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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Terror Escalation in Egypt

Filed under: Egypt, Radical Islam, The Middle East

In recent days, in the midst of the Islamic holy month Ramadan, a wave of terror has swept over Egypt.

This wave is not occurring randomly. It could have been predicted beforehand, since this month marks two important dates for terror organizations. One is the first anniversary of the declaration of the founding of ISIS’ Islamic Caliphate; the other is the second anniversary of the ouster of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government headed by President Mohamed Morsi, which transpired on June 30, 2013.

Egypt air force attack in northern Sinai
Egypt air force attack in northern Sinai

ISIS Terror in Sinai

ISIS has fulfilled its promise to step up terror attacks during the “month of fire” of Ramadan, which it views as a worthy religious occasion for terror. After a string of attacks in France, Tunisia, and Kuwait, Egypt’s turn has come – at the hands of ISIS’ affiliate in northern Sinai known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis or Sinai Province (Wilayat Sinai in Arabic).

ISIS’ affiliate indeed dominates northern Sinai, and the ISIS leadership views the area as an integral part of the Islamic Caliphate.

In recent months, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has reinforced the Sinai front with additional army units and senior commanders experienced in fighting terror; the army has also managed to recruit several local Bedouin tribes to the anti-ISIS struggle.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

However, the Egyptian army is having trouble fighting the terror effectively, and armed clashes with ISIS operatives have become a daily event.

On July 1, in the Sheikh Zuweid area in Sinai, 70 Egyptian soldiers were killed and wounded in a coordinated assault by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis/Islamic State fighters that included mortar and light-weapon fire at five military outposts,  as well as a car-bomb attack.

According to reports from the Egyptian army, 70 armed ISIS terrorists took part in the attack. This is the first time the organization has deployed such a large military force in Sinai, indicating that its operational capability has improved.

The Egyptian Army mobilized F-16 jets to support ground troops.  An army spokesman reported that some 100 terrorists were killed in the ground battle and the air assault.  Photographs released by the Egyptian military spokesperson shows dead ISIS fighters all in standardized uniforms and fully outfitted with military gear.

The Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm al-Saba’a reported on July 1 that foreign terrorists fought alongside ISIS terrorists, while Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that terrorists who came from the Gaza Strip and infiltrated through tunnels also participated in the attacks against the Egyptian army.

This assault represents an unprecedented attack on Egyptian soldiers in Sinai and a serious challenge that ISIS is now posing to the Egyptian army, which will have to find a way to cope with the situation.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi speaks at the funeral for Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s prosecutor-general. (Egyptian Presidency via AP)
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi speaks at the funeral for Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s prosecutor-general. (Egyptian Presidency via AP)

Muslim Brotherhood Terror

Egyptian Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat, who was assassinated on June 29 in a car-bomb attack in the heart of Cairo, is not the Egyptian legal establishment’s first victim of radical Islamic terrorists. On March 22, 1948, Muslim Brotherhood operatives assassinated Judge Ahmed elKhazindar, an exploit that shocked Egypt at the time.

No one can forget the assassination of President Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981 by Muslim radicals while he was viewing a military parade.  Just before the assassination, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a fatwa calling for his death.  Of the 20 clauses in the fatwa, only three dealt with the peace process with Israel, the rest dealt with Egypt and Sadat’s actions against the Muslim Brotherhood.

The second anniversary of President Sisi’s accession to office on June 30 (one day after the assassination of the prosecutor-general) passed relatively quietly in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood only managed to organize a very small number of demonstrations, which ended relatively calmly.

The movement, in other words, failed to bring masses of its supporters to the streets to demand the release of Morsi and dozens of other leaders of the movement who have been sentenced to death in Egyptian courts.

Egyptian intelligence officials believe that the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed, will continue to carry out political assassinations – for two reasons: First, it has a fierce desire to take revenge on Sisi’s government for the removal of the movement’s top leaders from power two years ago and their death sentences. Second, the movement is not succeeding to return to Egyptian political life and is losing its influence over parts of the Egyptian population.

Egyptian security officials think the Muslim Brotherhood’s failure to organize large popular demonstrations on June 30 was to be expected, since its calls to the public evoke no great resonance among the population. Hence, the movement decided to perpetrate a “quality attack” that would shock the country, and Prosecutor-General Barakat paid the price with his life.

Terror attacks on police stations and on vital facilities such as generators and power stations have recently been carried out daily. Young members of the Brotherhood are involved in these attacks.

On July 1, Walid al-Barsha, founder of the rebel movement Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm al-Saba’a that the Muslim Brotherhood had recently set up “quality committees” of young activists to carry out violent operations.

Also on July 1, the newspaper Al-Masri al-Youm reported that young Muslim Brotherhood members have been calling on their Facebook pages for further assassinations of top government officials, including calls for the murder of Sisi, Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zend, and the prosecutor Mohamed Nagi Shehata.

President Sisi’s Challenge

President Sisi has been ruling Egypt for only two years. He took on an Egypt burdened with difficult security and economic conditions and with complex relations with radical Islam. He needs to fight terror, mainly perpetrated by Muslim Brotherhood operatives, within the cities of Egypt itself, along with ISIS terror in Sinai.

An Egyptian police force raided a Muslim Brotherhood hideout in Cairo on July 1 and killed nine terrorists, according to police and Brotherhood spokesmen.  They were wanted for acts of terror and may be tied to the assassination of Prosecutor-General Barakat. Police found in the apartment weapons, explosives, large sums of money, and e-mail correspondence with Brotherhood leaders in Qatar and Turkey. Police also said they found a “hit-list” of Egyptian political figures.

The war on ISIS is one that has been imposed on Egypt, as it has been imposed on other Arab states, and Sisi will have to find the right military formula to defeat the group in Sinai.

President Sisi based his government’s legitimacy on animosity toward the Muslim Brotherhood, which, when it took power about three years ago, aroused loathing among the Egyptian population.

Sisi has adopted the same measures that previous Egyptian presidents, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, devoted to fighting Muslim Brotherhood terror. Among other things, its leaders have been tried in civilian rather than in military courts, and many have been given death sentences that so far have not been carried out.

When he began serving as president, Sisi was prepared to consider mediation by Arab states to help reach a “national reconciliation” with the Muslim Brotherhood. However, as the movement ramped up its terror attacks, reconciliation ceased to be a possibility from Sisi’s standpoint.

Some in the Egyptian media also speak of “uprooting the Muslim Brotherhood” and oppose reconciliation with the movement.

On June 30, Sisi announced that, in light of Prosecutor-General Barakat’s murder, he seeks to hasten the implementation of the death sentences and life-imprisonment sentences that have been meted out to Muslim Brotherhood leaders.

It appears that Sisi, in light of security considerations and the huge efforts to salvage the economy, is opting for an iron-fist policy against the Muslim Brotherhood. The bloody conflict with them, therefore, looks likely to continue.  The latest wave of terror leaves Sisi no option;  His battle is a battle for survival, and he is not prepared to surrender to terrorism.