In the wake of conflicting messages from the United States on reports that the United Arab Emirates and Egypt struck Islamist positions in Libya, MENASource spoke with three Atlantic Council experts to get their reactions to this news. Karim Mezran, senior North Africa fellow for the Rafik Hariri Center, Amy Hawthorne, senior Egypt fellow with the Center, and Bilal Saab, senior fellow for Middle East security with the Brent Scowcroft Center, gave their thoughts on the incident and its implications for Libya, Egypt, and the UAE, respectively.
Karim Mezran on the attack and implications for Libya
What is your reaction to the alleged strike by the UAE and Egypt on Islamist positions in Tripoli Libya?
It’s clearly a move we were expecting since the UAE accused their Qatari rivals of having armed and supported the Islamist organizations in Tripoli and Benghazi. Direct involvement was only a matter of time and I expect more [strikes] to continue unless the Americans and other members of the international community put a definitive “no” on these kinds of initiatives.
What is the effect on Libya’s internal dynamics?
It has empowered the [Islamist] leadership of the Misrata militias because now they can pose the question to the new assembly [the House of Representatives], which they contest, saying, “See? You are not condemning foreign attacks against other Libyans; you are not standing against foreign intervention. So you are automatically delegitimizing yourself.” It is empowering, in a sense, the Islamists and the Misratans and their allies, weakening politically the Haftar, House of Representatives, and the secular side. Militarily, of course, support has not been that great—much more needs to be done to defeat the Misratans.
Amy Hawthorne on the attack and its effect on the US-Egypt relationship
What is your reaction to reports of this attack on Islamists in Libya?
To mention two interesting things about this incident:
First, the fact that two very close military allies and longtime security partners of the United States—Egypt and the United Arab Emirates—reportedly carried out these airstrikes without the concurrence of the United States, is yet a further sign of political tensions over divergent threat perceptions, and one that has now spilled over into the realm of direct military action in Libya.
Second, from Egypt’s point of view, Egypt has a genuine security problem emanating from Libya that is getting more acute and is very, very difficult to address because of the long and porous border. Cairo is not fully sure how deal with the instability and weapons coming from Libya. The regime also has a political problem, which is that it doesn’t want to see Islamist movements on the ascent next door in Libya, and so sensing a vacuum in the international community on the first problem and a lack of consensus on the second, the government in Cairo apparently decided to take matters into its own hands to secure its own national interests, not to wait for coordination or help from the West.
We haven’t seen anything like this from Egypt in a while, and it’s very, very interesting. Will it be the first of many airstrikes? We don’t know.
What is the impact on the US-Egypt relationship?
This episode is yet another moment in post-Mubarak Egypt in the past year especially, that leads to the growing estrangement between the two countries that are bound closely together, basically through shared security interests and some degree of strategic cooperation, but where increasingly Egypt places less value and need on its relations with the US, is more willing to act on its own regardless of US preferences. It is yet another example of how $40 billion of US military aid over the past 35 years has generated many benefits for both sides, but has not created a solid strategic partnership.
Bilal Saab on the attack, UAE regional policy, and the Gulf-US relationship
What is your reaction to the incident?
This is a big deal on all levels: on the operational, tactical, political and strategic level. If the story is confirmed, we might be witnessing a new era in US-Arab relations where partners in the region are taking direct military action against perceived threats to protect their security interests without having to wait for the United States or NATO. Washington and its Arab partners’ interests will not always match and their goals will not always be alighned. That’s not the issue here. The issue is that apparently three wasn’t coordination and consultation. Partners typically engage in these kinds of activities.
What does this say about UAE policy in the region?
UAE foreign and security policy has always been pragmatic. We will probably never know why its anxiety about Islamists is so severe. But the bottom line is and the reality is that its tolerance level of these actors is extremely low and its threat perception is extremely high. So we shouldn’t be very surprised that they took military action.
But broadly speaking, the UAE, just like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, want to reduce as much as possible their dependence on the United States for security. It will take time, but the Libya operation reflects a trend of security independence that will only increase in the future. Prestige alone doesn’t explain why the Gulf countries are aggressively developing their defense industries. They see Washington directing its attention to other parts of the globe and they are preparing for the security repercussions.
How will this affect the Gulf-US relationship and its partnership?
Should the Obama administration be blamed for this unitlateralism on the part of its Arab partners? I think it would be silly to hold Obama accountable for this, but the excessive restraint and lethargic responses of his administration to crises in the region certainly didn’t help and have encouraged partners to take matters into their own hands. Mind you, the strategic environment is also becoming more complex and so traditional US-led and orchestrated responses won’t cut it. Washington has been asking its friends and partners in the region to step up and use their own resources to improve regional security for a very long time, but what the UAE just did may not be exactly what Washington had in mind.