October 22, 2014 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1125

Egypt's Position On International Anti-ISIS Coalition: Reserved Support Alongside Refusal To Commit To Military Participation

October 22, 2014 | By L. Lavi*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1125


In contrast to Jordan and the Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Qatar), which are taking an active part in the international coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS) and in the coalition's airstrikes against this organization in Syria, Egypt has so far refrained from any military participation in these operations. Although, like most of the coalition's Arab members, it belongs to the moderate Arab axis, it has confined itself to verbal expressions of support for the coalition.

On the declarative level, Egypt has indeed expressed its complete commitment to the U.S.-led coalition and claims to be part of it. It feels obliged to support any regional and international anti-terror measures, because it regards itself as a regional power involved in all major Middle East developments, and also because it itself suffers from terrorism and is acting to eradicate it. This position is evident from statements made by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at a September 11, 2014 international conference in Jeddah on joint action against ISIS, which was attended by the foreign ministers of the U.S., Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and the Gulf states. Shoukry said that Egypt's role in the coalition would be "a supporting role," adding that "there is no choice but to participate [in the coalition], since Egypt suffered and is suffering from terror operations targeting innocent people," and that "Egypt is involved in all regional and international efforts against terrorism."[1]

In practice, however, Egypt has considerable reservations about the coalition and has declared it will not dispatch military forces to participate in its operations. Foreign Minister Shoukry has said on more than one occasion – most recently in an interview with the German news agency DPA[2] – that Egypt will not be involved militarily, stressing again and again that its role would be limited to political support, expressing solidarity, exchanging intelligence information and cooperating with the international community, working to dry up sources of funding for terrorism, and activity by Al-Azhar to combat extremist religious discourse.[3] It was recently reported that Egypt is also willing to train Iraqi army forces on its soil.[4] Egyptian President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi was vaguer in his statements on the issue of Egypt's military participation in the coalition, especially after other Arab countries joined the airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, and during his visit to the U.S. in late August, 2014. Al-Sisi avoided any making unequivocal statements on this matter, but did not rule out limited Egyptian military involvement.[5]

Egyptian daily: "Egypt Refuses to Participate in 'ISIS War'" (Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Egypt, September 13, 2014)

Statements made by Egyptian officials and articles published in the Egyptian and Arab press in the last few weeks reveal that Egypt has three reservations about the coalition, having to do with its domestic and regional interests:

1. Egypt opposes limiting the international war on terror to ISIS alone, and wants U.S. support for its internal fight against terror organizations on its own soil, first and foremost the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which it regards as the umbrella organization for all terrorist groups, including ISIS.

2. Egypt demands that the coalition not limit itself to acting in Syria and Iraq, but that it also support the struggle of the Libyan authorities in Tobruk against terrorist forces in the country, which are also threatening the Egyptian border.

3. Egypt prefers to remain neutral in the Syrian crisis. Unlike other Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, which are calling to topple the Assad regime, Egypt refrains from taking an explicit stance against this regime. Perhaps as part of this it prefers to avoid participating in military attacks on ISIS on Syrian soil, attacks which the Syrian regime has termed "illegitimate." In addition, Egypt apparently fears that military intervention in Syria may harm the regime and its army, leading to the splintering of Syria – which could open the door to future similar intervention in other Arab countries, including Egypt itself.

Despite Egypt's reservations about the coalition and its refusal to participate in its military operations, developments may cause its stance to change, especially now that the U.S. has met its demand to deliver 10 Apache helicopters that it needs to combat terror in its own territory, and whose delivery the U.S. had delayed since Mursi's ouster from power in 2013. Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab told Reuters on October 20, 2014 that, while his country did not mean to extend direct military assistance to the U.S. in its war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and is placing priority on protecting its own people within its borders, Egypt might nevertheless intervene militarily if its allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are threatened.[6]

It should be mentioned that, while the Egyptian regime is expressing reserved support for the international anti-ISIS coalition, op-eds in the Egyptian press have been openly critical and even hostile towards the coalition. Most of the writers were explicitly opposed to it, questioning the sincerity of its declared motives and its chances of success. The main argument made in the articles was that the real goals of the war against ISIS are to weaken the Arab countries, so as to give Israel supremacy in the region; restore the MB rule in Egypt, and guarantee the supply of oil from the Middle East to the U.S. and its allies.

This report reviews the reserved Egyptian position on the anti-ISIS coalition and its activity, as expressed in statements by Egyptian officials and articles in the Egyptian press.

Al-Sisi: We Support The Coalition, But Will Only Operate Within Our Own Borders; Egyptian FM: We Will Not Participate In Military Action Against ISIS

As stated, Egyptian officials, headed by President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, are expressing full support for the international coalition against ISIS. However, their statements also indicate that Egypt is uninterested in participating in anti-ISIS coalition military operations.

In a September 20, 2014 AP interview just prior to his departure for the UN General Assembly in New York, Al-Sisi noted that Egypt absolutely supported the coalition and was willing to assist it in any way. In response to a question about whether Egypt would open its airspace for attacks on ISIS or would provide logistical support, he replied: "We are totally committed to providing support. We will do whatever is required." However, when asked specifically whether Egypt would intervene militarily as part of coalition operations, he said: "We intend to keep our efforts within our own borders."[7]

On September 22, 2014, the day after the first coalition airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, in which Arab countries participated, and during his visit in New York for the UN General Assembly, Al-Sisi gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal, in which he implied that Egypt would not get significantly involved militarily in the military campaign against ISIS. This statement could indicate that Egypt would be willing to consider limited military intervention. However, in the same interview, Al-Sisi said that the Iraqi army and countries neighboring Iraq and Syria, such as Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, should play the central role in fighting ISIS, adding that "the symbolism of a united coalition is very important."[8]

In a September 23, 2014 interview with CBS, Al-Sisi was asked whether Egypt would participate in airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. This time, Al-Sisi laughed in embarrassment and said that the U.S. should deliver to Egypt the jets and Apache helicopters, whose transfer is over 18 months overdue.[9] Asked whether Egypt would take part in the bombing if it were to receive the Apache helicopters from the U.S., Al-Sisi again refrained from providing an unequivocal answer, saying only: "We are part of this coalition."[10]

In contrast to Al-Sisi, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has explicitly stated on more than one occasion that Egypt would not participate in military action against ISIS. In a September 23, 2014 interview with the official Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, he said that Egypt would not take part in coalition military action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and that its role would be limited to political support, exchanging information with the international community, working to dry up sources of funding for terrorism, and spreading the correct Islam via its religious institutions with the aim of undermining terrorists' recruitment capabilities. He said that the Egyptian military's responsibility is to defend Egypt itself and the Egyptian people, and to preserve the country's stability.[11]

Shoukry reiterated this position the following week, in a September 29 interview with the London-based daily Al-Hayat, when he said that Egypt's support for the coalition boils down to "political support and solidarity," exchanges of information, and changing the religious discourse.[12]

Egypt's Reservations Regarding The International Coalition

The International Fight Against Terrorism Should Include Muslim Brotherhood

First of all, Egypt apparently wants to link its own struggle against the MB to the international struggle against terrorism, depicting the success of the former as crucial to the success of the latter, since, it says, the MB is the umbrella movement of all global terrorism, including ISIS. For this reason, Al-Sisi told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on September 13, 2014 during the latter's most recent visit to Egypt that the coalition's mission should not be restricted to fighting a specific organization – i.e. ISIS – but should be expanded to include all regional terrorist organizations – i.e. the MB as well.[13]

This position was also expressed in Al-Ahram's September 14, 2014 editorial, which stated: "If the U.S. is serious about combating terrorism and hunting down terrorist organizations... there is no way to avoid taking clear steps to uproot them – not just attacking a single organization known in the media as ISIS.

"The first of these steps is to reexamine how the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, see the MB and its activity... Armed movements and takfiri groups, including ISIS, have all emerged from under the robes of the MB, and therefore we cannot hunt down and attack terrorism dens while protecting the umbrella organization of terrorism, sheltering its leaders, and granting it freedom of movement..."[14]

In his column in Al-Ahram, Egyptian media figure Ahmad Moussa wrote: "Why is the U.S. restricting [its definition of] terrorism to ISIS, when it itself is the reason for [ISIS’s] existence and strength because of its support for the umbrella movement from under whose robes emerged all the world's terrorist organizations?! This is the movement of terrorism founder Hassan Al-Banna and of Sayyid Qutb, with his theories of beheading and accusations of heresy. [Qutb's] philosophy was the charter of terrorists from Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Jihad [organization], Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya, and the organization of the criminal [MB General Guide Muhammad] Badi'..."[15]

ISIS emerges from MB cauldron (Source: Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', Egypt, August 24, 2014)

Furthermore, Egypt is having a hard time supporting a U.S.-led coalition because of the tension that has prevailed between the two countries since the MB regime was toppled on July 3, 2013 and the U.S.'s subsequent suspension of its aid to Egypt.[16] Egypt is angry that the U.S. expects it to take part in the international struggle against terrorism while, for over a year, it opposed Egypt's own struggle against the MB and denied it the financial and military aid that it had given it prior to Mursi's ouster, including delaying the transfer of the Apache helicopters Egypt needs for its domestic fight against terrorism. For this reason, Foreign Minister Shoukry said at the Jeddah conference: "Egypt supports the coalition against terrorism... but it makes no sense for us to mobilize our resources to defeat ISIS while we are being denied these resources..."[17]

On October 10, 2014, apparently as part of its efforts to strengthen Egypt’s commitment to the coalition, the U.S. finally delivered to Egypt the 10 Apache helicopters, after having delayed doing so for months.[18] It is also possible that as part of these efforts, the U.S. pressured Qatar, leading it to deport seven MB officials wanted by Egyptian authorities in mid-September 2014.[19] However, this move did not satisfy Egypt, as it did not constitute any substantial shift in either Qatari or U.S. policy vis-à-vis the MB.[20]

The International Struggle Against Terrorism Should Include Libyan Organizations

Second, Egypt demands that the coalition not limit itself to acting in Syria and Iraq, but that it also support the struggle of the Libyan authorities in Tobruk against terrorist forces in the country, which are also threatening the Egyptian border.[21] It should be mentioned that extremist groups in Libya have in recent months targeted Egyptian citizens living and working in this country. Moreover, in July 2014, 21 Egyptian soldiers were killed in an attack in the Western Egyptian desert that was most likely carried out by terrorists who entered Egypt from Libya.[22]

It is to Libya that Al-Sisi was referring when he told Kerry on September 13, 2014 in Cairo that any regional anti-terrorism coalition should expand to include all terrorist groups in the Middle East and Africa, and not focus on one specific organization.[23] Al-Sisi repeated this argument in interviews with American media as well.

Accordingly, the September 14, 2014 Al-Ahram editorial read: "The war on terrorism cannot be limited to organizations in Iraq and Syria only, while ignoring similar organizations scattered across Libya, and the international community cannot avoid aiding the elected Libyan parliament so that it can carry out its role of rebuilding Libya, imposing its authority on all Libyan territory, and combating armed militias..."[24]

Another Al-Ahram editorial, which came in response to the September 20, 2014 French attacks on ISIS targets in Iraq, stated: "The surprising thing is that the superpowers mobilize military forces as quickly as possible in order to besiege some 30,000 combatants operating in central Iraq… while all Libya is descending into near-total chaos under the feet of the extremist movements that champion [slogans] that are no less evil than those of ISIS. This is an incomprehensible contradiction... How can global public opinion be convinced of the justice of the inclinations and intentions regarding the danger of ISIS, while Libya is mired in the chaos of that group's brother [organizations]? This worrying disregard of the situation in Libya arouses questions about the real, undeclared plan for the Arab East..."[25]

TV commentator: "American and French jets in the area"; wife to husband: "Which is better, my love – American or French occupation?" (Source: Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Egypt, September 21, 2014)

In another Al-Ahram article, Ahmad Moussa clarified Egypt's position: "Egypt will not fall into the American plan. Egypt has a courageous stance, as expressed by President Al-Sisi or Foreign Minister Shoukry, according to which the fight against terrorism should expand to Libya... Egypt will not be part of a coalition working for an agenda that serves only [the interests] of that coalition, as opposed to those of the Arab peoples..."[26]

Egypt Seeks To Maintain Its Neutrality In The Syrian Crisis

Third, there is an impression that Egypt would prefer to maintain its neutrality in the Syrian conflict, and is therefore uninterested in taking An active part in military attacks against ISIS in Syria, which the Assad regime sees as illegitimate and potentially harming Syria's sovereignty.

Unlike its Saudi ally, Egypt is refraining from taking an explicit stand against Assad, and would rather be seen as neutral. While Saudi Arabia says that the Assad regime is illegitimate and must be removed and the moderate opposition must be supported, Egypt stresses that it supports neither side in the conflict. Al-Sisi expressed this approach on August 23, 2014 to Egyptian newspaper editors, saying that Egypt supports neither the Syrian regime nor the opposition, and is biased towards neither, but rather is concerned about the splintering of Syria. He added that Egypt is working to promote a peaceful solution for the Syrian situation that will preserve its territorial integrity.[27]

Ghassan Charbel, editor of the London-based daily Al-Hayat, pointed to Egypt's and the Gulf states' divergent perceptions of the Syria crisis as the determining factor in Egypt's non-participation in airstrikes against ISIS. He said, "Egypt's absence from the airstrikes was unsurprising, due not just to its prevailing domestic situation, but also because its view of the ultimate solution in Syria is not the same as that of the Gulf states that are members of the coalition..."[28]

Moreover, various reports published recently by Arab media show that Egypt seeks to promote a new initiative for a political arrangement in Syria, which could be why it wishes to maintain a neutral image in the eyes of the Syrian regime and is not participating in bombing Syria.[29] Another possibility is that Egypt fears that legitimizing military actions against the Syrian regime could open the door to future similar operations in Egypt itself.

It is also possible that Egypt sees the Assad regime as similar to its own – i.e. part of the Middle East's old guard, that perceives the MB and the Islamic wave generated by the Arab Spring as a threat. Therefore, the Egyptian regime would prefer to preserve the existing regime in Syria, even if it is not headed by Assad himself. It also wants to protect the Syrian army, which it sees as a buffer against the MB, and fears that the coalition's intervention in Syria would harm this interest. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat columnist Mashari Al-Dhaidi said that Egypt treats the Syrian army like its own – as "an element protecting the country against the MB and is threatened by it."[30]

As'ad Haidar, a columnist for the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal, discussed Egypt's fear that the Syrian army would be dismantled, possibly leading to the splintering of Syria and danger to the entire region: "Concern prevails in Egypt, and President Al-Sisi is particularly [concerned], about the 'scissors of division' [threatening] the Arab world... [Egypt's] greatest fear is that the Syrian army, which must remain united at all costs, has wearied and is showing signs of fatigue and schism. If the Syrian army splinters, so does Syria, and the gates are then open to danger threatening the survival of the rest of the region..."[31]

In its September 20, 2014 editorial, Al-Ahram also touched on Egypt's fear that the coalition would damage the existing order in Syria and its army: "Isn't it [true that] the basic reason for creating ISIS and then attacking it was to attack Syria and divide it, and then later to declare an independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq?..."[32] Al-Ahram columnist 'Imad 'Arian wrote: "The ostensible war against ISIS will actually be a war to oust Assad and to destroy the Syrian army, in order to pave the way for the so-called Free [Syrian] Army, which is supported by American weapons and Arab funds. All this is in order to ensure that Washington will ultimately succeed in destroying another Arab country, after [it destroyed] Iraq and Libya..."[33]

U.S. soldier, ISIS militant; on sign: "Implementing 'Sykes-Picot 2' plan for dividing the region." Source: Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Egypt, September 19, 2014.

Several Al-Ahram columns also demanded that the coalition take the Assad regime into account, and even coordinate with it. For instance, Muhammad Al-Sa'id Idris wrote: "Egypt has an interest in eliminating terrorism, but this will not happen by fighting ISIS and similar groups without destroying the roots of terrorism in Syria, and the war on terror cannot expand to Syria without coordinating with the Syrian regime. It is unacceptable for there to be coordination with the Syrian regime to eliminate terrorism without also arriving at mutual and honest understandings with it regarding a political solution for the Syrian crisis, which will give the Syrian people its legitimate right to elect its desired regime and president. No one but Egypt can carry out such complex tasks. Luckily, there is now an understanding among the other parties that the war on terror cannot be realized other than by ensuring a political solution that satisfies all sides in Syria..."[34]

Similarly, Ahmad Moussa wrote: "We in Egypt are very interested in the strategies and policies suggested by NATO to combat the danger posed by ISIS in Syria in Iraq. But this does not mean that we accept this strategy in its entirety. In my estimation, the biggest mistake in this strategy... is the lack of a realistic view of the goings on in Syria – especially the ongoing disregard for the Syrian regime's ability to survive. The price [of its survival] is indeed skyrocketing, but the regime is still a central factor on the Syrian map..."[35]

*L. Lavi is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 12, 2014.

[2] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 22, 2014.

[3] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 23, 2014; Al-Hayat (London), September 29, 2014.

[4] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 4, 2014.

[5], September 22, 2014;, September 23, 2014.

[6], October 20, 2014.

[7] In the interview, Al-Sisi said that he believes the U.S.-led coalition is capable of eliminating ISIS with airstrikes combined with Iraqi army efforts, and that "it is not a matter of sending foreign infantry.", September 21, 2014.

[8], September 22, 2014.

[9] Following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, the U.S. delayed the return of Apache helicopters sent from Egypt for repair and maintenance.

[10], September 23, 2014.

[11] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 23, 2014.

[12] Al-Hayat (London), September 29, 2014.

[13] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 14, 2014.

[14] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 14, 2014.

[15] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 17, 2014.

[16] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5509, "Responses In Egypt To U.S. Aid Freeze: Between Anger And Apathy November 6, 2013.

[17] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 12, 2014.

[18] Ahram Online, October 14, 2014.

[19] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 5, 2014.

[20] It should be mentioned that the Egyptian MB opposes the international coalition against ISIS. In a statement, the movement said that terrorism has become a vague concept used by the West against anyone it is displeased with or wants to tarnish or combat. It further stated that the term “struggle against terrorism” was a cover for a struggle against Islam and Muslims, while the only terrorism in Egypt that should be combated is the one employed by the Al-Sisi regime against the MB itself. An article on the MB website claimed that the true purpose of the coalition was new imperialist conquest to divide the entire region so that it contains no other united piece of land aside from "the Zionist entity.", September 15-16, 2014.

[21] It should be mentioned that last month, reports indicated that UAE jets attacked Islamist positions in Libya, using Egyptian bases – a report Egypt denied. In addition, it was reported that the Libyan parliament in Tobruk signed an agreement with Egypt permitting it to enter Libyan territory via air or land as needed during the next five years. Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry clarified that his country was not interested in any military intervention in Libya, but had offered to train the Libyan army. Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 24, 2014; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 15, 2014. Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 22, 2014.

[22], September 20, 2014.

[23] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 14, 2014.

[24] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 14, 2014.

[25] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 20, 2014.

[26] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 17, 2014.

[27] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 24, 2014. It should be mentioned that a Syrian regime delegation recently attended a conference held by the Arab League and UN in Egypt. At the same time, Egyptian officials met in Damascus with a delegation of officials from the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 15, 2014.

[28] Al-Hayat (London), September 24, 2014.

[29] In late August 2014, the Saudi daily Al-Watan cited Arab political sources in Europe who said that Egypt was leading a new Arab initiative for a solution to the Syrian crisis, which it had also presented to Russia. According to this report, the initiative includes Assad leaving the regime in return for a regional-international coalition war against ISIS in Syria. The website for the Lebanese channel Al-Aan TV reported that the initiative proposed that Assad and 200 of his men retire and leave the country in return for immunity from prosecution; that a transitional government headed by Syria National Coalition head George Sabra be established, with the promise of protecting minorities; that the Free Syrian Army be integrated into the regime military and that defected officers be restored to the military; that Syria be rebuilt at a cost of $100 billion; and that Arab League forces be deployed to protect the peace in the coastal and central regions. It was further reported that Iran opposed the first clause, and proposed that Assad manage the transitional stage on his own, but that the Saudis oppose this. In October 2014, new reports discussed an Egyptian initiative on Syria, but were denied by the Egyptian foreign ministry. Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 27, 2014;, September 9, 2014; Al-Rai (Kuwait), Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), October 19, 2014.

[30] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 2, 2014.

[31] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), September 23, 2014.

[32] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 20, 2014.

[33] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 22, 2014.

[34] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 9, 2014.

[35] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 8, 2014.

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