Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump hosted his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, at the White House. At their meeting, Trump assured Sisi that “together… we will fight terrorism.” That is good news for the Egyptian president. After years of strained bilateral relations, the Trump administration is embracing Egypt as a counterterrorism partner. But it is unclear that Egypt is actually an asset in the most pressing battle against terrorism, the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).
A video that surfaced two weeks ago highlights the problem. It aired on a Muslim Brotherhood network and showed Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula summarily executing a handful of alleged Islamist insurgent prisoners. Beyond what appear to be significant human rights abuses, to date Cairo has demonstrated a stunning lack of will and competence to eradicate ISIS from Egyptian territory. If the Trump administration wants a partner, it should use its burgeoning relationship with the Sisi government to help Cairo improve its counterterrorism practices.
Since 2011, Egypt has been losing ground against a virulent but numerically small insurgency in the Sinai. Notwithstanding its 440,000-strong standing army and $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military assistance, over the past five years, Egypt has been unable to contain—much less roll back—an estimated 600–1,000 insurgents. Indeed, the Sinai-based insurgents have an impressive and growing list of accomplishments. Since 2014—when the local insurgent group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdas, pledged allegiance to ISIS—the group has downed an Egyptian military helicopter, destroyed an M-60 battle tank, sunk an Egyptian patrol boat, and bombed a Russian passenger jet, killing 224 civilians.
During the same time period, ISIS has killed an estimated 2,000 Egyptian military officers and policemen in the Sinai. But they’re not the only victims. ISIS has been targeting Christians too, triggering a mass exodus of that minority from the peninsula. Just weeks ago, ISIS attacked Saint Catherine’s, one of the oldest monasteries in the world.
Beyond what appear to be significant human rights abuses,