Egypt: A Rising Islamist Tide?

Egypt flag

On 12th November 2014, Egypt’s former head of naval intelligence stated that a terrorist attack on that day represented a “quantum leap for terrorism”. The incident General Yorsi was referring to was an attack on an Egyptian navy ship in the Mediterranean Sea for which, at the time of writing, no group has claimed responsibility. In this attack militants reportedly managed to set the ship ablaze during a firefight which left a number of navy personnel injured and eight lost at sea.  As General Yorsi rightly points out, this was a significant development for terrorism in Egypt, differing from the insurgency waged by Islamist groups against the Egyptian state since the ousting of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. Although this attack was indeed distinct in its nature it appears to be part of a broader intensification of terrorism within Egypt.

Alongside the incident involving the navy ship, Egypt has suffered from a number of other attacks in November 2014, including: two separate attacks in the Sinai region which left five soldiers dead; the killing of a policeman and injuring of another in Sharqiya; and a bomb in a Cairo metro station which injured 16 people. Although these attacks are still limited in terms of their casualties they indicate an increasing security threat. Moreover, these attacks followed on from the greatest infliction of casualties in a day on Egypt’s security forces in the Sinai region since July 2013. On 24th October 2014, Islamist militants attacked two military checkpoints killing 31 members of Egypt’s security forces. The first and larger attack involved a suicide bomber driving a truck packed with explosives into a military checkpoint. In the aftermath of the explosion other militants entered the area firing at injured or fleeing soldiers and collecting their weapons. In response to this attack, the Egyptian government declared a state of emergency in the north and centre of the Sinai Peninsula on 25th October 2014.

The militant Islamist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for this attack on 14th November by releasing a video entitled “Onslaught of Ansar”, which depicted the attack on the checkpoint from more than one angle. This was only days after the same group swore allegiance to the self-styled Islamic State (or ISIS) via an audio clip posted online, on which the speaker, who identified himself as part of the group’s information department, stated that “we announce our pledge of allegiance to the caliph Ibrahim Ibn Awad … to listen and obey him…and we call on all Muslims to pledge allegiance to him”. Although it was clear that Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis had taken inspiration from ISIS previously, illustrated by a number of beheadings claimed by the group in September 2014, this was its first public declaration of support for the group based in Iraq and Syria. This declaration of support was further emphasised in the video released on 14th November, as the group stated that they were changing their name to Welayat Sinai or the State of Sinai. Since then, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has referred to the State of Sinai as being part of his wider Islamic Caliphate. Furthermore, it has been reported that the cultivation of support from other Islamist groups is a policy of ISIS, who apparently sent an “emissary” to persuade Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis to join their self-declared Caliphate. Thus, the insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai region has become intimately intertwined with the conflict in Iraq and Syria.

Although at the time of writing, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has not claimed responsibility for the attacks in November outside of the Sinai region, and there is no evidence to suggest that they were co-ordinated by the group, these incidents indicate a growing extremism across the country. This could be due to the increasing restrictions on opposition politics, and in particular Islamist parties.  In recent months, the Egyptian government and security forces have clamped down on Islamist opposition movements with any connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. This was demonstrated by the banning and seizing of assets of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, in August 2014, and the banning of the Independence Party, a member of the pro-Morsi Anti Coup Alliance, in September 2014. These type of actions force opposition movements underground, which increases the likelihood that they will become more reliant on militant factions due to their loss of a political voice.  This therefore opens the Islamist opposition to more extremist ideas and actions, as the possibility of a democratic political opposition movement re-emerging has been all but removed. This is particularly relevant due to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’ recent rise to become arguably Egypt’s leading militant Islamist organisation. As Islamist politics has been forced underground, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis may be able to attract new followers and appeal to a wider support base. Thus, ISIS could potentially find a foothold in Egyptian Islamist politics in the vacuum left by the disintegrated Muslim Brotherhood. Events are beginning to suggest that there is a growing appetite for militant extremism in the country and if Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, and by association ISIS, are able to take advantage of this and harness it for their aims, there is the potential that an unmanageable militant Islamist opposition could emerge. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, if such an opposition adopted the aims of ISIS, it is highly unlikely that it could be reconciled through political reforms or even the release from prison of senior Islamist figures.

On Friday 28th November 2014, the ultraconservative Islamist group the Salafi Front plans to protest against the Egyptian government with the reported aim of toppling military rule in Egypt. They have garnered support from other Islamist groups including remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, Egypt’s interior minister has reportedly warned that his forces will use “all means” to quell “incitement…by terrorist factions”. An event such as this has the potential to be highly influential for the outlook of Islamist politics in Egypt. If the security forces’ response is perceived to be particularly heavy-handed it may help to generate more support for extremist elements. The Egyptian government must therefore be mindful in its clamping down on Islamist politics in Egypt as it could spawn a far more extremist and uncontrollable movement.

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