ATbar The Islamist Insurgency in Egypt – Mind the Gaps

The Islamist Insurgency in Egypt – Mind the Gaps

18/09/2014 | by Pohl, Johanna  

Not far from the Syrian and Iraqi theaters, another Islamist insurgency is taking root in an undergoverned space – the Sinai Peninsula. Shaken by political turmoil during these past three years, Egypt is now facing increasing attacks from Salafi-Jihadist militants both in the Sinai and Nile Delta. According to a government tally between the July 3, 2013 ousting of ex-President Mohamed Morsi and May 2014 (Ahram Online, 25.5.2014), approximately 500 members of the Egyptian police and security forces were killed in shootings and bombings carried out by Islamist militants. Just recently, on September 2, 2014, an incident made headlines in which 11 Egyptian soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb and an ensuing ambush on a military convoy in the Sinai (Georgy, 02.09.2014).

More worrisome than sheer numbers, however, are the scope and sophistication of the attacks. Whereas the Salafi-Jihadist groups used to be predominantly active only on the Sinai Peninsula, they have more recently become infamous for carrying out attacks in the greater Cairo area (Dunne & Williamson, 24.3.2014). Notably, the group Ajnad Misr claimed responsibility for an attack on the Giza Campus of Cairo University, in which one policeman was killed and five others injured (Barnett, 2.4.2014), as well as for the attempted bombing of the presidential palace at Heliopolis in which two policemen died trying to diffuse the explosives and 13 others were wounded (Fick, 30.6.2014). An illustrative example of the increasing sophistication of attacks is the downing of an Egyptian military helicopter in northern Sinai by the group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, using a surface-to-air missile (Barnett, 26.1.2014).[1]

In this all-too-familiar Egyptian tale of Islamist militant activism, the government of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has employed the tried and tested methods of his predecessors. Much like Nasser suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and executed many of its leading members in the 1950’s, and just like Mubarak cracked down on Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya and the Islamic Jihad during the wave of Islamist terrorism in the 1990’s, Al-Sisi has initiated a large-scale military and policing campaign against those groups that follow an Islamist ideology. In doing so, the government has not only not distinguished between political dissent and military activism; on the contrary, it has held political groups, most prominently the Muslim Brotherhood, responsible for inciting and organizing terrorist violence, despite the fact that the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood has denied connections to militant groups and that no publicly disclosed evidence for such links has surfaced yet (Fadel, 10.2.2014). The independent statistical website WikiThawra counts 2,588 people dead as a result of protests and clashes in the period from July 3, 2013 to January 31, 2014, and places the number of political detainees at 41,000 as of May 15, 2014 (WikiThawra, 2014). In two mass trials in early 2014, 683 and 528 political opponents of the current regime, respectively, received death sentences in the first instance, though many were acquitted of charges later on (Reuters, 21.6.2014).[2]  Nevertheless, the trials serve as a powerful indicator of the political course that the post-Morsi Egypt has embarked on.

Despite the ongoing crackdown by the government, however, the Islamist insurgency only seems to grow in scope, sophistication and intensity. Militant groups, who were formerly active only on the Sinai Peninsula, have now increasingly carried out strategically advanced attacks in Cairo and its surroundings (Shay, 2014), and possess advanced weapons likely smuggled across the Libyan border (UNSC, 2014). It is evident that a response focusing solely on the security challenge that these insurgents pose does not yield effective results. Instead, it is essential to address the causes underlying the insurgency and the factors that fuel it, which can be attributed to questions of political legitimacy of the government as well as its capacity to provide public services.

This paper will analyze how gaps in security, capacity and legitimacy interplay to produce conditions conducive to the development of the current Islamist insurgency in Egypt. Based on this analysis, it will then develop a number of policy recommendations for internal and external actors. Specifically, it will be argued that the growing security gap is fueled by both legitimacy and capacity gaps, and that the Egyptian government needs to address security and legitimacy gaps distinctly in order to prevent a deterioration of the security situation. External actors can be most helpful by supporting capacity building, as well as by tying non-military assistance to conditions of integrating disadvantaged minorities and inclusive governance. While taking into account long-term underlying developments, the main part of this analysis will focus on the time frame starting with the ouster of ex-President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 up until today. The policy recommendations address the current Egyptian government of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who took office on June 8, 2014 and the broader international community (Ahram, 8.6.2014).

[1] A more comprehensive list of attacks carried out by Islamist militant groups in Egypt is to be found in the ICT database, available at:  (Last accessed: 16.07.2014).

[2] In comparison, 90 Islamist militants were sentenced to death during 30 years of Mubarak’s rule, of whom 68 were executed (Nakhoul, 11.4.2014). 

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