah proxy, and in Yemen through its Houthi militia ally.
Riyadh also shares Cairo’s antagonism towards the Muslim Brotherhood, and the two Arab countries are both concerned about the terrorist threat in Syria and Iraq, as well as in Libya and Yemen.
Sisi told Al-Arabiya in a weekend interview that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Jordan could join the proposed Egyptian initiative, which he described as defensive in nature.
“When we see the existing risks, we say on the whole that this is the right time to put our hands together – not to attack anyone, but to defend our countries against the risks that we all see,” Sisi said in Arabic, according to an Al-Arabiya translation.
Sisi has long been concerned about extremist upheaval in Libya, and proposed a joint force after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has gained a foothold amid the feuding Libyan militias, beheaded 21 kidnapped Egyptian Christians there last month.In response to the atrocity Sisi ordered airstrikes against ISIS positions in Libya on February 16, without giving the Pentagon prior warning.
As was the case after Egypt carried out strikes against Islamist militias in Libya last August, the administration did not wholeheartedly endorse the latest military action, with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki saying on Feb. 17 that it “continue[s] to believe that in Libya the best path forward is a political process, one that’s being led by the U.N.”
Psaki did add that countries’ desires to defend themselves against ISIS terror was “different.” The U.S. had not itself made any decision to carry out strikes against ISIS in Libya, she added several days later.
When Qatar protested the Feb. 16 Libya airstrikes, Cairo publicly accused the wealthy Gulf state of supporting terrorism, stoking a new diplomatic rift.
A week later, President Obama in an Oval Office meeting with the emir of Qatar praised him for his partnership against terrorism, despite concerns about Qatari support for Hamas and some of the radical elements fighting in the Syria civil war. Egyptian state media criticized Obama’s comments.
‘Hotbed of terrorism’
For months Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been urging the U.S. to widen its focus in the anti-ISIS campaign to Libya and elsewhere.
“Today we are facing a very dangerous situation as terrorism has turned from cells into armies and from hiding in hotbeds to have shelters in countries,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal told Kerry and other ministers at a counterterror event in New York last September, mentioning Libya and Yemen.
That same month, Sisi told Kerry in Cairo that “any international coalition against terrorism must be a comprehensive alliance that is not limited to confront a certain organization or to curb a single terrorist hotbed but must expand to include all the terrorist hotbeds across the Middle East and Africa,” according to a presidential spokesman.
In the weekend Al-Arabiya interview, Sisi did not mince words on the state Libya was left in after NATO intervened to topple former dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
“Let us be honest with ourselves. You see, after the end of NATO's mission in Libya, did they continue to build the Libyan state?” he asked. “Or did they leave it and walked out? They left it and walked out. Consequently, Libya became a hotbed of terrorism and extremism that threatens the region and threatens us on our border.”
On Egypt’s hopes for Libya, he said, “We want its captivity in the hands of the armed militias to end.”
Alongside the growing instability in Libya, Egypt has been fighting ISIS-affiliated terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula too.
Sisi also differs with the Obama administration, as well as with Qatar and Turkey, over the Muslim Brotherhood. After leading the coup that ousted a year-old Muslim Brotherhood administration in 2013, he cracked down on the Islamist group and outlawed it. An Egyptian court on Saturday declared Hamas – the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch – a terrorist organization.
While Hamas remains a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, the administration views the Muslim Brotherhood as a pragmatic movement that should be part of the Egyptian discourse. For their part Qatar and Turkey regard both Hamas and the broader Muslim Brotherhood as allies.
Sisi’s proposal for a joint Arab anti-terror force was welcomed by Arab League secretary-general Nabil al-Arabi, who said it may be a key issue on the agenda of an Arab summit in Cairo on March 28.
Kerry is scheduled to hold talks with King Salman this week, following visits to Switzerland for a U.N. Human Rights Council event, and for further Iranian nuclear talks.