Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi today asked for international intervention in Libya after its military conducted airstrikes on Monday against extremist militants that have pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State.
Speaking in an interview with French Europe 1 radio, Sisi demanded a United Nations resolution to mandate action by a coalition of member states. "There is no other choice, taking into account the agreement of the Libyan people and government and that they call on us to act," he said.
Islamic State-allied fighters released a grim video on Sunday apparently showing 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians being beheaded. Sisi's government responded the following day by bombing what it said were facilities belonging to the militants — including training camps and weapons caches — in the northeast city of Derna. Between 40 and 50 people were reportedly killed.
The Egyptian military claimed that all targets were hit "precisely," but video footage and pictures showed damage to residential areas of Derna and a number of reports described civilian casualties.
Nevertheless, Sisi said that further action should be taken, this time as part of an alliance. "We need to do it again, and all of us together," he said.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi also urged the UN to act. The country's Defense Minister Roberta Pinnoti had previously said that Italy was open to being a part of military intervention. The Italian island of Sicily is just over 300 miles across the Mediterranean Sea from the Libyan coast and thousands of migrants have attempted to make their way to Europe by boat in recent years.
Since longtime autocrat Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown and killed in 2011 with the help of an international coalition, Libya has been held together by a complex array of militias representing different religious, nationalist, and regional interests. Disagreements over last June's general election turned Islamist and nationalist factions against each other, however, triggering an ongoing crisis that has left the country in turmoil.
One government, the Tobruk-based Council of Deputies is internationally recognized and was set up after the elections as a replacement for the interim General National Congress (GNC) that governed after Qaddafi's ouster. However, the Islamist factions that had dominated the GNC fared badly in the voting and refused to accept the Council of Deputies' authority so set up a rival government in the capital Tripoli.
'It's highly unlikely that a major international coalition is going to come together in a period when they're falling short in Iraq and Syria.'
This administration condemned Egypt's air strikes on Monday, and Prime Minister Omar al-Hassi accused Cairo of violating international law. "This treacherous aggression and the terrorism carried out by the Egyptian air force is a violation of Libyan sovereignty and a scandalous violation of the UN charter and international law," he said, according the Associated Press. Libya's internationally backed government supported the action.
Islamist and nationalist militias have since clashed for control of the country in an ongoing crisis that has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands. The Islamic State has taken advantage of the chaos to carry out attacks and expand its influence, and a number of militants in the region have pledged allegiance to the organization, including Derna's Ansar al Sharia group, which did so in October.
The international coalition that intervened in Libya in 2011 imposed a no-fly zone and launched strikes on Qaddafi's forces but did little to help as the country lurched into chaos afterwards. Sisi has described Libya as an "unfinished mission" and said the West had "abandoned" Libyans to extremist militants.
The West is currently focused on Islamic State operations in Iraq and Syria, however, and there appears to be little appetite for a return to combat in Libya, whatever the situation. Jon Marks, an associate fellow with Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa program, told VICE News: "I think it's highly unlikely that a major international coalition is going to come together in a period when they're falling short in Iraq and Syria as well as hearing calls for (intervention in) in Yemen."
However US President Barack Obama recently called for war on the Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS, and Marks added that there does appear to be a broadening of the offensive against the group. "With ISIS there's a view that the agenda is widening... with a view to hitting them beyond their heartland," he said.
Marks suggested there could also be a wider response from the Arab world. The United Arab Emirates has already been involved in a series of air strikes on Islamist militias in Libya in August.
Marks said that for Sisi, a strongman ruler in the traditional mold, the hostage killings were a humiliation that he could not allow to pass, and further strikes may be launched regardless: "Sisi has used the projection of power to further his own position domestically and has already shown that he thinks he needs to project air power in Libya, I wouldn't rule out anything else."
Egyptian authorities will also see gains by other Islamist factions in Libya, Syria, and Iraq as a direct existential threat. The rise of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood will be particularly unwelcome in Cairo, where the military removed democratically-elected Islamist president and Egyptian Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi from power last year, then launched a brutal crackdown on his supporters.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck