The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
On March 7, 2016, Egypt's Ministry of the Interior announced the names of the groups responsible for the assassination of Egyptian Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat. The news came nine months after he died in what was one of the highest-profile attacks in recent memory. In a video of the purported assassins’ confessions, the culprits detailed a Muslim Brotherhood plot that included a training stint with Hamas in Gaza, all in order to carry out the June 2015 car bombing. As far as the ministry was concerned, the case was closed.
The allegations against the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas do not actually point to any new information about these entities’ involvement in the assassination. Egyptian officials had already pointed to the Brotherhood and training trips in Gaza shortly after the attack took place. Rather, they indicate Egypt’s attempts to drum up regime support by diverting attention from mounting domestic criticism to other problems or parties. But by adopting this approach, the Egyptian security apparatus fails to address the real threats it faces.
Egypt’s latest wave of unrest began in mid-2013, following the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Terrorist attacks have rocked the country ever since, particularly in the restive North Sinai. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has accused the Muslim Brotherhood of masterminding the violence and has arrested over 12,000 of its members on terrorism charges since July 2013. Some Brotherhood members have been jailed for minor crimes, such as the possession of pro-Morsi material or for organizing anti-election protests during the 2014 presidential election (which Sisi won by a landslide).
To be sure, there is some evidence to suggest that the Brotherhood’s hands are not clean in all this violence. An internal power struggle between the party’s pacifist veterans and its younger members, who are more open to using force, has created fissures in the organization. Groups such as Revolutionary Punishment and the Popular Resistance Movement, which have carried out attacks on police, the judiciary, and other targets, have attributed their emergence to “the unbelievable rise of the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood’s new revolutionary youth leadership.” Yet it’s hard to say how much of a direct role the Brotherhood has had in their activities.
This ambiguity has made the ministry’s attempts to pin Barakat’s assassination on the Brotherhood all the more important. If Sisi wants to control the narrative within Egypt that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist group, he must prove that it sponsors violent activities. The taped confessions may have included minute details about the Brotherhood’s role in the assassination, but the video itself is more cinematic than fact driven. In fact, this latest release is but one in a series of related tapes that the Egyptian government has put forward in recent years. The videos feature similar elements that suggest that Muslim Brotherhood members carried out their training and preparation with forces in Gaza and that the attack was executed at the behest of senior Brotherhood figures—perhaps even Morsi himself.
Cairo’s claims that Hamas was involved in the attack add a layer of depth to these accusations. On the one hand, they signal to the Egyptian people that the state is under threat by outside agents—rhetoric upon which Cairo has often relied during periods of unpopularity. For example, in 2011, former Egyptian Interior Minister Habib al-Adly claimed to have “conclusive evidence” that a Hamas-affiliated terror group, Army of Islam, carried out the bombing of a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria. Adly’s announcement came at the pinnacle of the regime’s legitimacy crisis, only one day before millions of protesters gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the monumental uprisings that led to the government’s downfall.
On the other hand, the accusations could have facilitated a dialogue between Hamas and Egypt, through which Cairo could reclaim some of its waning relevance with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. On March 7, Egyptian Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar said, “Hamas trained, prepared, and oversaw the implementation” of the plot against Barakat. A Hamas delegation visited Egypt only days later to deny the allegations. Terror fears may have prompted the meeting, but the discussions presented an opportunity to thaw relations that had chilled owing to Sisi’s hard-nosed stance on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Cairo’s war against the Brotherhood may have weakened Egypt’s role in Israeli-Palestinian talks. Morsi was able to help each side de-escalate violence in 2012, but Sisi refused to work with Hamas during the 2014 conflict, which limited Cairo’s role in peace negotiations. The tides may be changing, though. After the March meetings in Cairo, Hamas’ Public Works Department removed pro-Brotherhood signs and banners from Gaza’s streets and mosques, while its leaders called on Egypt to reopen the border and to stop flooding its black market tunnels. Hamas may be willing to review its stance toward the Brotherhood if it means getting Egypt to come back to the bargaining table over long-standing objectives.
Although Sisi’s eagerness to blame Hamas for Barakat’s assassination may end up having some positive effect on Egyptian diplomacy, lobbing false accusations comes at the expense of real cross-border terror threats. Hamas recently admitted that members of its military arm, the al-Qassam Brigades, had joined Wilayat Sinai (ISIS’ regional affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula) without the knowledge of Gaza’s political leaders. Al-Qassam and Wilayat Sinai’s precursor organizations enjoyed links in the past as well. Therefore, those who are still active in Wilayat Sinai’s predecessor networks with ties in Gaza may have retained them to this day. As an adherent to ISIS’ ideology, Wilayat Sinai is a sworn enemy of Hamas and vice versa, but ideological affinity can sometimes take a back seat to immediate opportunism. In this context, Egypt and Hamas must work together to prevent future attacks in Egypt, and a transparent approach would better serve this end.
By indiscriminately blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for Egyptian terror attacks, Sisi could do more harm than good. Preventing domestic terrorism requires credible investigations and prosecutions and should minimize conditions for further radicalization. But blaming the Brotherhood for attacks like Barakat’s assassination without credible evidence damages Sisi’s credibility for the sake of short-term popularity. And in doing so, Egypt cultivates a sense of injustice and marginalization that could create the next generation of extremist militants as a result.
At a time when the country faces legitimate threats to its stability, the Egyptian security sector continues to rely on divisional tactics instead of serious investigations. Although this may work in the short term, the future consequences could be dire.