CAIRO — These last few days have been filled with panic and bloodshed across Cairo and in the Sinai. A car bomb killed Attorney General Hisham Barakat on Monday in the capital, followed the next day by two more car bombs that killed the drivers and a passerby. Then, on Wednesday, Egypt awoke to a day of horrific rolling news coverage: Militants aligned with the so-called Islamic State were attempting to seize territory in a small town in the Sinai Peninsula.
The group formerly known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, now calling itself the Wilayat Sinai, meaning the Islamic State’s Province of Sinai, mounted a shocking offensive. It seized checkpoints around the town of Sheikh Zuweid, which lies to the south of El Arish and the Rafah border crossing with Gaza. Its fighters then embarked on an audacious, ruthless battle to take the entire town. They laid IEDs along roads and between houses to prevent the emergency services or military support from entering, and stormed civilian homes to fire RPG’s and other weapons from their rooftops as they laid siege to the local police station.
The ensuing battle with Egypt’s military lasted into the evening, as the air force struck Sheikh Zuweid with F-16s, and ground troops fought to regain control of the area. Egyptian security sources told the Associated Press 64 soldiers were killed, making it the deadliest battle for the Egyptian military since the 1973 war with Israel.
This week of chaos marked two years since the Egyptian military deposed former President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a popularly backed coup meant to impose order on the country. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who came to power after the uprising, went on to win an election with an impressive 97 percent of the vote. Sisi told the Egyptian people from the beginning that he would impose ironclad, or perhaps iron-fisted, security to combat years of turbulence after the January 2011 revolution. In exchange for this offer of security, the Egyptian people have surrendered an ever-increasing amount of civil liberties.
Now cracks are starting to show in the strategy of Sisi’s security state, but the response by the government has been more of the same: increasing draconian legislation, blaming the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood and a carrying out a scorched-earth policy in Sinai.
“The very raison d’être of the Sisi regime is being undermined, as he can’t bring security to Sinai or broader Egypt,” says Shadi Hamid, a fellow at Brookings in Washington. “Sisi came to power on a platform of security and stability and clearly he’s failing—by any measurable standard, Egypt is more vulnerable to insurgency today than it was two years ago.”
Hamid blames Sisi’s “harsh tactics and narrow security lens” for exacerbating problems that his government swore it would stamp out—and nowhere is this more obvious than in Sinai. Since coming to power in 2013, the government has attempted to crush the jihadist insurgency in North Sinai with sheer brute force, including making 1,165 families homeless by razing houses to create a “buffer zone” along the border with the Gaza Strip.
“Unfortunately, many of the military’s tactics—and the government’s policies— have a more negative impact on the local population than on the militants,” explains Zack Gold, visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. “In that sense, many policies such as roadblocks, curfews, the buffer zone, increase local grievances. This may radicalize the locals. It may also make them less likely to assist the military.”
“The real solution is getting the local community on your side. Scorched-earth policies won’t work,” argues Daniel Nisman of the Levantine Group in London, interviewed alongside Gold and longtime Sinai reporter Mohannad Sabry in a report for the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) in Washington about the July 1 attack.
Nisman calls the attack “a watershed moment,” while the report’s authors use the introduction to point out that now is the moment “to review counter-terror operation strategies and their effectiveness.”
The Egyptian military has eagerly promoted the figure of 100 militants killed during Wednesday’s battle, even going so far as to post gory pictures of their bodies on Facebook. But there have been no official figures released of civilian casualties, signaling a reluctance to show that civilian lives are intimately involved in the conflict.
TIMEP’s report also points to growing violence in Egypt, citing figures from their Egypt Security Watch project,which tracks attacks and the state’s response: “Initial figures indicate 127 terrorist attacks across Egypt in June, 32 of which were reported to have taken place in North Sinai. June follows a monthly average thus far for 2015 of over 118 attacks per month, and 35 attacks per month in North Sinai.”
But the problem is not just that violence is growing, it’s that the state’s tactics have made it increasingly ill equipped to deal with the enormous challenges in Northern Sinai and beyond.
Since the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, the Egyptian government has instituted a punitive and violent crackdown on the group, from labeling it a terrorist organization to arresting members and issuing death sentences en masse, hundreds at a time.
In two years, the Brotherhood has gone from Egypt’s ruling party to Public Enemy No. 1, even as the state tries to portray all its opponents as part of a single, vast, unified conspiracy.
Egypt’s State Information Service issued a statement the same day as Barakat’s assassination, categorically stating that the Brotherhood was behind the attack, and arguing that it “confirms the violent approach adopted by the terrorist group to create chaos.” The statement confusingly goes on to claim that: “the law of the group which is an identical copy of the law of Daesh terrorist group that is now applied in the regions that fell under the control of terrorist groups, which are an extension of the terrorist Brotherhood group.” Daesh is the Arabic acronym for ISIS, which now calls itself the Islamic State.
Yet there is little evidence that the Brotherhood’s beliefs overlap with jihadists such as ISIS. Analysts such as Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, brand this view as politically motivated and badly miscalculated. “Normally the approach is divide and conquer your enemies, not unify and conquer them,” says Dunne, who also points out that this approach by the Egyptian state often sweeps up secular groups such as the 6th April labor movement or the hardcore football fan groups known as the Ultras in “trying to capture everyone under the same title of terrorism” as if “all dissent is the same.”
“Whatever the Egyptian regime says, there is no evidence that anyone has been able to access that the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS are essentially two sides of the same coin—it’s a laughable argument for anyone that knows a single thing about political Islam,” says Hamid. “ISIS considers the Brotherhood to be apostates—no ifs, ands, or buts.”
Arguing that the Brotherhood and ISIS are somehow an extension of one another further lays the groundwork for a failure in long-term strategy. “This regime—all they have is a hammer, so everything looks like a nail,” says Hamid. “Step No. 1 of counter-terrorism is correctly identifying terrorists. This regime cannot do that.”
In other words, trying to counter a genuine jihadist insurgency in Sinai by blaming the political Islamists elsewhere is simply distracting from real problems that require a more sophisticated strategy, according to Hamid.
In line with its current strategy, the Egyptian government responded by killing nine former Brotherhood MP’s in a raid on an apartment in Cairo’s 6th October district on Wednesday, later stating that the group was plotting to attack the army, police, judiciary and media. Images of their corpses, complete with visible weapons at strangely convenient angles for photographs, were broadcast on television and posted online.
The Brotherhood responded by calling for a “rebellion” against the Egyptian government, issuing a statement that “the assassination of its leaders is a turning point that will have its own repercussions… Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is initiating a new phase during which it will not be possible to control the anger of the oppressed sectors who will not accept to be killed in their own houses and in the middle of their families.”
Moreover, concerns persist that violence enacted by the Egyptian state will actually encourage some Brotherhood members, especially younger ones, to renounce its traditionally nonviolent ethos. This could swell the numbers of jihadist groups or create numerous small splinter cells.
Such concerns come from sections of the Brotherhood’s leadership as much as observers. Hamid says that a discussion around the term “defensive violence” has become a “major issue within the Muslim Brotherhood. The line of the Brotherhood’s youth is ‘We’re going to be killed anyway—and whether we’re peaceful or not, we may as well go down fighting,’” says Hamid.
Dunne labels the Brotherhood’s concerns about controlling their younger members as part of a wider shift in politics among Egypt’s youth, Islamist and non-Islamist, in the face of a crackdown on civil liberties. This by no means pushes everyone toward violent tactics, but it does create a generation of young people who are growing up alienated from a government that is claiming to protect and champion their futures.
“It’s primarily the young people who bare the brunt of human-rights abuses,” says Dunne. “They’re killed at demos, arrested by thousands, subjected to torture. A lot of different groups are competing for, or at least trying to hold on to, the allegiance of their youth in this very hot situation.”
Egypt’s government also responded to the week’s violence by pushing for ever-more draconian counter-terrorism and criminal procedure laws. Egypt’s cabinet convened on Wednesday afternoon to rush through sweeping counter-terrorism laws that now only await Sisi’s signature to be enacted.
One legal expert, who declined to be named due to the nature of their work, explained that the new counter-terrorism bill provides “very broad and vague definitions of a terror act, terrorist or group and their funding,” while mandating sentences from 10 years in prison to the death penalty for attempted crimes. Anyone accused of inciting terrorism would also be charged as if they had actually committed an act of terrorism—even if it’s proven that they failed to instigate anything. The bill also includes opaquely worded espionage charges that also carry the death penalty.
In parallel to the counter-terrorism proposals, Egypt’s government and senior members of the judiciary have pushed for amendments to criminal procedure law that would see cases fast-tracked, also increasing pressure for death sentences to be enacted. Sisi termed this “swift justice” when speaking to the press after Barakat’s funeral. The fast-tracking of cases could compromise defendants’ abilities to appeal sentences, according to the legal expert—this after the same amendments “also make it optional for a judge in the court to hear the defendants’ testimony.”
The Egyptian state appears trapped in a cycle of repression and horrific attacks, which spur it to implement even harsher measures on the general population as punishment. The attacks this week were the biggest of their kind—until the next time.