By Roberto Pucciano, CEO of Anchorage Group Global
Islamic State – Sinai Province (IS-SP), the Egyptian franchise of the better known Islamic State (IS) terrorist group presently headquartered in Iraq and Syria, has been among the most active and dangerous of the parent organisation’s offshoots in recent years. Blamed for a number of fatal attacks on religious minorities, foreigners, and Egyptian political and military targets, IS-IP has also taken its insurgency to the Egyptian mainland. The group is also reported to have recently created a morality police unit, known as a Hisba, to impose its hardline interpretation of Islam on the Sinai’s local population. This step is a sign of growing confidence on the part of Islamic militants that their strategy of armed struggle is succeeding, partly through stoking sectarian tensions and social unrest by exploiting local prejudices and provoking a heavy-handed response by Egypt’s brutal security services.
Far from a fringe movement, Egyptian Islamist militancy has had an enduring and influential history both at home and globally; one of the intellectual godfathers of modern international jihadism was the Egyptian fundamentalist scholar Sayyid Qutb, who was later executed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalist regime. The present leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is an Egyptian citizen who was a founder member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), a successor to the original Islamic Jihad group which assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and many of his allies in 1981. As EIJ, the group narrowly failed at assassinating Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak when he visited Ethiopia in 1995 to address the opening session of the Organization of African Unity. Meanwhile the north Sinai based predecessor which IS-SP grew out of began its own terror campaign by targeting Egypt’s unpopular neighbour Israel.
Such militancy has a long history in Egypt because, since the mid-twentieth century, the relationship between Egypt’s ruling (army-dominated) nationalist secular bureaucracy and political Islam has been a violent and bitter one; the pattern has been one of Islamist terror followed by state repression which nevertheless fails to discredit the ideals of the militants, setting the stage of a resumption of the struggle in the next generation. After Egypt’s revolution in 2011, the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate to the presidential office briefly promised a break from this established pattern, especially once President Morsi took the step of ‘retiring’ the Mubarak-era head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), longstanding Defence Minister and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
Unfortunately for the future of his administration, the replacement Morsi chose was Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the current head of the SCAF and Morsi’s post-coup presidential successor. President Morsi had gambled that Sisi’s personal reputation for piety and relative youth would make him favour the new political order Egypt’s elected Islamists were working to create. Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood’s machinations in pushing through a controversial new constitution using their Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Morsi administration’s economic mishaps led to a middle class revolt and a reassertion of military authority. The 2013 coup seemingly discredited the democratic path to power for Egypt’s Islamists. This event was therefore an important ideological opening for the Sinai-based militants who would go on to swear allegiance to IS the following year. Instead a new strategy to try and undermine a state whose fragility had been revealed by the success of the 2011 Arab Spring protests was born.
The near-collapse of secular ideologies across the modern Middle East has created an ideological Achilles’ heel for the military successors to President Gamal Abdel Nasser. They have been no less dictatorial but have always lacked the personal prestige that Nasser had to legitimise their own rule. Moreover in the decades since Nasser died, Egypt’s generals have been unable to combat the persistent economic problems that have blighted life for many in the Arab world’s most populous country. That has not stopped the Egyptian military from embedding itself deep into the Egyptian economy in ways that have so far defied reform from insiders or outsiders. Yet while military and bureaucratic elites who rule for self-enrichment and the sake of holding power can hold out for decades, eventually the inevitable and enduring opposition they provoke results in their overthrow.
This overthrown can happen from within or without, a factor often overlooked by those who point out that the current military campaign by IS-SP holds no chance of militarily defeating the present Egyptian army nor toppling President Sisi, the current figurehead of the Egyptian ‘deep state’ and the governing apparatus. The examples of the Iranian Revolution and the creation of IS-SP’s parent in Iraq have demonstrated that in Muslim-majority states a country’s officer class and intelligence services are perfectly capable of switching from a nationalist outlook to an Islamist one. There is no reason to believe that under the right pressure of circumstances, enough sections of the Egyptian elite might undergo an ideological transition towards Islamist ideals that a palace coup or a popular revolution could destroy the current ossified national-secularist outlook of the Egyptian state.
One well-worn avenue being explored by IS-SP and its adherents and fellow travellers on the mainland is the attempt to stoke popular discontent with the Sisi regime by undermining Egypt’s economy, most successfully through destroying its once flourishing tourism industry. But an even more sinister angle of attack has been the recent string of sectarian massacres of Coptic Christians. Across the Middle East religious and ethnic minorities have historically supported dictatorial secular regimes as an alternative to autocratic Islamist ones. In Egypt, where two-thirds of the population voted for either the FJP or the now-largely discredited (Salafist) Nour Party in 2011-12, mainstream prejudice against Coptics is rife. Forcing Egyptian conscripts and junior officers who (like President Sisi) often have pious conservative backgrounds, to defend soft targets like Christian churches against fellow Muslims is a highly divisive target. It alienates Christians from the regime by highlighting that the government cannot protect them, whilst hopefully sowing dissention in the ranks of the security services.
Frustration and the need to be seen to respond to IS-SP have led the Egyptian military to embark on a series of brutal counter-insurgency operations in areas suspected of militant sympathies. Meanwhile civil liberties have been curtailed to ‘fight terrorism’ and non-compliant activists of all stripes have vanished into the Egyptian prison system or otherwise been ‘disappeared’. Should the situation escalate into an Algerian style civil war between the army and Egypt’s militant groups, there is no doubt who would win at present. In fact, the army may be hoping to provoke just such an outcome, goading the Islamists with its behaviour into publicly over-reaching themselves and once again driving the population into the government’s corner. Over the next few years, whichever side makes the least mistakes in this growing conflict will reap the biggest rewards in Egypt’s ever complicated political manoeuvrings.