By Daniel Nisman
When he is (eventually) elected to Egypt’s Presidency, former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi knows the Everest of his policy goals will be restoring the country’s floundering economy. But before he can take on the monumental task of ensuring food and petrol stability to a largely impoverished country of over 85 million, Sisi must first eradicate what has become the most serious Islamist insurgency in Egypt’s history.
Eleven months after Morsi’s ouster triggered a nationwide crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s jihadist threat has expanded from a relatively localised problem centred on the Sinai Peninsula to a diverse, three-pronged menace threatening the entire nation.
The first threat still emanates from the Sinai Peninsula, which has long remained the beating heart of Egypt’s jihadist network. Despite the insertion of over 20,000 troops to the Peninsula’s neglected north, sophisticated attacks have continued. On 2 May, coordinated double suicide bombings struck the city of El-Tor on the Peninsula’s southern coast. The shadowy Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis network claimed responsibility, thumbing at the Egyptian military’s ability to contain jihadist activity in the north and clouding any hopes of a return to stability for the area’s hard-hit tourism industry.
Second, new groups of varying sophistication are sprouting up in Cairo and other major cities, many born from radicalised, yet cohesive Brotherhood activist cells. One of these emerging groups, called Agnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt) has claimed attacks which have shown a substantial increase in sophistication since the group first struck in January 2014. Agnad Misr recently claimed responsibility for a coordinated triple bombing attack in Cairo University, the assassination of a high-ranking security official with an Iraq-style sticky bomb, and several deadly ambushes targeting police on roads outside of Cairo.
The third threat has only just begun to rear its ugly head, posed by jihadists in volatile neighbouring Libya. The recent emergence of groups such as Islamic State of Egypt and Libya demonstrate the shared interests of radicals in both nations, an alliance made only more potent by the abundance of heavy weapons in Libya and its porous desert border with Egypt.
Defeating Egypt’s terrorism behemoth requires a basic understanding of each of its roots, which now extend across geographical borders and rally varying Islamist ideologies to violent jihad. Like their counterparts in Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, and elsewhere, Egypt’s jihadists have adopted a new strategy blessed by Al-Qaeda leaders Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Nasir Al-Wuhayshi. It’s a strategy which emphasises maintaining the support of the local population by limiting attacks to security forces and baiting the government into deploying harsh, disenchanting crackdown policies.
The continuing violence in Egypt despite the government’s 11-month counter terrorism campaign indicates the need for a change in approach. It starts with more involvement by Egypt’s Western allies, who have until now been fractured in their support for the transitional government due to human rights allegations, and hesitant to provide necessary assistance and coordination to prevent terrorism on Egypt’s borders, particularly in eastern Libya. Such discord only encourages jihadists in Egypt and across the region, who interpret Sisi’s inability to rally traditional allies as weakness. Supporting counter-terrorism over human rights violations surely isn’t popular in the West, but is nevertheless being pursued in other nations such as Algeria and Yemen. Israeli support has been one exception, assisting Egypt through aft-publicised intelligence sharing and covert activity across the region to prevent weapons smuggling into the Sinai.
Internally, Egypt’s policing policies need a complete overhaul. The starkest example lies in northern Sinai, where the local Bedouin population’s contact with the government has become limited to helicopter attacks and checkpoints, rather than community engagement to boost intelligence gathering. Recently, the government erected a wall around Al-Arish, the largest city on the Peninsula to stop jihadist infiltration; while residents in the surrounding areas have begun to complain that their telecommunications are routinely disrupted, hindering every-day life.
Lessons can be learned from the experiences of Saudi Arabia and Algeria, which only succeeded in stamping out their insurgencies after implementing an amnesty and jihadist rehabilitation programme. As vile as it may seem in Egypt’s current political climate, the Muslim Brotherhood members must be allowed with an outlet other than violence to express themselves, and separating from those jihadists who never had any intention from taking part in peaceful politics. Chiding the ways of their traditional leadership, some newly-founded Brotherhood splinter movements have already called for reconciliation. With the clock ticking toward the next parliamentary elections, the Egyptian government must encourage an environment where the Brotherhood is accepted back into the political discourse, albeit with tough restrictions on exploiting religion and charity to advance undemocratic and intolerant ideals.
For now, Sisi and the transitional government have only to thank the staunchly anti-Brotherhood Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Kuwait for keeping Egypt’s economy on life support, allowing it to continue its one-foot-after-the-other counter-terrorism campaign. Through injections of petrodollars, now amounting to over $20bn, the government has been able stave off an inevitable epidemic of socio-economic protests and labour strikes, particularly before the always-energy-costly summer hits.
But a refusal by both Egypt and the international community to change course in the fight against terrorism is to play right into the hands of jihadists, who seek to prolong the insurgency and prevent the government from focusing on rebuilding a country battered by three years of political upheaval. Failure to preserve security, economy, and national unity were what cast Morsi into the dustbin of Egyptian politics, and as far as the jihadists are concerned, there is no reason why the next elected president shouldn’t suffer the same fate.
Daniel Nisman is a geopolitical analyst specializing in Eastern Mediterranean affairs. You can follow him on Twitter @Dannynis.