The ISIS threat in Sinai is not the Egyptian regime’s most troublesome security challenge.
On July 1, the ISIS-affiliated group “Wilayat Sinai” engaged in a full-scale attack to capture Sheikh Zuweid in North Sinai—a town with 60,000 inhabitants. Although the Egyptian military was already on high alert to counter attacks on and around the second anniversary of the June 30 uprising, the assault was nevertheless disastrous from the perspective of the regime. Militants managed to seize control of the town for many hours and were pushed back only when Egyptian F-16 fighter jets began bombing inside civilian areas.
The number of casualties borne by the Egyptian military is still unknown, but judging by Cairo’s efforts to prevent foreign reporters from stating the numbers, it was probably substantial. Many argue it was the largest-ever attack by Islamic militants on Egyptian soil.
Although the attack dealt a severe blow to the regime’s efforts to project stability and was no doubt tragic, the ISIS threat in Sinai is not the most troublesome security challenge the regime currently faces. Unlike Iraq or Syria, Egypt is not a failed state. Despite the embarrassing failures it has recently suffered, the Egyptian military is relatively modern and organized and has successfully faced similar challenges in the past. It might take longer than originally planned, and similar attacks are likely to take place in the future, but eventually the ISIS threat in Sinai will be eliminated.
Already, the military has largely managed to contain the group’s attacks to a relatively secluded area: the remote triangle between the towns of Al-Arish, Rafah, and Sheikh Zuweid—only 12 kilometers away from the border with Israel and far away from Egypt’s heartland. Meanwhile, a new and much more complicated security challenge has taken shape over the past year, intensifying over the past six months.
Pinpoint attacks by local and relatively unknown Islamist groups bearing names like “Revolutionary Punishment” are spreading like wildfire throughout Egypt. Unlike “traditional” jihadist groups, these groups pick their targets carefully and wisely, refraining from deliberately killing civilians. They appear to operate based on an articulated strategy centered on the idea that sabotaging Egypt’s economic recovery will eventually bring down the Sisi regime. Their targets range from electricity posts and public transportation to multinational corporations, as they hope to drive off potential (and existing) foreign investors the regime is desperately trying to attract.
Power cuts and service halts in strategic locations, as well as IEDs and drive-by shootings at branches of KFC, Vodafone, HSBC, Carrefour and elsewhere are now taking place on a weekly basis, seriously disrupting the daily lives of Egyptians and general business activity. Revolutionary Punishment alone has taken responsibility for more than 120 attacks since the beginning of the year.
The identity of these groups is, as of yet, largely unknown. Since the ousting of former President Morsi, the Sisi regime has engaged in an unprecedented crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. After two years of crackdown, the Brotherhood in Egypt is crushed. The majority of its leaders are either abroad or in prison awaiting their death sentences. The mass protests in city centers and university campuses have largely been extinguished and the lobbying efforts in Western countries have borne no results.
However, the Muslim Brotherhood is a social movement deeply rooted in Egyptian and Arab society. One cannot simply eradicate it as if it were a fanatical jihadist group in Sinai or Mesopotamia. Millions of young Brotherhood supporters and Salafist activists are still out there. Frustrated by the Brotherhood’s ineffective, nonviolent strategy, these radicalized youths are looking to get back at the regime. Pushed against the wall and motivated by increasingly popular “Facebook preachers,” they see no other way but adopting violent, revolutionary tactics.
This backlash against the crackdown has presented the regime with a significant security challenge. The list of these groups’ targets is virtually endless; on top of the economic targets mentioned above, the groups also attack other regime symbols such as the police, the judiciary and (recently) prosecutors—note the June 29 assassination of Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s prosecutor general. These entities are perceived as the main perpetrators of the regime’s crackdown, but moreover as those responsible for the massacre in Raba’a Square in August 2013.
The dispersed structure of these revolutionary groups makes it difficult to gather intelligence on their activities, especially given that they are an integral part of Egyptian society. Their recent successes have drawn more recruits to their ranks, most of whom do not perceive themselves as being part of global jihadist groups but rather as the defenders of the Egyptian people against what they perceive to be a corrupt military junta.
The regime is puzzled on how to tackle this rising challenge. Intensifying the crackdown will only push more young people to the ranks of these groups as part of the kill-or-be-killed dynamic the regime has created. A media campaign inciting the Egyptian people against the groups will only grant them the domestic and global attention the regime has been trying so hard to deny.
Unable to confront these groups on social media, and with security forces already stretched to the limit, a prolonged and steady state of low-scale insurgency is looming. Time is not on Sisi side. The public is gradually losing patience while waiting for the President’s promises to be fulfilled.
A descent into semi-anarchy will serve as a devastating blow to Egypt’s efforts to project stability and to its fragile and much-needed economic recovery. Sisi’s legitimacy relies on his ability to improve the lives of average Egyptians; without legitimacy, the future of both Sisi and Egypt are bleak.