Terrorism Will Justify Egypt’s Political Repression

Andrew McGregor

Oxford Analytica Daily Brief, August 6, 2019

Significance

Egypt recently extended its national state of emergency for an additional three months, the ninth time it has done so since April 2017. The state of emergency provides the president with extraordinary powers over all Egyptian media and the exercise of individual rights to movement and assembly.

Egypt is the Arab world’s largest and most influential state; attacks there on democratic norms and institutions whether by terrorist groups or the state have a direct impact on the direction of other Arab nations. How Egypt deals with extremist fighters returning from campaigns in Iraq, Syria and Libyan as well as its ongoing campaign against the MB will have repercussions throughout the Middle East.

Analysis

Six years after Egypt’s military overthrew the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government, the nation faces a three-pronged terrorist threat from the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda (whose leader, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, is Egyptian) and militant offshoots of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The terrorists have multiple targets, including Christians, Sufi Muslims, politicians, civil servants and security personnel of all types.

President ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi used a July 23 speech to declare victory over the terrorists, stating their infrastructure and bases had been destroyed (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 23, 2019). The president’s announcement came only days after the Interior Ministry claimed it had broken up a major plot by the Muslim Brotherhood to incite riots and other violence in a campaign orchestrated through social media and satellite television channels.

Egyptian Immigration Minister Nabila Makram (CBC)

The Sisi regime has broadened its definition of terrorism to include most forms of political opposition. Independent reporting of terrorism issues in Egypt can bring about charges of supporting terrorism, with severe penalties. In an alarming statement, Egyptian Immigration Minister Nabila Makram used a July 23 speech in Toronto to casually suggest that anyone criticizing Egypt should be killed (Al-Jazeera, July 25, 2019).

Political dissent now equals terrorism, turning a significant and non-violent portion of the population into terrorists. As the number of individuals identified as “terrorists” by the state swells, it becomes harder to ever triumph over “terrorism.” Low-level insurgencies are common in authoritarian states and serve to provide justification for repressive measures. Hundreds of suspects at a time are processed through the justice system in mass trials. In the meantime, detainees are exposed to real terrorists in prison.

According to a 2018 report from the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), over 27,000 arrests have been made in al-Sisi’s war on terror, with half belonging to the MB and more than 11,500 detainees having no known affiliation to a terrorist group. This is in addition to more than 7,000 deaths in counter-terrorism operations, 95% of these being residents of North Sinai, where the MB has little influence (TIMEP, 2018, p.11).

Most Sinai Egyptians are Bedouin who are distrusted by the government, kept out of the security services and largely excluded from any but the most minor economic activity and development. Profitable tourist facilities in south Sinai that prohibit employment of local Bedouin have been built on land seized from Bedouin owners. Many of North Sinai’s 450,000 people have roots in Palestinian Gaza, just across the border, and see little reason to integrate with Egyptian society at large.

Demolition of Rafah by the Egyptian Army

Egyptian authorities have tried but failed to isolate the terrorist threat in northern Sinai by turning the region into an open-air prison where arbitrary measures prevail. Demolition crews have been hard at work demolishing buildings and homes and productive farms are razed. The city of Rafah (70,000 residents) no longer exists except as a memory in a new “buffer zone” established on the border with Israel. Services are nearly non-existent and departure from this armed quarantine can only be made by obtaining a special permit. These are hardly steps designed to encourage greater engagement by the local population in the anti-terrorism struggle.

IS has carried out a steady stream of ambushes, bombings and assassinations targeting security forces, Sufis and Christians. IS preachers have accused the Sufis of heresy, sorcery and cooperation with security forces to justify their mass murder. This includes a 2017 attack on the Rawda Sufi mosque that left over 300 dead after security forces ignored intelligence warning of the attack and were slow to respond once it had started (ICG, January 31, 2018).

Cairo claims to have killed some 3,000 terrorists in Sinai since the beginning of the insurgency, though this number is either inflated or includes innocent victims of security rampages and extrajudicial executions. An additional 9,000 residents have been arrested on suspicion of being members of the Islamic State or other terrorist groups.

The Egyptian Army has empowered local drug addicts and criminals by enrolling them as so-called manadeeb (“delegates”). Usually wearing masks and dressed in army camouflage, the manadeeb identify terrorist suspects (an easy way to take revenge on otherwise innocent residents) and participate in their interrogation and even summary executions (HRW, May 28, 2019).

IS targeting has forced nearly the entire Christian population of Sinai to depart for refuge in the Nile Valley, though they are still under threat from IS Wilayet Sinai terrorists who have expanded their operations to other parts of Egypt through attacks on tourists, diplomatic facilities and churches.

Terrorist cells have a very different composition elsewhere in Egypt. Many of the cells operating in the Nile Valley region are composed of well-educated middle class Muslim Brotherhood members or sympathizers. These members are not unemployed social outcasts or alienated from Egyptian society at large, a status that should alarm Egyptian authorities. The MB is highly resilient – it has endured persecution before, but is organized to survive these episodes.

Egyptian M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank

While Egypt’s militants are largely restricted to weapons such as firearms, explosives, IEDs and suicide attackers, Egypt’s security apparatus has brought a wide variety of sophisticated weapons and equipment to bear, including advanced surveillance aircraft, Apache attack helicopters, F-16 fighters, Rafale multi-role fighters, mortars, M1 Abrams main battle tanks, artillery, missiles and a variety of infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers.

There is no improving economy to offer alternatives to terrorism. To the contrary, Egypt’s economy is struggling across the board, with major declines in foreign currency reserves, rampant unemployment, an industrial sector distorted by military involvement and a precipitous drop in investor confidence. The tourist industry, one of the nation’s largest employers, has been devastated by the impact of terrorism.

What Next

Al-Sisi’s supporters in parliament have introduced amendments to the constitution that will allow al-Sisi to remain in power until 2034. Egyptian political development is static, unable to break free from a cycle of generals turned politicians, from Nasser through Sadat and Mubarak to al-Sisi. This political stagnation will continue to foment opposition that can now find no legal form of expression other than violent means.

The majority of terrorist attacks in Egypt have targeted security forces rather than civilians, though there is a progression to more indiscriminate killings such as attacks on churches and mosques.

Impacts

  • Al-Sisi exploits his role as a front-line opponent of terrorism to gain Western tolerance for his rule, if not outright support.
  • Authorities insist the political violence within Egypt is supported by Egypt’s “enemies,” Qatar and Turkey in particular.
  • Egypt’s increasingly secret war on terrorism fails to engage the larger population.
  • Ayman al-Zawahiri has used the overthrow of Muhammad Mursi as proof that only violence can root out and destroy Egypt’s “deep state.”

American Civil War Veterans and the Egyptian Empire in Africa

Dr. Andrew McGregor

A talk given to the Civil War Roundtable at the Royal Canadian Military Institute, Toronto, March 28, 2018.

The Intention of this talk is to discuss the little known role of American Civil War veterans in the expansion of the 19th century Egyptian Empire into Africa. As those here tonight are primarily interested in the US Civil War rather than 19th century African history, the talk will begin with a summary of how the Americans came to be in Egypt as mercenaries and their part in Egypt’s failed invasion of Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia). It proceeds in Part Two with profiles of some of the most prominent Civil War veterans serving in Egypt.

American military involvement in Egypt, whether official or unofficial, dates back much further than many might expect. In an early American attempt at regime change in the Middle East, the young republic’s consul in Alexandria, William Eaton, led a motley army composed of a handful of US Marines, and hundreds of Greek, Arab and Turkish mercenaries recruited in Egypt to put Thomas Jefferson’s preferred candidate on the throne of the neighboring Karamanli state of Tripoli in 1805. Following a five hundred mile forced march from Alexandria to Tripoli, Eaton’s frequently mutinous army took the Libyan city of Derna in America’s first overseas land battle.

At the same time, an ambitious Albanian, Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha, was emerging as the victor in a power struggle for control of Egypt, still an Ottoman domain. By force and intrigue, Muhammad ‘Ali became the Sultan’s khedive (viceroy) in Egypt, though the Albanian’s real plan was to eventually replace the Ottoman Empire and establish his own hereditary dynasty. In 1811, he slaughtered most of the powerful Mamluk military-slave caste (his last opposition) in an act of treachery. In 1821, the viceroy sent an army south to conquer the Sudan. Three Americans who converted to Islam joined the expedition, though it has never been confirmed whether they were acting as mercenaries or spies.

Egypt and Circassia

Egypt’s ruling class was a combination of Turks and Circassians who typically spoke Turkish and French, but rarely the Arabic of the people they ruled. Circassians from the North Caucasus had been brought to Egypt for centuries as slaves to receive military training and Circassian women, famous for their beauty, filled the harems of the Middle East’s rulers.  Though the Mamluk system had been broken in 1811, Circassians and their descendants continued to play major roles in the Egyptian military until the revolt of the Arab officers overthrew the dynasty of Muhammad ‘Ali in 1952.

Ismail Pasha and Thaddeus Mott Pasha

Muhammad ‘Ali’s grandson Ismail became the fourth Khedive in the dynasty’s line in 1863. It was a good time to take over; Egypt’s cotton industry had filled the government coffers as Egypt profited from the Civil War blockade around the cotton-producing southern states.

Ismail Pasha

Ismail was determined to consolidate Egyptian power over the entire Nile Basin as well as the Red Sea coast. Though Egypt had a large degree of independence, the Khedive was still the servant of the Ottoman Sultan and Egypt was expected to contribute militarily to Ottoman wars if called upon.

To build his empire Ismail required soldiers from a nation with no strategic or colonial interest in Africa. The sudden availability of many experienced officers after the American Civil War fit the bill perfectly.

Unfortunately, Ismail’s combination of ambition, extravagance and enthusiasm for borrowing cash on the international money markets would ultimately bring about his downfall and an end to the American military presence in Egypt.

Major General Thaddeus Phelps Mott Pasha

To recruit these officers, Ismail turned to Thaddeus Phelps Mott, an American serving as a major-general in the Ottoman Army.

When the New York City-born Thaddeus Mott enlisted in the Union Army as a 30-year-old in 1861, he was already a veteran of Garibaldi’s Redshirts in Italy and the Mexican Army. He had also spent several years at sea as a mate on clipper ships. Fluent in a number of languages, Mott was an excellent swordsman and dead shot with pistols who enjoyed duelling.

As a Union artillery commander, Mott saw heavy action in the battles of the Seven Days, but some of his most desperate moments came in his native New York as a lieutenant colonel of cavalry during the 1863 Draft Riots. Facing thousands of furious rioters, Mott killed one man with his saber who was trying to pull him from his horse.  Mott then ordered the guns under his command to sweep the streets with grape and canister shot.

Three years after the war Mott joined the Ottoman Army’s general staff and was stationed in Egypt. Seeking Western military experts who did not need to clear all the Khedive’s orders with their embassy (as did Ismail’s French advisors), Ismail turned to Mott to recruit American civil war veterans who were free of colonial baggage.

Mott in turn contacted General William Tecumseh Sherman, who agreed to recommend a number of veteran officers from both sides of the Civil War. Sherman had visited Egypt in 1869 and was well treated by the Khedive.

Battle of the Shipka Pass, 1877

Mott became aide-de-camp to Ismail Pasha in 1870, but declined to renew his contract in 1874. He instead returned to Turkey to take part in the Ottoman wars in the Balkans, distinguishing himself against the Russians at the Battle of Shipka Pass in 1877. Mott died in Paris in 1894.

Many of Sherman’s recommendations appear to have been made with the goal of sending discontented Union officers on half-pay and Confederates of suspect loyalty out of the country. A number of key Civil War figures, including former Confederate Generals Joseph Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard and George Pickett, considered the proposal but declined for various reasons. However, service in Egypt was considered respectable employment and many of the officers who accepted came from some of the most distinguished families in America.

The Americans Arrive

On their arrival in Egypt, the Americans found an army suffering from illiteracy, no command structure, no intelligence apparatus, no signals corps, antique artillery and persistent ammunition shortages. The entire Egyptian army possessed only three maps.

The Citadel in Cairo: Headquarters of the Egyptian Army and Home of the American Staff

Some of the Americans were put to good use in exploration, training and engineering projects, while others had little to do and killed the boredom with drinking and dueling over petty disputes, some of them dating back to the Civil War. Many of these latter officers made early returns to the United States.

There was no pay department in the Egyptian Army, which at times forced the Americans to collect their salaries at gunpoint when it was months in arrears. Otherwise they accumulated debt which they had little hope of repaying, making the avoidance of creditors their main occupation.

As Muslims, the ladies of the Egyptian aristocracy were strictly off limits to the Christian Americans. There were Syrian, Greek and Armenian Christian women in Egypt, but they tended to live the same veiled and secluded life as their Muslim counterparts. The Americans instead turned for female companionship to the European ladies performing at the Cairo theaters and opera. While some French officers of Napoleon’s occupation army (1798-1801) had converted to Islam to marry Muslim women, it does not appear that any of the Americans did the same.

On a professional level, there were difficulties from the start in relations with the existing officers of the Egyptian Army, who resented the American presence and no doubt endured a certain amount of arrogance from the Civil War veterans. Egypt was a culture shock for many Americans; one officer described his surprise that eunuchs in the royal court were “beings of great importance” and was warned that they were not to be offended on any account as they had the ability to inflict serious harm on anyone who did so, including Americans.

The Invasion of Abyssinia

Ismail’s expansion into the Horn of Africa brought his troops into conflict with those of the Abyssinian emperor, Yohannes IV. After an Egyptian detachment was massacred, it was decided to send a massive invasion force under Ismail’s son, Prince Hassan Pasha, to punish the Abyssinians.

Emperor Yohannes had actually sent a letter to the US Secretary of State in 1872 requesting US help in preventing Egyptian moves on Christian Abyssinia. He also proposed a bilateral commercial treaty. No response was sent from Washington, and when Americans did arrive, they were part of the Egyptian invasion force.

Language was a problem throughout the campaign. The command language of the army was Turkish, spoken by officers who refused to learn Arabic, deriding it as the language of Egypt’s fellahin peasantry. Translators were thus needed to communicate with the Arabic-speaking rank and file. Some French-speaking Americans could communicate with the Turko-Circassian officer corps, but the rest required translators to speak to both officers and men, making the transmission of orders slow and complicated.

The Americans were also in the strange position of fighting their fellow Christians on behalf of a Muslim nation, but they tended to regard Abyssinian Orthodoxy as a barbaric form of the Christian faith. The Americans were also astonished that the Egyptians insisted on including a regiment of Sudanese blacks in the expeditionary force. Their own prejudices made them overlook the fact that the Sudanese troops were the finest and most experienced in the Egyptian Army. Many in the regiment had distinguished themselves fighting on behalf of Maximillian in Mexico at the same time the Civil War was raging north of the border.

Abyssinian Warriors

Once in Abyssinia, both Americans and Egyptians alike were shocked by the extreme form of psychological warfare used by the Abyssinians. Prisoners were subjected to horrible genital mutilations and then released naked and bleeding to find their way back to Egyptian lines. The impact on the Egyptian troops was devastating.

During a massive battle at Gura that lasted two days in March 1876, the Egyptian Army was badly defeated by native troops armed with far inferior weapons. American officers complained that the Egyptians failed to attack, preferring instead to “stand still and be killed like sheep.” The Americans attributed this fatalism to the work of the Islamic Imams attached to the expedition and the failure of the Turko-Circassian officers to adopt an aggressive attitude.

While the rest of the Egyptian officer corps returned home to acclaim and decorations, the Americans were ordered to remain at the Red Sea port of Massawa through the brutal summer heat. When they were finally allowed to return to Cairo, they found the Turko-Circassian officers had prepared the way with humiliating accusations of American incompetence.

Prince Hassan Ismail Pasha

In 1877, Prince Hassan led an Egyptian expeditionary force to assist the Ottoman Turks in their war against Russia. The remaining American officers, still blamed for the defeat in Abyssinia, were not welcome.

By 1878, most of the American mercenaries had been decommissioned and sent back to the United States. Because of a spiraling national debt fueled by Ismail’s financial extravagance and growing political pressure from his main creditors, the British and French, Ismail was forced to abdicate his throne in 1879 in favor of his son, Tawfiq. Ismail died in debauched exile in Constantinople, the final straw being an attempt to guzzle two bottles of champagne in one go.

It did not take long for the achievements of the Americans in Africa to be forgotten. Their service as Christian mercenaries in a Muslim state was eventually regarded as something of an embarrassment in both Egypt and their home country.

End of Part One.

See Part Two at: https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4270 

American Civil War Veterans and the Egyptian Empire in Africa

Andrew McGregor

A talk given to the Civil War Roundtable at the Royal Canadian Military Institute, Toronto, March 28, 2018.

See Part One at: https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4253

Part Two – Biographies of the Civil War Veterans in Egypt

Charles Pomeroy Stone Pasha

Charles Pomeroy Stone fought in most of the major battles in the Mexican-American War and was twice promoted during the campaign for outstanding performance on the battlefield.

When the Civil War broke out, General Winfield Scott put Stone in charge of Washington’s defenses, to which Stone applied himself with great energy. However, a few months later Stone ran afoul of abolitionist Republicans when he followed the government’s own policy by returning runaway slaves to Maryland. Shortly after that, Stone ordered a reconnaissance in force across the Potomac at Ball’s Bluff. Waiting Confederates killed over a thousand Union troops, including their commander, a Republican senator. Stone, a Democrat, was the scapegoat for this disaster. He was denied a court-martial and was instead sent to prison without charges at Fort Lafayette in New York harbor for 200 days. He was released through the intervention of General Ulysses S. Grant, but remained under suspicion as a potential traitor for the rest of the war.

Stone’s military talents were better recognized in Egypt than in his homeland, and he served for eight years as army chief-of-staff and aide-de-camp to Ismail Pasha. He organized a much-needed general staff and created schools for Egyptian soldiers and their children at a time when the army was plagued by illiteracy and thus unable to modernize. A number of the American officers were aware of Stone’s reputation and formed a cabal against him, but Stone handled them perfectly and soon, as one officer put it, had them “eating out of his hand.”

Stone Pasha remained loyal to the dynasty even after nearly all the other Americans had gone home and most notably protected Ismail’s successor Tawfiq during the British bombardment of Alexandria in 1882.

After Stone returned to the United States he continued working as a civil engineer. In 1884 he was the chief engineer on the Statue of Liberty project but fell ill after attending the dedication on a cold blustery day. He died several months later and was buried at West Point.

William Wing Loring Pasha

William W. Loring never attended a military school. Instead, he learned soldiering in the field, beginning as a 14-year-old volunteer with the Florida state militia.

Eventually he was commissioned in the pre-Civil War US Army, in which he participated in the 1857-58 Utah expedition (also known as the Mormon Rebellion) and the Indian Wars in the west. Loring lost his arm during the storming of Chapultepec Castle in Mexico. Legend has it that he smoked a cigar during the amputation.

Loring’s Civil War service was infused with controversy; after feuding with his superior Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate general had Loring charged with “neglect of duty” and “conduct subversive of good order and military discipline.” Fortunately for Loring, the War Department did not pursue the charges and wisely sent Loring far away from Jackson. At the Siege of Vicksburg, Loring repulsed an advance by General Grant but his command later became separated from the Confederate garrison inside the city. The Vicksburg commander, John C. Pemberton, blamed Loring for the fall of the city.

Loring would serve ten years in Egypt, beginning as Inspector General of the Army. At one point he escorted his old Vicksburg rival President Ulysses S Grant during his visit to Egypt.

In 1875 Ismail placed Loring in charge of the expedition to punish Abyssinia for its interference in Egypt’s expansion along the coasts of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Ismail implored Loring and Ratib, the Circasssian commander of the Egyptian Army, to work hand in hand. Once in the field, however, Ratib and his fellow Turko-Circassian officers created a parallel command structure using verbal commands, a custom in the Egyptian army where even many officers were illiterate. Furious disagreements between Loring and Ratib over the conduct and purposes of the war were a major factor in the disaster at Gura. Using an Eastern conception of war as a demonstration of strength that preceded negotiations, Ratib insisted on building forts in the Gura Valley. Loring, a fresh graduate of the “total war” philosophy that had destroyed the Confederacy, wanted to continue marching into the Abyssinian interior to destroy armed resistance.

After his return to the United States, Loring wrote his memoir, A Confederate Soldier in Egypt. Loring was buried in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1897 in one of the largest public events in the city’s history. By 2018, local social justice warriors wanted to tear down his grave monument and expel his remains from Loring Park. A statue of Loring commissioned in 1911 still stands at Vicksburg and does not yet appear to be threatened.

Ratib Pasha

Loring’s antagonist, Ratib Pasha, was one of the last Circassians to be brought to Egypt as a military slave in the 19th century. Unlike the earlier Mamluks, who tended to be powerful men with expertise in all the arms of the day, Ratib was only five foot four and roughly one hundred pounds. He had little military training and had served as a royal equerry during the reign of Khedive Abbas Pasha. At some point Ratib angered the Khedive, who struck him. The mortified Ratib attempted to shoot himself but only succeeded in blowing off part of his nose. To make amends, Abbas appointed the small man commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Army.

Unsurprisingly, many of the American professional soldiers had little respect for Ratib and presented him with a series of small humiliations, none of which Ratib was likely to forget. One of the Americans described Ratib as being “as shriveled with lechery as the mummy is with age.” Another officer cited Ratib’s “insane jealousy and intolerance of foreigners,” which compelled him to ignore all military advice from American sources.

The nominal command of the Abyssinian expedition was entrusted to the Khedive’s son, Prince Hassan Pasha. Unfortunately, much of the expedition’s Egyptian command viewed their primary role as protecting the Prince from all harm rather than pursuing the expedition’s political and military goals.

Charles Chaillé-Long Bey

A descendant of French Huguenots who fled to America in 1685, Charles Chaillé-Long joined the pro-Union Maryland Infantry in 1862, achieving the rank of Captain and seeing action at Gettysburg and Harper’s Ferry.

Chaillé-Long was commissioned as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Egyptian Army. His fluency in French was a major asset, as French was commonly spoken by the royal and military elites in Egypt, while English speakers continually required interpreters. He was one of the few American officers to learn Arabic.

Chaillé-Long served on Colonel Charles George Gordon’s staff in Equatoria Province, the southern-most region of the Sudan. His public criticism of Gordon, who had been seconded to Egyptian service, would eventually damage his reputation after Gordon achieved a type of Victorian sainthood following his death at the hands of Egyptian Mahdists in Khartoum (1885).

In 1874, Chaillé-Long led a small party south on a secret mission to expand Ismail’s empire into tropical Africa. He succeeded in securing a treaty with the most powerful king in northern Uganda that made the latter a vassal of Egypt. On the return trip, Chaillé-Long was wounded in a two-hour battle with a rival king. When he reached Gordon’s headquarters in Equatoria he was a fearful sight; one eye closed and blackened, a gunshot wound to his nose, bearded, filthy and half-starved. It took some time for Chaillé-Long to convince Gordon it was really him. For his efforts he was eventually decorated and made a full colonel with the Turkish title of “Bey” (an honorific one step below “Pasha”).

Further expeditions followed to the northeast Congo and Somalia. These took a serious toll on his health, leading to Chaillé-Long’s resignation in 1877.

Chaillé-Long studied law after his US homecoming. He returned to Egypt in 1882 to practice law in the international courts in Alexandria. After US diplomats abandoned the Alexandria Consulate during the British bombardment later that year, Chaillé-Long took over as a temporary, unpaid consul and saved hundreds of Europeans from angry mobs of Egyptians who were massacring Europeans in the streets. He led 160 US sailors and marines as part of an effort to restore order in the city.

In 1887, Chaillé-Long was appointed US consul general in Korea. In his later years he became bitter over what he saw as disproportionate attention given to British explorers in Africa over his own efforts. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in 1917.

Alexander Macomb Mason Bey

Alexander Macomb Mason Bey began his career in the US Navy before joining the Virginia Navy when the Civil War broke out in 1861. He was captured and sent to the Johnson’s Island prison camp in Ohio for the duration of the war. His relative James Murray Mason was one of the principals in the infamous Trent Affair that nearly brought the Union and Great Britain to blows.

After his release, Mason saw action as a mercenary with the Chilean Navy against Spain in the Chincha Islands War.  He joined the Egyptian army in 1870, where he worked as a military trainer and surveyor. He also explored western Uganda on behalf of the Khedive, being the first Westerner to visit the Semliki River, a tributary of the Nile.

Unlike most of the Americans who left after the Abyssinian debacle, Mason stayed on in Egypt, becoming the governor of Massawa on the Red Sea coast and Egypt’s unofficial ambassador to Abyssinia. In 1883 he was the Egyptian representative on a British diplomatic mission to Emperor Yohannes to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal of all Egyptian garrisons on the Red Sea coast, though these bases were quickly taken over by the Italians, who had their own designs on Abyssinia.

He stayed on in Cairo until he died in 1897 during a rare visit to his homeland.

Raleigh Colston Bey

Born in Paris, Raleigh Colston seemed to live life under a black cloud. He did not arrive in his adoptive father’s native Virginia until he was 17. He managed to avoid an uncle’s determination that he should become a Presbyterian minister and enrolled at Virginia Military Institute (VMI). He taught there alongside Stonewall Jackson after graduation and commanded a guard of VMI cadets at the execution of abolitionist John Brown. When the war came, he was quickly made a Brigadier in the Confederate Army despite a lack of combat experience. He was strongly criticized for his performance at the Battle of Seven Pines, which was followed by a six-month illness. Nonetheless, with Jackson’s sponsorship, he was made a divisional commander until his performance at the Battle of Chancellorsville led to being relieved of his command by General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Later in the war, Colston served under General PGT Beauregard at the Siege of Petersburg.

After the war, Colston joined the Egyptian Army when his attempts to establish a pair of military schools came to naught and his wife was confined to an insane asylum. In 1873, Ismail sent him on a camel-borne expedition to the ancient city of Baranis on the Red Sea to investigate the possibility of linking the Nile to the Red Sea by railroad.

In 1874, Colston fell seriously ill during an expedition to the western Sudanese territory of Kordofan. Rather than return, he insisted on carrying on. Eventually he had to be carried on a camel litter, expecting death at any moment. He was eventually nursed back to health by the wife of a Sudanese soldier for whom he had once done a favor. Partially paralyzed as a result of his illness, he did not return to Cairo until two years after his departure.

On his return to the US, Colston found limited work as a clerk and translator. Having used his Egyptian pay to support his wife and two children, he eventually found himself a penniless invalid living at the Confederate Soldiers’ Home in Richmond, where he died in 1896.

William McEntyre Dye Bey

A graduate of West Point, William McEntyre Dye led a Union brigade at the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas and then participated in the Siege of Vicksburg. He commanded a brigade at the Battle of Brownsville in Texas, close to where Sudanese troops he would later command were fighting south of the border in Mexico. He distinguished himself while leading his regiment in an attack on Fort Morgan during the Battle of Mobile Bay.

After the war, Dye joined the Egyptian Army as a colonel and served as assistant chief-of-staff to General Loring during the Abyssinian campaign. Dye was wounded at the Battle of Gura and returned to the US after being court-martialed for striking an Egyptian officer. He then served 11 years as chief military advisor to King Gojong of Korea. Dye learned Korean and wrote a military handbook in that language.

Charles W. Field Bey

Born on a Kentucky plantation, Charles W. Field graduated West Point and served in the American West under Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston in the 2nd US Cavalry. Joining the Confederate forces as a major in 1861, Field fought in Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign and the Peninsula Campaign. His leg was badly damaged at Second Bull Run and never fully recovered. When he returned to the field as a major-general he suffered two more wounds in the Battle of the Wilderness. He led his division at Cold Harbor and the Siege of Petersburg before surrendering his command at Appomattox Court House.

Field joined the Egyptian Army as a colonel of engineers, and later served as the Inspector General of the Army during its Abyssinian campaign.

Field appears to have been one of the few Americans in the Egyptian Army to experience citizenship issues on his return as a consequence of having served in a foreign army. These were overcome when it was pointed out he had served on a private contract and had never pledged allegiance to a foreign head-of-state.

Erasmus Sparrow Purdy Pasha

An expert surveyor, Erasmus Sparrow Purdy worked with General Stone in surveying the Sonora and Baja regions of the American west before the war. He served during the Civil War as an officer in a New York infantry regiment.

After joining the Egyptian army, Ismail sent Purdy on various missions to explore the far reaches of his expanding empire, including Darfur, northern Uganda and the Red Sea coast.

Re-dedication of Purdy Pasha’s Grave Monument in Old Cairo

Like many of the American officers, Purdy fell into debt and was harassed by his creditors. He died bankrupt in Egypt in 1881. Egypt’s Khedivial Geographical Society raised funds for a tombstone in the Protestant cemetery in Old Cairo. With time and neglect Purdy’s grave fell into disrepair until the year 2000, when some long-term American residents of Cairo raised the funds for a new 10-foot tall memorial. A ceremony was held, attended by a US Marine honor guard and US Major General Robert Wilson, who said “We regard Major Purdy as a pioneer in building American-Egyptian military relations,” a significant nod to the role of the forgotten American mercenaries.

James Morris Morgan Bey

When the Civil War started, 15-year-old James Morris Morgan resigned from Annapolis and served as a midshipman in the Confederate flotilla on the Mississippi.

He then helped work the naval batteries at Drewry’s Bluff in Virginia during the Peninsula campaign in 1862. He returned to sea with the Confederate gunboat Patrick Henry in the James River squadron. Morgan then served on the CSS McRae (a former pirate steamer converted to Confederate warship) until its destruction in the Battle for New Orleans.

Morgan then joined the crew of the commerce raider CSS Georgia, which at one point became involved in a battle with Moroccan tribesmen while anchored off the Moroccan coast. Morgan described it as a “most narrow and fortunate escape for us slaveholders,” as they could expect to be murdered or sold into slavery themselves if captured. During the war Morgan’s two older brothers died while serving as officers under Stonewall Jackson.

Morgan did not participate in any significant campaigns in Egypt and seems to have spent most of his time dueling and chasing actresses. A forbidden flirtation with a Circassian princess nearly cost him his life.

After returning to the US, Morgan was hired by General Stone as an engineer on the Statue of Liberty project. He later became the US Consul for Australasia. He described his life in a highly entertaining account, Recollections of a Rebel Reefer, published in 1917. By the time of his death in 1928 Morgan was the last remaining American veteran of the Egyptian Army.

Henry Hopkins Sibley

Henry Hopkins Sibley was a graduate of West Point and was decorated for bravery in the Mexican-American War. When the Civil War began, Sibley was fighting the Navajo in New Mexico. He resigned his commission to join the Confederate forces and organized a brigade of Texans. Sibley’s greatest moment came when he led this brigade west in an attempt to capture the Colorado gold mines and reach the Pacific coast to establish a Confederate port in California.

Following a string of victories, the climactic battle of the campaign was fought in 1862 at the Glorieta Pass in the New Mexico territory. Sibley’s men won a tactical victory by driving the Federal forces back through the pass but lost all their supply train in the process, forcing a withdrawal into Texas. This brought an end to Confederate hopes of extending their territory to the Pacific.

Taking command of the Arizona Brigade in Louisiana, Sibley developed an unfortunate reputation for failing to follow orders and alcohol abuse that led to his court-martial in 1863.

Sibley was recruited by Mott after the war and served as the commander of the Egyptian artillery for three years. Sibley helped supervise the construction of Egypt’s coastal fortifications until problems with alcohol returned and he was dismissed from Egyptian service in 1873. The man who almost seized California for the Confederacy died in poverty and was buried in Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery.

Though largely forgotten by history, Sibley’s character made a brief appearance in the spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which is set in the midst of Sibley’s New Mexico campaign.

Beverley Kennon Jr. Bey

Beverley Kennon Junior’s father, Commodore Beverley Kennon, fought in the War of 1812 and the Second Barbary War.

The Governor Moore was an expropriated commercial paddle-wheeler turned into a warship by the addition of guns, iron rails fitted as a ram and cotton bales to protect its boilers. Kennon took command of this hybrid ship without pay and fought it in the furious April 1862 battle just south of New Orleans. At one point the Governor Moore was too close to the USS Varuna to use its bow gun, so Kennon ordered the gun to fire twice through the Governor Moore’s bow to sink the Union ship. By the end of the battle, most of Kennon’s ship was destroyed and 64 of her crew were dead or dying. The ship was run aground and set on fire, but Kennon was captured and endured three years of brutal captivity in the north.

After joining the Egyptian Army, Kennon devised a brilliant system of coastal defense. Instead of constructing large forts to defend Alexandria, Kennon proposed hiding single gun emplacements along the coast with interlocking fields of fire. The guns would be hidden in the sand hills, raised by a hydraulic system of Kennon’s own invention before taking a shot and disappearing again into the sand bank for reloading. Part of Kennon’s defensive works involved a modern wire-guided torpedo designed by Buffalo New York native John Lay, who began designing torpedoes in the Civil War.

The Bombardment of Alexandria, 1882

In 1882 the Arab officers and men of the Egyptian Army led by Colonel Ahmad ‘Urabi revolted against the Turko-Circassian aristocracy. The ensuing chaos put control of the newly-built Suez Canal in jeopardy and European lives at risk from murderous mobs in Alexandria. British and French warships soon arrived off Alexandria, where they began a bombardment of the city.

Despite putting up a good fight, the Egyptian coastal batteries were quickly destroyed by British firepower and British troops were soon investing Egypt. Kennon had finished a working prototype of the defensive system before being told the Khedive’s finances could not afford the completion of the system.  Implementation of Kennon’s plan could have easily changed the course of Egyptian history (and that of the Mid-East) by giving Colonel ‘Urabi’s forces the means of fending off the British invaders, who would remain for 76 years.

When the British troops reached the Citadel in Cairo, they destroyed all the maps and charts so painfully prepared by the American officers. The legacy of the American military presence in Egypt was thus eliminated in Egypt while the triumphs and errors of the Civil War veterans in Ismail’s African empire were fated to be forgotten in their US homeland.

 

How Does Russia Fit into Egypt’s Strategic Plan?

Andrew McGregor

February 15, 2018

As Russian-Egyptian military and economic cooperation increases, there have been many comparisons made with Egypt’s early post-independence era (1956-1971), when Cairo grew close to Moscow. Egypt’s current strategic position, however, bears closer similarities to the foreign policy of the first decades of rule by the founder of modern Egypt, Ottoman Viceroy Muhammad ‘Ali (1805-1848). Like Egypt’s post-independence leaders, Muhammad ‘Ali sought to simultaneously modernize Egypt with foreign assistance while increasing its political independence. This was no easy feat, as it involved balancing allegiance to his suzerain, the Ottoman Sultan, while using (unofficial) French military assistance and training to strengthen his own hand without falling under French control. Current Egyptian president Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi now uses Russian military aid in much the same way to gain leverage in a deteriorating relationship with the United States.

Building an Egyptian Empire: Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha with his new navy and army

Some of the objectives shared by Muhammad ‘Ali and President al-Sisi include:

  • Intensifying the purchase and manufacture of arms
  • Expanding naval capacity
  • Conducting military operations abroad to project Egyptian power
  • Consolidating Egypt’s control of the Red Sea region
  • Securing the supply of Nile waters from the south
  • Diversifying international military suppliers and trainers
  • Exterminating the previous regime, and
  • Repressing Islamic extremists

The question for Moscow is whether their objectives meld with those of Cairo. The Kremlin is seeking enhanced military and economic relations with Egypt but has no desire to be used merely as leverage against Washington. Moscow will seek to obtain their own regional objectives by exploiting differences between Washington and Cairo and filling any void left by diminishing American military aid and engagement with the Sisi regime. For their part, Egypt’s leaders remain wary of getting too close to the Russians – the last period of close cooperation ended badly. Nonetheless, Egypt may be seeking external military support in their failing campaign against Islamist extremists in Sinai and Russia’s military track record in Syria makes it an enticing partner. Whether this can be achieved without paying a high price (such as the establishment of permanent Russian bases in Egypt) is Cairo’s dilemma.

Egyptian and Russian Paratroopers on the 2016 “Defenders of Friendship” Exercise (Egypt Independent)

Russia and Egypt have now conducted two joint airborne exercises; one in Egypt in 2016, the second in Russia in 2017. The third “Defenders of Friendship” exercise will be held in Egypt later this year. Egypt has never conducted a combat air-drop, while Russia has not carried out a combat drop since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989). However, the Russian Defense Ministry reported a successful drop of Syrian paratroopers behind Islamic State lines near the border of Raqqa and Homs governorates last August, with Syrian rocket fire directed by Russian Ka-52 combat helicopters (Sputnik, August 14, 2017). The ministry’s report could not be verified independently, but it could point to future Russian-assisted counter-terrorism para-drops in Egypt, possibly in Sinai or along Egypt’s remote western frontier.

Russia negotiated a deal last year that will allow Russian Air Force jets to use Egyptian airbases and airspace (Al-Monitor, December 18, 2017). The agreement could be the first step in allowing Russian airstrikes on terrorist targets in the Sinai or Libya. It would also preclude the necessity of further deployments of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean; its performance in Syria was unimpressive and two Russian fighters were lost attempting to land on the ship’s deck.

In mid-January, Russian naval commander-in-chief Admiral Vladimir Korolyov declared that the Russian Navy would focus on improving its system of naval bases, particularly to accommodate “strategic non-nuclear deterrence groups” (TASS, January 16, 2018). Egypt has suitable ports on both its Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts, but Egyptian policy forbids the establishment of foreign military bases on its soil. Russia has engaged in talks with both Sudan and Libyan factional leader Khalifa Haftar regarding the construction of naval facilities in both those nations, but Egypt would provide a more stable long-term partner. However, a Russian base on Egypt’s Red Sea coast would conflict with Egyptian efforts to increase its own influence in the region, as seen in its establishment of a new Egyptian Red Sea squadron.

In furthering its own objectives, Cairo was able to take advantage of the cancellation of the French sale of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Egypt not only obtained the ships but was able to purchase Russian Kamov Ka-52K ship-based helicopters originally designed for the vessels (Tass, July 18, 2017). One ship, the Gamal Abdel Nasser, will be deployed with Egypt’s Alexandria-based Mediterranean fleet, while the Anwar El Sadat will join the Red Sea squadron.

(Southfront.org)

With the help of financing from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Egypt has stepped up Russian arms purchases. Russia began delivery of 50 MiG-29 fighter jets last year, a process scheduled for completion in 2020 (Egypt Independent, September 17, 2017; TASS, September 11, 2017). Russia supplied the S300VM mobile long-range air defence system to Egypt in 2017 and 46 Russian-made Kamov Ka-52 “Alligator” reconnaissance and combat helicopters are in the process of being delivered.

However, Cairo has avoided over-reliance on Russian arms (as in the Sadat era) by turning to other suppliers, such as France.  Twenty-four Dassault Rafale twin-engine multi-role fighter aircraft were ordered in 2015, some of which have already flown combat missions over Libya. Egypt took delivery of one French-made Gowind 2500 corvette (the El Fateh) last year and is building another three at its Alexandria shipyard (Defence Web, November 7, 2017). It has also purchased a South Korean corvette (the Shabab Misr) and four German-made Type 209 diesel-electric attack submarines to replace its ancient Chinese and Soviet-made Romeo-class diesel-electric submarines.

Al-Sisi, like Muhammad ‘Ali, is eager to modernize and increase the capacity of Egypt’s military but appears determined to avoid reliance on either the U.S. or Russia. While Russian approaches will not be rebuffed outright, Cairo is making it clear that enhanced cooperation must be consistent with Egypt’s strategic objectives.

This article first appeared in the February 15, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Egypt Looks for Security Answers as Its War on Terrorism Moves to the Desert Oases

Andrew McGregor

January 15, 2018

The spread of the Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula to the heavily populated Nile Delta and Nile Valley regions of Egypt has been facilitated by the importation of arms from Muammar Qaddafi’s looted Libyan armories. Prior to Libya’s 2011 revolution, arms and explosives were difficult to obtain. Since then, the growth of new Egyptian militant groups such as Liwaa al-Thawra (Revolution Brigade) and Harikat Souad Masr (Hasm – Arms of Egypt Movement) have been enabled by the availability of arms smuggled over 370 miles through the vast wastes of Egypt’s Western Desert, the 263,000 square miles of which account for two-thirds of Egypt’s land mass. With the Libyan-Egyptian border stretching for more than 650 miles, uncontrolled entry points to Egypt are plentiful, allowing militants and smugglers to move back and forth.

The Oases of the Western Desert (Our Egypt)

The Oases

The only centers of population in the Western Desert are the ancient oases of Siwa, Dakhla, Farafra, Bahariya and Kharga. Over time, the oases have been occupied by Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Mamluks and Ottomans. Modern influences only began to enter the oases with the construction of a road connecting them to the Nile valley in the 1970s. The mostly Muslim peoples of the oases are a mix of their original ancient inhabitants, Berbers, Arab Bedouin from Libya and migrants from the Nile Valley.

Ruins of the Oracle of Amun Temple at Siwa Oasis

Despite their isolation, the recent battles fought in the oases between Islamist extremists and government forces are far from the first incidents of large-scale violence in these communities. The terrain of the Western Desert has been treacherous for military operations since the Persian King Cambyses lost an entire army to a sandstorm after it had been sent to destroy the Oracle of Amun in 55 BCE.

In the modern era, the oases only began to come under Egyptian government control in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1819, the Egyptian Viceroy Muhammad ‘Ali succeeded where Cambyses had failed by bringing Siwa under Egyptian control in a ruthless conquest in which he deployed Bashi Bazouks (ill-disciplined Ottoman irregulars), Bedouin fighters and a battery of artillery.

Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanusi

Conflict returned to the region during the First World War, when an Ottoman-allied expeditionary force entered the Western Desert from Libya. Commanded by Libyan Sanusi leader Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif and Egyptian defector and professional soldier Muhammad Salih al-Harb, the expedition was designed to sweep through the oases before inciting an anti-British rebellion in the Nile Valley. By March 1916, the Sanusis held all five major oases, but the rebellion failed to materialize. After a year of ever more difficult attempts to sustain an army in the desert, Ahmad al-Sharif returned to Libya with only 200 men, his reputation in tatters.

British officers in stripped-down Ford Model T’s began intensive exploration of the desert in the postwar years. When war again descended on the region in 1939, their work provided the basis for successful anti-Axis operations by the Commonwealth’s Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). In the years before the defeat of Germany’s Field Marshal Irwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps, LRDG vehicles ranged the desert, discovering the routes that are now used by smugglers and arms traffickers.

LRDG Patrol in Siwa Oasis (WWII Today)

Tensions rose in the region again after Qaddafi seized power in Libya in 1969. However, the colonel’s attempts to incite revolutionary activity amongst the cross-border Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin (with historic ties to Libya) were dashed by a four-day border war in 1977, in which Qaddafi discovered his small and amateurish army was no match for battle-tested Egyptian troops.

Egyptian Efforts to Control Arms Smuggling 

The movement of arms from Libya to Egypt began during the short tenure of Egypt’s President Muhammad al-Mursi, who was deposed by the army in July 2013. Security forces disrupted a major arms smuggling network, the so-called Madinat Nasr cell, in November 2012. The suspects claimed the arms were intended for Syria, but plans and documents found in their possession indicated the arms were to be used by the extremists to overthrow the government of President al-Mursi, whom they reviled for participating in democratic elections. [1] However, when an arms convoy was intercepted near Siwa Oasis in July 2013, it became clear that the problem was far from solved (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 22, 2017).

The Egypt-Libya border region is patrolled by the Egyptian Border Guards, a lightly armed paramilitary unit operating out of the western oases. The Egyptian armed forces do not have a counterpart to partner with on the Libyan side, although there are growing ties with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of a largely Cyrenaïcan (eastern Libyan) militia coalition known as the Libyan National Army (LNA). Restoring security in Libya is key to ending the cross-border arms shipments, and Egypt has agreed to reorganize the LNA with the intention of molding it into a true national force (Middle East Monitor, September 19, 2017).

Despite the efforts of the border guards and the Egyptian air force, shipments of Libyan arms (including advanced weapons) appeared to intensify in the last year:

  • May 8 2017 – The Egyptian Army announced the destruction of a convoy of 15 vehicles carrying arms and ammunition across the Libyan border into Egypt (Ahram Online, May 8, 2017).
  • June 27, 2017 – An Egyptian army spokesman claimed 12 vehicles loaded with arms, ammunition and explosives had been destroyed during 12 hours of airstrikes near the Libyan border (Reuters, June 27, 2017; AFP, June 27, 2017; New Arab, June 28, 2017).
  • July 16, 2017 – Fifteen vehicles carrying explosives, weapons and ammunition were reported destroyed by the Egyptian air force (Middle East Monitor, July 17, 2017).
  • October 23, 2017 – The Egyptian air force reported the destruction of eight vehicles in the Western Desert carrying arms and ammunition (Daily News Egypt, October 23, 2017).
  • October 27, 2017 – The Interior Ministry recovered 13 bodies as well as weapons and suicide bomb belts after a raid on a training camp for militants at a farm on the highway from Asyut to the oasis of Kharga (Reuters, October 27, 2017; Daily News Egypt, October 28, 2017).
  • October 31, 2017 – The Egyptian army reported the destruction of six 4×4 vehicles and the death of all their occupants. The vehicles were reportedly carrying arms and other illegal materials (Ahram Online [Cairo], October 31, 2017). Earlier that day, Egyptian airstrikes targeting facilities of the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, Libya killed at least 20 civilians (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 31, 2017). [2]
  • November 11, 2017 – An army spokesman reported the destruction of ten vehicles carrying arms and ammunition in the Western Desert (Ahram Online, November 11, 2017; Libya Herald, November 12, 2017).

In all, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claims that Egypt has destroyed no less than 1,200 vehicles carrying arms, ammunition and fighters in the 30 months prior to November 2017 (Xinhua, November 11, 2017). Though the list above may seem to indicate Egyptian success in controlling the border, the influx of modern weapons to Sinai and the Nile Valley suggests many arms convoys continue to get through the Egyptian defenses.

Controlling the border from the air without intelligence from the ground can lead to undesirable outcomes, particularly in a region that has become increasingly popular with tourists, who can now enjoy relatively safe excursions into the inhospitable desert thanks to 4×4 vehicles, satellite phones and GPS navigational equipment. From the air, there is little to distinguish tourist convoys from convoys of arms traffickers, as the Egyptian military discovered when one of their Apache attack helicopters mistakenly slaughtered 12 guides and Mexican tourists in September 2015, despite their having a police escort. Authorities claimed the group of four vehicles was in an area near Bahariya oasis “off limits to foreign tourists,” although a permit with a full itinerary had been obtained for travel in the region (BBC, September 13, 2015; PanAm Post, September 15, 2015).

Battle at Farafra Oasis

One of the most dangerous militants operating in the Western Desert is Hisham ‘Ali al-Ashmawy Musa’ad Ibrahim  (a.k.a. Abu Omar al-Muhajir), a graduate of the Egyptian military academy and a former member of the elite Sa’iqa (Thunderbolt) commando unit. Al-Ashmawy is reported to have received advanced military training in the United States (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017).

Hisham al-Ashmawy

After 10 years’ service in Sinai, al-Ashmawy was dismissed from the Egyptian army for Islamist activities and promptly joined the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis terrorist group in 2012, where he provided training in weapons and tactics.

In July 2014, al-Ashmawy led an attack on Egyptian border guards in the Western Desert’s Farafra oasis. The assault was carried out by uniformed militants in four-wheel drive vehicles and armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and other weapons (Egypt Today, November 28, 2017). The poor ground-air cooperation in the Egyptian military was again exposed when an injured officer was unable to call in air and ground support after the attackers broke off, allowing the militants to withdraw safely into the desert after killing 21 border guards (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017). Wounded during the operation, al-Ashmawy was taken for treatment in the Libyan city of Derna, an Islamist stronghold where he had strong connections with the now defunct Ansar al-Sharia group (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017).

Farafra Oasis

Soon after the Farafra assault, al-Ashmawy split from Bayt al-Maqdis over the group’s decision to pledge allegiance to Islamic State (IS). He appeared in a 2015 video under the name Abu Omar al-Muhajir to claim responsibility for the Farafra attack and to announce he was leading a new group, al-Murabitun (not to be confused with the Sahara/Sahel movement formerly led by Mokhar Belmokhtar).

In June 2016, militants struck again in Farafra, killing two officers and injuring three others (Daily News Egypt, October 23, 2017).

Disaster at Bahariya Oasis

Bahariya Oasis (Roderick Phillips)

The desert’s Islamist militants again displayed their military skills with the October 20, 2017 destruction of a column of Egyptian police. Working from air force intelligence that suggested a handful of militants were camped along the al-Wahat-al-Kharga-Assyut highway near the Bahariya oasis (85 miles southwest of Cairo), the Egyptian police sent to deal with them were working without air support and had only basic intelligence on the region (al-Arabiya, October 21, 2017).

Instead of a handful of terrorists, the police column ran into an ambush carried out by a larger than expected force. Egyptian security sources told multiple media outlets that over 50 security officers had been killed before the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying that only 16 had fallen with 15 militants killed (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 21, 2017). The ministry’s statement was followed by government criticism of all domestic and international media that published the numbers provided by security sources.

Abd al-Rahim al-Mismary (al-Hayat TV)

The only militant to survive the Egyptian pursuit that followed was a Libyan veteran of the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Abdullah al-Mismary. Al-Mismary stated that he belonged to a group led by Imad al-Din Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Hamid (better known as Shaykh Hatim), another graduate of Egypt’s military academy and a lieutenant of al-Ashmawy (Egypt Today, November 17, 2017; Libya Herald, November 17, 2017). Shaykh Hatim, whose Ansar al-Islam group claimed responsibility for the Bahariya attack, was killed in retaliatory Egyptian airstrikes shortly after the attack (Ahram Online, November 17, 2017; al-Arabiya, November 3, 2017). According to al-Mismary, Shaykh Hatim’s group had been present in Bahariya oasis without detection since January 2017 (Egypt Independent, November 17, 2017).

Military Shake-Up 

The fallout from the Bahariya massacre hit the highest levels of the armed forces command structure. Army chief-of-staff Mahmud Ibrahim Hegazi was replaced by Lieutenant General Muhammad Farid Hegazi (no relation), a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that ruled Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak was deposed (The National [Abu Dhabi], October 29, 2017).

General Mahmoud Farid Hegazy

Also replaced were a number of high-ranking interior ministry officials, including the director of Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA, responsible for domestic intelligence), General Mahmoud Sharawi,; Giza security director Hisham al-Iraqi; General Ibrahim al-Masri, chief of the Giza NSA; and head of special operations for the Central Security Forces General Magdy Abu al-Khair (MENA [Cairo], October 28, 2017; Daily News Egypt, October 29, 2017; Ahram Online, January 18, 2017).

The disaster at Bahariya made it clear that lightly armed interior ministry units cannot deal effectively with better-armed militant groups directed by leaders with advanced training in military tactics. Poor intelligence and unfamiliarity with the desert by security units drawn from the Delta or Nile Valley have hampered operations, while poor ground-to-air coordination has several times resulted in disaster. Nonetheless, Egypt’s military planners continue to neglect improvements in their capabilities in the Western Desert in favor of massive investments in prestigious, but likely useless, items such as French amphibious assault ships and German submarines.

Meanwhile, the instability in the Western Desert has pulled Cairo into the Libyan conflict at a time when it is struggling to control the Sinai and tensions with Sudan are increasing over the disputed Hala’ib Triangle region and Egypt’s alleged support for Darfuri rebels. Until improvements are made in Egypt’s operational capacity in the Western Desert, extremists and arms smugglers will continue to fuel militant and terrorist activities in the Sinai and Egypt’s main population centers.

NOTES

[1] See Andrew McGregor, “The Face of Egypt’s Next Revolution: The Madinat Nasr Cell,” Jamestown Foundation Hot Issue, November 20, 2012: https://jamestown.org/program/hot-issue-the-face-of-egypts-next-revolution-the-madinat-nasr-cell/

[2] The city of Derna, besieged by the LNA since 2015, appears to be the base for Egyptian extremists working out of Libya. Some of these have established bases in the vast Western Desert; according to Egypt’s interior ministry, Amr Sa’ad’s Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate), a militant group responsible for a series of attacks on Copts in the Delta and Nile Valley, was trained in the southern regions of the Western Desert, near the Upper Egyptian governorates (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 22, 2017).

This article first appeared in the January 15, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Jabal ‘Uwaynat: Mysterious Desert Mountain Becomes a Three-Border Security Flashpoint

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, June 13, 2017Before the advent of motorized desert exploration in the 1930s there were few areas as little known as the Libyan Desert, a vast and largely lifeless wasteland of sand and stone as large as India. In the midst of this forbidden wilderness stands a lonely sentinel, a massive mountain that covers some 600 square miles and rises to a height of 6345 feet, once possibly forming an island in the prehistoric sea that preceded the Saharan sands. Though its springs and rain-pools were known to the Ancient Egyptians, Jabal ‘Uwaynat was eventually forgotten for thousands of years by all but a handful of hardened desert dwellers who sought its fresh water and seasonal grazing. Since its “rediscovery” less than a hundred years ago, possession of this lonely massif has almost led to a war between Italy and Great Britain and is now at the heart of a security crisis involving Libya, Egypt and Sudan, whose borders meet at Jabal ‘Uwaynat.The Highway to Yam

The ancient importance of Jabal ‘Uwaynat is revealed in the rock art at the site depicting cattle, giraffes, lions and human beings, but no camels, which were only introduced into Egypt in roughly 500 BCE. The drawings suggest an occupation in the Neolithic period far earlier than the era of the Ancient Egyptians at a time when water was far more plentiful in the region. [1]

The Inscription of Mentuhotep II at Jabal ‘Uwaynat

Though ‘Uwaynat was long believed to lie beyond the regions explored by the Ancient Egyptians, the remarkable 2007 discovery of a depiction of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom king Mentuhotep II (11th Dynasty, 21st century BCE) promises to rewrite these perceptions. The portrayal of the seated king was accompanied by his name in a cartouche and an inscription mentioning the land of Yam, known as a destination for Egyptian trade caravans supplying exotic goods from the African interior from as early as the Old Kingdom reign of Merenre I (6th Dynasty, 23rd century BCE). [2] The exact location of Yam has never been determined, but the new evidence suggests it was somewhere south of ‘Uwaynat and further west into the African interior than previously thought by many scholars, possibly in Ennedi (modern Chad) or even Darfur (modern Sudan). The precise site of the inscription has been kept secret to avoid the ravages of “adventure tourism” that has led to the damage or destruction of many important Saharan monuments and rock art sites in recent years. [3]

Entering the Modern Era

The great mountain disappeared from the historical record until the early 19th century, when, according to English desert explorer Ralph Bagnold, an Arab from the Libyan oasis of Jalu and a resident at the court of Sultan Muhammad ‘Abd al-Karim Sabun of Wadai (1804-1815, modern eastern Chad), undertook to find a new trade route northwards through the Libyan Desert to Benghazi on the Mediterranean coast. The experienced Arab caravan leader, Shehaymah, headed northeast first to the remote springs at Jabal ‘Uwaynat, then worked northwest to Kufra and on through Jalu to Benghazi. [4] The fact that Shehaymah headed into this unknown wasteland suggested that he had some prior knowledge of ‘Uwaynat. Though this route was used by the Shehaymah and the Wadaians only once, this was the first known reference to the isolated mountain. From that time, caravan routes from Wadai bypassed ‘Uwaynat to the west on a more direct route north to the coast, while the famous Darb al-Arba’in caravan route from Darfur to Asyut in Egypt bypassed ‘Uwaynat far to the east, letting knowledge of ‘Uwaynat’s existence fade from all save the Tubu tribesmen of the eastern Sahara whose mastery of the desert and its mysteries was unparalleled.

Ahmad Muhammad Hassenein Bey

Nearly 3,000 years after its last known visit by the Egyptians, Jabal ‘Uwaynat was finally mapped by another Egyptian, the aristocrat Ahmad Muhammad Hassanein Bey, who “discovered” this “lost oasis” during an extraordinary 2200 mile trek by camel from the Mediterranean port of Sollum (near the Egyptian/Libyan border) to al-Fashir, the capital of Darfur. At the time of Hassanein Bey’s arrival, the mountain was the site of a settlement of some 150 Gura’an Tubu from Ennedi, relatively recent arrivals who did not wish to live under the rule of the French who had recently colonized the Chad region up to the Darfur border. Seven years later, only six remained; three years after that, the Gura’an settlement had disappeared forever. [5]

Two years after Hassanein Bey’s visit, Prince Kamal al-Din Hussein (son of Egypt’s Sultan Husayn Kamel, 1914-1917) visited ‘Uwaynat in a remarkable expedition using French Citröen Kegresse halftracks, supported by immense camel-borne supply convoys. This well-financed motorized journey by halftracks, as temperamental as camels in their own way, marked the beginning of the end of ‘Uwaynat’s ancient isolation.

The legendary English desert explorer Ralph Bagnold reached ‘Uwaynat by motorcar in 1930, inventing the techniques of desert-driving in the process. His atmospheric description of the place is still worth citing:

[‘Uwaynat] was by no means the flat-topped plateau it had looked from the plain; for the rock was hollowed out by a freak of erosion into spires and pinnacles over a hundred feet in height, separated by winding passages… Wandering through this labyrinth, we came out at unexpected places to the threshold, as it were, of a broken doorway high up in the battlements of some ruined castle, with nothing but a sheer thousand-foot drop beneath. From these openings the enormous yellow plain could be seen, featureless and glaring with reflected sunlight, reaching away and away in all directions (except to the south, where the peak of Kissu many miles distant rose like a lone cathedral) to a vague hazy horizon… With that little vision came a sudden overwhelming sense of the remoteness of the mountain – as if it included the whole world and was floating by itself, with Kissu peak as its satellite, in a timeless solitude. [6]

In 1931 an Italian expeditionary force under General Rodolfo Graziani crossed the desert to take the oasis of Kufra (northwest of ‘Uwaynat), where they defeated a desperate resistance put up by the Zuwaya Arabs. Unsatisfied with his conquest, Graziani (“the Butcher of Libya”) urged his men to pursue the survivors into the desert, attacking refugee families with armored vehicles and aircraft. Many of the refugees headed towards ‘Uwaynat, dropping dead daily in large numbers due to lack of food and water. Not knowing the region, some tried to follow the tracks of Prince Kamal’s halftracks, but when these became obliterated by sand and wind there was little hope left. Many of the refugees were rescued by British desert explorer Pat Clayton, who abandoned his survey work in the region to cover some 5,000 total miles of desert in his vehicles ferrying exhausted and dying refugees to safety. His efforts earned him a British medal and a ban from Italian-held Libya.

The British-Italian Struggle over ‘Uwaynat

The pursuit of the refugees brought Jabal ‘Uwaynat to the attention of the Italians, who sent expeditions to the mountain in 1931 and 1932 with an eye to claiming it for Italy, though it was already claimed by the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan Condominium government. Suddenly this desert massif known to the Europeans for only less than a decade became a site of strategic importance – a base there would bring Italian forces within striking distance of the Aswan Dam (550 miles away) using aircraft or motor vehicles. The Italians busied themselves with naming all the mountain’s prominent features for prominent Italian fascists, but were deeply disappointed to discover Bagnold’s cairn at the highest point of Jabal ‘Uwaynat.

In the meantime, both the Italians and the British in the region remained wary of encountering the deadly but phantom-like Gura’an raiders led by the notorious Aramaï Gongoï.  These Tubu raiders could cross hundreds of miles of trackless and apparently waterless deserts on their camels without benefit of any kind of navigational equipment before descending on unsuspecting oases or desert convoys. Mystified by these skills, their oasis-dwelling victims even claimed the Gura’an camels left no tracks in the sand.

The British and Italians began sending aircraft and patrols to ‘Uwaynat and by 1933 it seemed, incredibly, that Britain and Italy could go to war over possession of a remote place only a select few had ever seen or heard of until that point. Saner heads prevailed in 1934 as diplomats defined the border, giving Italy (and later independent Libya as a result) sovereignty over much of the mountain (including ‘Ain Dua, the most reliable spring) as well as the “Sarra Triangle” to the southwest of the formation in return for Italy abandoning its claims to a large portion of northwest Sudan.  These claims had been based on Italy’s view of itself as the sovereign successor to the Ottoman Empire in the region, the Ottomans having once made optimistic but largely unenforceable claims to large tracts of the Saharan interior in the late 19th century.

What the British Foreign Office had overlooked was that Italy had taken control of the remote but valuable Ma’tan al-Sarra well inside the so-called “Sarra Triangle.” The site for the well was chosen in 1898 by the leader of Cyrenaïca’s Sanussi religious order, Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanussi. Al-Sannusi wished to open a new trade route to equatorial Africa from his headquarters in Kufra, but was hindered by the nearly waterless 400 mile stretch between Kufra and the next major well at Tekro (northern Chad). Al-Sanussi said a prayer at the site, roughly mid-way between Kufra and Tekro, and ordered his followers to dig. Months passed with camel convoys ferrying supplies to the workers until they finally found, at a depth of 192 feet, an apparently unlimited supply of water. [7]

Lying two hundred miles west of ‘Uwaynat, the strategic value of Ma’tan al-Sarra would be realized by Mu’ammar Qaddafi, who used it as a staging point for a group of Sudanese dissidents and followers of Sadiq al-Mahdi (great-grandson of Muhammad al-Mahdi and two-time prime minister of Sudan) to launch a 1976 attack on his enemy President Ja’afar Nimieri in Khartoum. The force passed south of ‘Uwaynat but the coup attempt failed after several days of bloody fighting in the Sudanese capital, followed by a wave of executions of captured dissidents and their supporters.

Qaddafi later used the Ma’tan al-Sarra as a forward airbase in his unsuccessful attempt to seize the Aouzou Strip during the Libya-Chad war of 1978-1987. Chad’s largely Tubu army under Hassan Djamous seized the airbase in a devastating lightning raid on September 5, 1987, bringing an effective end to the war with a humiliating Libyan defeat.

‘Uwaynat in the Second World War

As World War II broke out, possession of ‘Uwaynat was contested between the modified Fords and Chevrolets of the Commonwealth Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), invented and commanded by Major Ralph Bagnold, and their motorized Italian counterparts in the Compagnie Sahariane, a largely Libyan force with Italian officers and NCOs. As the war began, Italian forces established posts at the ‘Uwaynat springs of Ain Zwaya and one at ‘Ain Dua, both equipped with airstrips and garrisoned largely by Libyan colonial troops under Italian command.

After the Italians had been driven from the region by British and Free French offensives, the British-led Sudan Defence Force (SDF) used the route past ‘Uwaynat for regular convoys of arms and supplies to the Free French garrison in Kufra.  This oasis had been taken by General Phillippe Leclerc’s Free French forces with the assistance of the British Commonwealth’s Long-Range Desert Group (LRDG) on March 1, 1941. [8]

A Libyan SIAI-Marchetti SF-260

When a Libyan National Army-operated SIAI-Marchetti SF.260 light aircraft disappeared in the region in May 2017, it was a reminder that extreme heat and sudden sandstorms can make aerial surveillance of the border region around ‘Uwaynat a perilous undertaking. The aircraft left Kufra airbase to investigate reports of armed Sudanese crossing the border in vehicles. Its pilot and co-pilot were discovered dead the next day (Libya Observer, May 24, 2017).

It was not the first. In 1940, a Bristol Blenheim light bomber being used for reconnaissance by Free French forces was forced down near Jabal ‘Uwaynat. Its crew wandered in the desert for 12 days before being picked up by an Italian patrol and packed off to Italy as prisoners. A second Free French Blenheim went missing on February 5, 1942 after a bombing mission on the Italian-held al-Taj fort at Kufra. The plane and the remains of its crew were discovered by a French patrol in the Ennedi region of Chad in 1959. [9]

A French Patrol Discovers the Lost Blenheim in Ennedi, 1959

Less fortunate were the crews of three South African Air Force Blenheims that became lost in May 1942 and were forced to land in the desert between Kufra and ‘Uwaynat when their fuel ran out. Only one man survived to be rescued; the others perishing in agony from heat, thirst and misguided attempts to preserve themselves through drinking the alcohol in their compasses and spraying themselves with blister-inducing foam from their fire-extinguishers. [10]

There are some surprising peculiarities to aerial surveillance in the open desert. Stationary vehicles can be extremely difficult to spot from the air, as patrols from the LRDG discovered while operating in the Libyan Desert in World War II. It became common practice to simply stop when the approach of enemy aircraft was heard, a tactic that saved many patrols no matter how counter-intuitive it might have seemed.

Modern Gateway for Rebels, Traffickers and Mercenaries

In the Qadddafi-era, a trans-Saharan desert road connecting Kufra through ‘Uwaynat to Sudanese Darfur was promoted as a means of establishing trade between the two regions. The collapse of security in southern Libya after the 2011 anti-Qaddafi revolution brought the route to the attention of smugglers, human traffickers and members of Darfur’s multiple rebel movements who were being slowly squeezed out of Darfur under pressure from Sudan’s security forces.

A June 1, 2017 report of the UN Libyan Experts Panel described how Darfuri rebel movements received offers for their military services from both rival governments in the Libyan conflict, broadly the Bayda/Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and its military arm, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), versus the Tripoli-based Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (GNA) and their allied Islamist militias. Due to a presence in Libya dating back to the Qaddafi-era (when the Libyan leader acted as a sponsor in their war against Khartoum), commanders such as Abdallah Banda, Abdallah Jana and Yahya Omda from Darfur’s largest rebel movement, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), were able to access Libyan networks to their benefit.

Rebel fighters from the rival Sudan Liberation Army – Minni Minnawi (SLA-MM) began operations in Fezzan in 2015 before joining LNA operations in the northern “oil crescent” in 2016. Fighters from another major rebel faction, the Sudan Liberation Army – Abdul Wahid (SLM-AW), were cited as being aligned with the LNA (Libya Herald, June 11, 2017). Through 2014-2015, there were numerous accusations from Haftar and his supporters that Khartoum was using the desert passage past ‘Uwaynat to send arms and fighters to reinforce Islamist militias in Benghazi, Kufra and elsewhere, resulting in a short diplomatic crisis. [11] Haftar recently claimed Qatar was funding the entry of Chadian and Sudanese “mercenaries” into Libya through the southern border (al-Arabiya, May 29, 2017).

Some 30 members of JEM, allegedly supported by Tubu fighters, were reported killed in two days of fighting north of Kufra in February 2016 (Reuters, February 5, 2016; Libya Observer, February 4, 2016; Libya Prospect, February 7, 2016). Some of the fighting took place at Buzaymah Oasis, 130 km northwest of Kufra, where the Darfuri rebels had attempted to set up a base. The Darfuris were attacked by Kufra’s Subul al-Salam Brigade, a Salafist militia formed in October 2015 and composed largely of Zuwaya Arabs, the dominant group in the Kufra region. Led by Abd al-Rahman Hashim al-Kilani, the militia was allied with Khalifa Haftar, who is reported to have supplied the unit with 40 armored Toyota 4x4s in September 2016 (Libya Herald, October 20, 2016). After a number of kidnappings and highway robberies committed by the alleged JEM fighters, the Subul al-Salam group again engaged the Darfuris in October 2016, killing 13 fighters. An October 23, 2016 Sudanese government statement claimed the Darfuris were supporters of Khalifa Haftar. [12] Subul al-Salam also clashed with Chadian gunmen 400 km south of Kufra on February 2, 2017, killing four of the Chadians, possibly Tubu from the Ennedi mountain range south of the border (Libya Observer, February 2, 2017).

A May 2017 Sudanese intelligence report repeated nearly year-old claims that elements of the Darfuri Sudan Liberation Movement – Minni Minawi (SLM-MM) under local commander Jabir Ishag were active in the Libyan south around Rabaniyah and around the oil fields north of Kufra. The report also claimed the presence of SLM-Unity and SLM-Abd al-Wahid (SLM-AW) units northeast of Kufra and JEM forces under commander al-Tahir Arja in the north, near Tobruk, where they were alleged to be supporting Khalifa Haftar (Sudan Media Center, May 22, 2017; Libya Observer, October 10, 2016; GMS-Sudan, July 27, 2016).

Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces Deploy at ‘Uwaynat

Sudanese troops were reported to have moved up to the Jabal ‘Uwaynat region on June 2, 2017 (Libyan Express, June 3, 2017). Most of these were likely to belong to Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF – Quwat al-Da’m al-Seri), a 30,000 strong paramilitary that was integrated into the Sudanese Army in January 2017. Prior to that, the paramilitary had operated under the command of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS –Jiha’az al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat ) and became notorious for the indiscipline and human rights abuses common to the infamous Janjaweed, from which much of the strength of the RSF was drawn at the time of its creation in 2013. The disorderly RSF has even been known to clash with units of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF).

Besides recruitment from a variety of Arab and non-Arab tribes in Darfur, the RSF also employs many Arabs from Chad, former rebels against the Zaghawa-dominated regime of President Idriss Déby Itno. Designed for high mobility, the RSF claims it can reach the Libyan border within 24 hours of an order for deployment (Sudan Tribune, January 17, 2017). [13] The RSF leader is Lieutenant General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo (a.k.a. Hemeti), a member of the Mahariya branch of the Darfur Rizayqat. The RSF enjoys the patronage of Sudanese vice-president Hassabo Abd al-Rahman, who is, like Daglo, a member of the Mahariya branch of the Rizayqat. Hemeti is nonetheless despised by many SAF officers as an illiterate with nothing more than a Quran school education (Radio Dabanga, June 4, 2014).

A June-July 2016 deployment of the RSF in the ‘Uwaynat region led to the arrest of roughly 600 Eritrean and Ethiopian illegal migrants, most of whom were attempting to reach Europe or the United States. The RSF activity was in step with a European Union grant of €100 million to deal with illegal migration that followed a Sudanese pledge to help stop human trafficking to Europe (Sudan Tribune, July 31, 2016). The funds were intended to construct two detention camps for migrants and to provide Sudanese security services with electronic means of registering illegal migrants. The traffickers, however, do not always go quietly; in April 2017 the RSF engaged in “fierce clashes” with human traffickers, leading to the arrest of five of their leaders and the capture of six 4×4 vehicles. According to one smuggler of migrants, the presence of the RSF has changed the situation on the border:  “The road to Libya is still working, but it’s very dangerous” (The Economist, May 25, 2017).

The RSF commander has suggested Europe does not appreciate the RSF’s efforts in fighting illegal migration on their behalf, stating that despite a loss of 25 killed, 315 injured and 150 vehicles in the fight against illegal migration, “nobody even thanked us” (Sudan Tribune, August 31, 2016). Daglo went on to warn his troops could easily abandon their positions and allow the migrants and traffickers free passage. Whether Daglo was speaking for the government or on his own behalf is uncertain.

RSF commander Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemeti”

Only days after Daglo’s complaints, Yasir Arman, secretary-general of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement–North (SPLA/M-N), claimed to have received details of a European operation to directly supply the controversial RSF with funds and logistical support. Arman maintained that this “Satanic plan” was intended to cover up the RSF’s participation in atrocities and genocide. The EU issued a prompt denial (Sudan Tribune, September 7, 2016). [14]

Rising Tensions between Egypt and Sudan

Egypt’s army has been engaged in a constant effort to prevent Libyan arms crossing its 1000 km border with Libya, the preferred route being to cross the border through the Libyan Desert and then on to the Bahariya Oasis in Western Egypt, connected by road with the Nile Valley. In late May 2017, Egypt’s president Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi announced that Egypt’s military had destroyed some 300 vehicles carrying arms across the Libyan border in the last two months alone (Ahram Online, May 25, 2017).

Last October, LNA chief-of-staff and HoR-appointed military governor of the eastern region, Abd al-Raziq al-Nathory, announced that Egyptian forces guarding the border with Libya had in some cases established positions as far as 40 km inside Libya (Libyan Express, October 15, 2016).

The issue of Darfur rebel groups entering Sudan from Libya, the possible establishment of a buffer zone on the border triangle between Egypt, Libya and Sudan, and a Sudanese proposal to create a joint border patrol force were addressed in a meeting between the Sudanese and Egyptian foreign ministers in Cairo on June 3, 2017 (Sudan Tribune, June 3, 2017). Tensions between Egypt and Sudan have flared up in recent weeks with new friction over the disputed status of the Halayib Triangle west of the Red Sea coast, Khartoum’s support for Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam construction (which Egypt claims will violate long-standing Nile Basin water-sharing agreements) and accusations from Khartoum of Egyptian material support for Darfuri rebels re-entering Sudan. Less than two weeks before the meeting, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir announced that the RSF had seized Egyptian armored vehicles used by Darfuri rebels crossing the border near ‘Uwaynat from Libya, while Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and NISS Facebook pages posted photos of captured or destroyed Egyptian vehicles allegedly used by the rebels (Sudan Tribune, May 24, 2017).

Conclusion: From Isolation to Insecurity

Jabal ‘Uwaynat’s magnificent isolation is quickly becoming a romantic memory. Today it has become a focal point for modern scourges such as human-trafficking, narcotics smuggling and militancy-for-hire. Its apparent future is one of more frequent clashes, greater surveillance and the introduction of more imposing barriers to movement. To some degree, this undesirable future can be averted if Libya’s political house can be put in order in the near future, thereby reducing the demand for foreign guns-for-hire, enabling the imposition of proper border controls to deter human-trafficking and allowing the introduction of more effective cooperative security efforts between Libyan, Sudanese and Egyptian security services.

Notes

  1. For the Rock Inscriptions at Jebel ‘Uwaynat, see: Francis L. Van Note, Rock Art of the Jebel Uweinat (Libyan Sahara), Akadem. Druck- u. Verlagsanst, Graz, Austria, 1978; András Zboray, Rock Art of the Libyan Desert, Fliegel Jezerniczky Expeditions, Newbury, 2005 (DVD); Maria Emilia Peroschi and Flavio Cambieri, “Jebel Uweinat (Sahra Orientale) et l’Arte Rupestre: Nuuove Prospettive di Studio Dalle Recente Scoperte,” XXIV Valcomonica Symposium, Art and Communication in Pre‐literate societies, Capo di Ponte, Italy, 2011, pp. 339-345, http://www.academia.edu/30404525/The_rock_art_of_Jebel_Uweinat_Eastern_Sahara._New_perspectives_from_the_latest_discoveries.pdf
  2. For the Jabal ‘Uwaynat inscription of Mentuhotep II and its implications, see: Joseph Clayton, Aloisia De Trafford and Mark Borda, “A Hieroglyphic Inscription found at Jebel Uweinat mentioning Yam and Tekhebet,” Sahara 19, July 2008, pp.129-134; Andrés Diego Espinel, “The Tribute from Tekhebeten (a brief note on the graffiti of Mentuhetep II at Jebel Uweinat),” Göttinger Miszellen 237, 2013, pp.15-19, http://www.academia.edu/8699848/2013_-_The_tribute_of_Tekhebeten ; Julien Cooper, “Reconsidering the Location of Yam,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 48, 2012, pp.1-21,http://www.academia.edu/5646190/Reconsidering_the_Location_of_Yam_Journal_of_the_American_Research_Center_in_Egypt_48_2012_1-22 ; Thomas Schneider, “The West Beyond the West: The Mysterious “Wernes” of the Egyptian Underworld and the Chad Palaeolake,” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 2(4), 2010, pp. 1-14, https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/jaei/article/view/82/86 ; Thomas Schneider, “Egypt and the Chad: Some Additional Remarks,” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 3(4), 2011, pp.12-15, https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/jaei/article/view/12651/11932
  3. For example, the roughly 7,000 year-old Nabta Playa stone circle (northwest of Abu Simbel in Egypt’s Western Desert) has been subject to pointless damage, theft and even re-arrangement by unauthorized “New Age” tourists to better correspond to their own theories regarding its purpose. Rubbish dumps around the site attest to the thoughtlessness of these visitors and their unlicensed guides.
  4. Ralph A. Bagnold: Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1941 edition (orig. 1935), pp.188-189.
  5. A.M. Hassanein Bey: The Lost Oases, Century Co., New York, 1925, pp. 219-234.
  6. Bagnold, op cit, p.173.
  7. Michael Crichton-Stuart, G Patrol, Wm Kinder and Co., London, 1958, pp.54-55.
  8. For the SDF convoys on this route in WWII, see “The Kufra Convoys,” http://www.fjexpeditions.com/frameset/convoys.htm
  9. See http://aviateurs.e-monsite.com/pages/de-1939-a-1945/morts-de-soif-dans-le-desert.html
  10. See http://www.fjexpeditions.com/frameset/convoys.htm
  11. “Are Sudanese Arms Reaching Libyan Islamists through Kufra Oasis?” Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report, April 30, 2015, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=1482
  12. http://www.sudanembassy.org/index.php/news-events/1258-report-new-information-on-the-involvement-of-darfuri-rebels-in-the-conflict-in-libya
  13. For the RSF, see Andrew McGregor, “Khartoum Struggles to Control its Controversial ‘Rapid Support Forces’,” Terrorism Monitor, May 30, 2014, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?tag=rapid-support-forces; Jérôme Tubiana, “Remote-Control Breakdown: Sudanese Paramilitary Forces and Pro-Government Militias,” Small Arms Survey, May 4, 2017, http://www.css.ethz.ch/en/services/digital-library/articles/article.html/571cdc5a-4b5b-417e-bd22-edb0e3050428
  14. For Yasir Arman, see Andrew McGregor, “The Pursuit of a ‘New Sudan’ in Blue Nile State: A Profile of the SPLA-N’s Yasir Arman,” Militant Leadership Monitor, June 30, 2016, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3652

Why are Egypt’s Counter-Terrorism Efforts Failing in the Sinai Peninsula?

Andrew McGregor

December 15, 2016

In October 2011, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi declared “the military situation in Sinai is 100 percent secure” (Daily News Egypt, October 6, 2011). Four years later, Army spokesman Brigadier General Muhammad Samir assured Egyptians that the North Sinai was “100 percent under control” (al-Jazeera, July 2, 2015). Even Dr. Najih Ibrahim, a former jihadist and principal theorist of Egypt’s al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI – Islamic Group) declared as recently as last August that for Sinai’s branch of the Islamic State: “This is the beginning of the end for this organization…  It cannot undertake big operations, such as the bombing of government buildings, like the bombing of the military intelligence building previously … or massacre, or conduct operations outside Sinai. Instead, it has resorted to car bombs or suicide bombings, which are mostly handled well [by Egyptian security forces]” (Ahram Online, August 11; August 15).sinai-ea-map

Since then, Islamic State militants have carried out highly organized large-scale attacks on checkpoints in al-Arish, killing 12 conscripts on October 12 and another 12 soldiers on November 24. Together with a steady stream of almost daily IED attacks, mortar attacks and assassinations, it is clear that militancy in North Sinai is far from finished.

Since 2004 there have been a series of jihadist groups operating in the Sinai. The latest face of militancy in the region is the Wilayet Sayna (WS – “Sinai Province”), a name adopted by the Sinai’s Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM – Supporters of Jerusalem) following its declaration of allegiance to the IS militant group in November 2014. The secretive WS has been estimated to include anywhere from several hundred to two thousand fighters. Despite operating for the most part in a small territory under 400 square miles in with a population of roughly 430,000 people, a series of offensives since 2013 by the Arab world’s most powerful army in North Sinai have produced not victory, but rather a war of attrition. The question therefore is what exceptional circumstances exist in the North Sinai that prevent Egypt’s security forces from ending a small but troubling insurgency that receives little outside support.

As in northern Mali in 2012, the conflict in Sinai has merged a localized ethnic insurgency with externally-inspired Salafi-Jihadism. The conflict persists despite the wide latitude granted by Israel in terms of violating the 1979 Camp David Accords’ restrictions on arms and troops deployed by Egypt in the Sinai. Unsettled by the cross-border activities of Gazan and Sinai terrorists, Israel has basically granted Cairo a free hand in military deployments there since July 2015.

At the core of the insurgency is Sinai’s Bedouin population, culturally and geographically separate from the Egyptian “mainland.” Traditionally, the Bedouin of the Sinai had closer relations with Gaza and Palestine to the northeast than the Egyptian nation to their west, though Egypt’s interest in the Sinai and its resources dates to the earliest dynasties of Ancient Egypt. The Israeli occupation of the region in 1967-1979 left many Egyptians suspicious of pro-Israeli sympathies amongst the Bedouin (generally without cause) and led to a ban on their recruitment by Egypt’s military or security services.

According to Egyptian MP Tamer al-Shahawy (a former major-general and military intelligence chief), social changes began in the Sinai after the 1973 war with Israel: “After the war a major rift in ‎tribal culture occurred — on one hand was the pull of the Sufi trend, on the other the pull of ‎money from illegal activities such as smuggling, drug trafficking and arms dealing… For a number of reasons the government was forced to prioritize a security over a socio-‎economic political response.”‎ (Ahram Online, August 15).

Lack of development, land ownership issues and Cairo’s general disinterest in the region for anything other than strategic purposes erupted in the terrorist bombings of Red Sea tourist resorts from 2004 to 2006. The deaths of at least 145 people led to a wave of mass arrests, torture and lengthy detentions that embittered the Bedouin and further defined the differences between “Egyptians” and the inhabitants of the Sinai Peninsula. With the local economy struggling due to neglect and insecurity, many young men turned to smuggling, a traditional occupation in the region. Like northern Mali, however, smuggling has proven a gateway to militancy.

In recent decades, Islamist ideology has been brought to the Sinai by “mainland” teachers and by students returning from studies in the Nile Valley. Inattention from government-approved religious bodies like al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Endowments left North Sinai’s mosques open to radical preachers denouncing the region’s traditional Sufi orders. Their calls for an aggressive and Islamic response to what was viewed as Cairo’s “oppression” and the support available from Islamist militants in neighboring Gaza led to a gradual convergence of “Bedouin issues” and Salafi-Jihadism. Support for groups like ABM and WS is far from universal amongst the tribes and armed clashes are frequent, but the widespread distaste for Egypt’s security forces and a campaign of brutal intimidation against those inclined to work with them have prevented Cairo from exploiting local differences in its favor. The army claims it could “instantaneously purge” Sinai of militants but has not done so out of concern for the safety of residents (Ahram Online, March 21).

Egypt’s Military Operations in the Sinai

Beginning with Operation Eagle’s deployment of two brigades of Sa’iqa (“Thunderbolt) Special Forces personnel in August 2011, Cairo has initiated a series of military operations designed to secure North Sinai, eradicate the insurgents in the Rafah, al-Arish and Shaykh al-Zuwayad districts of North Sinai, eliminate cross-border smuggling with Gaza and protect the Suez Canal. While meeting success in the latter two objectives, the use of fighter jets, artillery, armor, attack helicopters and elite troop formations have failed to terminate an insurgency that has intensified rather than diminished.

sinai-ea-al-saiqaAl-Sa’iqa (Special Forces) in Rafah

The ongoing Operation Martyr’s Right, launched in September 2015, is the largest military operation yet, involving Special Forces units, elements of the second and third field armies and police units with the aim of targeting terrorists and outlaws in central and northern Sinai to “pave the road for creating suitable conditions to start development projects in Sinai.” (Ahram Online, November 5, 2016). Each phase of Martyr’s Right and earlier operations in the region have resulted in government claims of hundreds of dead militants and scores of “hideouts,” houses, cars and motorcycles destroyed, all apparently with little more than temporary effect.

Military-Tribal Relations

Security forces have failed to connect with an alienated local population in North Sinai. Arbitrary mass arrests and imprisonments have degraded the relationship between tribal groups and state security services. Home demolitions, public utility cuts, travel restrictions, indiscriminate shelling, the destruction of farms and forced evacuations for security reasons have only reinforced the perception of the Egyptian Army as an occupying power.  Security services are unable to recruit from local Bedouin, while ABM and WS freely recruit military specialists from the Egyptian “mainland.” It was a Sa’aiqa veteran expelled from the army in 2007, Hisham al-Ashmawy, who provided highly useful training in weapons and tactics to ABM after he joined the movement in 2012 (Reuters, October 18, 2015). Others have followed.

The role of local shaykhs as interlocutors with tribal groups has been steeply devalued by the central role now played by state security services in appointing tribal leaders. In 2012, a shaykh of the powerful Sawarka tribe was shot and killed when it became widely believed he was identifying jihadists to state security services (Egypt Independent, June 11, 2012)

The use of collective punishment encourages retaliation, dissuades the local population from cooperation with security forces and diminishes the reputation of moderate tribal leaders who are seen as unable to wield influence with the government. Egypt’s prime minister, Sherif Ismail, has blamed terrorism in North Sinai on the familiar “external and internal forces,” but also noted that under Egypt’s new constitution, the president could not use counter-terrorism measures as “an excuse for violating public freedoms” (Ahram Online, May 10).

Operational Weaknesses

The government’s media blackout of the Sinai makes it difficult to verify information or properly evaluate operations.  Restrictions on coverage effectively prevent public discussion of the issues behind the insurgency, reducing opportunities for reconciliation. Nonetheless, a number of weaknesses in Cairo’s military approach are apparent:

  • Operations are generally reactive rather than proactive
  • A military culture exists that discourages initiative in junior officers. This is coupled with an unwillingness in senior staff to admit failure and change tactics compared to the tactical flexibility of insurgents, who are ready to revise their procedures whenever necessary
  • An over-reliance on airpower to provide high fatality rates readily reported in the state-owned media to give the impression of battlefield success. The suppression of media reporting on military operations in Sinai turns Egyptians to the militants’ social media to obtain news and information
  • The widespread use of poorly-trained conscripts. Most of the active fighting is done by Special Forces units who reportedly inflict serious losses in their actions against WS. As a result, WS focuses on what might be termed “softer” military targets for their own attacks; checkpoints manned by conscripts and conscript transports on local roads. There are reports of poorly paid conscripts leaking information to Sinai-based terrorists for money (Ahram Online, October 21).
  • A failure to prevent radicalization by separating detained Sinai smugglers or militants with local motivations from radical jihadists in Egyptian prisons
  • An inability to stop arms flows to the region. Though effective naval patrols and the new 5 km buffer zone with Gaza have discouraged arms trafficking from the north, arms continue to reach the insurgents from the Sharqiya, Ismailiya and Beni Suef governorates

Islamist Tactics in Sinai

The Islamist insurgents have several advantages, including intimate knowledge of the local terrain and a demonstrated ability to rejuvenate their numbers and leadership. Possession of small arms is also extremely common in Sinai despite disarmament efforts by the state. The WS armory includes Kornet anti-tank guided missiles, RPGs and mortars. Many weapons have been captured from Egyptian forces operating in the Sinai.

According to WS’ own “Harvest of Military Operations” reports, IEDs are used in about 60% of WS attacks, guerrilla-style attacks account for some 20%, while the remainder is roughly split between sniper attacks and close-quarter assassinations. Since 2013, over 90% of the targets have been military or police personnel as well as suspected informants (al-Jazeera, May 1). In 2016, IED attacks have numbered roughly one per day. The bombs are commonly disguised as rocks or bags of garbage.

sinai-ea-checkpointEgyptian Army Checkpoint, al-Arish

Well-organized assaults on security checkpoints display a sophistication that has worried military leaders. Checkpoint attacks since October 2014 often involve the preliminary use of suicide bomb trucks to smash the way through fixed defenses, followed by assaults by gunmen, often in 4×4 vehicles which have been banned in military operational zones since July 2015. Car bombs and mortars have been used to launch as many as 15 simultaneous attacks, demonstrating advanced skills in operational planning. Snipers are frequently used to keep security forces on edge and the ambush or hijacking of vehicles on the road complicates the movement of security personnel.

Military intelligence has not been able to overcome WS security measures. WS is notoriously difficult to infiltrate – recruits are closely vetted and often assume new identities. Trackable communications devices are discouraged and the group’s cell structure makes it difficult to obtain a broader picture of its organization and membership. At times it is not even clear who the group’s leader is. Sinai Bedouin chiefs have complained that when they do give warnings to the military of militant activity, their warnings are ignored (Egypt Independent, August 7, 2012)

There is intense intimidation of residents not sympathetic to WS and its aims. The group has even warned ambulance drivers not to transport wounded security personnel to hospitals (Shorouk News, December 21, 2015). Suspected informants are shot, though the WS tries to remain on good terms with locals by providing financial aid and social assistance. Sympathetic residents are able to provide a steady flow of intelligence on Egyptian troop movements and patterns.

sinai-ea-brigadier-mahmoudBrigadier General Hisham Mahmoud (Daily News Egypt)

WS focuses on state institutions as targets and rarely carries out the type of mass-casualty terrorist attacks on civilians common to other theaters of jihad. However, public, security and religious figures are all subject to assassination. In November, WS beheaded a respected 100-year-old Sufi shaykh of the Sawarka tribe for “practicing witchcraft” (Ahram Online, November 21). Even senior officers are targeted; in November Air Force Brigadier General Hisham Mahmoud was killed in al-Arish; a month earlier Brigadier Adel Rajaei (commander of the 9th Armored Division and a veteran of North Sinai) was killed in Cairo. Both men were shot in front of their own homes (Ahram Online, November 4). In July, a Coptic priest in al-Arish was murdered by Islamic State militants for “fighting Islam” (Ahram Online, July 1). Religious sites inconsistent with Salafist beliefs and values are also targeted for destruction. The shrine of Shaykh Zuwayad, who came to Egypt with the conquering Muslim army of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As in 640 C.E., has been attacked multiple times in the city that bears his name.

When Egyptian military pressure becomes too intense, insurgents are able to take refuge in Jabal Halal, a mountainous cave-riddled region south of al-Arish that acts as a main insurgent stronghold and hideout for fugitives. The area is home to many old Israeli minefields that discourage ground operations, though Egypt’s Air Force claims to have killed scores of militants there in airstrikes (Egypt Independent, August 20, 2012).

Conclusion

Egypt’s large scale counter-insurgency operations have been disappointing for Cairo. Such operations do not have the general support of the local population and are regarded by many as suppression by outsiders. The army and police are not regarded as guarantors of security, but as the violent extension of state policies that discriminate against communities in the North Sinai. So long as these conditions remain unchanged, Egypt’s security forces will remain unable to deny safe havens or financial support to militant groups.  Air-strikes on settled areas, with their inevitable indiscriminate and collateral damage, are especially unsuited for rallying government support.

Excluding the Bedouin from Interior Ministry forces foregoes immediate benefits in intelligence terms, leaving security forces without detailed knowledge of the terrain, groups, tribes and individuals necessary to successful counter-terrorism and counter-smuggling operations. However, simply opening up recruitment is not enough to guarantee interest from young Bedouin men; in the current environment they would risk ostracization at best or assassination at worst. With few economic options, smuggling (and consequent association with arms dealers and drug traffickers) remains the preferred alternative for many.

Seeking perhaps to tap into the Russian experience in Syria, Egypt conducted a joint counter-insurgency exercise near al-Alamein on the Mediterranean coast in October. The exercise focused on the use of paratroopers against insurgents in a desert setting (Ahram Online, October 12, 2016). Russia is currently pursuing an agreement that would permit Russian use of military bases across Egypt 10 October 2016 (Middle East Eye, October 10; PressTV [Tehran], October 10). If Cairo is determined to pursue a military solution to the Islamist insurgency in Sinai, it may decide more material military assistance and guidance from Russia will be part of the price.

A greater commitment to development is commonly cited as a long-term solution to Bedouin unrest, though its impact would be smaller on ideologically and religiously motivated groups such as WS. Development efforts are under way; last year President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi committed £E10 billion (US$ 560 million) to new industrial, agricultural, transport and housing projects (al-Masry al-Youm, March 8). Unfortunately, many of these projects are in the Canal Zone region and will have little impact on the economy of North Sinai. More will be needed, but with Egypt currently experiencing currency devaluation, inflation, food shortages and shrinking foreign currency reserves, the central government will have difficulty in implementing a development-based solution in Sinai.

This article first appeared in the December 15 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Beyond the Brotherhood: Egypt’s Yasir Hussein Borhami and the Salafist Revolution

Andrew McGregor

Militant Leadership Monitor, January 2016

With a growing debate over the role of Saudi-inspired Salafism in the development of Islamist extremism, it is worth examining the career and continuing influence of Yasir Hussein al-Borhami, one of Egypt’s most prominent Salafists. Despite the rigid ideology associated with Salafism, Borhami has proved flexible and pragmatic in ensuring a continued political presence for Egypt’s Salafists in a politically volatile atmosphere. Nonetheless, opposition to his approach has led to threats of violence from both Brotherhood supporters and fellow Salafists. Copts and more secular Egyptians also oppose Borhami’s intention to apply Shari’a across Egypt.

BorhamiYasir Hussin Borhami. The bump on his forehead is known as a zabiba (“raisan”), caused by repeated contact of the forehead with the ground during prayer and is regarded as a sign of piety by some Egyptian Muslims.

Early Years

Borhami was born in the Beheira region of the Nile Delta in 1958, the son of a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who imprisoned by President Gamal Abd al-Nasser. The young Borhami pursued degrees in medicine (pediatrics) at Alexandria University and aqida (“creed”) studies (which focus on the essential beliefs of Islam) at Cairo’s al-Azhar University. While still in college, Borhami performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, where he encountered a Salafist scholar who would be a great ideological influence, Abd al-‘Aziz bin Baz (Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia – 1993-1999) (Ahram Online, December 19, 2011). Borhami opened a clinic in Alexandria and preaches at Alexandria’s al-Khulafa al-Rashidun mosque. [1]

The Salafist Call

In 1984, Borhami became one of the six founders of Alexandria’s Da’wa al-Salafiya (Salafist Call), a movement that would borrow aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood’s preference for social organization and action, but not its structure or political aims.

Though there are many schools of Salafism even within Egypt, there is a shared trend towards a literal interpretation of core Islamic texts (the Qu’ran, Sunna, hadith-s, etc.) supplemented by the work of a few later scholars who sought to eliminate religious innovations (bidah) from Islamic practice. In this sense, Salafists view themselves as rational modernists rather than the popular Western perception that they are arch-conservatives seeking to live in the past. This approach to Islam, which habitually puts the movement at odds with many other Islamic trends, began to gain currency in Egypt in the 1970s, particularly in Alexandria. Traditionally, the Salafists have been apolitical based on a tradition of obedience to rulers, giving them a certain room in Egyptian society unavailable to other religious trends viewed as a challenge to the state (such as the Muslim Brotherhood). The movement has proved attractive to professionals and uses modern technology (such as its Ana Salafi website) to disseminate its message.

During the Mubarak era, the Alexandria Salafists were watched carefully but tolerated so long as they steered clear of violence and politics. Travel restrictions and occasional arrests served as reminders of the regime’s watchful eye. In 1987, Borhami was arrested in connection with the attempted assassination of former Interior Minister Hassan Abu Basha, though he was only held a month (Ahram Online, November 19, 2011). In 1994, the government decided the Salafist Call was posing a threat to the existing order and cracked down, imprisoning hundreds and banning the group’s activities. Borhami responded by lowering the group’s profile until restrictions eased in 2004. With the movement reinforced by newly-freed preachers and activists, Borhami now began an intensive period of organizing, leading to the Salafist Call finally obtaining state recognition as a legitimate social organization in April 2011. [2]

The Formation of al-Nur

Borhami is closely associated with Egypt’s leading Salafist political party, al-Nur (“the Light”), formed in June 2011 by Imad Abd al-Ghaffour. By December 2012, leadership had passed under pressure into the hands of Yunis Abd al-Halim Makhyoun, a Borhami loyalist, with al-Ghaffour and 150 members resigning to form the Watan Party. With loyalists in place in top party positions, the move gave Borhami effective control of the Party without being part of its official leadership. In theory, the Salafist Call pursues a more cooperative and collective method than the more hierarchal Muslim Brotherhood; in practise, personal loyalty to Borhami is almost essential to penetrate the leadership of both the movement and its political expression, the Nur Party.

By leading his movement into politics, Borhami intended to press for a Shari’a state without reliance on the Muslim Brotherhood while attempting to diminish the appeal of radicalism in the movement’s younger members.

Salafism and the Egyptian Revolution

The Salafists played only a minor role in the 2011 Revolution, most preferring to maintain a traditional apolitical stance, though individual members joined the protests in Tahrir Square that ultimately compelled the overthrow of President Mubarak by the Egyptian military.

In the parliamentary elections that followed the Revolution, al-Nur shocked the nation by forming a coalition with three smaller Salafist parties to take 24% of the vote, making the party the second-largest block in parliament after the Muslim Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party. Though Borhami opposed the participation of women and Christians in politics, he opened up the doors of the Nur Party to both as candidates in the election after their inclusion became legally required.

In the first round of the presidential election, Borhami steered al-Nur into support of Abd al-Moneim Fotouh rather than the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Muhammad al-Mursi. In the run-off, however, al-Nur switched its support to Mursi against the candidacy of Mubarak-era premier Ahmad al-Shafiq in the second round, won handily by Mursi.

Borhami played a major role in drafting a new constitution, but initiated a bitter dispute with the shaykhs of al-Azhar when he claimed the institution was trying to ensure its supremacy in the new constitution, accusing it further of advocating too forcefully for Christian rights in the document (Daily News Egypt, December 24, 2012). Borhami ultimately backed off, recognizing the importance of al-Azhar to most Egyptian Muslims. During the constitutional discussions, Borhami emphasized the necessity of curbing rights and freedoms, though “this doesn’t mean cancelling rights and freedoms” (Daily News Egypt, December 25, 2012). To the alarm of many Egyptians (even within the Nur Party), Borhami interpreted Article 10 of the constitution as allowing Salafis to establish Saudi-style Committees for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, religious police entitled to punish or arrest civilians believed guilty of Shari’a violations (Daily News Egypt, December 25, 2012). Others involved in the constitutional process did not share Borhami’s enthusiastic view that the draft constitution would implement restrictions on “freedom of thought, expression and creativity” and could eventually be used to strip apostates of their human rights (Daily News Egypt, December 24, 2012).

The Presidency of Muhammad al-Mursi

As the post-Revolution Mursi government faltered under economic and security pressures, Borhami’s feud with the Brotherhood intensified, with the Salafist leader warning the Brotherhood would pay the price for Mursi’s stubbornness in rejecting Salafist attempts to mediate a solution to the crisis (al-Masry al-Youm, March 15, 2013).

Under Borhami’s influence, the Nur Party approached the demonstrations against Mursi with caution, staying aloof but ready to join the opposition to the Brotherhood if the winds proved favorable. By the time Mursi was overthrown by General Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi on July 3, 2013, al-Nur was ready to display its full backing of the coup on public television. The decision to stand side-by-side with the Coptic Pope and human rights advocate Muhammad al-Baradei was met with outrage by both the Brotherhood and fellow Salafists outside the Nur Party who viewed Mursi as al-wali al-amr, a community guardian legitimized by Shari’a. Borhami considered Mursi to be a mere political figure and dismissed the opposition to al-Nur’s stance: “Maybe we lost some support from within the Islamic movement, but many have admired the party’s policies” (Reuters, January 23, 2014). [3]

After the Egyptian military’s slaughter of hundreds of Brotherhood supporters at two Cairo sit-ins, Borhami absolved al-Sisi of any blame, saying it was impossible for the general, “a religious man of high ability and competency,” to have issued a command to kill all protesters (Ahram Online, January 21, 2014; al-Masry al-Youm, January 26, 2014). Borhami laid the blame directly at the feet of the Brotherhood, saying they had encouraged their members to face bullets to create massive casualty counts that would discredit the army (Ahram Online, January 21, 2014).

Borhami opposed Islamist protests against al-Sisi in the summer of 2013 and claimed Western criticism of the general’s methods was in fact an attack on Egypt and Islam as a whole: “[The Islamists] should admit that the military saved the people from civil war in which millions of people were against Islamists” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], August 27, 2013). By early 2014, the rift with the Brotherhood had grown so much that calls to attack Borhami began to appear on Brotherhood Facebook sites (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 4, 2014).

In early February 2014, Borhami declared that the Salafist Call would not support al-Sisi’s candidacy for president, though it would not oppose him (Ahram Online, February 1, 2014).

Borhami’s Religious Rulings

There is often some confusion regarding the actual content of Borhami’s fatwa-s as he commonly backs away from controversial rulings when they appear to be out of step with the rest of Egyptian society, including the religious current. One such example was Borhami’s fatwa against the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which the shaykh claimed would distract Muslims from their prayers and encourage Muslims to admire non-believers playing for foreign teams. When his ruling was widely ridiculed in soccer-mad Egypt, failing even to gain support from other religious leaders, Borhami backed away, claiming he only meant to say “don’t waste your time” (International Business Times, April 27, 2014; al-Masry al-Youm, June 15, 2014).

Other rulings that have, at times, gained international attention, include:

  • A ruling that a man can abandon his wife to rapists if his own safety was threatened. Borhami claimed that the ruling was “woefully distorted” by the media and concerned only “absolving from sin those incapable of defending themselves” (Al-Monitor, October 21, 2015).
  • A fatwa calling on Muslims to refrain from congratulating Coptic Christians on their religious feast days led to a police report being filed by both Muslim and Coptic leaders accusing Borhami of contempt of religion and inciting sectarian violence (al-Masry al-Youm, April 27, 2014).
  • In February 2012, Borhami used the Salafi Call’s website to issue a fatwa pronouncing the impermissibility of standing for the national anthem (com, February 25, 2012). Borhami later admitted that he found it “unwise” to follow this fatwa in the face of a possible six-month stretch in prison for disrespecting national symbols (Al-Monitor, October 21, 2015).
  • In August 2012, Borhami clashed with other Salafists by issuing a fatwa that said an International Monetary Fund loan to Egypt at 1.1% interest was not usury (collection of interest is forbidden in Islamic finance) (al-Masry al-Youm, August 28, 2012).
  • Borhami was seen in a December 14, 2013 video explaining the permissibility of demolishing Christian churches, an activity that is generally understood to be impermissible in all but the most radical Islamist circles (com, March 18, 2015). Borhami’s remarks on this issue were condemned by al-Azhar and many leading Egyptians, leading him to deny he had ever issued a fatwa on this subject (Al-Monitor, October 21, 2015).

Among Borhami’s most pressing concerns are “radical secularism” and fears that Iran will spread Shi’ism to Egypt, where the small existing Shi’a community is closely monitored by the Salafi Call in cooperation with security services.  This collaboration with security forces has opened rifts with the rest of Egypt’s Islamists, including some members of the Nur Party.

Parliamentary Campaign – 2015

Al-Nur was targeted by the “No to Religious Parties” campaign that preceded the election. Supported by Egypt’s Ministry of Endowments, the campaign collected 1.25 million signatures in support of its claim that religious parties violated the section of the Egyptian constitution banning the formation of political parties “on a sectarian basis…” (Daily News Egypt, October 11, 2015). Borhami’s view was that the new constitution declared Egypt was an Islamic nation, making Islamic political parties permissible.

In contrast to their earlier success, the Nur Party was crushed in the 2015 election. After a poor showing in the election’s first phase, Borhami pleaded with Salafi leaders to urge their followers to the polls, but many Egyptian Salafists had had enough of politics. With only nine seats taken by the election’s conclusion, Borhami accused the government of detaining Salafist candidates and orchestrating a hostile media campaign, but many former party members cited the party’s political flexibility as the real reason for the party’s poor performance (al-Masry al-Youm, November 25, 2015; Reuters, November 23, 2015). One failed Nur candidate blamed the controversial fatwa-s issued by Borhami and other Salafist Call leaders for the failure (al-Masry al-Youm, October 25, 2015).

Relationship with the Islamic State

The Salafist Call has publicly condemned Salafi-Jihadism and radical Qutbist ideology, preferring a method of collective action over violence in the establishment of a Shari’a-based state. The movement believes greater religious education is the key to prevent radicalization of the sort that has led to the creation of an Islamic State chapter in the Egyptian Sinai.

Borhami insists the Salafi-Jihadis of the Islamic State do not belong to any particular Islamic trend, preferring to believe they are the natural result of human rights violations. Salafi preacher Muhammad al-Abasiry recently claimed that Borhami’s students have already joined Islamic State forces in Syria (Daily News Egypt, December 20, 2015).

Conclusion

Borhami has undoubtedly committed many missteps that have damaged the popularity of the Nur Party and the Salafist agenda, though some of these are no doubt due to the difficulty of forming political policy in a party based on a traditionally apolitical sector of Egyptian society. What is perhaps more damaging is public realization that the Salafist Call is prepared to use democracy in order to institute non-democratic reforms. Borhami has asked “Is anyone afraid of Shariʿa, the Shariʿa that achieves justice, welfare, and wisdom?” (al-Shorouk [Cairo], June 30, 2012).  The better question might be, “Is anyone afraid of a religious minority eager to impose their own version of Shari’a on a multi-confessional Egyptian state?” Last year’s election results appear to give the answer as “Yes.”

NOTES

  1. Stéphane Lacroix, “Yasser Borhami,” in: Bernard Rougier and Stéphane Lacroix (Ed.s), Egypt’s Revolutions: Politics, Religion and Social Movements, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.
  2. Ashraf El-Sherif, “Egypt’s Salafists at a Crossroads,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 29, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/04/29/egypt-s-salafists-at-crossroads/iir4
  3. Ibid, fn. 57

This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam and the Qaddafist Shadow over Libya

Andrew McGregor  

Militant Leadership Monitor, September 2015

Given that many might think Qaddafism as a political ideology died along with Mu’ammar Qaddafi in his hometown of Sirte at the hands of Libyan revolutionaries in October 2011, the announcement of a neo-Qaddafist Nidal (“Struggle”) Front by pro-Qaddafist exiles in Cairo on September 20 was not as surprising as it might seem, given the strong financial basis and apparent political protection that this group currently enjoys in al-Sisi’s Egypt. Though nominally led by former Libyan ambassador to Saudi Arabia Muhammad Sayyid al-Qasbat, the new movement’s driving force is Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam, a cousin of the late Libyan leader who serves officially only as a member of the Front’s central committee despite being the leader of the pro-Qaddafist community in exile (Libya Herald, September 20, 2015).

Qadhaf al-Dam ((Qadhaf al-Dam with strategically placed portrait of Libyan anti-colonial hero Omar al-Mukhtar (Reuters)

Qadhaf al-Dam has summed up the revised approach of the neo-Qaddafists (though they do not refer to themselves as such): “We do not desire a Libya governed by Islamists… but we reject also the idea of a return to the past” (L’Express, September 25, 2014).

Though other factions now dominate Libya’s internal agenda, the deposed Qaddafists have demonstrated they still have some bite, as seen in the September 9 car-bombing of Tripoli’s Hadba prison where eight condemned Qaddafists (including Qaddafi’s son Sa’adi and former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah Sanusi)) are being held. News of the death sentences issued against the men on July 28 were met by protests by pro-Qaddafists in Cairo (Libya Herald, July 29, 2015). The prison is run by Islamist militant Khalid Sharif and the bombing followed the release of videos showing a blindfolded Sa’adi being beaten by prison staff as well as other Qaddafist prisoners being tortured (Libya Herald, September 9, 2015; September 10, 2015).

Early Career

Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam was born in the Mediterranean coast town of Mersa Matruh inWestern Egypt in 1952 to a family of Libyan Bedouin who, like most of their formerly nomadic neighbors, had roamed on the Egyptian side of the Libyan/Egyptian border for hundreds of years. Ahmad and his brother Sayyid began long and powerful careers in Libya after their cousin Mu’ammar Qaddafi seized power in 1969, with Ahmad serving at times as Qaddafi’s personal envoy, chief bodyguard and international fixer. Qadhaf al-Dam resembles the late Libyan leader so much that he was frequently mistaken for his cousin at international gatherings (RFI, February 25, 2011).

During the 1973 Ramadan War with Israel, Qadhaf al-Dam was a senior officer alongside Khalifa Haftar in a Libyan contingent that failed to arrive in Egypt in time to take part in the main campaign, mostly due to Egypt’s decision not to inform Qaddafi in advance of the Egyptian plan to cross the Suez Canal and retake Sinai from Israeli occupation (Middle East Monitor, May 21, 2014).

Following a series of attempts on his life by Libyan Army officers, Qaddafi began in 1978 to place important military commands in the hands of his extended family and fellow members of the Qaddadfa tribe. Among those benefitting from the new arrangements were his cousins, the brothers Ahmad and Sayyid Qadhaf al-Dam, by now prominent members of Libyan military intelligence. [1]

By the mid-1970s Qaddafi had become obsessed with eliminating opposition to his rule within the Libyan exile community. Pledging to pursue these “stray dogs” to the North Pole if necessary, Qaddafi launched his intelligence services and revolutionary committees on an often inept but frequently deadly campaign of murder abroad. The campaign intensified in 1983 as Qadhaf al-Dam and four other senior intelligence figures were entrusted with eliminating Libyan dissidents abroad under the oversight of intelligence chief Younis Bilgasim. [2]

As a Brigadier Qadhaf al-Dam was appointed commander of the Tobruq military region, then commander in Cyrenaica, and later as Qadhafi’s special representative for relations with Egypt, a role that brought with it control of vast sums of Libyan oil cash being invested in Egypt, making Qadhaf al-Dam an influential player in Egypt as well as Libya. [3] For a time after 1995, Qadhaf al-Dam was also commander of a battalion of troops detailed to provide security for Qaddafi while still playing an important role in the direction of external operations of the Jamahiriya Security Organization (Hai’atamn al-Jamahiriya). [4]

The Sarkozy Controversy – 2007

One of the lasting controversies of the NATO intervention in Libya revolves around the personal relationship between Mu’ammar Qaddafi and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012), who was responsible for rallying NATO to help overthrow Qaddafi. As one of Libya’s leading diplomats, Qadhaf al-Dam met Sarkozy in person in Tripoli in 2005 (“he came to sell us arms and surveillance equipment”) and again during Qaddafi’s visit to Paris in 2007 (Le Monde, March 15).

According to Qadhaf al-Dam, Qaddafi believed the creation of a “United States of Africa” could never be completed without French cooperation and thought that Sarkozy was “a friend at the Elysée” who could help the project, telling Qadhaf al-Dam that “We must help Sarkozy become president” (Le Monde, March 15). Qadhaf al-Dam claims that Qaddafi provided Sarkozy’s successful presidential campaign with “tens of millions of Euros,” a charge vehemently denied by Sarkozy’s camp (L’Express, September 25, 2014).

A story that persists in Libya concerns allegations that Qaddafi sexually harassed Sarkozy’s ex-wife Cécilia (a former fitting model for a French fashion house) when she went to Libya to appeal on behalf of the one Palestinian and five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death for allegedly infecting Libyan babies with the HIV virus. When questioned during a television interview, about the possibility of a personal motive for Sarkozy’s military intervention in Libya, Qadhaf al-Dam described the allegation as an obvious “fabrication”: “This Cécilia… she looks like a ghoul… This is not even a woman, so how could anyone desire her?” (Dream2 TV [Cairo], January 17, 2015). Qadhaf al-Dam did not comment on his late cousin’s well-established propensity for sexual harassment and worse.

The Revolution: Playing Both Sides

Only days after the start of the Libyan Revolution Qadhaf al-Dam made a stunning resignation from all functions within the Libyan regime on February 24, 2011 that took many observers by surprise, though the ambivalent statement from his office announcing the resignation (merely calling it a protest “against the handling of the crisis”) led some to question whether this was simply a tactic to assist the establishment of a Qaddafist support group outside Libya (RFI, February 25, 2011). It was reported that Qadhaf al-Dam’s defection was spurred by news that he was to be included in a travel ban associated with an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into possible war crimes. After the “defection,” Qadhaf al-Dam’s name was dropped from the list of those named for a travel ban (The Guardian, March 3, 2011).

Qadhaf al-Dam I

Sunny Days: Qadhaf al-Dam with Cousin Mu’ammar

There were numerous reports that Qadhaf al-Dam had initially gone to the Egyptian/Libyan borderland that was his family home to recruit members of the cross-border Awlad Ali tribe to help repress the Libyan revolutionaries. Qadhaf al-Dam was reported to have gained influence within the tribe through his involvement in local real estate and tourism investments (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], February 25, 2011). The Awlad Ali were regarded with suspicion by successive Egyptian governments as possible Qaddafists, being essentially Libyan Arab tribesmen living in the Libyan Desert region of Egypt (known better to Cairo as the “Western Desert,” a region only effectively occupied by Egypt in the 19th century). Qaddafi’s promotion of a small-scale revolutionary movement amongst the border Bedouin tribes in the 1970s did nothing to alleviate government suspicions.

Unfortunately for Qadhaf al-Dam, the leaders of the Awlad Ali and other cross-border Libyan tribes quickly declared in favor of the revolution despite reported offers of millions of dollars and called for the Qadhaf al-Dam’s expulsion from Egypt (al-Arabiya, February 24, 2011). With a disapproving Egyptian intelligence establishment fully aware of his activities in the Western Desert, Qadhaf al-Dam headed for more favorable surroundings in Cairo, the center of the Qaddafist financial empire in Egypt.

Qadhaf al-Dam claims to have urged Qaddafi to enter a dialogue with the Libyan rebels, but the latter refused until French fighter jets began to hit Tripoli on March 19, 2011. Qadhaf al-Dam says he called Qaddafi from Egypt and now received a green light to negotiate with Qaddafi promising to withdraw from power if the bombing was stopped (L’Express, September 25, 2014). The account remains unconfirmed.

Qadhaf al-Dam’s financial establishment in Egypt allowed the alleged defector to live comfortably and surrounded by bodyguards under the name of Ahmad Muhammad al-Kazim on Hassan Sabry Street near the Marriot Hotel in Cairo’s fashionable Zamalek district, an island in the Nile that is home to many embassies, Egyptian officers’ clubs and some of Cairo’s wealthiest residents (Egypt Independent [Cairo], September 6, 2012). In August 2011, Qadhaf al-Dam emerged to deny speculation that he had not actually defected but was working as an agent of the Qaddafi regime in Egypt. Qadhaf al-Dam maintained his ambiguous “neutral” stance on the revolution, claiming that he had defected as a protest against both sides in the civil war (al-Arabiya TV, August 25, 2011).

While insisting that Qaddafist Libya was stable, safe and prosperous, Qadhaf al-Dam has suggested that Libyans had a right to rebel against the regime if they did not share the dreams and vision of Mu’ammar Qaddafi, “But what happened in Libya – and this is a shameful thing in our history – is that treachery became a legitimate point of view. All of a sudden, we sought help from foreigners. We befriended the Jews and the Christians – like Bernard-Henri Levy [a French and Jewish philosopher who played an important role in convincing his friend Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene in the Libyan Revolution], France and Italy…” (Dream2 TV [Cairo], January 17, 2015).

Post-Revolution Political Activism in Egypt

Following his “defection,” Qadhaf al-Dam’s Cairo home became a hub for Qaddafists in exile and various tribal leaders disenchanted with the results of Libya’s Revolution. Many of the exile community were major figures in the police, intelligence groups and the powerful Revolutionary Committees, numbering about 200 persons in all.

A significant scandal broke out in Tripoli in June 2012 when members of Libya’s ruling Transitional National Council (TNC) learned that TNC chairman Mustafa Abd al-Jalil had sent an envoy to Cairo to explore reconciliation efforts with the exiled Qaddafist community, most notably Qadhaf al-Dam, whom several sources identified as the initiator of the talks (AFP, June 7, 2012).

Qadhaf al-Dam’s Zamalek residence was raided by Egyptian police in March 2013. The police were fired on from within the residence, leading to the wounding of one officer before Qadhaf al-Dam and his entourage were disarmed (Daily News Egypt, December 9, 2013).

The raid, part of a Qaddafist round-up by the Islamist government of Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi, led to Qadhaf al-Dam being charged with attempted murder of police officers, resisting arrest and possessing unlicensed weapons, as well as being faced with a Libyan request for extradition.

In March 2013, Libyan authorities decided to essentially purchase the extradition of the detained Qaddafist leaders, depositing $2 billion in Egypt’s central bank as a kind of open loan during a foreign currency reserves crisis affecting Muhammad Mursi’s government. Libyan officials apparently understood that a reciprocal decision had been reached to extradite Qadhaf al-Dam, but they were to be sorely disappointed (al-Arabiya, March 25, 2013; AFP, March 23, 2013).

Cairo’s Administrative Court brought an end to Qadhaf al-Dam’s extradition proceedings on April 3, 2013, partly through his lawyer’s claim that Qadhaf al-Dam had Egyptian citizenship through his Egyptian birth, though former ambassador to Egypt Ali Marya and pro-Qaddafist Libyan businessman Muhammad Ibrahim Mansour were less fortunate, being returned to face Libyan corruption charges on March 19 and 26 respectively (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], April 3, 2013). In the meantime, Qadhaf al-Dam remained in the notorious Tora prison just south of Cairo to face charges related to the raid on his apartment.

Despite the apparent seriousness of the charges, Qadhaf al-Dam was acquitted on all counts on December 9, 2013 to the applause of relatives and supporters after the prosecution’s main witness (the police officer wounded in the raid) testified he was unable to identify the shooters (al-Masry al-Youm, December 9, 2013). Qadhaf al-Dam’s lawyer claimed that his client had been the victim of a deal between Libya and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood organization during the rule of deposed Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi (June 30 2012 to July 3, 2013) (Youm 7 [Cairo], December 10, 2013). The decision shocked Libyan political leaders and a major political spat followed.

Qadhaf al-Dam’s extensive media activities in Egypt were also condemned by Libya’s GNC government in December 2013. The GNC described Qadhaf al-Dam’s frequent television appearances as “unacceptable behavior” and a “provocation” that threatened relations between Libya and Egypt (PANA, December 17, 2013).

The European Union’s General Court lifted the sanctions against Qadhaf al-Dam in September 2014 on the grounds that the regime which had led to the imposition of the sanctions no longer existed and that even though the EU maintained that Qadhaf al-Dam continued to “represent a threat to restoring civil peace” it had provided no proof for the claim (AFP, September 24, 2014). The next day a statement from the Libyan Embassy in Paris asserted that Qadhaf al-Dam had “continued to destabilize Libya since the period of the Revolution,” adding that he had also participated in inciting murder and the misuse of public funds (L’Express, September 25, 2014).

Qadhaf al-Dam and the Islamic State

In a January 2015 television interview, Qadhaf al-Dam expressed support for the Islamic State organization despite the protests of an astonished interviewer who expressed his surprise at Qadhaf al-Dam’s support for a “Satanic terrorist organization” and offered his interviewee numerous opportunities to retreat from his position: “I support Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State organization). I support its establishment…. This enterprise should have been carried out 50 years ago… [young men] had nowhere to go, so they fled to Allah… I am blaming our governments, not the boys. We did not offer another way of confronting the West” (Dream2 TV [Cairo], January 17, 2015).

Elsewhere, Qadhaf al-Dam has claimed that the West and NATO created the Islamic State organization, adding: “There was no extremism in Iraq, Syria or Libya before the NATO intervention in these countries… [The extremists] came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and several other countries and foreign states provided them air support… Their main objective was to kill Muammar Qaddafi, because he wanted to unify the continent” (Sputnik News, June 18, 2015). In yet another interview, Qadhaf al-Dam insisted that the Islamic State organization was a conspiracy against the Libyan nation and Islam itself (Assarih [Tunis], June 3, 2015).

Though General Khalifa Haftar, Qadhaf al-Dam’s former military colleague and now the leader of the internationally recognized Tobruk government’s “Operation Dignity,” is generally viewed by the Qaddafi clan as a traitor turned CIA asset, Qadhaf al-Dam has expressed support for Haftar’s campaign against Islamist factions and the rival General National Congress (GNC) government in Tripoli:  “Thanks to these heroes, we shall soon crush the NATO revolution and all those claiming to be Islamists” (Middle East Monitor, May 21, 2014).

Conclusion

A savvy and experienced political operator with a great instinct for self-preservation and a Qaddafi-like ability to catch his opponents off-guard, Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam is at the center of a neo-Qaddafist movement poised to exploit any available opening in the political chaos that has enveloped Libya. There remain pockets of Qaddafi loyalists in many parts of Libya, though in the current environment they have typically kept their heads down. An exception is the city of Sabha in the Fezzan, where Qaddafists have made repeated and often provocative demonstrations that occasionally deteriorate into violence, most recently in August (Libya Herald, August 7, 2015).

The Nidal Front calls for a truth-and-reconciliation program (perhaps conveniently, given the record of human rights abuses by its proponents), the reformation of the security establishment, including the army and a rejection of violence, terrorism and religious extremism (Libya Herald, September 20, 2015). What is implied by their founding statement is that ruling Libya would be best left to the experienced hands of the Qaddafists, who, with a little democratic polish, might one day be acceptable to Libya’s war-weary populace. Having survived a number of critical legal challenges, Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam now appears secure in his Egyptian base where he will continue to attempt to insert himself back into Libyan divided political structure in the name of Libyan reconciliation.

While Qadhaf al-Dam now serves up counter-extremism rhetoric he hopes will find resonance in both Libya and the West (where he remains relatively unknown), his ambivalent and at times self-contradicting views on the desirability of the Islamic State organization and his record of eliminating Qaddafi-era dissidents will prove a hard sell within Libya. However, as Libya’s economy and security enter a phase of near-total collapse, Qadhaf al-Dam may find that both time and the substantial funds under his control are on his side as he attempts to restore Cairo’s exiled Qaddafist community to power in a politically volatile Libya.

Notes

  1. David Blundy and Andrew Lycett: Qaddafi and the Libyan Revolution, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1987, p.127.
  2. Ibid, p.163.
  3. M. Cherif Bassiouni, Libya: From Repression to Revolution: A Record of Armed Conflict and International Law Violations, 2011-2013, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2013, p.69.
  4. Official Journal of the European Union, “Judgment of the General Court 24 September 2014 – Kadhaf Al Dam vs Council,” http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:62013TA0348&rid=2

This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor

Egypt, the UAE and Arab Military Intervention in Libya

Andrew McGregor

September 5, 2014

A pair of recent airstrikes against Islamist-held targets in the Libyan capital of Tripoli have raised questions about Arab military intervention in Libya after reports emerged claiming the strikes were conducted by United Arab Emirates (UAE) aircraft using Egyptian airbases. The first strike, on August 17, hit up to a dozen sites in Tripoli held by the Misratan militia and their Islamist allies, killing six people and destroying a small arms depot. A second wave of attacks on August 23, struck numerous military targets shortly before dawn in southern Tripoli, but failed to prevent the Islamist-allied Libyan Shield militia (dominated by Qatari-backed Misratan fighters and allied to the Muslim Brotherhood and Ansar al-Shari’a) from seizing Tripoli’s airport and most of the capital only hours later (Middle East Monitor, August 27; New York Times, August 25).

UAE FighterUAE F-16 Fighter Jet

Though anti-Islamist commander General Khalifa Haftar attempted to claim responsibility for the attacks, their precision, the distance covered by the aircraft and the night operations all precluded the participation of Haftar’s small air element. The U.S. State Department initially said the airstrikes were conducted by UAE aircraft operating from an Egyptian airbase, but later issued a type of ambiguous retraction that suggested further questions should be addressed to the parties involved (Ayat al-Tawy, August 29; Ahram Online [Cairo], August 29). The participation of Egypt and the UAE was confirmed, however, by Pentagon spokesman Admiral John Kirby (Financial Times, August 21; Reuters, August 26). On August 26, a U.S. official said Washington was aware the UAE and Egypt were preparing an attack on Tripoli, but had warned against carrying out the operation (AP, August 26). When the two Arab militaries took the decision to strike Tripoli, they failed to inform their long-time military patron, possibly marking some dissatisfaction with Washington’s reluctance to take more decisive action in Libya and elsewhere.

An Arab Military Solution?

The apparent failure of General Haftar’s “Operation Dignity” has led his Arab backers in Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to consider more direct approaches to re-establishing security in Libya, where both of the nation’s major cities (Tripoli and Benghazi) have been effectively seized by Islamist militias, forcing the national government to move to Tobruk, close to the border with Egypt.

Rumors of an Algerian-Egyptian invasion of Libya circulated throughout August, though a prolonged Algerian military intervention would risk inflaming social and economic tensions within Algeria (Middle East Eye, August 21). The lack of military cooperation between Algeria and Egypt would also seem to argue against a joint operation.

Qatar supports the Islamist faction in Libya and hosts leading Islamist politician Ali Muhammad al-Salabi, an associate of former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group commander Abd al-Hakim Belhadj, now a prominent Islamist militia commander in Tripoli. Both the Algerian and Egyptian militaries are involved in ongoing counter-terrorism campaigns; the question is whether these nations view Libya as an unwanted second front or as an integral part of a wider international anti-terrorist campaign.

The UAE Adopts a More Muscular Foreign Policy

The UAE’s approach to regional security has been described by UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr. Anwar Gargash:

Arab affairs should be settled within the framework of the Arab world because the Arab arena then becomes [accessible] to many regional players. I think this is a risk that threatens all Arab countries… There must be strong and effective police and military forces because not every threat faced by countries is international. There are many regional challenges so we should have the potential to face these threats. As [much as] the UAE and other countries need regional allies, we have to start with our own self-power and potential (The National [Abu Dhabi], March 31).

Gargash later said that allegations of UAE interference in Libyan affairs were merely an attempt to divert attention from Libya’s parliamentary elections, in which the Islamists fared poorly: “The people have spotted [the Islamists’] failure and recognized their lies. Disregarding the results of the Libyan parliamentary election is nothing but an indication of the isolation of the group, which is seeking a way out of their segregation, and [to] justify their mismanagement… Since their seven percent does not form a majority, Islamists in Libya resorted to violence and spread chaos across the country” (Khaleej Times [Dubai], August 27).

UAE pilots certainly know the way to Tripoli; during the NATO-led intervention in 2011, the UAE Air Force (UAEAF) deployed six F-16s and six Mirage fighter jets during the anti-Qaddafi campaign (AP, April 27). The UAE has used some of its considerable oil wealth to obtain a modern and well-trained air arm to help ensure the security of the Emirates in an increasingly unstable region. Many of the pilots and technicians are Pakistani ex-servicemen serving the UAE on private contracts. With the Mirage jets being phased out in favor of American-built F-16s, many of the pilots are not trained in the United States or by American trainers in the UAE. The UAE is also one of the few nations in the region to have mid-air refueling capabilities for long-distance operations thanks to its recent purchase of three Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transports (MRTT). In recent years, the UAE has been improving its military capabilities to take a greater role in foreign affairs (particularly in the Arab world) and regional counter-terrorism efforts under the direction of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayid al-Nahyan.

The Egyptian Perspective

Although a cursory examination of a map of North Africa would seem to indicate Libya and Egypt are close neighbors, in reality, their interaction has been historically limited by distance, topography and culture. A brief 1977 border war that ended in disaster for Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s poorly trained Libyan forces marked the last military encounter of any significance between the two nations.

UAE - Egypt Libya Border WarLibyan Troops Celebrate Downing of an Egyptian Fighter by Libyan Mirage Jets during the 1977 Border War. (Tom Cooper Collection)

Egyptian president Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi told a U.S. congressional delegation on August 29 that Egypt respected Libyan internal affairs, but noted that democracies cannot be built on ruins: “Despite Egypt being one of the most harmed parties from the deteriorating political and security situation in Libya, it is committed to non-interference in internal Libyan affairs” (Egypt State Information Service, August 29; Ahram Online [Cairo], August 29). While Egypt has been reluctant to admit any involvement in the airstrikes, there are reports that its newly formed Rapid Intervention Force, a group of some 10,000 commandos with airborne capability dedicated to counter-terrorism operations, has been involved in intelligence collecting operations in eastern Libya focused on Ansar al-Shari’a activities (AP, August 26; Cairo Post, May 8; al-Bawaba, March 30).

Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry was adamant that Egypt was not involved in “any military activity and does not have any military presence on Libyan territories,” all of which might be technically true if Egypt only provided use of an air base to a UAEAF mission (al-Jazeera, August 26). UAE officials were more reticent, noting at first only that the Emirati authorities had “no reaction” to reports of UAEAF activity in Libya (al-Jazeera, August 26).

The day after the attack, the Egyptian and Libyan Foreign Ministers announced a bilateral initiative to restore security in Libya without military intervention by non-Arab (i.e. Western) nations. The plan calls for the disarmament of Libya’s militias with the aid of regional and international partners, but depends largely on commitments from international arms suppliers to halt sales to the militias after disarmament. Though well-intended, neither the Egyptian nor Libyan armed forces have the ability or will to further this initiative (Ahram Online [Cairo], August 25).

Egypt’s Concerns

The political chaos in neighboring Libya is the source of a number of security concerns being examined by Cairo. These include:

  • Contacts and arms trading between Libyan Islamists and Salafi-Jihadist groups operating in the Sinai;
  • Harassment and assaults on Egyptian nationals working in Libya could lead to the return of hundreds of thousands of workers who would become reliant on a state already experiencing its own economic and unemployment crises for their welfare. Other economic impacts have been slight so far, as there is little trade between Libya and Egypt and only a small degree of Egyptian investment in Libya;
  • The absence of state control over Libyan borders, seaports and airports raises a host of security concerns;
  • New armed Islamist groups operating in the greater Cairo region and the Nile Valley (possibly including returnees from the fighting in Syria and Iraq) may seek arms supplies from Libya transported over the largely defenseless southern region of the border between Libya and Egypt. Gunmen and smugglers operate openly in the region and in July attacked an Egyptian base for counter-smuggling operations in the western desert oasis of Farafra (Wadi al-Jadid Governorate), killing 22 soldiers. Securing this region with some type of permanent military presence would require an expensive and logistically difficult deployment of officers and troops, most of whom (despite Arab stereotypes) have little to no experience of the desert and share a great aversion to serving in the Libyan desert in any prolonged capacity;
  • Libya could provide a rallying point for Egyptian jihadists, likely in the newly-declared “Islamic Emirate of Benghazi” (see Terrorism Monitor, August 7). Though the anti-Sisi “Free Egyptian Army” with supposed Qatari-Turkish-Iranian backing appears to have a greater presence in the virtual world than the battlefield, a small number of Egyptian extremists have taken refuge in Libya and could attempt to form new armed opposition groups there (al-Ahram Weekly [Cairo], April 24; al-Akhbar [Beirut], April 10). Working in favor of the Egyptian government is the relative difficulty of mounting operations of any size in Egypt from Libyan bases.

Egyptian Options

Among the options available to Egypt to impose a political/security solution in Libya are the following:

  • An air campaign of limited or sporadic intensity targeting Islamist bases in Libya;
  • Securing the length of its 700 mile border with Libya (a near physical and financial impossibility aggravated by the lack of credible partners on the Libyan side);
  • A limited incursion into Libya establishing a secured buffer zone in the northern reaches of the Libyan-Egyptian border (a move of dubious international legality that would invite Islamist attacks, inflame relations with some Arab nations and drain Egyptian resources better used in the Sinai);
  • A broad multi-year military occupation (with or without allied Arab contingents) designed to disarm militias and support a new government that is likely to be viewed in many quarters as an Egyptian proxy (diplomatically provocative, militarily risky and financially draining);
  • Covert military/logistical/intelligence support for new anti-Islamist factions (created with the help of Egyptian military intelligence) or existing militias. This has been the Egyptian strategy so far, but its support for the “National Libyan Army” forces of Khalifa Haftar and their allies has failed to yield results so far. Cairo may look elsewhere in Libya for someone with greater credibility in Libya to lead anti-Islamist forces – Haftar’s long American exile and CIA associations have worked against him in Libya;
  • Training and arming Libyan nationals to form a new national Libyan army with some limited political direction from Cairo. According to Libyan Army chief-of-staff Major-General Abdul Razzaq al-Nazhuri, Egypt has offered military training for Libya’s new army, an important consideration given that both NATO and the United States have backed off from earlier pledges to provide training due to the continuing unrest in Libya (Stars and Stripes, August 28);
  • Continuing its policy of cultivating tribal elites in the border region for intelligence gathering and counter-terrorist operations. These elements will not work for free, however; they are seeking development projects and legal concessions in return for their cooperation. The tribes that straddle the modern border now control much of the smuggling of arms and other contraband from Libya to Egypt.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood responded to the airstrikes by issuing a statement warning of the “disastrous consequences” of an intervention in Libya and calling for the expulsion of Khalifa Haftar from his Egyptian residence:

Forcing the Egyptian army into this war to achieve foreign powers’ goals and agendas represents the biggest threat to Egypt’s national security and tarnishes the reputation of the Egyptian army, making it look like a group of mercenaries. It also weakens its capabilities when it comes to face real enemies, which brings to mind painful memories of the intervention of the Egyptian army in the war in Yemen, which later led to a disastrous defeat in 1967 in the war against the Zionist entity [i.e. Israel] (Ikhwanweb [Cairo], August 24).

Libya’s branch of the Brotherhood, which fared badly in the elections last June, is now setting up a rival regime in Tripoli to that of the elected parliament.

Conclusion

The lack of consensus in the Arab world regarding the direction of Libya’s future precludes military intervention by an allied force under the direction of the Arab League. Any Arab attempt to impose order in Libya with a military presence on the ground would rely overwhelmingly on forces from Egypt, the Arab world’s largest military power and Libya’s neighbor. However, there are long memories in Egypt of the nation’s last major foreign adventure, the disastrous 1962-1967 Egyptian military intervention in Yemen, which disrupted the Arab nationalist movement, diminished Egyptian influence and weakened its military in the lead-up to the 1967 war with Israel. [1]

The turmoil in Libya strengthens al-Sisi’s posture as the Egyptian and even regional defender of Arabs from religious-political extremism, giving him the freedom to impose stricter security regimes designed to eliminate the Islamist opposition. The question now is whether Qatar will step up its military support of Libya’s Islamists to counter the UAE’s and Egypt’s support of anti-Islamist factions. The August airstrikes on Tripoli suggest that this distant arena is gradually becoming a battleground in the struggle between pro-Islamist states such as Qatar and Turkey and their more conservative opponents – the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Note

  1. See Andrew McGregor, A Military History of Modern Egypt: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Ramadan War, Praeger Security International, Westport CT, 2006, Chapter 19.

This article first appeared in the September 5, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.