Egypt’s Crackdown May Bring Terror Closer to Home

It’s been said that the jails of Arab dictatorships are the birthing ground of militant Islamism. A mere thirteen years after the 9/11 attacks, that grim truism seems to have been largely forgotten or ignored by Western governments still fumbling on how to react to Egypt’s descent into a new and particularly violent authoritarianism.

While much of the international community seems to be banking on the eventual triumph of the Egyptian security state, woefully little attention seems to have been focused on the very real, very alarming potential of spillover, in the form of transnational terrorism.

It is, admittedly, not unreasonable to be skeptical, and to hope that things will play out differently this time around. After all, the evidence thus far indicates that militant groups are completely invested in waging their war on the military-backed government. And yet, there is clearly sufficient precedent to fear that this state of affairs may not last. When the militant Islamist insurgency against Hosni Mubarak’s regime was ground down in the 1990s by an indiscriminately brutal counterinsurgency campaign, one that pales in comparison to the ferocity of the current crackdown, its leaders gradually turned their attention to the “distant enemy”: Western governments perceived as supportive of the Mubarak regime. This marked the start of an ideological transformation and exodus of militants from Egypt that eventually seeded the beginnings of what would become al-Qaeda.

With its organizational decapitation of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian regime has essentially marginalized one of the most powerful and ideologically influential advocates of a gradualistic, non-violent Islamism, one with a demonstrable commitment to political engagement and electoral politics. It is unclear if this was motivated by short-sighted opportunism on the part of a resurgent and vengeful security state, or rather was a deliberate policy of seeking to goad the Brotherhood’s rank-and-file into the very violence the state could then cite as justification for a more generalized and indiscriminate crackdown. According to a highly placed Brotherhood source, in the first weeks following the army’s toppling of President Mohamed Morsi and its arrest of Brotherhood officials, some within the group speculated that the regime was deliberately targeting the organization’s most capable and influential leaders at the outset specifically to eliminate any real prospect of a negotiated outcome, and to hasten a loss of control. But the point was rendered moot when, six weeks later, the army and the police attacked the Brotherhood’s massive protest camps in Cairo, perpetrating the worst massacre in Egypt’s modern history by killing close to 1,000 protestors in the span of a single bloody day. The Rubicon had been crossed: any serious chance for some form of political accommodation likely perished among the strewn corpses and charred ruins of the Islamists’ tent cities that day.

It is also significant to note reports indicating fairly low turnout among young people for the interim authorities’ constitutional referendum in January, suggesting that political apathy is taking root once more among younger Egyptians. But within the Islamist demographic, where a powerful sense of grievance festers, political apathy doesn’t seem to be the order of the day. Instead, the evidence suggests that younger members, increasingly disillusioned with notions of democracy and political engagement, have concluded that meaningful change can only be brought about by a resort to violence.

There appears to be no evidence, at this point, to doubt the Brotherhood leadership’s oft-stated commitment to non-violence, the interim authorities’ assertions notwithstanding. It is perhaps more pertinent to consider the long-term consequences of the group’s loss of its famed (and much maligned) hierarchal control of its cadres, given the ongoing brutalization of its rank-and-file. There are now thousands of Egyptians, Islamist and otherwise, who have lost friends, relatives or loved ones over the past nine months. Already reports and anecdotal evidence suggest that younger members of the Brotherhood, individuals not formally affiliated with the group but operating on its periphery, and Salafis opposed to the interim authorities, are increasingly willing to countenance the use of violence against police, the regime’s blunt instrument against Islamists and all other dissidents. Facebook pages managed by Islamists or sympathizers have repeatedly posted pictures, names and addresses of police officers alleged to have been complicit in killing or torturing protestors, in a clear, if sometimes unspoken, invitation to vigilante justice. Photos of burned out police vehicles and bloodied police officers are often posted online in triumph after protests.

This suggests that even if some form of political reconciliation were on the table (as stated above, it is not), it would likely prove exceedingly difficult for the Brotherhood to ensure sufficient buy-in among its members. As it stands, with no realistic prospect of any sort of accountability for the unprecedented violence unleashed by the military-backed government over the past nine months, it is unlikely Islamist youth, the chief victims of this violence, can be meaningfully reintegrated into any sort of political process or normalized social role in the foreseeable future, even if the Brotherhood’s leadership were released (nor indeed, is there any evidence of any inclination to do so on the part of the government).

That form of vigilante violence, while apparently spreading, remains sporadic, disorganized, and of relatively limited impact. Violence of the more organized, lethal variety has thus far been limited to a small number of shadowy groups, the most potent of which is Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. Citing retribution for the mass killings perpetrated by security forces in the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster as its motive, the group has pushed westwards, executing daring and efficacious attacks against a host of government targets in the capital. In Sinai, their deadly use of a Man Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS) to bring down a military helicopter set off alarm bells throughout the region.

But the group has also declared an economic war on the state, targeting natural gas pipelines feeding industrial zones—and tourists. The killing of three South Korean tourists in February signaled the opening of a new front in the escalating Islamist insurgency in Egypt. It is very likely Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis will seek to attack tourists again, given the near-immediate impact such attacks have on Egypt’s foreign currency earnings.

It has become fairly clear that, for much of the international community, principle and human rights in Egypt have taken a backseat to more basic and time-tested notions of realpolitik. Criticism, when voiced, is more often than not understated, discreet, or tempered by subsequent declarations of support. Most countries seem to be naively hoping for a restoration of stability, hopefully with the bare minimum of public human rights abuses that could make things awkward for countries and groupings that have invested themselves in backing the military’s political roadmap. Few, if any, seem to be worrying about the international security implications of Cairo’s determined bid to crush the region’s largest Islamist movement.

But recent history demonstrates that there is reason to fear that the more brutal, the more “successful” the regime’s efforts to stamp out rising domestic militancy—itself often a product of state repression—the more likely it is to produce further radicalization, a process that is clearly well underway in Egypt. Frustrated radicals in turn, motivated by a consuming hunger for retribution, will look for softer targets—both within and without. There is good reason to fear that the country could once again become an incubator for politically and religiously motivated terrorism that looks beyond Egypt.

It should not be necessary to re-learn the painful lessons of what happens when the enforced absence of a homegrown intellectual counterweight to radical Islamism is coupled with a state policy of brutally suppressing dissent and mainstream Islamist movements. If human rights and principle can be relegated to secondary (or tertiary, or quaternary, as may be the case) concerns for the international community, basic self-interest would seem to warrant a re-assessment of policy priorities on Egypt.

Aziz El-Kaissouni is a political analyst and has previously worked as a correspondent for Reuters in Cairo.

Image: Photo: A man walks near debris after an explosion near a security building in Egypt's Nile Delta city of Mansoura in Dakahlyia province, about 120 km (75 miles) northeast of Cairo December 24, 2013. A car bomb tore through a police compound in Egypt's Nile Delta on Tuesday, killing 13 people and wounding more than 130, security officials said, in one of the deadliest attacks since the army deposed Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany