The Egypt Aid Dilemma
As Egypt is convulsed by violence, Al Qaeda celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary this past weekend. United States counterterrorism efforts, heavily reliant on missile strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles, significantly degraded the bulk of Al Qaeda’s core organization located in Pakistan. But the uprisings that roiled the Arab world enabled a jihadist expansion across the region, thereby creating new threats to U.S. interests from Al Qaeda affiliates and associated movements. Promoting democratic inclusivity as a means of undercutting their rise has repeatedly run headlong into other realpolitik concerns, and Washington has yet to devise a consistent policy for managing these competing interests. Events in Egypt have highlighted, once again, the vexed choice facing American policymakers.
While U.S. policymakers debate how to respond, Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who previously headed one of Egypt’s two largest jihadist groups, undoubtedly views events in his native land as an ideal anniversary present. Jihadist forums lit up after the Egyptian military launched its latest crackdown, which has since left over 1100 dead. Al Qaeda-associated elements are already active in the Sinai, where violence has escalated since the Egyptian military ousted the Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi. Many analysts expect it is only a matter of time before jihadist attacks come to Cairo–car bombs, suicide vests, and so on.
The last revolutionary jihad in Egypt, waged in the 1990s, was brutally suppressed.
The Muslim Brotherhood, after suffering decades of repression, had renounced violence by then in favor of an approach centered on proselytization and the provision of social services. Some of its frustrated members found their way into the Islamic Group, which became Egypt’s largest jihadist organization. Others formed the smaller, more clandestine and far less prolific al-Jihad, ultimately led by al-Zawahiri.
Whereas the Islamic Group leadership, largely imprisoned by the turn of the century, renounced violence, al-Zawahiri merged a faction of al-Jihad with Al Qaeda as a means of organizational survival. Exiled remnants of the Islamic Group later joined as well. Al-Zawahiri’s decision demanded that he adopt bin Laden’s agenda, which prioritized attacks against the United States. However, this was always a global means to a revolutionary end, as bin Laden believed ridding the Muslim world of American influence was necessary to create the conditions for local insurgencies to succeed.
Stephen Tankel is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is an Assistant Professor at American University and a non-resident scholar in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Photo Credit: Defenseimagery.mil, VIRIN 011020-F-0193C-009