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 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.
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