North Africa, West Asia

Tripoli airstrikes

Maged Mandour

These airstrikes demonstrate new fault lines in the Arab world: between Arab conservative regimes, their Islamist foes, and the democratic secular forces who find themselves in an impossible situation. 

Maged Mandour
15 September 2014

The airstrikes on the Misrata militia during the battle over Tripoli International Airport, by what US officials claim were Emirati and Egyptian fighter jets, did not get much media coverage. This is understandable considering the more dramatic events unfolding in the Arab World, such as the rise of ISIS and the war on Gaza.

However, these airstrikes, which failed to reverse the battle for the airport - assuming this was their aim - have significant political importance. They demonstrate new fault lines in the Arab World, marking the struggle between Arab conservative regimes on the one hand and their Islamist foes on the other, with democratic secular forces finding themselves caught in between. So why did Egypt and the United Arab Emirates launch these airstrikes? What does this signify for the wider region? And what does it mean for the future of the Arab revolts? 

The Egyptian Armed Forces supposedly allowed the Emirati air force to use its bases to launch the attack, but the Egyptian government was quick to deny involvement, sensing a possible domestic backlash. It has built its legitimacy on a narrative of “fighting terrorism”, and due to the link established between political Islam and terrorism, the “go to” answer is that the current regime is intolerant to Islamists making gains on the ground in Tripoli, and thus felt the urge to intervene. However, this argument ignores that there are no significant signs of Egyptian interference in Libya. For example, there is no evidence of support from General Haftar, the leader of the main force combating the Islamists in Libya.

So what is at play? After the coup that ousted President Morsi, the Egyptian military regime received large amounts of aid and financial support from conservative Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This is not only limited to financial aid. The UAE has also become an important business partner of the Egyptian military, as it has, for example, replaced Qatar as an investor in the new Suez canal project, which the Egyptian military is using to shore up its domestic legitimacy by marketing it internally as a transformational national project, similar to the high dam project during the days of Abdel Nasser. Furthermore, the UAE has also partnered with the Egyptian military in a mega construction project worth 40 billion US dollars.

This pattern has major political significance, as the current military regime in Egypt is facing a major internal economic crisis. The Egyptian state is on the verge of bankruptcy and the only remedy for the current situation is a change in the political economy of the country. A solution to this crisis would be for the vast military economic empire to be subjected to taxation and transferred to civilian oversight and control, which of course is not taking place. Thus, in essence, the financial support from conservative Gulf monarchies allows the current structure of the Egyptian state, as a rentier state, to continue unabated. In return, what does Egypt have to offer? In essence, it 'rents out' its strategic and political weight to the Gulf States, and in certain cases, offers services for the protection of the regimes of these states, as the largest Arab army.

The airstrikes in Tripoli are the latest example of this, where Egypt has permitted the use of its air bases in an attack that did not affect it directly, in essence, ignoring Egyptian national security needs. This has led to the further erosion of Egyptian soft power with regards to its ability to influence events on the ground in Libya, which is strikingly similar to the policy currently being adopted towards Gaza. Egyptian national interests are subservient to the interests of other regional and international powers, who are acting as patrons of the current regime.

The UAE, on the other hand, recently seems to be pursuing a relatively aggressive foreign policy by engaging in military action outside its own borders. The question again is, why? The first reason is the general paranoia that the Gulf monarchies have of Islamism, as a possible alternative to the rule of their Arab Sheiks. After the air strike, the Emirati regime apprehended a number ofLibyans accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who will most likely will face a lengthy prison sentence. This follows the pattern of events after the removal of Morsi, when a number of Egyptians and Emiratis were accused of forming a branch of the Brotherhood in the UAE. The fear of the Arab revolt reaching the UAE and other Gulf states in an Islamised form is very potent and real, making the suppression of such movements a priority in these countries.

The other reason, which is less obvious, is Qatar. Qatar has aggravated its neighbours because of its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, in an attempt to raise its own regional profile and prestige. The UAE has been an adamant opponent of Qatar, and has led the hardline camp against the Qataris. As such, the airstrikes on Libya were a warning to Qatar, especially as talks were due to take place in Qatar with Saudi officials, to end the rift between Qatar and the Gulf States. The message was clear, end your support for the Muslim Brotherhood or else.

What does this mean for the progressive forces in the Arab World? It seems to me that the current dynamic will only serve to sideline those demanding genuine change. The security narrative of the conservative regimes is overpowering the demand for greater freedoms as the call for democracy is becoming smothered under the need to “combat terrorism”. There is also deliberate mixing of moderate and radical forms of Islamism. In other words, in the minds of many Arabs the Muslim Brotherhood has become synonymous with ISIS, and the opposition to the current regimes has become equivalent to the support of terrorism. This naturally feeds into the hands of Islamists, who are becoming radicalised due to severe repression.

But as living conditions deteriorate and the level of suppression increases, radicalism is becoming more attractive to the millions of disenfranchised Arab youth, leading to a cycle of suppression and radicalism that seems to have no end in sight. It seems that this cycle can only come to an end in the long term, when the failures of both parties leave space for a well-organised, ideologically motivated revolutionary movement capable of exploiting both forces, namely Islamism and conservatism. 

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