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The Squadron

In February 2015, the Egyptian Air Force surprised the country when six of its F-15s bombed ISIS targets in Libya in retaliation for the beheading of 21 Egyptian migrant workers. The news was met with joy on the airwaves and on social media. The appalling image of the migrant workers murder had been released the day before and there was a palpable sense of pride that the Egyptian armed forces could react so quickly and effectively to the killing of the lowliest of Egyptian citizens.

It is unusual for the Egyptian Army to launch attacks abroad. Not since the 1960s war in Yemen, sometimes referred to as “Egypt’s Vietnam”, has it engaged in sizeable overseas operations. Since then, Egypt’s has been replaced by Saudi Arabia as the leading Arab power, while the UAE, Turkey, Iran, and Israel, have all overtaken Egypt in relevance, and in power projection.

So in 2015, now also reeling from an aborted popular revolution and subsequent economic recession, the news of Egyptian jets striking out its enemies abroad was met with real joy back home. While, a single raid of little tactical significance in a country where air strikes are depressingly common – Libya has suffered almost 4,500 since 2012 – wasn’t big news overseas, it was a memorable event in Egypt.

This is the trailer for The Squadron, a film produced by the state-affiliated Synergy Films based on those events from 2012. It looks like a standard action movie – helicopters, guns, people getting punched – with the inclusion of a touch of pro-regime propaganda, opening as it does with a patriotic speech by the president. It looks like its shot to a high production value, but I’m curious how you can draw out a single attack on unarmed terrorists to 180 minutes.

As scary as ISIS are, they don’t have planes. The targets in Libya didn’t have anti-aircraft weapons; for all intents and purposes, they were unarmed. Does that not detract somewhat from the narrative tension? At one point in the trailer a gravely commander tells the pilots: “Each one of you who goes out, by the grace of God, will each return”. Well, yeah. That sounds like a reasonable expectation.

We know little about the raid itself, aside from what the Egyptian and Libyan militaries have told us. An Al Jazeera documentary suggested that the 81 people killed in the attack in fact included civilians and at least three children. Either way, there seems to be nothing of much tactical significance about the raid. It was interpreted at home as a show of strength against ISIS in retaliation for the killings. But if, as the trailer suggests, it would like to present the mission as a daring raid, launched against the odds with a crucial objective, it will have its work cut out.

And I wonder how the film will explain why, although the migrant workers were abducted in Sirte, the planes instead bombed Derna, some 500 miles away. Presumably none of those involved in the killings could then have been bombed in the attack. The extra distance to Sirte would be that much more taxing for the Egyptian jets, which would then need to be refueled midflight over Libyan airspace. It’s possible that the Air Force balked at such a mission, in which case the film is really about a raid that shows the limits of Egypt’s military power.

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