LONDON – “I have a request from all Egyptians,” General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Egypt’s president, declared in 2013. Just three weeks after staging the most brutal military coup in Egypt’s history, he wanted “all honorable, decent Egyptians” to take to the streets to march for the military, thereby giving him and his army “a mandate and an order to fight potential violence and terrorism.” Tens of thousands of Egyptians heeded his call. Yet, three years later, the violence and terrorism Sisi pledged to prevent remain a potent reality.
In fact, the military itself has been a leading perpetrator – and instigator – of violence. Its assertion of leadership included cracking down on anyone who protested the overthrow of Egypt’s first-ever freely elected president, Mohammed Morsi. The crackdown culminated on August 14, 2013, when the military stormed sit-ins in Cairo’s Raba‘a Square and Giza’s al-Nahda Square, and carried out what Human Rights Watch called the “worst mass unlawful killings in Egypt’s modern history” and “a likely crime against humanity.” More than 1,000 demonstrators died in less than ten hours. The Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights recorded 932 fully documented bodies, 294 partly documented bodies, and 29 undocumented bodies, including 17 women and 30 teenage girls and boys.
The message was clear: those in power were clearly convinced that eradicating their opponents was a better strategy than including them. Young political activists who wanted change quickly realized that ballots, strikes, and sit-ins would not change a corrupt regime – and might well get them killed.
Unsurprisingly, the coup and subsequent crackdown on opponents triggered a spike in an enduring insurgency. Almost immediately, in response to an already restive North Sinai, elite brigades from the Second and Third Field Armies, assisted by the air force, launched operation “Desert Storm” to quell the burgeoning rebellion. Afterward, the military spokesperson declared that 78 “terrorists” had been killed and 207 arrested, effectively ending terrorism in the Sinai.
But the insurgency seemed to have more motivation than ever. A few months later, Sinai insurgents shot down a Mi-17 helicopter that belonged to the Second Field Army, an unprecedented display of military capacity. By November 2014, local rebels were swearing their loyalty to the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) – another unprecedented move. (No jihadist organization in Egypt had ever before offered its loyalty to a foreign entity.)
Like other ISIS-affiliated groups, the so-called Sinai Province publishes its military metrics and reports both monthly and annually. Those data indicate that, last year, SP killed about 800 soldiers and 130 civilians (alleged informants or collaborators). It also claims to have captured heavy mortars, two ZU-23 anti-aircraft autocannons, five DShK heavy machine guns, and dozens of AK assault rifles.
In October 2015, SP operatives infiltrated Sharm al-Sheikh Airport and planted a bomb on a Russian Airbus, killing all 224 of its passengers and crew. It was the worst terrorist operation in the history of Egypt and Russia. In the first two months of this year, SP reported that it had destroyed 25 armored vehicles (including tanks, minesweepers, and bulldozers) and killed 100 soldiers (the military acknowledged 37).
Clearly, violence and terrorism are thriving, despite Sisi’s pledge. And, though the insurgency has remained largely limited to Egypt’s periphery, primarily Northeastern Sinai and parts of the Western Desert, with occasional strikes in the Nile Valley, it has also reared its head in Cairo. Most recently, gunmen attacked an undercover security minibus in Cairo’s Helwan suburb last May, killed all eight armed security agents, and vanished into the working-class cement jungle.
Meanwhile, the relative moderates who have remained committed to contesting official policies by democratic means are sidelined and mocked. One prominent example is Essam Derbala, the head of the Consultative Council of the Islamic Group (IG), a post-jihadist organization that led a terror campaign in the early 1990s, before abandoning political violence in 1997 and engaging in mainstream politics.
From 2002 to 2009, Derbala and other IG leaders produced around 30 books to counter al-Qaeda’s ideology. After ISIS announced its intention to declare a “province” in Upper Egypt in April 2015, Derbala toured the Upper-Egyptian IG strongholds, giving public lectures countering ISIS ideology. A few months later, he was arrested and died in prison. Among his last messages to his supporters was “not to give up on democracy and peaceful resistance.”
Derbala’s death reinforced the view that, in today’s Egypt, relative moderation gets you nowhere – a view that drives radicalization. Consider Ahmed El-Darawy, a former police officer and a popular pro-democracy activist who ran in Egypt’s first free and fair parliamentary election in 2012. After the Raba‘a Square massacre, however, he joined ISIS, under whose flag he was ultimately killed.
One of the main motivations behind the 2013 military coup was to counter potential violence and terrorism. Yet one of its main upshots is a surge in violence and terrorism, committed by both state and non-state actors – and there is no sign of de-escalation, much less reconciliation, in sight.
Omar Ashour is Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at the University of Exeter and an associate fellow at Chatham House in London. He is the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements, Why does the Islamic State Militarily Endure and Expand?, and Collusion to Collision: Islamist-Military Relations in Egypt.
By Omar Ashour