Egypt has made something of a habit of following up recent attacks on its citizens and military forces with large-scale security policies. After a series of assaults in late-October that claimed the lives of 30 security personnel, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi took the measure of putting the northern half of the expansive Sinai Peninsula under a restrictive curfew as well as initiating a series of evacuations of those living along the border with the Gaza Strip.
In February, following the emergence of a video purporting to show the beheading of 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya by an affiliate of “Islamic State”, Egypt’s first reaction was to scramble fighter jets in a retaliation that reportedly cost civilian as well as militant lives. Not long after President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi also launched a new grand initiative to tackle the security threats gripping the region: a united Arab military force to “fight terrorism”. He told the nation in a televised address: “The need for a unified Arab force is growing and becoming more pressing every day.”
Despite Egypt’s struggle to quell the growing movement of violent extremism on home soil, the united force idea is befitting of its current aspirations to position itself as a key player in security and stability across the region. Al-Sisi’s administration has tied its fight against the Muslim Brotherhood to the wider regional fight against “Islamic State” (IS), saying they are cut from the same cloth. And Egypt is taking a leading role in organising political dialogue between Libya’s neighbouring governments and is also vying for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The proposition has fallen on receptive ears too, across the constellation of the powerful in the region. Nabil El-Araby, Secretary General of the Arab League, took up the mantra, calling on support for the idea at a meeting of the league’s foreign ministers earlier in March and announcing it will reappear on the agenda of the second-most important conference of notable visitors to the shores of Sharm El-Sheikh this month. He told the recent league summit “we’re in a deep need to create a joint Arab defence force,” to “fight terrorism” as well as “help in peace missions and civilian protection”. But was clear to add that it should be done under the framework of the Arab League, its charter and resolutions.
In a recent interview with Daily News Egypt Libyan Minister of Media, Culture and Antiquities Omar El Gawairi said that “supporting the Libyan army” is the only solution to get out of the current crisis in Libya, continuing that “we’ll push for joint Arab defence… [it is] one of the most important steps” to be stressed upon in the upcoming summit.
But at a time when the Arab world is wracked by even more division, void and turmoil than usual, the possibility of nations lining up under one uniform is far from a straightforward affair.
Libya, a nation still unresolved from the last large-scale foreign intervention, would be a priority for deployment. Whilst strikes on IS-affiliated groups would be first, the main struggle between the Arab League-supported Tobruk government and the Islamist Libya Dawn could divide unified Arab forces before they even entered. The majority of the league’s states are rallying round the internationally-recognised Tobruk government but it is believed that Qatar, like with its support of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, is backing the other team. A report in the British Daily Telegraph claimed to have documented the transfer of weapons from the Gulf state to the rebel forces in Tripoli. Sudan too is believed to be supporting the Libya Dawn militants. Suggesting that any consensus of the Arab League on intervention might be hard to come by. Indeed following Egypt’s airstrikes, disapproving comments from Qatar ultimately led to a recall of its ambassador to Egypt.
Dr Manuel Almeida, a columnist and consultant on the Middle East agrees. “In the case of Libya, I think the situation there is too complex for the deployment of ground troops. It is too dangerous, unpredictable and complex and without a political agreement between the two main factions. I don’t see the purpose in such a deployment at this point… I don’t think Qatar can be forced into accepting the will of other Gulf and Arab states when it comes to Libya.”
But whilst the turmoil in Libya appears to be a non-starter for a unified military force, another civil war is beginning to flare up in Yemen. Saudi Arabia announced it had begun airstrikes on Thursday and Yemen’s officials have openly called on the Arab League summit to consider joint intervention. It may prove to be the arena that brings about the nearest glimmer of consensus for the possibility of unified action, but perhaps not on the terms that would best please Egypt.
Almeida continues that “Yemen has now become a testing ground for a future united Arab Force, with all GCC states (except Oman), Egypt, Sudan, Jordan and Morocco reportedly involved in the Saudi-led operation against the Houthis. This happens ahead of the Sharm El-Sheikh summit where the issue was widely expected to be addressed.”
The passing down of the crown from late-King Abdullah to Prince Salman earlier this year is being mooted among analysts as a potential turning point in the priorities of the pivotal Gulf kingdom that has begun leading the airstrikes. The focus is now turning on to the region’s Shi’a influence, away from Qatar and the billions of dollars of support for Egypt’s elimination of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Political analyst Mohamed Mahmoud recently spoke to Daily News Egypt on the matter. “King Abdullah was concerned with restraining any influence of the Brotherhood that would destabilise the leading role of the kingdom… as the actor of the Sunni community.”
However, with the role of the Muslim Brotherhood largely neutered across the region, Mahmoud said that King Salman is more concerned with the unrest at his doorstep, largely driven by the Houthi Shi’a movement. Crucially, Mahmoud amongst others are suggesting that Saudi Arabia may counter the Shi’a force by endorsing Brotherhood affiliates in Yemen, such as the Houthi-opposed Taggammu for Reform political party.
“Saudi Arabia feels the Iranian menace coming if the Houthis are officially founded in Yemen, which could expand its influence to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon,” Mahmoud stated in order to explain King Salman’s political approach.
It’s an understanding echoed by Janet Basurto, a security analyst based in Cairo. “In Yemen, al-Houthis seized the north and are advancing into Aden causing Saudi Arabia to amass artillery on their Yemen-border. This prompts action by the Arab League, especially in preventing a political vacuum from opening doors to Iran and security vacuum that accommodates AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula),” Basurto said.
So what does this mean? Yemen is calling out to the Arab League for intervention and Saudi Arabia is warming to the idea. President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who has forged his legitimacy out of eliminating the Brotherhood from Egypt may have to begin to follow suit and appease the Saudis and Brotherhood offshoots in moderating his decimation of the movement.
Al-Sisi, who first let out the call for a united Arab force, may have to bite the bullet: forget the idea altogether or sign-up to an intervention that could see him working alongside Brotherhood offshoots, the very groups that he claims to want the help of a united Arab Force to fight against.