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Alaa Bayoumi

Five facts about Egypt's lack of security

Egypt's vast security apparatus is focused on political opponents, while armed groups operate freely [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 20 April, 2017

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Comment: Cairo is focused on crushing political dissent and lacks a strategy to deal with the real violence facing Egyptians, writes Alaa Bayoumi.

The deadly attacks against two Egyptian churches that left 45 people killed on Palm Sunday have revived serious questions about the ability of the Egyptian authorities to defeat extremism and to secure the Arab world's most populous nation. 

The attacks were unprecedented in their ability to target two churches in two major Egyptian cities on a major religious occasion. They also occurred as Egypt witnessed a surge in violent attacks on its troops in Sinai.

In trying to better understand the seriousness of the threat, it is difficult to count on the Egyptian government, which rarely offers any clear assessment of the security situation or the effectiveness of its own policies. 

In his press conference following the attacks, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi repeated many of the regime's old lines - his government is able to "defeat terrorism", the attacks were apparently the work of the Muslim Brotherhood and their foreign backers, and despite everything, the country remains in a better situation than many of its neighbours.

He also saw the attacks as a sign of his success in defeating violent groups in Sinai.

"After we succeeded in Sinai, they moved to another place. If we defeat them in the second place, they will move to a third one. This is the nature of the confrontation," said Sisi

Such open-ended and self-assuring thinking cannot compensate for well-defined security analysis and policies, especially in the absence of parliamentary supervision or any serious official assessment of the government's policies.

Egyptian authorities have devoted most of their efforts to defeating their political rivals; the Muslim Brotherhood in particular

In such a context, it becomes crucial to underline the few facts that we can reach about the situation and the latest developments. 

First, following the July 2013 military coup that brought the current regime to power, Egyptian authorities have devoted most of their efforts to defeating their political rivals; the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.

It is estimated that 70 percent of all "counterterrorism" operations by the security forces between January 2014 and January 2016 were directed against the Muslim Brotherhood. 

As a result, the regime has crippled the organisation and many other opponents, including organised Salafi groups, as well as civil and youth groups. Public protests were banned. Media freedoms were curtailed. And political freedoms have largely been restricted.

 
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war on democracy and civic life

Unfortunately - but expectedly - the demise of political life and opposition groups opened the door for the rise of a new brand of regime opponents. Violent groups such as the Islamic State group in Sinai and the homegrown "Revolution Brigade" and "Revolutionary Punishment" have gained momentum.

Instead of peaceful protests, immature confrontations with the police, and limited attacks on the infrastructure allegedly organised by disenchanted Muslim Brotherhood members and Salafi activists, the attacks on the security forces have become more organised and lethal, as inherently violent groups came to occupy the front lines of opposition.

Egypt's main religious and youth political groups have become too weak to control their members or to offer a political alternative that can challenge violent religious groups and their rhetoric. 

Second, until recently the deadliest attacks against security forces and civilians were limited to the Sinai province, where the Islamic State group's local franchise and its predecessors have been active for years.

In the absence of any comprehensive political strategy to defeat the group by allying with the local population and addressing the political and economic conditions that feed extremism, it was expected that IS would not be easily defeated



In 2015, IS launched some of its most deadly attacks here, including downing a Russian passenger plane - killing 224 people on board. In the same year, the Egyptian government launched a major security campaign against the group, whose activities were then limited to areas in the northeastern parts of the peninsula, near the two towns of Al-Arish and Sheikh Zuwaied.

However, in the absence of any comprehensive political strategy to defeat the group by allying with the local population and addressing the political and economic conditions that feed extremism, it was expected that IS would not be easily defeated here.

It was also feared that the massive crackdown would accelerate IS' efforts to move west, towards central Sinai and Egypt's mainland, home to 96 percent of the population. 

In October 2016, IS launched its first major attack on the security forces in central Sinai, killing 12 soldiers. Two months later, IS targeted Cairo's largest cathedral, killing 25 people. Other homegrown groups became also active in targeting security forces inside the valley.

In early April, a roadside bomb targeted a police camp in Tanta, killing a police officer and injuring 15 others. It was claimed by a homegrown group called the Revolution Brigade.  

 
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Third: Since last December, IS became engaged in a strategic campaign to target Egypt's Christian population in particular.

The campaign focused on churches across the country and on attacking Christians living in Sinai - forcing dozens of Christian families to flee the peninsula in January and February this year. Around the same time, IS released a video declaring war on Egypt's Christians.

By playing on sectarian and religious divisions, IS is hoping to drive a larger societal wedge that can threaten the stability of the regime and present itself as the defender of Egypt's Muslim majority.

Fourth, Egypt's government does not seem interested in adopting any political solutions to the country's growing security problems. The government sees an iron fist as the only strategy.

Even in Sinai, which has been witnessing the deadliest confrontation between the government and violent groups, the authorities seems to be alienating the population. In January, community leaders in northern Sinai threatened civil disobedience over the government's harsh security measures.

Parliament has become a mockery because of the regime's interference in its election and work. Political life is almost non-existent



They complained that authorities had unjustly detained and killed innocent local civilians as part of its ongoing security operation.

In Egypt's mainland, parliament has become a mockery because of the regime's interference in its election and work. Political life is almost non-existent. The government seem to believe that the security crackdown is the only answer - often calling on media and the religious institutions to rally behind the president and speak with one voice.

It does not seem interested in any serious effort to reach out to political groups or civil society leaders who could help counter extremists and their ideology.

Fifth, politics is not the only cause for the Egyptian population's alienation. Recent economic reforms have left the currency at an historical low.

They have also raised inflation, unemployment, prices of basic commodities and the number of people living under the poverty line to historic highs. Economic dissatisfaction is surging. 

Egypt's security seems to face five principal challenges; a surge in political violence, the ability of violent groups to expand activities from Sinai to the mainland, the IS campaign to target Christians and inflame sectarianism, a lack of political strategy from Cairo, and growing economic and political discontent. 

In response, the regime seems to count on the tight grip of its iron first over the country's population and state institutions.

It also enjoys increasing foreign backing - especially since the Trump administration came to power. And, it hopes that oil discoveries and recent economic reform can bring positive results by the end of this year. 

In the near future, the Egyptian government will continue to believe in its security-only approach. This is a belief that is increasingly challenged by violent attacks, which are getting more deadly and frequent. And, in the absence of a transparent government assessment of the size of the threat, it is very difficult to predict what will happen next. 

Alaa Bayoumi is an Egyptian journalist and the author of two books studying US foreign policy in the Middle East. He also writes on democratic transition in the Arab world.

Follow him on Twitter: @Alaabayoumi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

 

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