Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters A man holds a cross and a Koran at the funeral of Egyptian public prosecutor Hisham Barakat in Cairo, June 30, 2015.

Egypt's Old Strategy for New Terrorism

Why It Won't Work

On July 11, in yet another sign of an alarming increase of terrorism in mainland Egypt—that is, Egypt outside of northern Sinai—the Italian consulate in Cairo was bombed. The Islamic State (also called ISIS) allegedly claimed the attack, although the group’s involvement was not confirmed. Last month, on June 29, a car bomb ripped through the armored convoy of Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s prosecutor general. Barakat, a 65-year-old career prosecutor who was appointed in July 2013 and had served during a period of remarkable political polarization, died of wounds sustained in the blast.  

In his death, Barakat joined dozens of Egyptian state officials who have been assassinated or faced attempted assassination in the past years. On September 9, 2013, former Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim narrowly escaped a similar attack when a suicide bomber targeted him as he drove to work in the Cairene suburb of Nasr City. Other assassinations have included high-ranking police, military, and judicial figures.

Egyptian security officials inspect the site of a bomb blast at the Italian Consulate in Cairo, July 11, 2015.

Egyptian security officials inspect the site of a bomb blast at the Italian Consulate in Cairo, July 11, 2015.

The assassinations come during a wave of terrorism in the country. Although there have been a number of spectacular attacks, most of the violence is made up of frequent and smaller-scale attacks. Based on data collected by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, on average, nearly 120 acts of terrorism have been reported per month thus far in 2015, versus around 30 per month in 2014. This increase coincides with the late 2014 emergence of smaller groups operating outside of the restive Sinai Peninsula (such as the Revolutionary Punishment and the Popular Resistance Movement). Indeed, Egypt is suffering a wave of violence unseen since the 1990s.

In this surge of violence, the judiciary is a frequent target. Sinai-based militant group Wilayat Sinai, an affiliate of ISIS, recently launched a campaign entitled "Extermination of the Judiciary." Only hours before Barakat’s assassination, the group had published a video that featured footage of a May 17 drive-by murder of three judges and a prosecutor in North Sinai. Other assassinations and attacks have been carried out by nameless actors; in the past six months, roughly three-quarters of terrorist acts in the country have gone unclaimed.

Barakat’s assassination exemplifies new trends in the nature, form, and locations of terrorist attacks. Assassinations have evolved since the largely sporadic shootings of 2013, demonstrating increased coordination in planning and more sophisticated technical capacity. The location of attacks is also changing. Until 2014, terrorist attacks were almost exclusively isolated to the Sinai Peninsula. In 2014 this began to change, and today attacks occur regularly in provinces all across Egypt, with particular concentration in greater Cairo and areas to south of there along the Nile (the provinces of Fayoum and Beni Suef). In fact, the period from January to June 2015 has seen a nearly 400 percent increase from the previous six months in the number of reported incidents outside of the Sinai Peninsula.

In the 1990s, small groups of militants carried out attacks without much international support. Today, a range of players has embraced terrorism and violence, which makes the groups difficult to keep track of. Targeted assassinations may have become more common in recent years, but Barakat is still the most senior figure to have been killed since Rifaat al-Mahgoub, former Egyptian Speaker of Parliament, was gunned down in 1990. The Islamist militants who murdered him had mistaken him for Interior Minister Abdel Halim Moussa, who was their longtime foe. Mahgoub’s assassination inaugurated a bitter decadelong confrontation between terrorist groups and the state. A string of terrorist attacks, notably the brutal 1997 massacre of 62 tourists at the hands of the jihadist group Gamaa Islamiya, stretched across Egypt. In parallel, the government arrested hundreds of Islamists. In fact, Egypt’s judiciary alongside the security sector became the main weapon in the country’s fight against terrorism.

The crackdown quieted the country for a time. The number of attacks fell as many fighters laid down their arms and others moved elsewhere. The Gamaa Islamiya eventually renounced violent means, but its sister organization, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, merged with al Qaeda under the tutelage of the network’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The strategy worked in Egypt for a time, albeit with notable failures such as the tourist attacks in South Sinai in 2005. But after the Arab Spring, consistent attacks resumed as hope for change gave way to political instability.

There are several major differences between Egypt’s security problems then and now. In the 1990s, small groups of militants carried out attacks without much international support. Today, a range of players has embraced terrorism and violence, which makes the groups difficult to keep track of.

Fighter jets fly near Cairo Tower in central Cairo,  July 21, 2015.

Fighter jets fly near Cairo Tower in central Cairo,  July 21, 2015.

And whereas terrorism in the 1990s was mostly fueled by domestic grievances against police brutality, today’s bloodshed cannot be seen—at least not exclusively—as a direct consequence of domestic adversity and government repression. The project of transnational jihad feeds and is fed by local struggles. External actors such as al Qaeda and ISIS have continued to support local groups regardless of their interest in any domestic political conflict. And in turn, these conflicts spur sympathies toward terrorism as an alternative political project or an easy route for revenge.

Even as the nature of the terrorism has changed, the state’s tactics have remained the same; in the absence of any clearly articulated strategy to counter terrorism, Egypt’s leaders have reverted to old, familiar tactics. Sweeping campaigns have targeted terror suspects, dissident activists, journalists, and human rights defenders alike. Many of those who have been arrested and handed tough prison sentences were lauded for inspiring Egypt’s democratic change in 2011. Most recently, Egypt has seen a wave of forced disappearances; according to rights groups, over 100 young Egyptians have been forcibly “disappeared” in 2015, many of them later found to be held in prison without charge. A similar approach was taken in the 1990s, when scores of Islamists were held in prison long after their prison sentences had been served.

Although the country fought its war on terror in relative isolation in the past, the world is now beginning to understand that the transnational and extraterritorial nature of extremist networks requires global solutions. But with each passing year, such tactics are less viable. Arbitrary arrests and disappearances have not been lasting deterrents but are employed because they demonstrate immediate, strong, and visible action for leaders who cannot afford to appear as though they are doing nothing. Given the more diffuse nature of contemporary networks in and outside of Egypt, an indiscriminate approach may succeed only in removing peripheral actors, while at the same time contributing to greater violence as terrorist groups frame these actions as acts of “war” in a battle of good versus evil. In addition, media propaganda supporting the war on terror, which vilifies all dissidents alike, may influence a domestic viewership, but it will not affect those who are affiliated with transnational terrorist groups—particularly since those who subscribe to violent extremist ideology by and large turn to the Internet for information and communication.

Given the nature of today’s terrorism, effective countermeasures should include campaigns to pursue and hold known terrorists to justice, but they should also address legitimate economic and social grievances. Otherwise, they will just provide fodder for extremists’ recruitment campaigns. A cornerstone of a rights-based security framework will be a strengthening of the rule of law. On June 30, at Barakat’s funeral, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced that the judiciary is restricted by the law, hinting at impending legal reforms that will broaden legislation and allow for greater subjectivity in prosecution. Subjectivity in law allows for its politicization, only impeding the judiciary’s ability to effectively investigate and prosecute legitimate terrorism. It may actually encourage violence among those who believe the law no longer protects them.

There is one final difference between the situation in 1990 and the one today, which should give Egypt heart. Although the country fought its war on terror in relative isolation in the past, the world is now beginning to understand that the transnational and extraterritorial nature of extremist networks requires global solutions. Egypt’s security cannot be considered in isolation, and the international community should take serious notice of the destabilizing effect of violent events.

After a cooling between the United States and Egypt following the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the violent clearing of Islamist protesters in mid-2013, relations between the two countries are improving. After announcing the release of a shipment of Apache helicopters in late August 2014, in early April 2015 the White House restructured its planned $1.2 billion in military assistance to Egypt, designating funds for the explicit purpose of combating terrorism. More important still is the Gulf states’ renewed interest in Egypt's progress. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have pledged over $24.5 billion to Egypt in the past two years, a combination of cash grants, central bank deposits, and other investments. Although this money is not intended for the express purpose of combating terrorism, it is an investment in a prosperous Egypt, a future that will be difficult without security.

Violent extremism is a complex phenomenon at the intersection of global and local processes, and in Egypt, things are no different. Although rooted in domestic grievances, terrorism there is not the product of any single regime's actions. With this in mind, world leaders still have an opportunity to support stability, prosperity, and democratic development in the region. However, they cannot do so by attempting to instill professed values of pluralism, freedom, and equality in the region’s leaders; instead, they must recognize that those who share these values face an uphill battle in advocating for their own safe and democratic futures. Thus, Egypt’s partners should work publicly and privately with Egyptian counterparts to encourage security frameworks that center on rights. Without these measures, any efforts to combat extremism will be ineffective and unsustainable. Creating an environment in which violence will be viewed as a less effective method for voicing demands is essential to a future in which Egyptian citizens can live safely and securely.

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