A few days ago, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi announced a forthcoming amendment to the law on arms and ammunition. The amendments provide immunity for anyone in possession of unlicensed weapons or ammunition, if the weapons are handed over to police within 180 days. The amendments also exempt them from civil penalties such as arms or ammunition theft or illegal concealment during the aforementioned period.
Through this amendment, the government aims to manage the uncontrolled spread of weapons which swept Egypt in the wake of the January 2011 uprising, itself followed by a lack of security and a complete lack of police presence. The security vacuum spurred many Egyptians to acquire weapons for self-defense. Islamic militants have also used this opportunity to built fortified bases in the Sinai Peninsula, a serious cause for concern for the Egyptian government.
With the police apparatus collapsing during the 2011 protests, the army stepped in, taking over domestic security and declaring a state of emergency. This in turn led to a failure to secure the country’s borders. After the civil war in Libya, a large quantity of arms, either from Qaddafi’s arsenals or from opposition militias, found a fertile arms market waiting in Egypt, which further compounded instability.
In addition, during the 18 day uprising in Egypt, a large number of prisons were left unguarded and unlocked, allowing convicted prisoners to roam free; not to mention the storming of a large number of police stations across the nation, with arms and ammunition stolen in the process. Last April, former Prime Minister Dr. Kamal Ganzouri estimated the number of weapons smuggled into Egypt after the January uprising to be around ten million.
The chaos caused by readily available weapons in Egypt operates on two levels. The first is an increase in incidents of armed robbery, kidnapping and the frequent use of firearms in family disputes, which have become far more violent. The second level relates to the unstable situation in Sinai which stems from the army’s inability to subdue radical elements that have made the peninsula their safe haven.
Further complicating matters, the military is forbidden from to using its full force due to the peace agreement with Israel that limits military operations in the Sinai. Even after the military operation, which was an exceptional case, executed by the Egyptian armed forces in retaliation for the killing of 16 Egyptian border guards at the Egyptian outpost in Rafah last month, experts are certain that the operation did not succeed in eliminating terrorist cells in Sinai.
There are several examples of terrorist elements using sophisticated weaponry in various clashes, such as Sunday’s attacks on the Egyptian security headquarters in North Sinai by radical Islamists using mortars and machine-guns. There was also an attack on the police station in El-Arish last July, in addition to the repeated attacks on the gas pipeline between Egypt and Israel.
The arms market in Egypt has experienced a surge in supply as a result of the influx of Libyan arms used in the war against Qaddafi’s regime. Medium-sized weapons are widely available, once employed by armies they are now in the hands of ordinary citizens and renegade groups. According to General James Whiting, Commander of the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai Peninsula, S-A 24 Russian-made surface to air missiles sold to the Libyan regime in 2004 arrived in the hands of armed groups in Sinai, by way of smuggling operations out of Libya. He added that these missiles are capable of damaging aircraft at altitudes of more than 11 thousand feet, with high-rates of accuracy.
Additionally, a portion of Libyan arms, particularly heavy and anti-aircraft weaponry, were smuggled into the Gaza Strip through the tunnels. In October last year Haaretz reported Hamas was able to smuggle advanced anti-aircraft missiles, originally supplied to the Libyan army by Russia. Hamas was able to exploit the Libyan revolution and managed to smuggle Libyan weaponry into Egyptian territory and then into the Gaza Strip.
Measures taken by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government have not been compelling enough to convince citizens that there is no use in carrying weapons to defend themselves, particularly in light of an unstable security situation. The one-hundredth day of the president’s first term is fast approaching, and citizens do not feel that security has been restored, as was promised as part of Morsi’s five-goal plan. Moreover, the police apparatus is still lax in dealing with security challenges, and has not developed as expected.
In order for security to be restored, ordinary citizens need to feel that the country has passed through the stage of political conflict and is heading towards stability. This requires that the parties agree that rules of the political game will be governed by democracy. If the political track fails, instability will only worsen, especially with warnings that the state may be unable to pay its inflated subsidies bill, which could lead to widespread social unrest.
Magdy Samaan is a visiting fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a 2011 MENA Democracy Fellow at the World Affairs Institute.
Image Credit: New York Times