Watani talks to Libyan activist and writer Malek al-Sharif about the Libyan predicament
Last Monday, the Libyan Islamist militia that calls itself Jamaat Tanzeem al-Dawla (JTD), which translates into The Group of State Organisation, claimed responsibility for kidnapping 21 Copts in Sirte on which it holds sway. The JTD posted its declaration together with the photos of the Copts on its website, describing the Copts as the Crusader captives of the Islamic State.
Among the abducted Copts, 13 had been kidnapped on 3 January when masked gunmen broke into the house in which they resided in Sirte, and seven were abducted a week earlier as they boarded a microbus heading home to Egypt.
The JTD made no demands whatsoever; it merely claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
There are other Copts who ‘disappeared’ in Libya, among them five from the southern town of Abu-Teeg in Assiut, Upper Egypt, who were kidnapped last August when they were forced at gunpoint to disembark from a car that was taking them back home. The masked gunmen who had stopped the car let the Muslims free but seized the Christians. To date, nothing is known about their destiny.
Consolidation of Islamist militias
Watani talked to the Libyan activist, journalist, and member of The Peace Coalition Malek al-Sharif who cast light on what is going on today in Libya. Mr Sharif said that the JTD had been recently escalating terrorist operations that target individuals on religious identity or political affiliation. A few weeks ago, he said, three young Libyans were executed because of their support of General Khalifa Haftar; and one week earlier 15 Libyan soldiers and a number of Tunisian journalists in the southern region were executed.
The JTD, Mr Sharif explained, is the outcome of the coalition of a number of Islamist militias that have operated in Libya. The groups of Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of Sharia) and Derae Libya (Libya’s Shield) had recently united into what they called The Shura (Consultaive) Council of Benghazi, but the increase in the number of militias in the regions of Sirte and Derna, which lie some 400km off the Egypt-Libya border, led to a consolidation of all armed groups under one umbrella, and the Shura Council was changed into The State Organisation. This organisation has officially pledged allegiance to Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State (IS). Mujahideen from Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi-Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen have joined this group which is now in full control of Sirte and Derna, and part of Tripoli. In these regions, the Libyan flag has been replaced with the flag of al-Qaeda which is now raised over all official buildings in the region. The JTD is also in control of a number of airports, including Sirte, Tripoli and Misrata, as well as Sabratha coast port.
The Libyan government controls only the east of Libya (850km off the Egyptian border), till Kufra in the south, but not Derna.
“We’re fighting you everywhere”
Watani asked Mr Sharif about the situation of Copts in Libya. “There are two million Egyptian workers in Libya,” he replied, “50 per cent of them Copts and these are in real peril.”
Following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Mr Sharif reminded, operations against Copts began in Benghazi. Some 100 Copts were caught and charged with preaching Christianity, a Coptic doctor was killed, two churches in Benghazi were burned, and seven Copts were tortured and shot to death and their bodies cast on the beach.
When Copts started fleeing Benghazi to Sirte, he said, the targeting of Copts moved to Sirte. Last month, an Egyptian doctor, his wife and teenage daughter were killed when gunmen broke into their home at dawn, and seven men were kidnapped while attempting to return to Egypt. The Copts in Libya are afraid to go to church so that they would not be marked for murder.
But why are Copts especially targeted? Watani asked. “Apart from the fact that the Islamist militias commit crimes on religious identity,” Mr Sharif explained, “they also seek to convey a message to the Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi that ‘we are fighting you everywhere’.”
It is a well-known fact here that the international Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movement is backing the Islamist militias, especially since the MB no longer have a chance in Egypt. They thus wish to send Egypt a message that Egyptians have no dignity after the overthrow of the MB regime in Egypt in July 2013. They want to say that neither President Sisi nor Egypt’s current secular regime can protect them.
They also seek to embarrass the Libyan government that can no longer control the situation.
They don’t need money
The JTD did not demand ransom. This should come as no surprise, Mr Sharif said, “the militias do not need money; they already receive strong financing from Qatar, Turkey and the MB. Moreover, they have other huge resources of crime money out of robbing a number of banks.
“They have no demands,” Mr Sharif said. When about a year ago they abducted five members of the Egyptian diplomatic mission in Libya, the Islamist militias had a very clear demand: that the Egyptian government would exchange them for the prominent Libyan Islamist commander Abu-Ubaida al-Zawi who was then being held by Egypt. Egypt did release him, and the diplomats came home safely.
“In case of the abduction of Copts, however,” he said, “there are no demands. The main goal is to embarrass the Egyptian State and any government which supports Egypt and Libya, such as Saudi Arabia, especially after allegations that President Sisi is supporting the Libyan General Khalifa Haftar who is leading a nation wide anti-Islamist alliance in Libya.
In the wake of Charlie Hebdo
It is especially hard for the Copts in Sirte, Mr Sharif insisted, since there is no safe exit for them. The eastern exit to Benghazi is dominated by The State Organisation, and the way out of Sirte to Tripoli on the west is riddled with perilous outlaw activity. “So I expect more Copts to be kidnapped in the coming days,” he said. “The very fact that the JTD has chosen this timing to claim responsibility for the kidnapping of the Copts points at a show of force in face of the massive demonstrations sweeping Europe to protest the Charlie Hebdo shooting. But if, hypothetically, all the Copts in Libya managed to leave safely, The State Organisation would have to resort to kidnapping Egyptian Muslims to go on embarrassing Egypt.
Despite official warnings against travelling to Libya, many Egyptians—according to Mr Sharif—are still arriving, especially from Upper Egyptian governorates Minya and Fayoum; a number of them even come through human trafficking. It is obvious they are in dire need of livelihoods.
14 January 2015