While Iraq’s embattled government lobbied this week for a reset in its strained relations with America, prompted by a resurgent al-Qaeda, Egypt’s military rulers—scrambling to contain their own burgeoning jihadist challenge—seem content to allow their rift with Washington to deepen.
Angered by America’s curtailing of military aid and its criticisms over alleged human rights violations, Egypt’s generals have been talking of a “strategic realignment,” emphasizing their ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries who have lavished financial assistance on Cairo after the military toppled the country’s first-ever Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi.
And Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi has even evoked Egypt’s Nasser-era alliance with Russia as a possible substitute, arguing that in the past “Egypt went with the Russian military for support and we survived.” Russia’s intelligence chief is in Cairo this week and there’s speculation in the Egyptian press that Vladimir Putin may visit shortly.
Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he plans to visit Cairo soon for his first trip since Morsi’s ouster—and the first since Washington started to “recalibrate” its $1.5 billion annual aid package to Egypt by withholding deliveries of tanks, warplanes, helicopters and missiles as well as $260 million in cash assistance.
While the Obama administration doesn’t want to be seen acquiescing on Morsi’s undemocratic ouster nor the army’s bloody repression of Islamists, U.S. officials say neither do they want relations with Egypt to worsen—a deterioration that could impact American efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and undermine U.S. influence elsewhere in the region.
Instead, Washington hopes that Egypt will follow Iraq’s example. Among Kerry’s list of priorities when talking with Egypt’s new military rulers will be the threat posed by a growing jihadist insurgency that is spreading from the Sinai Peninsula.
In early October, in the wake of a series of terrorist incidents, including car bombs and gun attacks targeting police and security forces in major cities like Cairo, Egypt’s interior ministry approached European countries for equipment to detect and defuse explosives and for surveillance cameras to help protect government offices and tourist sites.
One of the carrots Kerry will wave before Egypt will be U.S. counter-terrorism cooperation when it comes to intertwined al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups such as al-Furqan Brigades, AnsarBayt al-Maqdis—which claimed responsibility for an attempted assassination earlier this month of the interior minister—and the Jamal Network, according to a U.S. official who declined to be named for this article.
The jihadist insurgency based out of the Sinai is escalating, despite the biggest deployment of the Egyptian military in the peninsula for decades. According to analyst Andrew McGregor of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington DC-based think tank, it “marks the greatest Egyptian military concentration in the region since the 1973 war with Israel.”
And jihadist fighters are beginning to flock to the Sinai to reinforce 1,200 Islamist militants who escaped prison, were released during the revolution or returned from exile after the fall of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. Many of the new fighters were inspired by influential ideologues like Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who said the army’s intervention “demonstrates the soundness of the jihadi project and the choice of the ammunition box over the ballot box.”
The appearance of significant jihadist leaders is acting also as a magnet. Several hundred fighters from Yemen, Somalia, Algeria and Libya are estimated by U.S. intelligence sources to have joined jihadi groups in the Sinai. Jihadists are able now to cross the region’s borders more freely, largely unmonitored because of the collapse of the intelligence services in many of the Arab Spring countries.
The Long War Journal, a terrorism-monitoring project of the Foundation of the Defense of Democracies, a U.S.-based think tank, has pointed to Ramzi Mowafi, an Egyptian physician who was close to Osama bin Laden, as one of the veterans shaping the growing insurgency and coordinating jihadi groups.
Jihadist groups operating in the Sinai are demonstrating growing sophistication in their operations—from the technical design of bombs to the use of the Internet to recruit and communicate using complex programs to mask identities and locations when uploading videos or entering forums.
Of all the groups active in Egypt, the network set up by Mohamed Jamal al-Kashef, who was captured by Egyptian security forces a year ago, is of the greatest interest to America. Members of the network have been linked to the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi a year ago that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.
An Egyptian who fought in Afghanistan and has close ties with al-Qaeda’s current leaderAyman al-Zawahiri, Al-Khasef told his Egyptian interrogators: “We consider Sinai the next frontier of conflict with the Zionists and the Americans,” according to Egyptian newspaper accounts,
In October the U.S. State Department named the Jamal Network and its founder as “specially designated global terrorists.”
Jamal, the department said, had set up terrorist training camps in both Egypt and Libya and received funding from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to smuggle foreign jihadists into the training camps. The U.N. also recently designated the network as a terrorist group, saying: “Some of the attackers of the U.S. Mission in Benghazi on 11 September 2012 have been identified as associates of Muhammad Jamal, and some of the Benghazi attackers reportedly trained at MJN camps in Libya.”
Whether Kerry can use the counter-terrorism card to re-stitch some of the frayed ties between the U.S. and Egypt remains in doubt, analysts say. “Egypt’s generals have conducted a strategic review of their own, and have already begun to cast away their partner of 35 years,” says Joshua Haber, a research associate at the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force. Writing for the news site Al Monitor, he argues, “Egypt’s leaders are neither begging for U.S. support nor waiting for Washington to dictate the future course of bilateral relations. Egypt has sued for divorce.”
And Kerry’s task will be made harder with the Obama administration maintaining its determination to link aid with democratic reform and observance of human rights norms—a condition already infuriating Egypt’s military leaders. Testifying before the House Foreign Relations Committee last week, acting Assistant Secretary of State Beth Jones told the panel that the Obama administration’s Egypt policy would be based on “credible progress on the interim government’s political roadmap toward a sustainable, inclusive and peaceful transition to democracy.”