By Brett Borkan
CAIRO: While many observers traditionally feared an increased risk of terrorist activity in Egypt if Mubarak and his iron-fisted approach to counterterrorism fell, many security analysts now see the risk of terrorism actually decreasing.
Apertures in Egypt’s political system that are bringing the country away from its authoritarian political roots and giving diverse political factions voices in a new, budding democratic system will leave terrorist groups out in the cold, argued Paul Pillar, professor of security studies at Georgetown University, and 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“The expansion of peaceful opportunities for political expression, and for being able to influence governmental policies through democratic means, will reduce rather than increase the appeal of radical ideologies and extreme methods,” Pillar explained to Daily News Egypt.
On the surface, much has happened since the fall of Mubarak that would point to an increased risk of terrorist activity in Egypt. Thousands have been released or escaped from prison, many of whom were Islamic militants locked-up under the former regime. The police have virtually disappeared from the Egyptian streets, and those that remain have had their activities placed under the public microscope. The country’s notorious State Security has been disbanded and resurrected under a new banner, the National Security agency.
Egypt’s foreign intelligence cooperation has been put in jeopardy with its point man to the west, Omar Suleiman, having “retired.” Egyptian authorities have opened the Rafah border crossing with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. And also, tension and isolated acts of violence have spread throughout the Sinai peninsula. Regardless, Pillar is not alone in arguing that the risk posed by terrorist groups in Egypt has actually decreased.
With even the most “fundamentalist of groups like the Salafis” having now gained the ability to “exercise their rights and voice opinions,” Walid Kazziha, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo asked, “Why would we have Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups here in Egypt?”
Meanwhile, the toppling of Mubarak by means of popular, largely secular protests, delegitimized the violent methods advocated previously by terrorist groups like the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Al Gamaa Al Islamiya, Al-Qaeda and others, according to Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism analyst from The Brookings Institute.
“My general take is that the fall of Mubarak is a tremendous blow to Al-Qaeda’s [and other terrorist groups’] narrative and provides an alternative and peaceful message to what the group espouses,” Byman explained to DNE.
Still, many analysts, especially in the West, feared that the fall of Mubarak and an erosion of what was considered his ruthless, unwavering counterterrorism approach, would produce a fertile arena from which terrorist groups could operate.
However, while it may be the case that Egyptian security services are losing their prerogative to operate above the law, Pillar argued that the current political climate in Egypt actually allows the security services to focus more astutely on terrorist threats.
As Egypt’s political system opens, Pillar explained, its security services will not need to persecute dissident political movement as much, ostensibly allowing the security services to turn their attention to terrorist threats facing the nation.
“The function most affected [by the political transformation in Egypt] will be the control of internal dissent, not counterterrorism. To the extent that security services become more focused on counterterrorism and have less to do with policing non-violent dissent, they may actually be able to do the counterterrorist function better,” he explained.
Security reemerging as public concern
In addition to being able to refocus attention away from upholding the National Democratic Party rule under Mubarak, the security services are now coming under increased pressure from Egyptians to improve general security in the country, due to the physical, mental, and economic hardships that have emerged since the revolution.
“The first priority in question at the moment is security,” AUC professor Kazziha stressed, expressing his confidence that the Egyptian security services will not drop the ball and take their eyes off any potential terrorist threats.
With more and more Egyptians having felt “personal and economic pain” due to the deteriorated security environment post January 25, Egypt’s first step towards recovery is security.
“If you have security, you have a better chance to develop the economy,” he said.
However, while having regained a central position in the public psyche, security policy and operations in post-Mubarak Egypt have not been implemented efficiently, according to Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political analyst at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
“There has been no real security policy” articulated during this period of political transition, Abdel Fattah complained, explaining that the policy has been carried out in a “reactionary manner,” characterized by “responding to events, day by day.”
Compensating for the disorganized approach, security services have actually been “more aggressive” than usual, Abdel Fattah continued, citing numerous security “obstacles set up outside of Cairo and Alexandria.”
On the other hand, a prevalent lack of general security in the immediate sense, in addition to bad intelligence, could produce a different effect in the short-term, Byman cautioned.
“An increase in instability and a possible decline in intelligence cooperation give Al-Qaeda [and others] more freedom of operation,” he said.
Rafah and stability in Sinai
Shortly after the Rafah border crossing was opened, a senior Egyptian security official was quoted by Al Hayyat satellite television as saying that over 400 Al-Qaeda members had crossed into Sinai from Gaza, and that they were “planning to carry out terror attacks in Egypt.” He was even quoted as saying that they had already conducted “attacks against [Egyptian] security forces in the Sinai.” However, Egyptian national security chief Hamed Abdallah later denied that there were any members of Al-Qaeda in Egypt, calling these reports “baseless.”
Likewise, Pillar believed that the opening of Rafah should have “little effect” on Egypt, as there “are not as many as 400 Al-Qaeda fighters in all of Palestine.”
Even though a gas pipeline running through Sinai to Israel and Jordan has been blown up twice since February, Kazziha argued that security in Sinai shouldn’t change as a result of new political developments in Egypt.
Hamas and tribes in Sinai have just “as much interest to emphasize security in Sinai to prevent terrorist groups from operating” as did Mubarak and his government when they were in power, he explained.
“Hamas will exercise its influence to promote security, and the tribes in Sinai will exercise their influence. They are capable of doing this, and we haven’t had any major incidents.”
Factors to monitor
While the general consensus is that “as long as democratization continues,” there is no reason to fear terrorist groups in Egypt, there are several factors that can emerge to challenge Egyptian security.
Abdel Fattah cautioned that despite enjoying legitimate political participation, groups like the Salafis can still pose both a direct and indirect threat to human and economic security in Egypt.
“I think it is very scary for people’s security, and for our national and economic security, to see the Salafi groups trying to intervene in people’s personal lives. It produces a very negative image of Egypt abroad, and this brings instability to our economy.”
As a result, Abdel Fattah said that Egypt needs a “new security policy” that focuses on “violent splinter groups within the larger Islamic movements, as opposed to focusing on the entire Islamic group itself,” as was done under Mubarak.
Overall, however, Pillar concluded that the biggest factor that can increase the risk of terrorism in Egypt is a halt in the country’s transition towards democracy.
“If [Egypt’s] process of political change is cut short by the military’s reluctance to cede much of its current power, [then] this will increase the appeal of radical messages, especially the message that violence is needed for meaningful change, and that is beneficial for terrorist groups.”