With some exceptions, political groups in Egypt were generally non-violent before 2013. ABM (and later WS) claimed responsibility for several attacks between the 2011 revolution and July 2013, but almost all targeted infrastructure – particularly pipelines – that were critical to Israeli interests and Egypt-Israel cooperation. However, following the removal of Morsi, this changed dramatically.

The increasing wave of bombings – such as the killing of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat – and armed attacks in the country suggest that the state’s approach is provoking further armed resistance and undermining rather than improving stability. As Amnesty chief Salil Shetty warned in 2014: 

“These are all shortcuts, you are not able to address the underlying issue which is what is happening in the Gaza Strip and how the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition are being treated…. You can create fortresses and buffer zones but it will come back to bite”.[54]

Political terror by the regime has provided violent groups with an effective tool for recruiting disillusioned individuals. Militant groups can point to incidents like the Rabaa Massacre as an example of what happens to peaceful protestors. ABM has seized upon this sentiment. When it declared allegiance to Islamic State, it specifically condemned the MB’s pursuit of non-violent, democratic change: “Shameful peace will do you no good, nor will blasphemous democracy, and you have seen how it has claimed its upholders and their masters”. [55]

The assassination of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

Perhaps the most notorious case in the insurgency in Egypt is the assassination of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat, who died on 29 June 2015 after a bomb exploded in his car as he travelled to work.

In response, 67 people were charged with his murder, 51 of whom were arrested. Prior to the charges being made public, most of the defendants were victims of enforced disappearance. Of the 67 who were charged, almost all were subject to inhumane treatment and judicial violations. One of the defendants, Ibraheem Sholkamy, a medical student who was 23 at the time, was seized off the street and held incommunicado for almost 40 days, until he was presented at the High State Security Prosecution office in Cairo. His family could barely recognise him as a result of his torture, ill treatment and weight loss. 

After about 18 months of investigations and trials, the courts sentenced Ibraheem and 27 others to death and handed life sentences to 31 others. Defence lawyers decried the sentences as ‘shocking’, arguing that defendants who had nothing to do with the attack were being given life sentences.

Research published by Arab Reform initiative illustrates how brutalising and demonising non-violent dissent has forced many Egyptians away from democratic, political channels for pursuing change into either bitter silence or supporting violence – whether in Egypt or elsewhere. [56] A field study conducted in Kerdassa city, Giza Governorate in September 2013, collected people’s views on how  "they view the terrorism practised by the state, whether in Kerdasa or in other areas, as essentially seeking to drag people into violence".[57] 

As in other contexts, the rise of violence and violent non-state groups may in fact carry distinct advantages for the regime. Saferworld’s analysis of the Syrian civil war (to be published this month) documents the Assad regime’s survival strategy, in which it bolstered fundamentalism in order to portray its efforts as a ‘war on terrorism’ while seeking to destroy the greater threat to its survival: moderate, democratic opposition endowed with international legitimacy. 

By pushing non-violent dissent to the extremes in Egypt, Sisi’s regime has been able to play a similar game very effectively, albeit for a similar blood price. The predictably violent reaction to its draconian rule has provided convenient ‘justification’ for its hard-line response – a narrative for deflecting domestic and international criticism of its approach, and a pretext for attaining significant military and diplomatic support. The success of such a strategy of course depends on how principled and clear-sighted the international community has, or has not, been in challenging or rewarding such behaviour. 

Header photo: A man grieves over bodies in a makeshift morgue after the Rabaa and Nahda Square massacres, August 2013. Photo: Mosaab El-Shamy/Getty images


54. Reuters (2014), ‘Sinai buffer zone no solution to militancy in Egypt: Amnesty’, 12 November

55. Stanford University, ‘Mapping Militant Organizations’, The Islamic State – Sinai Province, Updated 28 Feb 2016, accessed 31 August 2017

56. Mohyeldeen S (2016), ‘Youth Radicalisation in Egypt and the complicated relationship to violence’, Arab Reform Initiative, 29 September pp 4-5.

57. Mohyeldeen S (2013), ‘State terrorism and resistance in Kerdasa – battle zone report’, Arab Reform Initiative, September