Extremism in Egypt: when countering terrorism becomes counter-productive


Since the inception of the El-Sisi regime in Egypt, there has been an exponential increase in the number of terrorist incidents directed at the state.

In the Sinai Peninsula especially, the security situation has deteriorated significantly, with the Islamic State joining the melange of extremist groups operating in the region.

Extremists have also shown their ability to extend violence beyond the Sinai and into the capital.

In June, Egypt’s Chief Prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, was assassinated, and there have been a number of high-profile attacks in Cairo since then. 

The regime has responded to the increased threat with heavy-handed tactics, including a controversial new anti-terrorism law, which limit civil liberties and violate a number of basic human rights. Ironically, it may be this very strategy that is leading to increased extremism.

A previous paper by the Institute for Security Studies found that in East Africa, state repression has been a leading facilitator of radicalisation. Other research also points to push and pull factors that can turn moderates into radicals, and, subsequently turn radicals into violent extremists. To understand what has potentially been pushing ordinary citizens towards violent extremism, an examination of government abuses could hold some answers.

There have been 163 documented forced disappearances in Egypt since April

Part of the government’s strategy has been to limit avenues through which people may voice discontent, and to send a strong message through law enforcement and the judiciary that dissent will not be tolerated. In line with this, forced disappearances have been on the rise, with 163 documented cases since April this year. Security forces have carried out abductions in public and in broad daylight. This is a strong indicator of the extent of state impunity and of a government deliberately sowing an atmosphere of fear and intimidation among the populace.

Extra-judicial executions may also be a factor undermining the already frail rule of law, leading citizens to lose confidence in the state. Within two days of the Barakat assassination, 13 Muslim Brotherhood leaders were arrested and immediately killed. This was in lieu of any judicial proceedings and despite a group not associated with the Brotherhood having claimed responsibility for the assassination. The killings were unsurprising in light of comments recently made by President Sisi that ‘the prompt hand of justice is tied by the laws, and we can’t wait for that.’

Further antagonising citizens, the government has extended authoritarian control over religious affairs by closing down mosques (some 27 000 in the last year); regulating mosque activities, including who may preach (12 000 imams were dismissed in the process); and what may or may not be discussed during sermons. Certain strands of classical Islamic literature have also been banned.

Egypt has managed to turn allegiance against the state, rather than to it

Severe human rights violations and the curtailment of religious and political expression are counter productive. With dissent effectively outlawed and calls for cooperation and political inclusion ignored, violence often becomes the chosen path of the disaffected.

Though largely seen as a failed revolution, in that a military regime was reinstated just under a different president, the revolution did achieve a greater sense of resistance among Egyptians.

There are strong indications that masses are more politically aware and much less compliant now than under the Mubarak regime, and thus less likely to submit to authoritarian rule quietly. Extremist groups have been quick to exploit the growing discontent, which has increased the risk of radicalisation.

The Islamic State is but one group that has exploited the current situation. It used the ouster of Mohamed Morsi and the subsequent banning of the Muslim Brotherhood as a case against democracy and peaceful resistance, insisting that change can only be brought about through militant power.

There are the so-called ideological ‘hardliners’ who have been part of established movements for longer periods, and are intent on violence and disorder regardless of the state of governance or regime type. However, a group more strongly affected by government repression is the youth, whose ideas may not be as firmly entrenched.

It appears that many young people have been influenced by extremist rhetoric. While the exact number of recent recruits in Egypt is unknown, attacks against security forces over the last two years are telling. There has been a documented increase of 1 567% (compared to the previous two years) in such attacks since the inception of the regime’s policy of elimination and repression in July 2013.

Socio-economic development and political inclusion are key to curbing Egypt’s cycle of violence

Research points to ‘collective frustration, humiliation and deprivation’as factors that drive radicalisation, which is particularly relevant to the socio-economic dynamics of the Sinai. Extremist groups have been able to thrive in the region thanks to pockets of support from the civilian population, who see Egyptian security forces as legitimate targets given the aggression meted out by security forces.

Add to this the economic marginalisation that has come to characterise the Sinai province over the years, and it’s clear that there is little to inspire loyalty to bind the citizenry to the state.

Unity is found elsewhere – among other disaffected people – and thus allegiance is placed against the state rather than to it. Moreover, rather than including the Sinai population in counter-terrorism efforts, the regime only further alienated residents.

Following an attack in 2014 that left 53 soldiers dead, the regime ordered 10 000 Sinai residents to evacuate their homes within 48 hours for the government to create a buffer zone, as part of a larger security strategy. A subsequent surge in attacks was documented after this misguided action.

While some point to religion as a factor in radicalisation, in Egypt, the violence may not be for the sake of jihad itself or to establish an Islamic state, but is rather retaliation against state violence. It is likely that radical Islamist ideals may provide a framework for violence but play a passive, secondary role – if any at all – in radicalisation and recruitment.

If a long-term solution is to be reached, the government must address the root causes of terrorism. Socio-economic development and political inclusion are key to curbing the cycle of violence. Moreover, instead of arbitrary bans on religious institutions where there has been no evidence of extremist thought being propagated within them, a wiser approach would be to work together with mosques towards greater community engagement, considering the influence and theological legitimacy that mosques enjoy within their communities.

In August, a community in the Governorate of Fayoum voiced outrage over the extra-judicial executions of a group of men by police. The widow of one of the slain men told journalists: ‘They kill thousands like Abu Omar. He was never violent and always stood against oppression. I have four children; they will all be martyrs … hundreds of others will follow his cause.’ Her young son added, ‘I will kill whoever killed my father.’

Raeesah Cassim Cachalia, Junior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

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