"I am saying to all our families in Upper Egypt that it goes against your honour…that someone enters and harms Egypt’s people… in your presence. Why aren’t Muslims protecting Christians, or dying alongside them?”
President Sisi, 7 June 2017, commenting on a terror attack on a bus carrying Egyptian Christians in Mnia Governorate

Location of attacks by violent groups in Egypt, 2013-2016

(Source: TIMEP)

Political violence is not new in Egypt, but the latest wave of violence is markedly different in the frequency of attacks and the approach of both violent groups and the government. Although militant groups were active in Egypt outside of the three ‘waves’, they were largely inert and attacks occurred infrequently. Statistics from the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) show a dramatic increase in attacks from July 2013. From January to June 2013, Egypt witnessed 35 attacks (14 in North Sinai); in the latter half of 2013, following the military coup, there were 341. By the end of 2016, the number of attacks since Morsi’s removal reached 2,714 – of which 1,511 were in North Sinai. Most attacks in Sinai have been claimed by Wilayat Sinai (WS) – an Islamic State affiliate that grew out of the militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM, or ‘Supporters of Jerusalem’ in English).[7] There were over a thousand casualties reported in North Sinai in both 2015 and 2016 – just under three per day on average.

Number of attacks by violent groups in Egypt, 2013-2016

(Source: TIMEP)

Unlike the first two waves of terror attacks in Egypt, the current wave has not primarily targeted foreigners, but rather state actors – police, soldiers, judges, security officials, politicians (and more recently Coptic Christians, who are widely perceived to back the Sisi regime). Yet a smaller number of attacks have targeted foreign interests, including: the al-Furqan Brigade attack on ships in the Suez Canal;[8]  an attack on the Italian Consulate in July 2015 claimed by Islamic State Misr (Egypt);[9] a handful of attacks on tourists and other foreign nationals;[10] rocket, mortar and bomb attacks on or near the Multinational Force and Observers, who oversee the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty; and most notoriously the killing, claimed by Wilayat Sinai, of over 220 people on board a Russian airliner on 31 October 2015.

Importantly, the third wave of violence in Egypt, primarily unleashed by groups from Sinai, has been provoked and fed by repression under the state’s heavily militarised CT campaign.[11]  This campaign has involved significant violence, mass detention and widespread torture of ‘terror’ suspects, and has left Egypt, and Sinai in particular, extremely volatile.

The Sinai conflict and its drivers

North Sinai has long been a hotspot for violence – with its geography, history, society and politics all helping to explain why armed militant groups have arisen there. Communities living in Sinai – predominantly indigenous Bedouins – have been marginalised by successive Egyptian regimes. As a minority in Egypt, Bedouin populations have had unequal access to basic state services, while their nomadic way of life has been adversely affected by the influx of tourism to the region. Discrimination towards communities in Sinai is based on the common accusation that they are not ‘real’ Egyptians, or that they are traitors who work for Israeli interests. As a result, the central government has treated Sinai’s population with a combination of disdain, political exclusion and neglect.

Bordering both Israel and Gaza, and occupied by Israel from 1967 until 1982, Sinai has been caught up in the complex history of Arab-Israeli conflict. Since Egypt’s reintegration of the peninsula through the Camp David Accords, the tourist industry has boomed through an array of southern coastal resorts; yet the population has continued to face economic marginalisation and political repression.   

Given its neglect by the state, its geographical isolation and proximity to regional conflicts, North Sinai has been an attractive base for Islamist militants for years. But only recently has it become a theatre for violence itself. Tensions rose after attacks on South Sinai tourist resorts from 2004-2006. These led to a hunt for the perpetrators in which “few families in North Sinai were untouched by arrests, harassment, and sentencing in absentia”.[12]  But it was not until the security vacuum following the 2011 uprising that the situation escalated. 

Residual grievances in North Sinai had been simmering, and as police melted away following the collapse of Mubarak’s government, Bedouin gunmen ransacked police infrastructure. Gas pipelines supplying Israel and Jordan were attacked over a dozen times in the next 18 months by the nascent ABM,[13] which grew to be the most dangerous violent group in Egypt. Before the 3 July 2013 coup, it was responsible for a number of attacks on Israeli interests, but has since turned its focus explicitly towards the Egyptian police and army – framing its attacks as a response to the bloody massacres perpetrated by the regime.[14]  In September 2013, ABM almost assassinated Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim in Cairo. A smaller insurgent group, Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt), also emerged in January 2014 and claimed multiple attacks against the police, mainly in Cairo.

One of the biggest attacks on the Egyptian army in years occurred on 24 October 2014, when ABM attacked one of the main military checkpoints, killing 31 Egyptian soldiers and officers. A few months later, in July 2015, more than 15 military and police checkpoints and stations were attacked simultaneously, leading to dozens of deaths on both sides, until the air force intervened to end the violence several hours later. Previous waves of violence in Sinai had never reached this intensity, nor had they been directed so explicitly at the Egyptian state. As the state’s indiscriminate response in Sinai and throughout Egypt has gathered pace (see parts three and four), levels of violence in Sinai have only worsened. 

Islamic State: Sisi’s enemy or his alibi?

In November 2014, ABM pledged allegiance to Islamic State (ISIS) and changed its name to Wilayat Sinai (WS – Sinai Province). This happened shortly after the attack on Karm El Kawadees military checkpoint on 24 October 2014, horrific footage of which was posted and widely viewed on the internet. This technically marked the first attack of an ISIS affiliate in Egypt. 

There are questions around the extent to which ABM/WS is part of an international fundamentalist movement as opposed to a home-grown threat driven by domestic factors.  It is important to recognise that the group does have a relationship with ISIS. While acknowledging the presence of ISIS fighters in Egypt (“in the high hundreds – up to about 1,000” in number), the United States also recognises the presence in Sinai of a “sizeable Bedouin insurgency”. Nonetheless, it views the connection between Sinai militants and ISIS in other countries as a real one.[15]

The growth of violence in Sinai is also connected to the flow of advanced weaponry from raided Libyan storehouses after 2011, some of which has found its way to Gaza while some has remained in North Sinai. 

While many dynamics could be argued to have an influence on violence in Sinai, the key factor underlying ABM/WS’s intensified, multi-faceted war with the Egyptian state has been the perceived violence of the security forces against certain elements of society. Overt acts like the Rabaa massacre, coupled with covert actions (discussed in section three), have proved a strong recruitment tool for ABM/WS. In addition, the perceived failure of the MB’s non-violent approach to achieving change through democratic means has left many disillusioned and pushed some to support more radical methods. These fluid allegiances, together with the ideological similarity between ABM/WS and the MB on some issues, have led to a blurring of the boundaries between legitimate political opposition, civic protest and resistance, and more destructive violent groups whose targets have included not only the state, but also civilians, tourists and foreign interests. 

In other words, while the threat posed by ABM/WS is real, it has also allowed President Sisi to frame the country’s internal security challenges as a new front in the regional and international war against ISIS, while both taking action that fed support for violence and blurring the lines between fundamentalist militants and his broader political opponents. This blurring has been actively encouraged by Sisi to legitimate his rule while justifying his crackdown on dissent. 

Portraying the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist  

Since Morsi’s ouster, there has been growing polarisation between state actors and Sisi supporters on the one hand, and political opponents – including but by no means limited to Islamist groups – on the other. This polarisation has sometimes surfaced in violent confrontation, but remains for the most part latent – submerged beneath a tide of fear and repression.  


Sisi sets out his intent to destroy the MB in his electoral campaign, May 2014

Sisi: There will be nothing called the Muslim Brotherhood during my tenure....

Interviewer: [The Egyptian voter] knows that he is putting an end to something called the Muslim Brotherhood when he casts his ballot? And is aware that during this candidate’s presidency there will not be something called the Muslim Brotherhood?

Sisi: Yes. Just like that. [16]


Pro-Sisi demonstration in 2014. Photo: Flickr/Sebastian Horndasch

Pro-Sisi demonstration in 2014. Photo: Flickr/Sebastian Horndasch

It took the MB eighty years to gain power in Egypt, but when it did, it held it for just one year. Founded in 1928, it has been the largest and most organised opposition party in Egypt for decades, despite being illegal for most of its existence. In the later years of Mubarak’s rule, the Brotherhood became a more potent political force, pushing for democratic reform and wider representation in the political system. Yet for many, the MB, an organisation founded upon Islamist governing principles, was a serious threat to pluralism and freedom. The experience of Morsi’s rule gave the MB’s many ideological opponents the perfect opportunity to unravel its gains and destroy it as an entity. 

Since Morsi’s ouster, there has been growing polarisation between state actors and Sisi supporters on the one hand, and political opponents – including but by no means limited to Islamist groups – on the other.

With echoes of what Hannah Arendt termed “action as propaganda”, since the first days after the coup, Sisi has played up the threat of ‘terrorism’ in his speeches while pursuing actions that escalate the threat and consequently help to legitimate his stance.

Sisi’s policies have been shaped by populist narratives and reactive demands from the regime’s support base. In a now infamous address shortly following the removal of Morsi, Sisi made a live televised speech from a graduation ceremony at the naval academy in Alexandria. He urged people to take to the streets and call en masse for police and army powers to fight terrorism. This continues to be used to legitimise abusive laws, and as justification for ‘counter-terror’ measures in Egypt.  

Narratives portraying the MB as anti-Egyptian and as a terrorist group have generated a climate of intense political polarisation, resulting in extreme mistrust and fear among the Egyptian population. This divisive approach has served to justify a witch hunt against the MB and other political opposition, facilitated by large-scale rights abuses and a climate of lawlessness. While the MB is ostensibly non-violent, the crackdown by Sisi’s government since Morsi’s ouster has increasingly caused divisions within the movement regarding the best means to pursue its goals and defend its existence. As such, authoritarian rule by Sisi has only served to increase divisions and boost the appeal of violent resistance.

When the police headquarters of Daqahliya Governorate was bombed on 24 December 2014, the Egyptian government seized the occasion. Despite ABM/WS publicly claiming responsibility, the government held a press conference and declared the MB a terrorist entity.[17]

Gulf and Western pressure on the Sisi regime may partially explain these actions. The MB’s ideological affinity with other Sunni groups such as Hamas was doubtless troubling to the US and Israel. Saudi Arabia designated the Brotherhood a terrorist group in March 2014, seeing its Islamist doctrines as a threat to the monarchy. The United Arab Emirates had similar concerns. In response, 2015 saw a number attacks in Egypt against the business interests of Sisi’s Western and regional allies – including against the American chain Kentucky Fried Chicken, Emirates NBD bank, Etisalat stores, and so on. For the Sisi government, the push by major international partners to suppress the MB was welcome. Yet in Egypt, as witnessed in other countries in the region, military repression in the name of counter-terror has poured fuel on a fire that continues to rage.

Header photo: Soldiers observe a protest in Itihadeya in 2012 against President Morsi’s proposed constitutional referendum. Photo: Flickr/Omar Kamel.

Footnotes

7. Other violent groups in Egypt include Al-Tawhid Wal Jihad, Mujahedeen Shura Council, Al Furqan Brigade, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, Ansar al Jihad, Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt) and Jund al Islam (Soldiers of Islam). Global Security, ‘Wilayat Sinai’, checked 31 August 2017 

8. Global Security, ‘Wilayat Sinai’, checked 31 August 2017 

9. TIMEP, ‘Wilayat Sinai’, accessed 31 August 2017 

10. For example, the February 2014 ABM attack on a tour bus in Taba, South Sinai, as well as attacks near the Giza pyramids and in Luxor in June 2015. See: Z Gold (2015), ‘Adding the security ingredient: the Jihadi threat in the Sinai Peninsula’, in S Torelli, The Return of Egypt: Internal Challenges and Regional Game (Epoke). Foreign nationals included a Croatian national and a US oil worker. See: TIMEP, ‘Wilayat Sinai’, accessed 31 August 2017

11. For more details on the Rabaa massacre, see: Human Rights Watch (2014), ‘All according to plan: the Rab’a massacre and mass killings of protesters in Egypt, 12 August

12. Z Gold (2015), ‘Adding the security ingredient: the Jihadi threat in the Sinai Peninsula’, in S Torelli, The Return of Egypt: Internal Challenges and Regional Game (Epoke)

13. Ibid

14. There were a few attacks against the Egyptian state, but they were relatively rare. One such instance was the attack in August 2012, when armed men assaulted a security checkpoint in North Sinai, killing 16 soldiers. 

15. “We have seen a connection between the Islamic State in the Sinai and Raqqah…. We have seen communication between the Islamic State in the Sinai and the Islamic State in Libya and elsewhere”- Chair of US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford, cited in Global Security, ‘Wilayat Sinai’, checked 31 August 2017

16. Loveluck L (2014), ‘Sisi says Muslim Brotherhood will not exist under his reign’, The Guardian, 6 May

17. TIMEP, ‘Wilayat Sinai’, accessed 31 August 2017