Rethinking Egypt’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy Under Sisi

In his recent joint meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi described the terrorist threat as a “dangerous one that needs major joint efforts” to fight it. Sisi has emphasized many times that Egypt’s strategic plan for the upcoming years is to fight back against terrorism and the threat of extremism both domestically and abroad. Having contributed to a mass exodus of asylum-seekers from the Middle East, his commitment to rolling back terrorism in the region has been a driver behind warmer relations between Cairo and many capitals, especially in the West, following the military coup. This in return has generally improved the bilateral political, economic, and especially security and military cooperation between Cairo and these capitals. In this context, it is important to understand how the ongoing process of military weapons procurement and its implications affect internal stability, as well as to question their efficiency in terms of fighting terrorism.

The root causes of terrorism in Egypt, especially in the Sinai Peninsula, largely lie in local repression and underdevelopment where they precede threats coming from outside. Decades of socio-economic inequalities, neglect, and a lack of motivation in integrating the local inhabitants of Sinai have led to longstanding security challenges. While the radical insurgency in Sinai erupted prior to the Egyptian uprising in 2011, genuine grievances driven by repression have further undermined tribal structures in Sinai that stood as a bulwark against radical insurgents, and gave rise to the Islamic State (IS) and other rival radical groups.

Despite the critical importance of addressing the grievances and deficiencies mentioned above, the current Egyptian administration appears to be more focused on counter terrorism (CT) by means of cutting off those groups’ ability to fundraise and recruit through a comprehensive ideological and intellectual approach. But even if the current leadership is determined to address economic inequalities, neither is the cash-strapped Egyptian treasury able to fund megaprojects in Sinai, nor is non-political foreign investment possible due to the immense security risks. Tackling repression by the security forces against local communities, whether random or systematic, needs a political will that Sisi is far from having. Proceeding with a handicapped strategy against terrorism, Sisi has called upon religious institutions in Egypt to embrace a moderate religious discourse that would tackle and replace discourses that misinterpret Islamic texts to justify violence. Consequently, Egypt’s leading religious institution al-Azhar, is endeavoring to adopt a new religious discourse aiming at eliminating extremist interpretations of Islam and encouraging Egyptian Muslim citizens and Muslims around the globe to embrace the tolerant, pluralist and peaceful principles of Islam. However, looking at Egypt’s current authoritarian domestic politics, it is highly unlikely that a new religious discourse attempting to reflect these values can bear fruit in the absence of freedom speech, dialogue, and democracy.

While attempting to dry upthe sources of terrorism within the country, the transnational nature of the mounting threat of terrorism is pushing militant radical groups from outside, and especially Libya, to allegedly beef up their plans for insurgency in Egypt. That may explain in part the Egyptian military’s continuous endeavour to acquire state-of-the-art weaponry and surveillance technology. For example, beside the Egyptian military’s large arsenal of Apache helicopters, in mid-2017 Egypt ordered 46 KA-52 helicopters from Russia. Both types of helicopter are known for their high performance in hunting ground targets, especially armed vehicles. Moreover, Egypt’s acquisition of diverse weaponry for its air-force may allow the military to allocate more air-force units to CT missions in distant and harsh geographic locations. In the context, Egypt has acquired French Dassault Rafale multi-role fighters and Russian MIG-29 M2s, thus adding a large number of fighter jets to its older arsenal of F-16s and Mirage 2000s. As for the military’s ground forces, in 2016, Egypt received the first shipment of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles from the U.S. from which a total of more than 700 vehicles will be received in aid. In terms of underpinning the country’s surveillance capabilities, Egypt has bought a mobile surveillance sensor security system for border securing purposes. The system is expected to be completely installed by August 2019. Furthermore, the commander-in-chief of the Egyptian navy, Vice Admiral Ahmed Khaled, has stated that this ongoing military purchasing strategy aims at living up to the many challenges and risks surrounding Egypt’s borders. In this context, he states that Egypt’s top threat is terrorism.

The burden of securing the long borders Egypt has with Libya is a crucial part of protecting Egyptian national security. The civil war in Libya has menacing security dimensions for Egypt. Reuters has reported that southern Libya has become a hideout for militant staking advantage of the security vacuum there, indicating the threat of an unmonitored flow of weapons and the infiltration of radical militants and armed groups. It is anticipated that Egypt will carry out a more determined policy in its fight against terrorists in the future. One incident that will bolster its resolve in this field was a recent terrorist attack on Egyptian soldiers in the western desert near Bahariya Oasis on Oct. 20 that resulted in the deaths of 16 officers according to official reports. More recently, Egyptian security forces have foiled many attempts to smuggle arms and illegal materials into the country through the Egyptian-Libyan border. The latest was an operation that resulted in the destruction of 6 vehicles and the killing of all “criminal elements” inside. However, these operations are arguably not sufficient to fight back against and uproot the increasing threat of terrorist attacks. Indeed, the Bahariya Oasis incident and many others show the fundamental importance of re-evaluating, strengthening and improving intelligence-gathering on radical militant sand their local support networks. Most importantly, better coordination between security and intelligence bodies is needed, which apparently Egypt lacks due to intra-elite rivalries emanating from a deep legitimacy problem.

Egypt direly needs to rethink its CT strategy and tactics. But in fact what is needed in Egypt is questioning in principal the probability of success of any CT strategy in an extremely authoritarian atmosphere where freedom of speech, dialogue, pluralism, and democracy are de facto absent. To craft an effective CT strategy to tackle radical militant groups at home and in the nearby neighborhood needs to be constructively debated by diverse segments of Egyptian society, which in turn requires well-established channels of communication. The menacing expansion of Wilayet Sinai (an offshoot of IS in Sinai) and al-Morabiton (another Sinai-based group not to be confused with the former Sahara-based jihadist group), and Ansar al-Sharia accentuates the importance of acquiring advanced weaponry and stepping up security and military training. However, with the lack of societal trust and cohesiveness, which is the starting point for any serious and comprehensive attempt to uproot radical militancy, the current efforts are doomed to fail.

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