How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Anyone seeking evidence of creeping Islamist radicalization in Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s repressive regime need look no further than the bombing of the Coptic Orthodox church in Cairo on December 10. The attack, for which the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) claimed responsibility, killed 25 and wounded around 50. The suspected suicide bomber, 22-year-old Mahmoud Shafiq Mohamed Moustafa, had been arrested in 2014 by Egypt’s security forces when he and one of his classmates were passing by a protest for the opposition. He was tortured and spent a year in prison without being charged with any real crimes, according to one of his lawyers. Moustafa’s path to radicalization reveals the ease with which extremists capitalize on Sisi’s repressive policies to draw support from young Egyptians.
Although political and social scientists have extensively debated the causality between state repression and radicalization, there is ample evidence that the two are correlated in the cases of Algeria, Chechnya, Egypt, and Libya. In some cases, such as China, Kazakhstan, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein, scholars have found that severe repression can reduce dissension and rebellion. In others, such as Egypt, it provokes radical and violent behavior.
Egypt has a long history of terrorism and political violence, which began in the early 1970s and continued until the end of the 1990s. However, it has now reached a level unseen in over two decades. Since Sisi assumed the presidency in 2014, terrorists have bombed security buildings, assassinated senior officials and military personnel, destroyed military vehicles, and kidnapped and executed both soldiers and civilians. According to different documented reports, the number of casualties and attacks has soared in the past two years. As the Global Terrorism Index notes, terrorism in Egypt is at its highest level since 2000. “In 2015 there were 662 deaths, an increase of 260 percent, from 2014. In contrast, from 2000 to 2012, the most deaths recorded in one year was 92, which was in 2005.”
Sisi’s unprecedented repression of peaceful and nonviolent opposition has created a fertile environment for extremists and radical ideologies. Most of the attacks since Sisi took power have been carried out by Wilayat Sinai, ISIS’ Egyptian offshoot. Before the July 2013 coup, the group (originally called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis) had focused its operations in Sinai and was mainly targeting Israel. However, after the coup, it extended its operations to Egypt’s mainland, where it consistently targeted regime officials and security forces. Its attacks have drained the Sisi administration’s resources and hurt its public image as a powerful and stable regime.
Sisi’s unprecedented repression of peaceful and nonviolent opposition has created a fertile environment for extremists and radical ideologies.
Other disenchanted Islamists have formed their own insurgency groups and networks that target government officials, institutions, and supporters. Over the past three years, a dozen radical and violent groups and networks have risen and grown, among them Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt), the Molotov Movement, and Liwaa al-Thawra (Revolution’s Brigade Movement). These groups use different tactics such as regrouping and changing their names to avoid regime repression and fight back against the crackdown, and they have proved significantly savvy and costly to the Sisi regime.
Unlike Wilayat Sinai, whose extremist ideology many Islamists in Egypt reject and condemn, these new, low-scale insurgency networks are driven primarily by political grievances. Their supporters within Islamist circles view them as vanguards against the regime, and many young Islamists cheer their operations against government security forces. These groups tend to draw support and recruit new members from those who are repressed by Sisi’s regime and those who might have lost some of their relatives and family members in the aftermath of the coup, particularly following the massacre of Rabaa, where as many as 800 people were killed on August 14, 2013. Some of them raise the Rabaa sign (four fingers) in their statements to legitimize their attacks.
Although there are no official numbers of how many people have been radicalized or have joined these new movements, the steady pace of sophisticated attacks—which reached 100 per month according to some reports—suggests that the problem will continue to haunt the regime. Furthermore, unlike the classical radical groups of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Jamaat al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which had hierarchal organizations, disciplined structures, and strict chains of command and leadership, most of these new bodies are opaque and nimble, which is necessary to outmaneuver the regime.
Sisi’s counterextremism strategy has proved not only useless but counterproductive. Several accounts refer to the increase in radicalization among young Islamists thanks to his tactics. Two former Islamists interviewed by the author underscored the gloomy reality. One of them, who spent 11 months in a local prison without standing trial, describes the conditions as “ideal for recruiting and indoctrinating young Islamists by extremists.” The other recalls an 18-year-old man who was recruited by extremists while he was in prison for illegally protesting against the regime and eventually stopped meeting his parents during prison visits, calling them “infidels.” Similar anecdotes and conclusions have been presented by both Egyptian and foreign media.
According to a report published last April by the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper, the notorious Egyptian prison of Tora has become “a governmental center for recruiting Islamists into Daesh [ISIS].” Security forces and the prison’s administration not only are aware of the problem but also facilitate it by allowing mingling and interaction between extremists and newcomers. According to one of the interviewees, this tactic helps the regime to portray all prisoners as “terrorists” and justify their imprisonment.
Sisi’s fight against terrorism thus fuels more terrorism while also playing into his extremist opponents’ narrative that the regime encourages radicalism in order to justify its repressive policies. With thousands of Islamists now imprisoned, extremists will surely be able to attract and recruit hundreds more.
To be sure, Egypt does have a major security problem, and the Sisi government must do something to fight it. But Sisi could have better balanced his war on terrorism against hardened ideological groups such as ISIS with political, economic, and institutional reforms that could co-opt the more politically minded groups such as the April 6 Movement, peaceful Islamists, and leftists. For example, instead of wasting billions of dollars on dubious megaprojects, Sisi could have improved the socioeconomic conditions of millions of Egyptians who struggle to fulfill their own basic needs. And instead of spending millions of dollars on building new prisons, he could have created thousands of jobs for young Egyptians who feel increasingly alienated and neglected. Furthermore, instead of enhancing the economic empire of the military, he could have encouraged Egyptian investors, young businessmen, and entrepreneurs to emerge and flourish.
The majority of young Egyptians who toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 want free speech and jobs. They want better lives. Most of them have become bitter and marginalized under Sisi’s rule, which plays into the hands of radicals and extremists.
The impact of Sisi’s authoritarian policies goes beyond Egypt’s borders and entails regional and global risks. In the fall of 2016, Wilayat Sinai brought down a Russian plane over Egypt’s Sinai Desert, killing all 224 people on board. It also claimed responsibility for bombing the Italian consulate in Egypt in July 2011, killing at least one person. Most recently, the Egyptian authorities pointed out that traces of explosives were found on the bodies of passengers of EgyptAir Flight 804, which crashed into the Mediterranean Sea on May 19, 2015, killing all 66 people on board. No terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the crash, but it isn’t unlikely that terrorists were involved. It is impossible to deny that radicalization has become a bigger problem in Egypt since the coup of 2013, and it would be naive to expect the problem to go away without addressing the Sisi regime’s role in it. Put bluntly, the longer Egypt’s government maintains its repressive policies, the more radicalized and violent its Islamists will become.