Egypt’s President Stands on Shifting Sands

Photo: Thomas Harwell/AP

As a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, Egypt has played an integral role in helping to combat the region’s terrorist threat, particularly since Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi came to power in June 2014. However, Egypt is facing a daunting terrorist challenge of its own, primarily in the lawless Sinai Peninsula where ISIS’ Sinai affiliate and other militant groups roam freely and execute frequent attacks against Egyptian military and security personnel.

Although the Egyptian military has battled a persistent terrorist presence in the Sinai for years, the peninsula’s Islamist insurgency gained momentum in 2013 after then-General Sisi, commander of Egypt’s armed forces, ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi and arrested thousands of brotherhood supporters. Through such moves, “the Sisi-led government pushed literally millions of people on the ground to look towards extremism,” says Rob Richer, Cipher Brief expert and former Associate Deputy Director for Operations at the CIA.

ISIS’ Sinai branch took the world by storm in October 2015 after claiming responsibility for the downing of a Russian passenger plane, Kogalymavia Flight 9268, killing all 224 people on board. Originally known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the group has been active in the Sinai Peninsula since 2011 and pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in November 2014, assuming the name Sinai Province.

Over the last few years, Sinai Province has conducted frequent attacks against Egyptian military and security forces deployed in the Sinai and has also struck in Cairo, carrying out seven attacks in the Egyptian capital in 2016 and four the previous year, according to Reuters.

This April, Sinai Province demonstrated its ability to reach further into the Egyptian heartland after it bombed Coptic churches in Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday, killing 47 people and injuring more than 100. Throughout the summer, Sinai Province’s propensity for violence continued as the group claimed responsibility for a July 8 suicide attack at a military checkpoint in northern Sinai that killed 26 Egyptian soldiers. Last month, four policemen were killed after their car was ambushed by militants near the city of Beer Al-Abd in North Sinai.

But while ISIS’ Sinai Province may represent the face of the Sinai insurgency, it’s ability to execute operations has hinged on support it receives from tribes in the Sinai who have felt ostracized by an Egyptian government that has neglected to provide adequate resources, social services, or employment opportunities.

“ISIS is increasing activities there because they are finding, particularly in the Sinai, that the Egyptian presence is not as strong as it used to be,” says Richer. “ISIS has also received tribal support because the tribes in the Sinai have often felt that the Cairo government has abandoned them and hasn’t devoted resources to them.”

President Sisi has repeatedly pledged to combat terrorism in the Sinai and across the country, as well as to protect Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, which represents roughly 10 percent of the population. He was elected president on a strong counterterrorism campaign.

However, in an article published in The Cipher Brief following the attacks on the Coptic Churches in April, Eric Trager, the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on Egypt, maintained that the Egyptian government and military has failed to adapt its counterterrorism approach to more effectively combat ISIS or to sit down with the tribes in the Sinai to hash out their differences and potentially curb their support for extremist groups.

“Egypt’s brass continues to believe that it can use heavy force to ‘contain’ the jihadis, while eschewing lighter and more targeted counterinsurgency techniques,” wrote Trager. “So rather than securing Sinai’s civilian population and then mobilizing it to identify and fight the terrorists, the Egyptian military’s broad-based repression has alienated core Sinai constituencies, including some prominent Bedouin families, which have refused to cooperate with security forces until their relatives are released from prison,” he explained.

Egypt’s counterterrorism efforts were dealt a blow in August when the U.S. government decided to suspend or cut nearly $300 million in military and economic aid to Egypt due to human rights concerns. Of that amount, $195 million in aid from the foreign military financing (FMF) mechanism will be frozen until Egypt meets certain conditions on bettering democracy and human rights; another $65.7 million in military aid and $30 million in economic aid will be transferred to other countries. Overall, the U.S. provides Egypt with approximately $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic aid annually.

Additionally, these restrictions could further cripple Egypt’s flailing economy, which has already suffered a dire toll at the hands of extremism. The number of tourists traveling to Egypt plummeted from 14.7 million to 5.4 million in 2016, costing the country billions. Furthermore, continued attacks against Egypt’s Coptic Christians may ultimately lead to the departure of members of the Coptic community along with several key industries that they manage, such as textiles and cotton.

The economic downturn has also paved the way for militants to appeal to local communities who are frustrated by the lack of economic progress. “Militants have tried to capitalize on local frustration, at times handing out aid packages, and in one statement addressed to residents, calling themselves “brothers,” “neighbors,” or “relatives,” of Sinai residents,” explains Allison McManus, Director of Research at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

Nonetheless, in a region flush with turmoil and vacillating allegiances, Egypt remains a staunch counterterrorism partner for the United States. Earlier this week, the Egyptian army announced that on September 10, joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercises known as Operation Bright Star will resume for the first time since 2009 and will include increased counterterrorism training that could potentially enhance Egypt’s ability to successfully battle ISIS in the Sinai.

Bennett Seftel is deputy director of analysis at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @BennettSeftel.