Whereas the Obama administration once sought to juxtapose the supposed success of its light-footprint Libya model with the failures of the George W. Bush administration’s heavy footprint and full-scale invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, now it appears that the decision to “lead from behind” in Libya may come back to haunt the United States and the region.

Today, Libya has descended into civil war. As in Afghanistan in the years immediately preceding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, two completely separate governments claim to be the sole legitimate authority for the entire country as they continue their fight. Meanwhile, huge swaths of the country have descended into chaos. As Amb. Angel Losada, Spain’s special representative for the Sahel, said on February 13 at the Marrakesh Security Forum, southern Libya has become “Club Med for smugglers and criminals.”

Last month, I highlighted the inroads that the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) had made into Tripoli, Libya, to the extent that the group has uploaded videos of its activities and morality patrols in the capital. Whereas once it appeared that either Lebanon or Jordan could be the next states to fall to the Islamic State, now it appears that Libya might have that dubious honor.

Over the past month, however, the situation has worsened even further. From the Tripoli-based Libya Herald:

Egypt today said it was preparing for an evacuation of workers from Libya after the Islamic State published photographs of 21 Coptic Christians kidnapped last month in Sirte. The photographs show the men in orange jump suits being paraded along the sea shore by black-clad gunmen. The Egyptian authorities, facing pressure at home to intervene, said they will consider evacuating some among the tens of thousands of workers who remain in Libya. There are fears that all Egyptians could become targets for IS which regards the authorities in Cairo and, by extension, Egypt as an enemy… Earlier this week Islamic State claimed control of the nearby town of Nawfaliya, while its units have already proclaimed an Islamic Caliphate in Derna on the north-eastern coast….

Egyptian-Libyan relations are long and complex. When Muammar Gaddafi seized power in 1969, he initially courted Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egyptian commentator Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal recalled that, just hours after the coup, Gaddafi asked him to pass the following message to Nasser:

We have hundreds of miles of Mediterranean coastline. We have the airfields. We have the money. We have everything. Tell President Nasser we made this revolution for him… All we have done is our duty as Arab nationalists. Now it is for President Nasser to take over and guide Libya from the reactionary camp, where it was to the progressive camp, where it should be.

The honeymoon was brief—Gaddafi’s impulsiveness was too much even for Nasser who, at any rate, died the next year. President Anwar Sadat backed out of a proposed union and relations deteriorated quickly. Antagonism and distrust has survived in both countries. Throw into that mix the ideology of the Islamic State and the situation is volatile. Home to one in four Arabs in the Middle East and the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt is the ultimate prize. That Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi has become the Arab Ataturk, symbolizing an alternative in which Islam is respected but kept distant from governance, and a desire to bring the fight to Egypt by jihadists is palpable.

What was unthinkable just a few years ago across the Arab world is now the new reality: Syria and Libya were once considered among the most stable, even if repressive, societies and are now the most chaotic. Shi’ites are the predominant power in Yemen. Once the prime obsession across the region, Israel is now marginal to most discussions in Arab capitals. As Libya’s descent into chaos continues, and as the Islamic State makes advances in the oil-rich state, the new unthinkable might be a renewed effort to destabilize Egypt and the potential for real conflict.

Either way, two things become clear:

  • The fight against the Islamic State cannot simply be limited to Syria and Iraq. Defeat of the group in either country does not equate to its end.
  • And, second, Egypt will—as with Jordan—be the next frontline with the expanding movement. It is long past time to stop wringing hands about Egypt’s revolution, the rise and fall of Mohamed Morsi, and the circumstances of President Sisi’s rise. It is essential to support and equip Egypt’s ability to fight terrorism, not only in the Sinai but increasingly against the threat of a looming Islamic State affiliate to its west.

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