The Four Real Security Challenges Facing Egypt

In the lead up to the fifth anniversary of the January 25th revolutionary uprising, the Egyptian authorities reacted with a number of measures – many of which seem to assess the situation with a certain type of suspicious persistence. Indeed, the Ministry of Interior claimed it thwarted several plots by ‘foreign’ and ‘Brotherhood’ elements – independent verification was not forthcoming. What remains unclear is if the courses of action address the main issues constructively – or leave some of them alone altogether. Judging by the furor around the death of an Italian student in the aftermath of the anniversary, widely suspected in the international press, as well as much of the Egyptian press, to be connected to the security services, there are certainly still many who would dispute the wisdom of the current policies.

Different parts of the Egyptian state expressed a sense of worry and concern about the anniversary. In private, Egyptian officials warned foreign governments about the threat of upheaval due to protests, militancy, and sabotage on the 25th. In public, certain parts of the state media apparatus, as well as senior officials in the religious establishment, and even the Egyptian presidency voiced concerns about the anniversary, and cautioned that calls for a new revolution could destroy the nation and its people. That such an admonition can take place as supporters of the state continue to laud the ‘stature of the state’ (haybat-l-dawlah) is a perennial contradiction.

But it was never clear much was about to happen on the January 25, 2016. Since the military ousted then president Mohamed Morsi on July 3 in 2013, there have been three anniversary dates. In both 2014 and 2015, the day saw some small protests, particularly in 2014 as compared to 2015, but nothing that could claim to approximate the anniversaries in 2013 or 2012, let alone the country-wide upheaval of 2011. Protests in 2016 have been even smaller, and Tahrir remained largely empty. Opposition to the current political dispensation is fragmented, and there is a critical mass that either supports the authorities or is unwilling to antagonistically oppose it.

There are a number of challenges that do exist as ‘clear and present dangers’ to the Egyptian authorities – but they have been the same challenges for quite some time. It is not as clear if the Egyptian state has identified the relevant issues all as challenges at all – nor is it clear that those they have identified are being dealt with constructively.

One challenge that remains prescient is the security challenge – which in itself can be segmented into four different types.

The first is militancy in the Sinai, mostly perpetrated by factions with links to the group described as ‘Da’esh’ in Arabic, and the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in English. A proto-insurgency has existed in the Sinai long before 2013, and depending on how you want to assess it, the roots go back many years. It intensified, nonetheless, following the overthrow of Morsi. Groups such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis that felt his administration was perhaps the ‘lesser of the two evils’ were incensed by the military’s removal, and upped their campaign within the peninsula in 2013. The majority of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has since pledged its allegiance to ISIS, changing its name to Wilayat Sinai (Sinai State), and over the past 30 months, the insurgency has gone through waves of activity. The intensity appears as though it will continue to vary for the foreseeable future.

The second security trial emanates from other affiliates of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s group who may be acting under orders from ISIS central, or may simply be inspired by the group more generally. The downing of a Russian airliner in October 2015, for example, was claimed in Dabiq, ISIS’s centralized media outlet, after initial claims by Wilayat Sinai on the day of the crash were dismissed.  Based on its statements, another affiliate—ISIS Egypt—has also been operating mainly in the greater Cairo area, claiming attacks such as the bombing of the Italian consulate.

The Wilayat Sinai group has been acting more or less with an exclusive focus on militancy in the peninsula, and it is unclear if they are responding to orders from ISIS central in Iraq and Syria, or simply prolonging the same dynamic of unrest seen in Sinai prior to 2011. When it comes to ISIS Egypt—which are identified uniquely in ISIS propaganda materials—their actions are more sporadic, and less reactive than Wilayat Sinai.

In any case, the effects are again rather unpredictable – the Russian airliner is one example, but there are other smaller examples of ISIS-linked attacks across the country, beyond Sinai or the Western desert. Early in January, the attack that claimed the lives of some ten police officers in a Giza apartment saw two groups insist they were responsible, one of them being an ISIS affiliate. That kind of vigilante violence is expected to continue, at least in the estimations of security analysts in and out of Egypt.

The third security challenge relates to militancy from groups in more open areas, particularly in the Western desert, on the border with Libya. That is only likely to intensify, as activity within Libya steps up, and the newly created Libyan government of national unity attempts to implant its authority – the ripple effects from that on Egypt’s western border is as yet unpredictable.

Finally, the fourth security threat comes from those who have no direct link or alliance with al-Baghdadi’s ultimate form of extremism, but are more inclined towards the Muslim Brotherhood camp. It is important to note here that ISIS considers the MB as essentially renegades for being insufficiently radical – coordination between the two is rather dubious to establish. However, with the crackdown on this Islamist group that for a time held some of the reins of power in Egypt, command and control structures in the Brotherhood have resulted in some rather sporadic activity. With the top leadership either in jail or in exile, pro-Brotherhood activists inside the country appear to be acting with a very decentralized structure, and not necessarily listening to established leaders at all – on the contrary, there are great tensions that are playing out. Isolated groups of pro-Brotherhood youth are accused of carrying out acts of violence, with control from higher ranks being called into question. Operationally, there is obviously a fragmentation developing – and the results of that could intensify in terms of violence.

Cairo, thus, has many challenges to face.  Challenges that require not only a hard look at existing counter-terrorism policies, such as they are, but also serious consideration of whether or not other policies need to be enacted. This current administration bases itself, in large part, on the ability and the determination to face down all militancy in the country, effectively and comprehensively. It is now more than two years into the post-Morsi order, and criticisms of how Cairo is engaging in its security strategies, both from outside and inside the country, are not abating. If anything, they have increased. Cairo is far beyond the need for a wake-up call – but it still seems to need one, nonetheless. 

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. He is also Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.

Related Experts: H.A. Hellyer

Image: Photo: Reuters