Return to the Bad Old Days

Will Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood fan the embers of Islamic insurgency?

By Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In October 1990, extremists affiliated with the terrorist organization Egyptian Islamic Jihad raked Abdel Halim Moussa’s motorcade with gunfire. Moussa, the newly-appointed interior minister, survived, but the speaker of Egypt’s lower house of parliament, Rifaat el Mahgoub, was not as lucky. Islamic Jihad, the group responsible for President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, would try to kill Moussa three more times in as many years. Had it not been for the Algerian Civil War, which claimed approximately 100,000 lives between 1992 and 1998, more attention would likely have been paid to the insurrection that raged in Egypt during the same period. Between the first attempt on Moussa’s life and the infamous Luxor massacre seven years later, roughly 1,600 people were killed in a conflict between the Egyptian state and Islamist extremists — 1,100 in 1993 alone. So when Egypt’s current interior minister, Mohammed Ibrahim, survived a car bombing in the Nasr City area of Greater Cairo last week, there was a palpable sense of dread among those with even a passing familiarity with recent Egyptian history. Are the 1990s back in Egypt? It is a distinct possibility.

The irony of the multiple attempts on Moussa’s life lay in the fact that he was a relative moderate — at least by the standards of the police generals who have led Egypt’s notorious Interior Ministry over the years. After a period of stepped up repression in the late 1980s, Moussa adopted a more nuanced approach, seeking to bring Egypt’s extremist groups to heel through a combination of force and dialogue. The strategy did not work. 

The violence continued throughout most of the 1990s, subsiding after one last shootout between Islamic Jihad’s twin, al Gama’a al Islamiyya, and the police in September 1999.  Although the main players of this period either morphed into al Qaeda or mellowed out during long prison terms, extremism never fully disappeared from Egypt. Hosni Mubarak’s general neglect of the Sinai Peninsula — a policy that raised concerns in Washington and Tel Aviv — gave militants a refuge from whence they continued to wage periodic attacks. It is little surprise, then, that the group claiming responsibility for last week’s attack on Mohammed Ibrahim, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, is a jihadist organization made up primarily of Bedouin tribesmen that has been operating in Sinai and the Gaza Strip for years. Speculation in Cairo is that the same group is responsible for yesterday’s double suicide bombing in the border town of Rafah that killed at least nine soldiers. Clearly, the Egyptians have a major problem on their hands that is all too reminiscent of the violence that shook the country two decades ago.

The reasons for Moussa’s failure to rein in extremism through dialogue back in the 1990s bear directly on Egypt’s current tribulations — and the potential for a new period of sustained insecurity and violence. The ideological framework through which both Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al Gama’a al Islamiyya viewed the world made compromise with the Egyptian state nearly impossible. This was, after all, a group of extremists who were less than a generation removed from the death of Sayyid Qutb, the most prominent intellectual father of modern Islamic extremism. Many who sought Qutb’s guidance in prison in the late 1950s and 1960s eventually broke with the Muslim Brotherhood and — along with hardliners like Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda, and Aboud al Zomor, the Gama’a leader who later served 30 years in prison for his role in Sadat’s assassination — became the core of those who sought to abolish man’s law in favor of God’s through jihad. This is precisely what Islamic Jihad and Gama’a were doing when they targeted government ministers, intellectuals, foreign businessmen, and tourists between 1990 and 1997.

Much has changed in Egypt over the last two decades — but much has also stayed the same. In 1998, al Jihad merged with al Qaeda, forming an alliance that continues to threaten spectacular violence. The leadership of al Gama’a that did not escape the country in the 1990s, by contrast, renounced violence from prison. Following the January 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, Zomor and others were released and subsequently established a political organization, the Building and Development Party, which participated in the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections as part of an alliance known as the Islamic Bloc. In June of this year, President Mohamed Morsy sought to appoint Adel el Khayat, a member of Gama’a, as governor of Luxor — an astonishing move given the organization’s 1997 massacre of 58 tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut, located in that governorate. There is reason to believe that Gama’a’s transformation is not entirely complete, having at times hinted that it would resort to violence to implement sharia law. Regardless, there are many other extremist groups in Egypt that challenge the authority of the state in ways reminiscent of the 1990s. They have no affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood, but during Morsy’s brief tenure as president the problem of militancy was at best neglected and at worst tolerated.

Much of the recent violence has occurred in the Sinai Peninsula, where extremists of different stripes — including al Qaeda sympathizers, Palestinian extremists, angry Bedouin tribesman, and takfiris who have withdrawn from Egyptian society to live according to fundamentalist principles — operated, until recently, with relative impunity. Beginning in 2011, there has been a steady stream of attacks on police stations and other government infrastructure. Kidnappings are also on the rise. The violence has been such that 11 Egyptian battalions are now operating in the Sinai — with Israeli permission — in an effort to gain control of the region.

The Sinai is of great concern to many Egyptians, but it is not Nasr City. The possibility that the interior minister was targeted last week as a result of the government’s crackdown on Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo is deeply unsettling. It suggests that Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, the group whose funding from the Muslim Brotherhood Zawahiri’s brother coordinates and which is claiming responsibility for the recent violence, has drawn the opposite lesson from recent history as al Gama’a al Islamiyaa.* Instead of being drawn into the political process through an equivalent of Gama’a’s Building and Development Party, Egypt’s current crop of extremists appear to have doubled down on their commitment to violence — a development that portends a renewed period of insecurity in the country.

It is not just the worldview of extremists that should worry Egyptians, but also the way in which primarily young men come to embrace this worldview. Something called the repression-radicalization dynamic contributed to Abdel Halim Moussa’s failure to bring extremists under control in the 1990s. Today, it imperils Egyptians once again by hastening the development of new cadres of young men willing to take up arms against the state. Moussa sought dialogue shortly after his predecessor, Zaki Badr, undertook a wave of repression that included mass arrests and torture. At the time, Egypt’s universities were a hotbed of Islamist militancy under the sway, in particular, of Gama’a’s Omar Abdel Rahman, the "Blind Sheikh" who is now serving a life sentence in an American prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. As a result, by the time Moussa extended his olive branch, the political arena was further radicalized — filled with angry young men convinced that their only way to seek redress was through violence. As the government systematically undermines the Muslim Brotherhood through arrests — and uses an increasing amount of force in an effort to establish control following the July 3 coup — the policy has produced only more violence.

Between Mohamed Morsy’s ouster; the subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood; and the arrests, intimidation, and killing of more than 900 Brotherhood supporters (and more than 100 policemen) over the last 10 weeks, it is not hard to imagine that some will decide that they have no choice but to use violence. Yesterday’s suicide bombing in Rafah, on the border with Gaza, is yet another ominous sign of what is to come in Egypt. And the Brotherhood’s narrative of the summer of 2013 is clear: The organization abided by the democratic rules of the game and won legitimately, but the forces that control the coercive instruments of the state — in collusion with the losers of parliamentary and presidential elections — forced them from power. It matters little that this account is shorn of context and that the Brotherhood’s own disregard for democratic politics, good governance, and human rights is ignored. The message to would-be extremists comes through loud and clear.

The Brotherhood’s leadership — at least those that remained at large in the immediate aftermath of the coup — were clearly leveraging the repression-radicalization dynamic by invoking the language of martyrdom and making implicit threats of violence during the height of the Rabaa al Adawiya sit-in. It may very well be that the coup and the subsequent repression sounded the death knell of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the many supporters of the coup, the government, and the military officers currently running Egypt should take cold comfort in that outcome. A Brotherhood that is dying, on the run, and whose leaders are increasingly cut off from their followers, is likely to produce factions and offshoots that are violent. In one ominous sign, Nabil Naeem, one of the founders of Islamic Jihad, told the Egyptian daily al Masry al Youm that the Brotherhood is funding Ansar Bayt al Maqdis. As of yet, there is no evidence that any violent factions have formed from within Brotherhood ranks, but it is still early and disillusioned Brothers might readily link up with existing extremist groups.

There is historical precedent for this, and not just following President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s crackdown on the Brotherhood in the wake of the October 1954 assassination attempt in Alexandria’s Manshiya Square. In November 1948, for example, Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmy Nuqrashi outlawed the Brotherhood, which, in turn, compelled the organization’s armed secret apparatus to exact revenge, notably by assassinating Nuqrashi. History is never a perfect guide to the present, but it can provide insights into what we might reasonably expect. In this case, it seems entirely plausible that this summer’s takedown of the Brotherhood and the recent spate of bombings and attacks including the attempt on Mohammed Ibrahim’s life are harbingers of violence to come.

The political upheaval in Egypt over the summer has led a fair number of observers to wonder whether Egypt is heading down the Algerian road of the 1990s. It’s possible, but it seems more likely that Egypt will repeat its own past rather than that of one of its North African neighbors. Sadly, it seems that last week’s assassination attempt and yesterday’s bombings may represent the opening shot in another low-level insurgency.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly and inadvertently stated that Ayman al Zawahiri’s brother leads the group Ansar Bayt al Maqdis. It is the group’s funding from the Muslim Brotherhood that, it is claimed, Ayman al Zawahiri’s brother led the coordination of, not the group itself. FP regrets the error.


Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook