Sisi’s Security Dilemma

Since the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi from office in July 2013 by now-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, extremist attacks on civilians, state institutions, and security personnel have increased within Egypt’s borders. While more than half of the attacks occurred in the Sinai Peninsula (56 percent of the total 599 reported in the press to date), increased attacks within urban centers suggest that extremist groups are shifting tactics. Whereas militants previously intended for these incidents to show Egyptians they meant to fight the injustices of the state, they now send the message that the Egyptian government cannot protect its civilians.

Egyptian security officials stepped up counterterror operations in June 2013 and again in May 2014, greatly reducing the frequency of terrorist incidents, but were unable to eliminate the threat. Other deterrents include a draft counterterrorism law that gives security forces immense leeway to detain and coerce information. It also imposes harsh punishment, including the death penalty, for committing terrorist crimes. Indeed, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab has already formed a specialized committee to tackle the draft law. Human rights groups have criticized the draft law for a particularly vague definition of terrorism that serves more to quell dissent than counter the phenomenon.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) is seemingly the largest, most organized, and best funded of the extremist groups that have made themselves known to the public. Egyptian authorities have established no direct link between ABM and the Muslim Brotherhood, but Sisi and other regime officials regularly conflate the Brotherhood with any terrorist act. ABM has publicly stated their intent to focus attacks on government targets while trying not to harm ordinary civilians. Nonetheless, collateral damage has killed and wounded dozens if not hundreds of noncombatants. The highest-profile attacks thus far have been a car bomb meant for the minister of interior in September 2013 and an attack on Mansoura’s security directorate that left fifteen dead.

While their ultimate goal beyond an overthrow of the Sisi regime is not clear (the establishment of a caliphate, for instance), their rejection of democracy and desire to impose sharia is. “Democracy is a form of atheism that violates the Tawhid of Allah,” ABM official Abu Osama al-Masri said in January 2014. Other notable groups include Ajnad Misr, though the degree of coordination, mergers, or membership movement remains unknown. Some reports claim that disillusioned Muslim Brotherhood youth have also formed their own militant groups—the Popular Resistance Movement and the Helwan Brigades—but these reports remain unconfirmed. The National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, the main pro-Brotherhood group, did release a statement in response reiterating a commitment to nonviolence, suggesting fears over sliding public opinion, the use of this news to justify more crackdowns, or the loss of members to extremist groups. Most recently, a group purporting to be an Egyptian branch of the Islamic State of Syria and al-Sham (ISIS) has emerged.

Three known smuggling corridors appear to equip and fuel extremist activity. One corridor runs from the western border with Libya through the Nile Delta and on to Sinai and Gaza. Another runs from the Delta south to the Sudanese border. The last runs from Sinai and Gaza along the Red Sea to Sudan. The free flow of arms from the porous border in Libya and the recent killing of 23 soldiers has prompted a debate within Egypt’s halls of power over creating a militarized buffer zone. Witnesses claim that massive troop movements have already begun, though no official statements confirm new deployments to the western border.

The terrorist threat in Egypt is real—the Egyptian government has had to deal with violent extremism on and off since the 1930s—but the no-tolerance policy for anything related to the Muslim Brotherhood has undoubtedly exacerbated the tension. The authorities’ crackdown on the group left many Islamists feeling that there is no political outlet to voice their grievances. The extension of the crackdown to moderate, secular, and human rights activists reinforces this notion. Dealing with this problem will require a multipronged approach that incorporates a security, political, and social aspect.

With the United States suspending millions in aid to Egypt in the wake of the violent dispersal of the pro-Mohamed Morsi sit-in at Raba’a al-Adaweya, an opportunity presents itself to restructure aspects of the US-Egypt military relationship. From a security perspective, the United States should shift its financial assistance away from big-ticket items such as Abrahams tanks, Apache helicopters, and F-16s toward counterterrorism equipment such as night vision, communications, and intelligence-gathering gear. While many have put forth this argument ad nauseum, for different reasons at different points in Egypt’s volatile transition, such wholesale restructuring never took place. The current US administration has done more to use aid conditionality to pressure the Sisi government into allowing more freedom than any other US president, but the pressures on President Barack Obama to restore relatively normal aid relations with the Egyptian military have grown since Sisi’s election. If the United States can restructure its assistance to meet Egypt’s needs, its own security interests will be better served.

Such equipment would also need the requisite training. If the United States could work with European partners to provide this training to the police force primarily, reinforcing rights-based law enforcement, the transatlantic community could encourage Egypt’s ministry of interior to promote a more effective and accountable security force. The problem with this proposal stems from the use of such programs to promote the ministry of interior’s own patronage system for select officers. In order for the program to succeed, a proper assessment of the incentives needed to develop the requisite political will for reform within the Egyptian government can guide US policy options. Between endemic corruption, a securitized political environment, and a state bureaucracy with unprecedented independence, the timing could not be worse. Nonetheless, limited success in the implementation of security sector reforms in post-conflict countries (such as in the Balkans, Congo, and East Timor) could provide valuable lessons to be applied in this case.

Politically, Sisi has a choice: continue a relentless crackdown on all dissent or negotiate a reconciliation arrangement. The security crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters has effectively crippled the organization, but has not stopped violent attacks. Counterterrorism operations equate to putting pressure on a gaping wound—they are a bandaid measure, not a cure. The time and money focused solely on those operations will deprive the government of much needed resources that it could otherwise allocate to job creation and social safety nets for a vast and largely impoverished population. Mobilizing the government to fill service gaps that better meets the needs of rural communities could prevent new militant recruits and create allies in the fight against extremism, addressing the source of the problem. The longer reconciliation is postponed, the less of an effect it will have on hardened jihadists. 

Tarek Radwan is Associate Director for the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Tarek Radwan

Image: Photo: A man walks near debris after an explosion near security building in Egypt's Nile Delta city of Mansoura in Dakahlyia province, about 120 km (75 miles) northeast of Cairo December 24, 2013 (Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)