Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Is Egypt falling into an Islamist insurrection?

Is Egypt falling into an Islamist insurrection?

Islamist insurrection has returned to Egypt. There has been a significant growth in the sophistication of the targeting, conduct and lethality of terrorist acts, a crisis of political legitimacy for the Egyptian Government, and the virtual abandonment of any separation of executive and judicial authority on matters deemed security-related.

A new stage has been reached in the contest for the future of the country.

Terrorist attacks on targets beyond Sinai are not new – there have been nearly 200 attacks throughout Egypt in the past year, including a major attack on a poorly-defended police base in the Western Desert. However, recent days have witnessed a car bomb attack which assassinated the Egyptian chief prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, an event beyond anything seen in Egypt in recent decades. A large-scale assault overnight on military and police installations at Shaikh Zuweid, close to Gaza, had the hallmarks of an operation devised according to jihadist experience elsewhere in the region.

The Barakat assassination and the latest Sinai attack demonstrate proficiency in the use of vehicle-born explosive devices, multiple targeting with careful surveillance, and sophisticated planning including measures to impede a counter-attack. 

None of these capabilities are possessed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has lacked an operational military wing for many decades. Despite its roots in Egyptian society, the Brotherhood is effectively and severely repressed by the current government. Nor is the challenge originating from Gaza, where Hamas is trying to contain its own Islamist problem. 

The challenge is coming from an altogether different and more worrying direction: jihadists antagonistic to the Egyptian Government and the Brotherhood alike, and which are linked to extremist groups across the region. These groups of jihadists have acquired the skills and material for sustaining violent, high-profile action against the political and social institutions which are the foundations of the Egyptian state. [fold]

This generation of Egyptian jihadists has attained a degree of security in the depths of the Sinai Peninsula, especially amid the chaos which followed the fall of the Mubarak regime. They have ruthlessly exploited long-standing tensions in that area between tribal elements and the Egyptian security authorities. Their military capability has been enhanced by the acquisition of weapons, especially from Libya. They have learned from operations in Iraq, Syria and Libya, which have provided networks of experience-sharing and support that earlier jihadist groups in Egypt lacked.

These newly-emerged jihadist groups are now capable of holding their own, militarily, against an Egyptian security and military apparatus that is clearly lacking in counter-insurgency doctrine and skills.

Those skills can of course be acquired, over time and with competent leadership and support. But there are doubts about whether the Egyptian military leadership is capable of making a rapid adjustment in its approach. There are even greater doubts about the capacity of the Egyptian Government to bring about the balanced economic development of the Sinai region which would provide the basis for a durable counter-insurgency. 

In the meantime, in their anger and frustration, Egyptian authorities are seeking solutions that are more likely to add to the problem.

Of particular concern are calls for the expeditious implementation of executions arising from a deeply-flawed judicial system. The Egyptian judicial system has become deeply politicised, characterised by manifest incompetence, which gives military court judges the option of not hearing defence witnesses. 

There is a gadarene rush in the Egytian media to affirm the authoritarian values of the Nasser era. There have been attacks on civil society figures seeking to uphold values that were painfully negotiated to be included in the constitutions which emerged after Mubarak's fall. There is nothing positive being offered to capture the energy and imagination of the millennial generation of the Egyptian middle class. 

The killing  of nine Muslim Brotherhood figures in Cairo by state security forces following the Barakat assassination has produced a call from the Brotherhood for a revolt against the regime, a stance its older generation of leaders, now imprisoned and, in a majority of cases, facing execution, had sought to avoid. 

Draconian measures from the Egyptian Government will barely impede the jihadists. The Sinai conflict will continue to grind along its deadly path, mainly at the expense of ill-prepared and poorly-led conscripts in the military and police. Unless the Government radically changes its tactical and strategic approaches, the result will be a growing number of impoverished and bereaved Egyptians disillusioned with the Government and opposition alike. 

Although most Egyptians fear the extremists and will see the jihadists as responsible for the Government's failure to provide the security they demand, some will wind up lending support to those seen to be acting against the most despised figures in the regime. Should the insurgency increasingly target tourism, energy infrastructure and even conceivably the operation of the Suez Canal, it will pose serious challenges to the Egyptian Government and its leadership.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Al Hussainy Mohamed.

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