The Party’s Already Started in Egypt
Almost four months after the coup that removed former President Muhammed Morsi from power, Egypt is not even close to calming down and returning to business as usual. A new phase in the turmoil initially unleashed by Mubarak’s overthrow has begun—armed resistance to the new military government by Islamists of different stripes who have been exiled from Egypt’s political process. While this nascent rebellion is starting small for now, the signs are already very worrying. Egypt could be standing on the edge of a war that would pit its “deep state” against the nation’s Islamists who have been forced out of the political process. If this does come to pass in Egypt, the most populous Arab state and a lynchpin American ally, it would be a major defeat for American foreign policy in the region.
Since the Tahrir Square uprising in January 2011, attacks on security forces and largely ineffective security operations by the army have been escalating in the Sinai Peninsula. Escalating violence was widely blamed on local Bedouin tribes and the remnants of the Islamist insurgency Egypt experienced in the 1990s.
After the coup against Morsi, things changed and the violence became much more severe. Everyone’s seen the waves of bloody protests on TV that killed hundreds around Egypt—extremely violent protest-riots have been a staple of Egypt’s revolution since 2011. But recent events have made it clear that many in Egypt are rejecting even the pretense of peaceful protests entirely: bombings, assassinations and ambushes of the security forces are becoming a daily occurrance, and while still centered within the Sinai, they’ve spread beyond it to every part of Egypt. August only saw the death of 25 policemen in a Sinai ambush and the death of 15 policemen in an attack against a police station.
Since the beginning of September, there has been an assassination attempt against the Interior Minister in Cairo, multiple bombings of army and police targets in different parts of the country, attacks container ships in the Suez Canal and against Egypt’s gas transport network. These are just a few events that stand out from the daily occurrences of bombings and shootings. On October 7th alone, six soldiers were killed by a roadside ambush in northern Sinai, three were killed in a suicide bombing in southern Sinai, and Egyptian state television’s largest satellite dish in the heart of Cairo was hit with RPGs.
Some elements of this new burst of attacks make it especially troublesome. We’re starting to see the stylings of international jihad show up in Egypt. This video, showing a series of successful drive-by attacks on Egyptian army officers including a colonel, is classic jihadi propaganda, marked by the black-and-white raya al ‘uqab style flag and nasheed music. It was posted by a group called Liwa al Furqan (Brigade of Severance), which has also posted similar videos showing attacks on ships in the Suez Canal and against state television’s satellite dish. The name and propaganda-video style unmistakably mark Liwa al Furqan as a franchise of the same international jihadi ideology that motivates groups like Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, and ISIS in Iraq.
At this point, the increasing activity of such a group in Egypt should not be surprising. Events in Egypt have completely vindicated the most militant Salafists. Most Egyptian Islamists, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Nour Party, have long supported engagement with the democratic process to gain power within the framework of the secular state and gradually islamicize it peacefully through legislation. The jihadi fringes of the Islamist movement have always warned that democracy is a trap and a lie, created by the West and their Arab allies to keep true Muslims playing along but always rigged to prevent them from ever actually succeeding.
From the perspective of many mainstream Egyptian Islamists, the Morsi coup proved jihadis right. They organized to win elections, only to be deposed by the U.S.-allied “deep state” of Egypt; they tried peaceful protest, only to be slain by the hundreds in the streets of Cairo, banned from politics, and thrown in jail by the thousands. This has provided a perfect “I-told-you-so” moment for the most radical of Salafis, who have been saying all along that the secular state will never allow sharia in any form, even if it means throwing the rule of law and democracy out the window and killing large numbers of people. Therefore, according to them, forcibly overthrowing the secular state is the only way to achieve their goals.
So it looks like Egypt is in for some serious trouble. During the defeated insurgency of the 1990s, the majority of Egypt’s Islamists still had reason to believe that political participation and electoral success was a better path forward than the use of violence and destruction. That dream is dead now, replaced by blood feuds started by the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in at Ra’bia Square in Cairo and elsewhere. An entire generation of Islamists is being radicalized; peaceful protest is being abandoned in favor of armed resistance. On the other side, the secular nationalists are pumping out aggressive rhetoric. Neither side is willing to back down or negotiate.
Authoritarian secular nationalists and Islamists have struggled over Egypt’s identity since the British occupation, and Morsi’s presidency and the coup against him have brought this dispute into a new and possibly decisive phase. The gloves are coming off on both sides. The secular nationalists have never been afraid to use force; the Islamists now think they have nothing to lose from using force. Because of this, there is reason to think that the situation in Egypt will only get worse.
Jack Mulcaire is a contributor to War on the Rocks. During the 2011 Libyan Civil War, he helped lead a group of international volunteers that aided and consulted with local rebel councils and units.
Photo Credit: SRA D. Myles Cullen, USAF