On November 25th, militants detonated a bomb inside a Sinai Peninsula mosque and gunned down those trying to flee. More than 300 people were killed in what is now described as the worst terrorist attack in Egypt’s modern history. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi promised a “brute force” response. Within 24 hours military planes bombed militant targets, including what the military claimed were the vehicles and terrorists involved in the attack. The reaction to the attack typified el-Sisi’s strategy to combat militancy since he came to power, relying heavily on military force and repression. The strategy has yet to show tangible results and is guaranteed to fail as it simply reuses methods that fuel militancy rather than temper its growth.
In many ways, the modern Islamic fundamentalism and militancy that forms core ideology of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) was birthed in Egypt. In The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright outlines how various autocratic Egyptian governments in the post-World War II era worked to ban the Muslim Brotherhood political organization. When Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power a renewed crackdown put thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members in prison, where brutal conditions and torture were common. Within these prisons, many turned to even greater forms of extremism and ideology and then exported it upon their release.
Following the Arab Spring and the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood was permitted to take part in Egyptian politics. The 2012 elections brought many members into Egypt’s parliament and Mohamed Morsi to the presidency. His rule quickly ended in a military coup, led by el-Sisi who installed himself as president. Since that time el-Sisi positioned himself as an anti-Islamist strongman. The Muslim Brotherhood was again outlawed. Members were imprisoned and sentenced to death. Morsi, whose death sentence was suspended, remains in prison.
The Muslim Brotherhood was not the only target of repression following el-Sisi’s rise. Pro-democracy groups have been targeted and curtailed. Other perceived opponents have also been arrested and torture is widely utilized; independent media outlets were shut down; and peaceful political protests have been violently dispersed, one resulting in the deaths of more than 800 people. Almost all forms of independent political outlets have been stifled.
The increase in repression has been followed by an increase in militant violence, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula. An ISIS-affiliated group called the Sinai Province has attacked both government forces and civilians. Though it has not claimed the mosque attack, evidence points to its culpability for the massacre. El-Sisi continues to use the militant attacks as justification for his policies to stamp out militarism.
This policy, while perhaps making El-Sisi look strong, will fail to achieve lasting success against the ISIS-aligned groups and other militants that threaten peace in Egypt. In its efforts to fight militants, the army reportedly shelled civilian areas. Extrajudicial killings have also been reported. Militants were certainly killed, but arbitrary violence against entire populations may simply push more people to support extremism.
Coupled with repression, this heavily militarized and imprecise response represents a simple return to past mistakes that fueled the growth of radical Islamism in Egypt decades ago. The alternative, though unlikely to ever be realized under the current regime, must be considered. Military and police forces should be used to counter extremists and protect civilians from attacks. The methods must change. Deadly force must be targeted and used as sparingly as possible. Abuses will only further justify extremism in the minds of those already pursuing that course and drive others to engage in violence.
On a larger scale, Egypt needs to focus on liberalization of both the political and economic sectors. Repression will only limit the outlets citizens have to express discontent and seek change. Independent media, peaceful protests, indecent civil society groups must all be allowed to flourish. The economy must also liberalize. Though the exact figures are unknown, the military itself remains a huge part of the economy as it has for decades. The secrecy surrounding its activities encourages the pervasive corruption that plagues Egypt and fuels discontent. Egyptians facing a dual threat of both limited economic opportunity and political despair may find that violence is the only option.
Unfortunately, el-Sisi seems content to continue along the current path. Barring a dramatic change in mindset, conditions in Egypt will only deteriorate. Terrorism will increase rather than abate and the public will become even more disconnected from the government. These same conditions prompted the Arab Spring protests that brought down Egypt’s last dictator. The dreams of those protestors have yet to be realized. Bloodshed was avoided simply due to the military’s refusal to fire on those seeking change. Next time, we may witness a vastly different outcome.