Commentary

Can Egypt's al-Sisi Defeat Extremism in Egypt?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Islamist militants killed over 40 people in Egypt in coordinated attacks last week, leaving many more injured. The violence provoked a stern response from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who condemned the killings and vowed to respond with force. But there are many who question whether Sisi’s strategy is sound and, furthermore, whether strong-arm tactics are even capable of solving the problem.  Some have suggested that the Egyptian government’s neglect of their population in the Sinai Peninsula might be as much a cause of the recent violence as the militants themselves.

In an article for the Egyptian daily Al Ahram, Dina Ezzat reports that, speaking in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Sisi “repeated an account shared in previous press interviews of the threats he said had been made to his face by Khairat Al-Shater, second in command of the group that was labelled a terrorist organization following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in summer 2013. ‘He said that they would either rule us or kill us, and the Egyptian people decided that they did not wish to be ruled by them. We [the Armed Forces] decided to risk death [defending that wish],’ the president said, flanked by SCAF members....In his statement on Saturday afternoon, the president called on the media to report only the official army accounts, arguing that this was the way things have always been ‘during times of war’. He called on the judiciary to take ‘necessary measures’ in response to the war on terror.”

The Egyptian government has received the support of many dailies in the region, with the Gulf News editorial pointing out that Sisi’s counter-terrorist actions were legitimate, necessary, and enjoyed popular support: “The Arab world is steadfast in its support for Egypt in its efforts to defeat terrorists. After months of intermittent activity, an Egyptian group called Ansar Beit Al Maqdis linked to Al Qaida and Daesh, launched a coordinated series of attacks last week that left 45 people dead....A furious and deeply moved President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi announced a set of determined counter moves, including the declaration of the Qassam Brigades (the military wing of the Palestinian group Hamas) as illegal....Al Sissi’s tough policies have attracted widespread public support as the vast majority of Egyptians want to see a return to stability after continuous turmoil since 2011.... It is significant that the Gulf states have not wavered in their support for Al Sissi’s government, despite wayward international speculation and the falling oil price.”

But the Jordan Times editorial says that declarations of support are not enough. Arab countries and their leaders ought to demonstrate their support by embracing a comprehensive plan: “IS, it seems, is now taking its battle against moderate Arab countries all the way to Egypt, after having made unexpected gains in Iraq and Syria....The best line of defense against IS would be a joint Arab-Muslim comprehensive plan of action that includes military preparedness and action. The countries of the region must take the war against IS to its turf, not allow it to reach them. Short of doing that, shocking attacks like the one suffered by Egypt will become more common and this vile group will hold the entire region hostage to its unholy designs. No half measures work against IS. This tumor has to be excised decisively and fast before it metastasizes and destroys the entire region.”

Still, there are some that think the Egyptian government has misread the situation and is applying the wrong solution to a problem that might be economic in nature. To begin with, in a recent editorial, the Peninsula takes issue with a recent verdict by an Egyptian court “banning the armed wing of Palestinian group Hamas and listing it as a terrorist organization will have huge consequences. The decision didn’t come as a surprise, considering the fraught relations between Hamas and the Egypt government under President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. The relations between the two sides are sinking to new lows, and that’s a complete turnaround compared to the cozy relations between Hamas and the former Brotherhood government of Mohammed Mursi....The government of Sisi and Hamas must refrain from actions that will further estrange them. Palestinians are heavily reliant on Egyptians for the smooth running of their daily lives and cracking down on Hamas will only serve the agenda of Israel, which has successfully and triumphantly executed a divide-and-rule policy in the Palestinian territory....Hamas and the Sisi government need to sit together and sort out their differences. A further deterioration in relations will harm both and only help divert their attention from more serious issues.”

The Daily Star (Lebanon) editorial team, on the other hand, recommends a more transparent, rather than a more militant approach: “No one can doubt the strength of the Egyptian army, but the public deserves answers on why Islamist militants in the Sinai are repeatedly able to launch deadly attacks against the military there, often killing civilians in the process....Thanks to decades of neglect in the area, some parts of the local population are largely supportive of the militants. Desperate people can be driven to desperate measures, so it is also crucial that the new government pays special attention to the people of this area, and gives them the social and economic support necessary for development....The people of the area, who are losing their children, should be treated with respect by the government, and provided with transparency and clarity on what is being done to tackle the threat. Otherwise more and more people will begin to lose faith in their government and seek leadership elsewhere.”

Wondering whether Sisi’s and Sinai’s fortunes are inextricably connected, the Daily News  Egypt contributor, Amr Khalifa also suggests the Egyptian president ought to adopt a more reconciliatory tone in his rhetoric and policies: “The road to a semblance of a practical, realistic for Sinai must hinge upon three crucial corner stones. A balanced strategy in Sinai which incorporates a flexible security narrative for the governate sans humiliation for the local population coupled with concrete economic steps that build rather than destroy. Honesty in dealing with the public must be the bedrock of all future military communiques because if trust is a missing currency in this equation, the consequences will be dire for all. Finally, a combined civil and military committee, which includes local representatives from Sinai must be formed so that long term solutions can be found to insure Egyptians citizens in Sinai are not second class citizens.”

Economic and political neglect, argues Hassan Barari in an op-ed for the Saudi daily Arab News, are the real reasons why the Egyptian government has failed so badly in Sinai, and unless it is willing to change direction, it is unlikely the security situation in the peninsula will change anytime soon: “It seems that Egypt will continue grappling with terrorism for years to come....Why has the Egyptian army — one of the strongest in the region — been ineffective in combating guerrillas? The situation is the Sinai is a bit complicated. Bedouins who live in the Sinai harbor some resentment against the central government in Cairo. They feel that they have been for long ignored by the government. For this reason, they show no tendency to cooperate with neither the army nor the government. In other words, decades of wrong policies turned the Sinai into a fertile ground for militants to join Ansar Bayt El-Maqdis. Therefore, it is not as if the challenge is related to security. The Egyptian government needs to rethink its approach and implement a multi-pronged approach to effectively deal with the very complicated situation in the Sinai.”


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