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Collapsing Libya sucks in Egypt with Gulf ally in Islamist fight

CAIRO — Egypt has won the United Arab Emirates' support for a crackdown on Islamists, and there are signs the collaboration is extending beyond its borders.

U.S. officials say the U.A.E. and Egypt were behind air strikes in the Libyan capital in the past week. Egypt has denied its forces were involved, while the U.A.E. said claims of its intervention were an attempt to divert attention from political reversals suffered by Libya's Islamists.

The Arab revolts that broke out three years ago have morphed into armed conflicts that mostly pit Islamists against more secular-minded forces. The involvement by a Gulf Cooperation Council member in the Libya strikes, if confirmed, would signal a transition from financier to active participant. For Egypt, preoccupied by internal turmoil since 2011, engagement in Libya would be a revival of the country's regional role at a time when it helped broker a Gaza truce.

"There's a powder keg in Libya which has only partially ignited," said Anthony Skinner, director for Middle East and North Africa at the British-based consultancy Maplecroft. "Libya may witness a proxy war between an elected government, which is backed by Egypt and the Emirates, and the Islamists who are currently backed by Qatar." Qatar has denied supporting any extremist groups.

The airstrikes in Libya targeted Islamists who were fighting an eventually successful battle to gain control of Tripoli's international airport. At the same time, clashes were erupting in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, with the forces of renegade General Khalifa Haftar confronting Islamist groups including Ansar al-Shariah, blamed for the 2012 killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.

The fighting was the fiercest in Libya since Moamar Gadhafi's 2011 ouster and killing, and the latest illustration of the deepening chaos engulfing the country that holds Africa's largest crude reserves. The government has been able to exert little influence over the feuding militias, which have also served as police and military forces.

Islamists largely boycotted a vote in June for Libya's new legislature, the House of Representatives, which took over from an interim Islamist-dominated parliament. Their losses in the last elections reflected what Libyans said was their inability to bring stability and came after officials required candidates to run as independents instead of on party lists. The defunct legislature has since reconvened, defying its successor and naming a prime minister whom it tasked with forming a new government.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who toppled an elected, Qatar-supported Islamist leader and is battling militants in Sinai, has referred to the threat posed by similar movements in Libya as the central government's authority there erodes. Egyptian authorities say weapons looted from Qaddafi's armories are being smuggled into the country.

The lightening advance of Islamic State fighters in Iraq in recent months, battering an American-trained and equipped army, has further fueled concern about the threat from armed Islamist groups.

Not everyone agrees Egypt had acted. Mustapha al-Sayyid, a professor of political science at Cairo University, said he doubted Egypt was directly involved in the airstrikes as such an intervention would be "unwise" and would lead to "retaliatory acts" against Egyptians working in Libya.

El-Sisi called on Aug. 2 for "a real confrontation for the new reality taking shape in Libya," and for "an international strategy to fight terrorism and its growth in the region."

The message serves a domestic purpose too. Egypt has branded the Muslim Brotherhood, which won a string of elections after the 2011 uprising, a terrorist group.

The former general's anti-Islamist stance has complicated his efforts to reclaim Egypt's past role as negotiator in the conflict between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza, which resulted in a truce accord this week after earlier ones failed. Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, is an offshoot of the Brotherhood.

Qatar, a key ally of Hamas, was one of Egypt's chief financial backers during the yearlong rule of the Brotherhood there. Since El-Sisi's takeover, it has been attacked by Egyptian officials.

The gas-rich nation's backing for political Islamist movements has left it at odds with other Gulf states such as the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, whose autocratic regimes see the Brotherhood strategy of bringing political Islam to power via the ballot box as a threat.

Qatar denies supporting extremist groups, with a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement this week citing Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah as saying it rejects their ideologies and ambitions.

The issues in the region "right now are more interconnected than ever before," Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said by phone. "What's happening in Gaza and in Libya is part of the push and pull."

With assistance from Salma El Wardany in Cairo.
 

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