TIME Egypt

Egyptians Question President’s Decision to Go to War in Yemen

President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi meeting with his Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, the chief of intelligence and military officials in Cairo on April 16, 2015.
Fadi Fares—AFP/Getty Images President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi meeting with his Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, left, the chief of intelligence and military officials in Cairo on April 16, 2015

Egypt's last foray into Yemen in the 1960s was a disaster and the country is beset by domestic problems

A public debate is unfolding in Egypt about whether to expand the country’s role in military invention against Houthi rebels in Yemen, creating a political predicament that could undermine the Saudi-led campaign to support the government.

Egypt said it would join the coalition that is bombing Yemen to combat the Houthis and the forces loyal to Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Egypt sent naval vessels to Yemen’s coast and Egyptian officials have said that a ground assault was planned.

But now there are signs that public anxiety is creating a dilemma for Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who must balance the concerns of a public worried about domestic security and social problems, and the pull of Saudi Arabia, a close ally that has donated billions to Egypt’s government.

Looming large in the public consciousness is the legacy of Egypt’s invasion of Yemen in 1962 and five years of fighting in which more than 10,000 Egyptian soldiers died.

The war is remembered as a disaster which partially contributed to Egypt’s 1967 defeat by Israel in the Six-Day War. In 1967, Egypt had some 70,000 troops in Yemen and many Egyptians see Yemen as Egypt’s Vietnam.

The memory of Egypt’s war in Yemen has been resurrected in recent weeks by skeptical pundits, newspaper columnists, and political parties who oppose sending troops.

Among the critics of intervention is Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a commentator and confidant of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser who ordered the 1962 invasion. “We shouldn’t jump to war,” he said on TV this month. “Yemen is a sleeping volcano south of the Arabian Peninsula. If it erupts, it will sweep the entire region.”

President al-Sisi responded to critics on April 4, saying that Egypt’s current role in the Saudi-led campaign could not be compared with the 1962 invasion, saying he cared for “every drop of blood and every son of this country.”

The debate could complicate the calculations of Saudi officials. At the outset of the assault on Yemen, Saudi Arabia touted the participation of 10 countries in the coalition. That message was dealt a setback last week when Pakistan’s parliament voted against joining the intervention. The Pakistani decision, in turn, was front-page news in Egypt.

“This all puts the Saudi position in quite a quandary, if they intended something far more muscular, because they were clearly trying to rely on subcontractors, so to speak,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. He added the Saudis are now faced with the prospect that “unless they were willing to put their own army on the ground, then they have no ground option.”

Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud met President al-Sisi on Tuesday. They discussed the Yemen crisis and the two agreed on “a major strategic military maneuver on Saudi territory.” But no announcement was made about a commitment of Egyptian troops to Yemen.

The Yemen debate also comes when Egypt’s military and security forces are battling an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula and facing a steady string of bombs and armed attacks in Cairo and other cities. On Sunday alone, 13 people were killed in two separate bomb attacks in north Sinai.

“It’s been a bad couple of days in Sinai, and that magnifies the anxieties, because you’re going off to tend to this foreign engagement at a time when you’ve got perhaps containable but mounting problems at home,” said Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City.

In Egypt’s polarized political context, some commentators dismiss the concerns about the operation in Yemen as speculation. “It’s very uninformed anxiety because there’s no comparison to the intervention that happened during the glory of the Nasser years,” says Hisham Kassem, the former publisher of the privately owned newspaper al-Masry al-Youm. “None of us is in a position to speak about the military operation itself.”

“Egypt is not really participating,” says retired Egyptian Brigadier General Safwat al-Zayat. “The planning was Saudi-American. Saudi Arabia will decide, with American consultation, who will participate, and at what level.”

Khaled Fahmy, a professor of history at the American University in Cairo, said the current debate in Egypt contrasted with the political situation in Egypt during the last Yemen war in the 1960s

“Back in the ’60s when Nasser sent Egyptian troops to Yemen, no one expressed any anxiety. There was no debate,” he said. “Now in Egypt, in spite of the fact we don’t have a sitting parliament, people are writing. People are talking, so much so that the President had to allay these fears.”

The recent signs of dissent also come in the wake of a sweeping state clampdown on political opponents following the military’s removal of elected President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. Morsi’s presidency and his removal left the public deeply divided, with many backing the military.

“This is the kind of situation where they [the state] could face very real public disgruntlement and dissent. There are very few issues that could produce that kind of reaction. This seems like one,” said Hanna. “There has been an interesting level of questioning. That hasn’t been the case in the past year and a half.”

TIME Yemen

Yemen on the Brink of All-Out War as Rebels Move South

People flee after a gunfire on a street in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen, on March 25, 2015.
Yassir Hassan–AP People flee after a gunfire on a street in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen, on March 25, 2015

Analysts fear all-out warfare could allow al-Qaeda to grow in strength and stature

Shi‘ite rebel militias forced Yemen’s President to flee the country as they advanced on the southern port city of Aden on Wednesday, in a move that threatens to tip the country into full-scale civil war.

Yemen’s U.S.-backed President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled Aden by boat on Wednesday, according to officials cited by the Associated Press. The state television network, now controlled by the Houthi rebels who seized control of the capital in September, announced a $100,000 bounty for Hadi’s capture.

The Houthis are mostly members of a Shi‘ite sect from the country’s north, and their decision to stage an offensive into the south is likely to further inflame tensions between the two regions, which in turn could also provide a recruiting boon for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the extremist group’s Yemen-based affiliate.

“As soon as the Houthis declare victory, then the real fighting will start, which is guerilla resistance across the south,” said Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst in the capital, Sana‘a. “There are big questions that pertain to the survival of Yemen as a unified state.”

The Houthis stormed Sana‘a in September 2014, seeking greater representation in Hadi’s government. The President resigned in January and later fled to Aden to declare a rival government. The rebels are now allied with army units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down in 2011 following a pro-democracy uprising in 2011, but was allowed to remain in the country. Late on Wednesday, gunfire could reportedly be heard across the city of Aden as the rebel fighters sought to grain ground there.

The worsening violence in Yemen’s south could also turn into a wider regional conflict. Saudi Arabia moved heavy military equipment to its border with Yemen this week, perhaps out of concern that its neighbor might fall under the influence of Iran, the regional Shi‘ite powerhouse which has reportedly been arming and funding the rebels. Hadi’s government has also appealed for military intervention by other Arab states. The Arab league is set to discuss the plea on Thursday.

The offensive in the south will also empower extremist groups there, analysts say. AQAP, a sworn enemy of the Houthis, which controls territory there, is likely to position itself as the vanguard of resistance to the Houthi presence. Sunni tribes in southern Yemen, who argue that they have been marginalized by the capital since the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, may be tempted to join the group’s ranks. “AQAP has been pushing a very sectarian narrative. It helps them do recruiting along sectarian lines,” said Adam Baron, a Yemen analyst and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign relations.

That doesn’t bode well for the wider world, either. AQAP is among al-Qaeda’s most lethal franchises, and claimed responsibility in January for the deadly attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. As a result, the Yemeni affiliate has been a recurring target for the U.S. military and foreign intelligence operations, including unmanned drone strikes that have killed civilians, a source of resentment among Yemenis. But the U.S. forces won’t be able to use Yemen as a launchpad for counterterrorism operations any more; Washington evacuated all its personnel from the country on March 21 as conditions deteriorated. That leaves few obstacles to hinder AQAP’s growth.

“All the ingredients are there on the ground for al-Qaeda to grow and flourish and recruit,” said Nadwa al-Dawsari, a Yemeni conflict analyst. “They will find a lot of recruits among frustrated southern people, southern youths, southern tribes. It’ll get ugly.”

Read next: Yemen Leader Asks U.N. to Back Military Action Against Rebels

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TIME Libya

ISIS Allies Try to Cut off Libya’s Oil Revenue

A fighter from Misrata shouts to his comrades as they move to fight ISIS militants near Sirte March 15, 2015.
Goran Tomasevic—Reuters A fighter from Misrata shouts to his comrades as they move to fight ISIS militants near Sirte March 15, 2015.

The militants are trying to undermine opponents as the country descends further into chaos

A series of attacks by militants linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on Libya’s oilfields is threatening to further undermine chances of stability in a country gripped by a multi-sided armed conflict.

ISIS, the militant group that took control of parts of Syria and Iraq last year, has found footholds in Libya as a result of a power vacuum engendered by civil war. Now the group’s own attacks on the country’s crucial oil infrastructure are denying resources to its rivals and creating conditions that could help it expand.

“The Islamic State is trying to use the disunity of Libyans, and the fact that there is fighting going on between rival armed groups to target Libya’s only source of income, Libya’s national wealth represented by the oil facilities,” said Mohamed Eljarh a Libya-based fellow with the Atlantic Council think tank.

“By attacking the oil sector in Libya, they will ensure that any unity government will be deprived of much of the funds they need to buy the weapons they need to face this group.” he said.

The attacks forced the national oil company to shut down operations at 11 oilfields earlier in March. In one assault on the Ghani oilfield, the militants killed at least nine people and took several workers as hostages, including four Filipinos, an Austrian, a Bangladeshi, a Czech, a Ghanaian, and one unidentified person. Libya’s overall oil production dropped to a reported 325,000 barrels per day in January, down from 1.7 million per day before the 2011 uprising.

Oil, along with the central bank and other elements of state infrastructure, has also become a focus of conflict between the warring parties, who are divided into two broad camps aligned to two competing parliaments, one in the capital Tripoli and the other — internationally recognized — in Tobruk. Powerful militias from the city of Misrata recently sent some 3,000 men in a bid to take control of the oil port at Sidra, currently controlled by forces of former rebel leader Ibrahim Jathran.

ISIS-aligned militias have also emerged as a rogue factor in Libya’s larger political conflict in which two rival governments and their allied militias are locked in an ongoing battle for control. Neither of the two main political groupings has been able to strike a decisive blow against the other. Neither has been able to dislodge ISIS from its local bases.

Among those strongholds, the city of Sirte has emerged as a flashpoint in the current crisis. ISIS controls key neighborhoods in the city. Its artillery-mounted pickup trucks patrol the streets and its black flag is flying over a large convention center, according to Claudia Gazzini, a Libya-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Sirte and its environs is also where ISIS militants kidnapped at least 20 of the 21 Coptic Christians whose execution they announced in a graphic online video in February. The city is also thought to be the base for attacks on the oilfields in the desert to the south.

In one such raid in February, gunmen killed the guards on the perimeter of an oilfield, then rounded up the workers, lecturing them on the Islamic State’s notion of “true Islam,” according to officials who briefed Gazzini. The attackers threatened the facility’s manager: Tell no one of this for six hours, enough time to allow the attackers to escape. Then they left, taking everything they could: Cars, equipment, guns.

Subsequent attacks have unfolded in a similar style. In each raid, Gazzini says, “They’ve gone in, looted, and gone out.”

“These are targets of opportunity for them, given the proximity to Sirte. It’s a strategy of disruption,” said Frederic Wehrey, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They’re trying to raise their stature through these spectacular attacks and increase visibility and attract recruits.”

The ISIS presence has been a source of mounting concern for the militias in nearby Misrata. On March 14, Misratan forces clashed with ISIS fighters in Sirte, reportedly killing 25 members of the local ISIS affiliate.

“The Misratan commanders told me we’re going to have to confront this threat eventually,” said Wehrey in an interview last week. “They were reluctant to go in with force because of tribal blowback, that this would trigger some kind of tribal feud.”

Meanwhile, the identity of the militants joining ISIS is a subject of dispute among Libya’s factions. Many in the broad camp allied with Tripoli assert that ISIS includes supporters of the former regime of Muammar Qaddafi, which was brought down in an armed, NATO-supported uprising in 2011.The ICG’s Gazzini says there is evidence to suggest that some Qaddafi loyalists may have joined forces with ISIS. Unlike some armed groups that take a hard line against members of the old regime, ISIS has reportedly projected a message in Libya that anyone is welcome to join, provided they pledge loyalty and accept the group’s doctrine.

“Maybe some are faking it, but also the IS rhetoric appeals to a group of former regime officials who somehow felt persecuted in these last few years,” says Gazzini. “The message Dashis [ISIS] might have been projecting out was that of acceptance as long as they repent for their sins.”

TIME Libya

ISIS Fighters Take Over Major Libyan Oilfields

ISIS Islamic State Lybia
AFP/Getty Images An image made available by propaganda Islamist media outlet Welayat Tarablos allegedly shows members of the Islamic State (IS) militant group parading in a street in Libya's coastal city of Sirte, released on Feb. 18, 2015.

Oilfield guards retreated after running out of ammunition

Fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) took over at least two oilfields in Libya and attacked another on Tuesday, according to oil and government sources.

Mashallah al-Zewi, the oil minister in the Tripoli-based government said ISIS attacked the Dhahra oilfield, before retreating. He told AP on Wednesday that the militants swept down from the central city of Sirte and attacked Dhahra oil field to the south, trading fire with guards and blowing up residential and administrative buildings before eventually retreating.

Colonel Ali al-Hassi, a spokesman for Libyan oil industry security told the BBC said the same fighters first took the oilfields at Bahi and Mabruk. “Extremists took control of the Bahi and Mabruk fields and are now heading to seize the Dhahra field following the retreat of the forces guarding these sites,” he said.

Images published online by the Libya Observer news organization showed smashed metal equipment and the charred wreckage of a pickup truck at the Bahi field.

The attacks came as Libya’s warring factions escalated their ongoing conflict. Forces aligned to the government in Tobruk and the rival Libya Dawn administration in Tripoli both staged air strikes on each other’s positions on Tuesday.

Libya has passed through several phases of turmoil since 2011 when its leader Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown in an armed uprising supported by NATO airstrikes. Today, two rival governments are vying for power in a country divided among multiple armed groups.

ISIS, which sent fighters from Iraq and Syria to Libya last year, has also emerged as force in Libya, attracting some support among local militias. Last month Egyptian fighter jets struck ISIS targets in Libya after the group released a video showing the execution of 21 Coptic Christian hostages.

Read more: Inside ISIS, a TIME Special Report

The two oil fields, located south of the city of Sirte, have been shut down for weeks in part due to security concerns. An attack on the Mabruk field last month left at least 12 people dead.

Even if they were able to operate the fields, insurgents would find it difficult to export oil via the country’s Mediterranean ports. An attempt in 2014 by Eastern Libyan rebels to smuggle crude oil was stopped when U.S. special forces boarded the ship, the Morning Glory, off Cyprus.

Experts believe that large-scale oil smuggling from Libya is more difficult than in Iraq where ISIS has been able to export oil to Turkey, Jordan and Iran.

“There’s no way to smuggle oil in Libya,” said Jason Pack, a researcher on Libya at Cambridge University. “The difference from a place like Iraq is Iraq has a long tradition of oil from the Kurdish region going in trucks to Turkey. Libya has no such tradition.”

Analysts say ISIS’s advances in Libya have been made possible by the political conflict in Libya. This week’s escalation comes as the recognized government in Tobruk officially appointed Khalifa Haftar as its armed forces chief. Haftar’s military campaign launched last year against Islamist-leaning factions has further divided the country.

“There’s ISIS in Libya because there’s a lack of a state, and there’s the ability of every militia group to control territory because the major factions won’t work together,” says Pack. “The absolutely only way to eliminate territorial pockets in places like Sirte and Derna is if these groups are willing to work together against ISIS.”

Read next: Hear Jihadi John Defend Himself Against Charge of Extremism

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TIME Egypt

Christians Mourn Their Relatives Beheaded by ISIS

Men mourn over Egyptian Coptic Christians who were captured in Libya and killed by militants affiliated with ISIS, inside the Virgin Mary Church in the village of Al-Aour, Egypt, Feb. 16, 2015.
Hassan Ammar—AP Village residents inside the Virgin Mary Church in al-Our, Egypt, on Feb. 16, 2015, mourn Egyptian Coptic Christians who were captured in Libya and killed by ISIS militants

The 21 men have been declared martyrs by the Coptic Church

In the yard of the Coptic church in the village of al-Our, dozens listen to the words of a preacher speaking into a microphone. His words rise and fall as he says: “The life we live is but numbered days that will quickly pass, the Bible says.”

His words were intended to comfort a congregation mourning 13 of its members who were among the 21 men slaughtered on a Mediterranean beach in a video released last week by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Al-Our is in Egypt’s Minya province, 150 miles south of Cairo, a farm community of some 6,000 Muslims and Christians living in brick, mud and stone houses. Following the spectacular murders of its residents, the town was thrust to the center of the crisis emanating from Libya, where ISIS has established a foothold in the chaos of a civil war.

“I felt peace knowing that they died as martyrs in the name of Christ,” says Bashir Estefanous Kamel, 32, whose two younger brothers and one cousin were among the victims. Kamel says he watched the video depicting the men’s execution as soon as it was available. “Of course, the first reaction was sadness at being separated from family.”

In Christianity, a person is considered a martyr if they are killed because of their faith. Christian martyrs include many early Christians such as St. Peter and St. Paul and more recent examples are priests and nuns killed in German concentration camps or during the Spanish Civil War. Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up between 10% and 20% of Egypt’s population of 80 million, are among many of the recent Christian martyrs. In two recent attacks by Muslim gunmen and mobs, eight Copts were shot in Nag Hammadi in 2010 and 21 killed in rioting in Kosheh in 2000. The ISIS victims are depicted next to the throne of Jesus on banners, which are suspended inside and outside the church in al-Our.

Like tens of thousands of other Egyptians, Kamel’s brothers, Bishoi Estefanous Kamel, 25, and Samuel Estefanous Kamel, 22, had gone to Libya in search of work they could not find at home. Even in recent years of turmoil, Libya’s oil-based economy continued to draw workers, especially from Egypt’s poorer regions. In al-Our, average residents earn between $3 and $4 a day. “It’s a hard life,” says Bashir Kamel. “If you don’t work all day, you don’t eat at night.”

Both brothers had completed two years of university, earning diplomas in industry and agriculture respectively, but could not find gainful employment in Minya. A few months after completing his mandatory military service, Samuel followed his older brother to Libya, where they worked as laborers in the city of Sirt, living among other Egyptian workers.

In December, the murder of an Egyptian Coptic doctor and his wife in Sirt punctured the workers’ sense of security. According to their older brother, Bishoi and Samuel Kamel had planned to return home to Egypt as soon as possible. Then, on Dec. 29, seven Copts were kidnapped from a minibus taking them back to Egypt. A second group was seized from their lodgings in Sirt days later. Bashir Kamel speculates that members of the first group of hostages disclosed the location of the workers’ housing under torture.

The night of the release of the execution video, the village priest, Father Makar Issa went from house to house in an attempt to comfort the families. “There was wailing in every street, every alleyway,” he says. “People were shocked.”

According to Issa, his congregants’ sorrow gave way, within days, to a kind of joy expressed at the men’s martyrdom. On the third day after the video, people gathered in the church. “The women were congratulating each other,” he says. As they left the church, women ululated.

“I am certain it had a positive effect, not a negative effect,” says Issa. “In the month and a half when the people were kidnapped, the whole congregation was coming to the church to pray for their return, but in their prayers later on, they asked that if they died, they die for their faith, and that’s what happened. The congregation is actually growing, psychologically and spiritually.”

Several relatives of the victims applaud Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s decision to bomb ISIS targets in eastern Libya within hours of the release of the execution video. “It’s an honor to us that our government did not let their blood be spilled cheaply,” says Bashir Kamel. “We feel proud.”

Egypt remains polarized in the wake of the military takeover, led by al-Sisi, in which elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was deposed in July 2013. But a powerful coalition stands behind al-Sisi, who has vowed to combat militancy.

Bebawi Yousef, 35, a teacher at a local private school whose two brothers were also killed, echoes Kamel’s sentiment. “We feel proud of our President Sisi. We feel he is keeping us safe.”

Sobhi Ghattas Hanna, whose cousin was killed, says he wants the world to stand with Egypt. “We feel comforted by Sisi’s stance. He ordered the military to strike Libya directly after the video was published,” he says. “We want the whole world to stand beside Sisi in his fight against terrorism.”

TIME Libya

ISIS Sets Sights on Europe in Latest Beheading Video

Relatives of Egyptian Coptic Christians purportedly killed by ISIS militants in Libya react after hearing the news on Feb. 16, 2015 in the village of Al-Awar in Egypt's southern province of Minya.
Mohamed El-Shahed—AFP/Getty Images Relatives of Egyptian Coptic Christians purportedly killed by ISIS militants in Libya react after hearing the news on Feb. 16, 2015, in the village of Al-Awar in Egypt's southern province of Minya

Brutal killing of 21 seems an attempt to provoke retaliation

The executioner speaks in English and points his knife toward the Mediterranean. “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission,” he says.

The video released by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on Sunday showing the killings of 21 Egyptian Christian workers, appeared to be directed at the Christian world, the continent of Europe and gloried in its brutality.

It was filmed in Libya on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The video made no reference to the other powers in Libya’s civil war, in which both of the country’s rival governments claim to be combating ISIS.

Unlike the statements of other Islamist groups in the region, the video also made no mention of the Egyptian state, which has cracked down on political Islam since the removal of elected President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Egypt’s government is also participating in the fight against Islamists in Libya.

Instead, the five-minute film is concerned with more international themes. The targets are not modern states, but rather “Rome” and Christians, who are labeled “the people of the cross, the followers of the hostile Egyptian Church.” The message was phrased in religious terms intended to transcend national boundaries. The video ends with the Mediterranean waves dyed red from the blood of the murdered men.

The spectacular appearance of ISIS on the Mediterranean’s southern shores alarmed European governments. Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano called for NATO to intervene in Libya. “ISIS is at the door,” he was quoted as saying. “There is no time to waste.” If the country’s conflict is not resolved soon, U.K. special envoy Jonathan Powell declared, Libya risks becoming “Somalia on the Mediterranean.”

In response to the murders, Egypt launched air strikes against what it said were ISIS positions in eastern Libya on Monday. It was the first time Egypt acknowledged military operations in Libya, although the government has secretly backed the internationally recognized government in Libya’s civil conflict since last year.

But in spite of ISIS’ self-aggrandizing rhetoric, experts say the best solution is the formation of a unified Libyan government rather than international intervention. “You will not be able to effectively solve the counterterrorism problem, which may involve some external support, without addressing the political conflict,” says Issandr El Amrani, director of International Crisis Group’s North Africa Project.

“Both sides in the political conflict are against ISIS,” he says. “It’s a common problem. The thing is, they’re not going to focus on doing that, all these various militias in both camps, if they’re too busy fighting each other.”

El Amrani says calls for NATO, European, or U.S. intervention were unlikely to result in a large-scale intervention. “There’s not a lot of countries that are very excited about spending more resources on a new military adventure in Libya. Its footprint is likely to be very modest,” he says.

Bill Quandt, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council and professor emeritus in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia, argues that Western options in Libya are limited. “After all we’ve been carrying out air strikes every day in Syria and Iraq and it’s hard to say how much difference it’s making.”

“Iraq and Syria are different in that there are geostrategic stakes involved, particularly with Iraq,” he says. “We’ve invested so heavily there that there’s a sense of sunk costs that we can’t let it totally go down the drain. I don’t think there is that feeling about Libya.”

Read next: Pope Francis Condemns ISIS Killing of Coptic Christians

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TIME Libya

Beheading of Coptic Christians in Libya Shows ISIS Branching Out

Egyptians demonstrate demanding the Government do more to rescue Copts kidnapped by IS in LIbya
Ahmed Masri—Almasry Alyoum/EPA Egyptians protest in Cairo what they characterise as government inaction in reaction to the kidnapping of Coptic Christians in Libya, Feb. 13, 2015.

Militants in Libya represent a "second front" in ISIS's war against the West

The Egyptian government said Sunday that a video apparently showing the execution of Coptic Egyptian hostages in Libya by militants allied to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) was genuine, underscoring the group’s global reach and the unity of message among its adherents.

The five-minute clip, published online on Sunday, depicts the hostages — believed to be 21 Christian Coptic laborers from Egypt, kidnapped from the city of Sirt — being marched onto a beach where they are forced onto the sand and then killed by knife-wielding executioners.

One of the killers, dressed in camouflage, speaks in English. “We will conquer Rome,” he declares, pointing his knife toward the sea.

The video has similar qualities to the filmed executions of ISIS hostages in Iraq and Syria. The hostages wear the same orange jumpsuits as the Western hostages, intended as a reference to the uniforms worn by prisoners in the U.S. detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

In a televised address, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi said his country reserved the right to retaliate for the killings. He also reiterated an offer to facilitate Egyptians’ evacuation from Libya and imposed a ban on citizens traveling to Libya. The President also convened a meeting of senior security officials to discuss a response to the crisis.

The mass killings by a group that identified itself in the video as the “Tripoli Province” of ISIS gives a stark illustration of the group’s influence in Libya, a country consumed by upheaval since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in an uprising backed by NATO in 2011. Two rival governments and a variety of militia groups are currently locked in a multipolar fight for control of the country.

“I think it’s possible that there are currently more Daesh adherents in Libya than in any other country in the world except for Iraq and Syria,” says Christopher Chivvis, a senior analyst at the Santa Monica–based Rand Corp.

“It’s possible that Libya is now emerging as a sort of second front in [ISIS’s] effort to expand from a regional into a global organization,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a direct command-and-control kind of relationship where core ISIS is able to, with any degree of confidence, order specific operations in Libya. I think there’s moral and probably also financial and potentially other forms of support.”

A militia group in eastern Libya declared its affiliation with ISIS last year. Since then, fighters allied to the group have claimed responsibility for attacks across the country, including an assault on a luxury hotel in Tripoli in January.

“The problem is that overlaid on this ISIS threat is a deeply divided country, a civil war. And ISIS is exploiting the fissures of that civil war,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Analysts say ISIS is seeking to attract the support of existing militia groups in Libya in hopes of gaining an upper hand over rival organizations like al-Qaeda or local insurgent groups like Salafist militia group Ansar al-Sharia. The Institutions of the Libyan state have eroded, leaving control of specific cities in the hands of a range of separate armed groups.

“[ISIS] is benefiting from the decline of jihadist groups in the east, like Ansar al-Sharia,” said Wehrey. “It’s co-opting or luring many members of the jihadist movement in the east into its ranks. It’s trying to carve out new turf.”

TIME Egypt

Egyptian Fans Blame Police for the Death of 22 in Stampede

Policemen and soccer fans are seen through barbed wire as fans attempt to enter a stadium to watch a match, on the outskirts of Cairo, Feb. 8, 2015.
Al Youm Al Saabi—Reuters Policemen and soccer fans are seen through barbed wire as fans attempt to enter a stadium to watch a match, on the outskirts of Cairo, Feb. 8, 2015.

Some claim the attack was revenge for fans' political activism

Egyptian soccer fans have accused the police of a premeditated attack on them after a confrontation outside a Cairo stadium left at least 22 people dead on Sunday.

In post on their Facebook page Members of the “White Knights”, a group of supporters of the Zamalek team, said that the police were responsible for “a deliberate massacre, premeditated murder.”

The families and friends of the dead huddled in an alley outside the morgue in Cairo’s Zeinhom neighborhood on Monday morning. Some sat on the sidewalk, their faces contorted, waiting for hours for bodies to emerge.

Among them was a young a 21-year-old man who gave only his nickname, “Suissy,” who says he was present when police fired on crowds outside the gates of Cairo’s Air Defense Stadium. The young man wore a white scarf printed in red with the words “White Knights.” He rolled up the sleeve of his sweater and pointed to a bright red welt on his elbow. “I was hit with birdshot,” he said.

He described the scene that unfolded the previous night. Before Zamalek’s match with ENPPI, another Cairo club, masses of fans pressed toward the gate. The police opened fire with tear gas and birdshot, causing people to run. Most of those who died, he said, were crushed to death.

“In my view, 50% of the blame is on the fans for the overcrowding, but 200% of the blame is on the Interior Ministry for opening fire,” he says. “They also shot at the people who tried to help the injured. And the ambulances didn’t come in time. People died in the road.”

The young man’s testimony was consistent with video footage posted online that shows a throng of fans surging past ranks of black-clad riot police toward the stadium gates. A large metal fence collapses on top of the crowd. Police, some wearing masks, then open fire in in the direction of the fans.

In a statement, the Interior Ministry said Zamalek fans “tried to storm the stadium gates by force, which prompted the police to prevent them from continuing the assault.”

Soccer fans have played a central role in Egypt’s political unrest over the last four years. The fans participated in large numbers in the 2011 pro-democracy revolt and remain politicized.

For fans, the deaths in Cairo were also a reminder of the violence three years ago at a stadium in Port Said following a game between the city’s Al Masry club and the rival Cairo team Al Ahly. Following the disaster in Port Said, which left more than 70 dead, Egypt’s government banned large crowds from attending Egypt’s premier league matches, a ban that had only been lifted last week.

Analysts said the stadium deaths also underscored the challenge of reforming Egypt’s security forces after a series of deadly incidents involving police. Last month at least 20 people were killed when police confronted protesters on the fourth anniversary of the uprising against Mubarak. In a separate incident, an activist was shot dead in downtown Cairo when activists went to lay wreaths in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

“There’s never a commitment to doing wide-ranging structural reform among the security forces,” said Dr. H.A. Hellyer, a fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “When it comes to accountability it’s a very deep issue. When something like this happens, without accountability then brought to bear, it means that it can happen again and again.”

TIME Jordan

Jordan Vows Revenge for ISIS Burning of Pilot

Muath al-Kaseasbeh
Raad Adayleh—AP Supporters and family members of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh at the tribal gathering chamber in Amman, Jordan, express their anger at his reported killing on Feb. 3, 2015

The country is expected to execute several jihadist prisoners in the coming days

Jordan said Tuesday that it would hang several jihadist prisoners in reaction to a video showing Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) fighters burning alive captured Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh.

The video shows a man in an orange jumpsuit who is doused in gasoline in a cage. An ISIS fighter lights a torch and sets fire to the man, who collapses. All previous hostages executed by the group have been beheaded.

Jordan’s government has reportedly scheduled the executions of several jihadist prisoners in response to the killing. One of those reportedly slated for execution is Sajida al-Rishawi, the prisoner ISIS had demanded to be released in exchange for al-Kasasbeh’s release. Al-Rishawi was convicted of attempting to suicide-bomb an Amman hotel in 2005.

“I believe this barbaric act will unite Jordanians against ISIS regardless of their political position in the same way it united them 10 years ago when ISIS bombed three Jordanian hotels and killed more than 60 people,” said Marwan Muasher, Jordan’s former Foreign Minister, in an email.

Regarding the reported plan to execute jihadist prisoners, Muasher said, “I think there will be public pressure to implement the death sentence against them and rather soon.”

The captured pilot’s ordeal has dominated news and public debate in Jordan since he was captured on Dec. 24 after his F-16 fighter jet was shot down during an operation over Syria. Jordan is one of several of Arab nations in the U.S.-led coalition waging a military campaign against ISIS.

In the streets and online, Jordanians expressed both sorrow and anger in reaction to Lieutenant al-Kasasbeh’s death. “I’m really sick to my stomach. This time it hits home,” tweeted Jordanian-American journalist Natasha Tynes. “We lost a brave man today,” said Twitter user @RayaMaraqa, of Amman.

Jordanian King Abdullah II, who was in Washington on Tuesday, decided to cut short his visit and return to Amman, according to Jordan’s official media.

“While the military forces mourn the martyr, they emphasize his blood will not be shed in vain,” said Jordanian military spokesman Mamdouh al-Ameri in a statement broadcast on television. “Our punishment and revenge will be as huge as the loss of the Jordanians.”

Among the Arab states in the military coalition, Jordan finds itself on the front line in the battle against ISIS. Bordering both Iraq and Syria, Jordan is also one of few Middle Eastern countries directly involved in the air campaign against the group. Though ISIS has little support in Jordan, some Jordanians regard the U.S.-led air war as an outsider’s intervention.

“I also do not expect Jordan to pull out of the coalition,” said Muasher. “If anything, it will intensify its involvement.”

The execution video came as a surprise following negotiations between the Jordanian government and ISIS militants, reportedly mediated by intermediaries among key Iraqi tribes. Adding to the confusion regarding ISIS’s motives, indications emerged that Kasasbeh may have been killed earlier in January, long before the release of the video. An activist group called Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered, based in the ISIS-controlled Syrian city of Raqqa, claimed on Twitter on Jan. 9 that he had already been burned to death. If true, the reports would have meant that the ongoing negotiations were meaningless.

Images published online showed crowds of people spilling into the streets of Amman and other cities, rallying in memory of the slain pilot and chanting for al-Rishawi’s execution. “Long live King Abdullah II,” shouted demonstrators at one rally in Amman, according to Twitter user Mark Rafferty. In an attempt to counteract the propaganda effect of the graphic execution video, numerous Jordanians also circulated smiling portraits of al-Kasasbeh.

TIME Egypt

Egypt Frees Australian Journalist But Leaves Many More in Jail

Al Jazeera Journalists Egypt Prison
Khaled Desouki—AFP/Getty Images Al-Jazeera news channel's Australian journalist Peter Greste (L) and his colleagues, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy (C) and Egyptian Baher Mohamed, listen to the verdict inside the defendants cage during their trial at Tora prison in Cairo on June 23, 2014.

Peter Greste was deported but his two colleagues remain in jail

Egypt’s decision to release Australian journalist Peter Greste on Sunday was met with elation by his family and supporters but underscored the plight of thousands of Egyptians still jailed in an ongoing 19-month political clampdown.

Greste was one of three journalists working for Al- Jazeera English arrested 13 months ago and imprisoned on charges of “spreading false news” and collaborating with a terrorists after a lengthy trial regarded internationally as a farce.

Greste’s two colleagues, Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, remain in prison. Like Greste, Fahmy is expected to be released under a decree issued in December by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi granting him power to deport foreigners held in Egyptian jails. However, Mohamed, who holds no other citizenship, is not expected to be released.

In an interview on Al-Jazeera, Greste said: “I also feel incredible angst for my colleagues, leaving them behind. Amidst all of this relief I still feel a sense of concern … if it’s right for me to be free, then it’s right for all of us to be free.”

Greste’s release comes in the context of Egypt’s efforts to stabilize relations with other states and resolve the public crisis surrounding the plight of the three journalists. But that pressure is unlikely to alter the fates of the thousands of others, almost all Egyptian citizens, who have been detained, including dissidents, students, protesters, and other journalists.

“Peter Greste’s release is fantastic news for him and his family, but it does not fundamentally change the overall situation in Egypt which is one of a quite severe crackdown in the last year and a half, a crackdown that is probably the most widespread and severe in the history of modern Egypt,” said Issandr El Amrani, North Africa Project director at International Crisis Group.

El Amrani said Greste’s release was explained in part by the international pressure resulting from the Al-Jazeera case. “Even Egypt’s most stalwart supporters like the United Arab Emirates have pushed for something to be done,” said El Amrani. “They’ve been concerned that the imprisonment of these journalists has hurt Egypt’s image and just created a stumbling block, an obstacle to the full rehabilitation of Egypt on the international scene.”

Since Egypt’s military deposed elected President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the country’s judiciary and security forces have detained as many as 40,000 people in a campaign against political opponents, according to a database maintained by WikiThawra, an initiative of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights.

The prisoners include numerous members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood which has been branded an illegal terrorist organization, as well as numerous non-Islamists dissidents, including the well-known faces of the 2011 popular uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt is also the sixth leading jailer of journalists in the world, with 12 journalists in prison at the end of 2014.

Separately on Monday, an Egyptian court sentenced 183 people to death on charges of killing 16 police officers in the town of Kerdasa, on the outskirts of Cairo, during violent unrest between supporters of deposed president Morsi and the security forces. The ruling was the latest in a series of mass death sentences issued by Egyptian courts over the last year. The mass trials of protesters and alleged insurgents have underscored the aggressive agency of Egypt’s judiciary in the political clampdown. Many Egyptian judges regard the Brotherhood with hostility, and reviled Morsi for threatening judicial independence. Others bring an ideological zeal to trials involving alleged Islamists.

Throughout the clampdown, the three Al-Jazeera journalists have been among the most visible detainees in the Egyptian prison system. Their arrest and trial garnered the attention of news organizations and foreign heads of state. But the divergent fates of the three underscored what the families of some journalists said was discrimination on the part of their government.

“The three of them were tried in one trial. How can two of them be released while the third is imprisoned?” said Jihan Rashed, the wife of producer Baher Mohamed. “I ask that they not discriminate between foreigner and Egyptian, from Arab, from any nationality.”

“I wish that it were a matter of being human. It’s not that I want him to be a human, but I want him to be treated with humanity,” she said.

Another jailed journalist whose plight has received little attention is freelance photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known by his nickname “Shawkan,” who has been held without trial since August 14, 2014. A contributor to TIME, Die Zeit, and the Demotix photo agency, Abou Zeid was initially detained while documenting the government’s deadly expulsion of protesters from Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square. His detention has been renewed by judicial order ever since.

“The Egyptian government ignored him, because he’s Egyptian, not Australian or any other nationality,” said Yehia El Sherbini, a close friend of Abou Zeid. “They took his camera and destroyed it. Why destroy his camera? Why kidnap him and put him in prison? Why? It’s not fair. He’s done nothing wrong. He was doing his job.”

While thousands remain in prison, it remains unclear what, if anything, foreign governments can do to change the overall behavior of Egypt’s institutions. “Clearly they don’t care as much as they used to care under Mubarak,” said El Amrani. “Mubarak was sensitive to some extent to the way Egypt’s image abroad and did make concessions, for example allowed a greater degree of media freedom than currently exists.”

Complicating matters is the ongoing interplay between the executive, the military, and the judiciary. “It’s not so much a question of this is the new normal,” said El Amrani. “We don’t know yet. The regime that followed the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi is still very much in formation.”

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