The Libyan branch of ISIS massacred 21 Egyptian Christians over the weekend. A knife-wielding executioner frog-marched the bound and blind-folded captives to a beach in front of a camera, said “safety for you crusaders is something you can only wish for,” and cut off their heads. The Egyptian government responded at once and attacked ISIS positions in the city of Derna near the border with at least two waves of air strikes.
Egyptian Christians in Libya are hardly “crusaders.” Like Mexican migrant workers in the US, they’re leaving desperate conditions back home and looking for jobs. Not that ISIS will ever see it that way. From their point of view, all Christians on earth, including secular Christians, are “crusaders” fit only for slaughter.
“Avenging Egyptian blood and punishing criminals and murderers is our right and duty,” an Egyptian military spokesman said in a statement broadcast on television.
Avenging Egyptian blood, as he put it, is hardly enough to stop ISIS, but there’s something else, something deeper, encouraging about Cairo’s response: a Muslim army is bombing Muslims to avenge murdered Christians. How many of us would have expected that after the Arab Spring soured and briefly brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power?
Egypt has been an emergency room case since Gamal Abdel Nasser and his so-called “Free Officers” overthrew King Farouk in 1952, but it has something most Arab countries do not—a coherent national identity that transcends sect and tribe. The place is riven by sometimes violent sectarian hatreds, and its Christian minority hasn’t been entirely comfortable there for a long time, yet the nation is nevertheless bound together by historic communal memory that stretches back to the time of the Pharaohs.
It isn’t prone to civil war the way Iraq and Syria are and it never has been. The Nile River and its Mediterranean delta are far enough removed from potentially dangerous neighbors that a sense of safety and community can flourish, at least during good times. Iraq, on the other hand, is wedged between large imperial-minded powers—in particular the Persians and Turks—and it’s as wide open and defenseless as Russia.
“While Egypt lies parallel and peaceful to the routes of human traffic,” British explorer Freya Stark wrote during World War II, “Iraq is from earliest times a frontier province, right-angled and obnoxious to the predestined paths of men.”
“Mesopotamia cut across one of history’s bloodiest migration routes,” Robert Kaplan added in his outstanding book, The Revenge of Geography, “pitting man against man and breeding pessimism as a consequence…Whether it was the Achaemenid Persian kings Darius and Xerxes who ruled Babylon, or the Mongol hordes that later swept down to overrun the land, or the long-running Ottoman rule that ended with the First World War, Iraq’s has been a tragic history of occupation. The Tigris and Euphrates, which run through Iraq, have long constituted a frontier zone where various groups, often the residue of these foreign occupations, clashed and overlapped.”
Iraq’s chronically fractious condition makes it a perfect incubator for ISIS. Libya, likewise, has no coherent national identity or even a coherent national government. But Egypt, despite its seemingly endless dysfunction, is a bona fide nation-state. The likelihood that it will become a theocratic power like Iran any time soon or a schismatic dismemberment case like Syria and Iraq is low. Partly that’s because the military is the most powerful and least dysfunctional institution in the country, but also—and just as important—because the majority of Egypt’s Christians and Muslims feel at least some ties of kinship with each other even if those feelings are sometimes submerged and forgotten.
There’s nothing like barbaric mass murder to remind regular people that they have things in common with each other that should never be taken for granted. The ISIS view of the world is without a doubt genocidal. Shia Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, Alawites, Jews, and insufficiently orthodox Sunni Muslims will all find themselves in mass graves if they’re ever captured or occupied. Not even aid workers are safe. Hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims have already fled ISIS rampages in Syria and Iraq. Whether or not the average Egyptian is aware of this fact, the military certainly is. Of that I assure you.
Egypt is hardly the only country threatened by the expansion of ISIS in Libya. After beheading 21 Christians, the man in the massacre video pointed his knife toward Europe and said, “We will conquer Rome, by Allah's permission.”
ISIS will not conquer Rome. It’s impossible. Not even Russia, with all its formidable might, could conquer Rome any time soon. But ISIS just might be bloody-minded and delusional enough to give it a shot. They can certainly wreak havoc and mayhem. Their supporters already have in Paris and Copenhagen and might have pulled off something in Belgium as well had the police not conducted successful night raids in January.
Libya, however, is up for grabs. ISIS took over the entire city of Derna, where more than 100,000 people live, back in November. They've established training camps throughout the country. They control radio and television stations in Sirte. Their sinister enforcers go on “morality patrols” in the capital. And they took credit for a rash of terrorist attacks across Libya even before releasing their snuff film over the weekend.
They don’t have a proper conventional-style army in Libya as they do in Syria and Iraq, but recently ISIS was no more than an elusive shadowy presence even in those countries. So yes, Libya—or at least parts of it—could very well be conquered by ISIS. Parts of it have already been conquered by ISIS.
Egypt’s army is both enormous and state-of-the-art by the Middle East’s standards. If any Arab country were to become a mini regional superpower again, it would be Egypt. It wouldn’t be a benign power necessarily, but it wouldn’t be entirely hostile to American interests either. Not if it’s run by the military.
For all the faults of its coup leader General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—he is without a doubt a far bigger brute than Hosni Mubarak—at least he won’t be backing ISIS any time soon, not even implicitly through inaction. If Egyptian Muslims and Christians can set their differences at least on occasion when facing monsters like ISIS, Washington and Cairo should be able to repair the post-coup rift at least slightly. It wouldn’t be the first time a monstrous enemy inspired an awkward alliance, nor will it be the last.