A suicide bombing this week at Egyptian military intelligence headquarters in the
city of Ismailia has been claimed by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a Salafi jihadi group
with links to similar organizations in the Gaza Strip.
including six soldiers, were wounded.
The Ismailia attack is the latest
episode in a growing Islamist insurgency against the de facto rule of Gen. Abdel
Fattah al-Sisi and the military in Egypt. It was of particular significance
because the city lies just west of the Suez Canal and the Sinai
In the poorly policed area of northern Sinai, jihadi groups
have been active since the military coup of July 3, and even before
But the Ismailia bombing represents only the second time that Ansar
Bayt al-Maqdis has managed to strike west of the canal. This attack may well be
a sign of things to come.
Yet while the growing violence in Egypt
undoubtedly constitutes a security headache for the Egyptian regime, it contains
no political threat to Sisi and those around him.
Salafi terrorists are
not going to take power in Egypt. They are an irritant, but the political result
of their activities is likely to be growing support for Sisi, and calls for
harsher measures mirroring Hosni Mubarak’s crackdown on similar groups in the
A crackdown would have wide public support. The ongoing activities
of the jihadis, meanwhile, at least as long as they do not exceed a certain
volume, provide a useful backdrop to the continued presence of the army at the
center of public life in Egypt.
The growing pitch of Islamist violence is
an indication of the vanishing options that Sisi has left available to the
Since the July 3 coup, he has deliberately sought to exclude
the Islamists from political life in every possible way, thus leaving them only
the options of effective marginalization or a turn to force.
after the coup, the Muslim Brotherhood was declared an illegal organization and
its assets seized.
Leaders of the movement, including president Mohamed
Morsi, were arrested. On August 14, the army engaged in a bloody crackdown on
the movement’s sit-in at the Rabia Mosque in Cairo.
have seen a series of stormy and violent demonstrations by the Brotherhood,
demanding the release of their leaders, that all charges against them be dropped
and that the group be permitted to return to political activity.
latest of these took place on October 6, the day on which Egyptians mark the
“victory” of the 1973 October War.
Brotherhood supporters sought to make
their way to Tahrir Square, while protesting the detention of Morsi and calling
Sisi a “murderer.”
The response of security forces was harsh. Around 50
people were killed in the subsequent clashes, scores were wounded and 200
members of the Brotherhood were detained.
Along with the uncompromising
response on the streets, the military government has sought to directly link the
stormy Brotherhood demonstrations in the cities with the insurgency erupting in
Thus, a statement released to the press by Interior Minister
Gen. Mohamed Ibrahim after the Ismailia attacks asserted that “the Muslim
Brotherhood has a new source of funding, as is indicated by the attack on Monday
morning against the South Sinai Security Directorate using a booby-trapped
vehicle driven by a suicide bomber.”
By turning to force, Egypt’s
Islamists would be “playing” the security forces on the latter’s home turf, with
no hope of victory. But political activity is also closed to them.
current discussions over amending the Egyptian constitution, meanwhile, it
appears that an amendment to Article 54, which deals with the foundation of
political parties, is set to be approved. The amendment will prohibit the
creation of political parties on a religious basis, or political activity based
Even the Salafi al-Nour party, which is largely cooperating
with the military controlled government, initially objected to this (though it
now appears resigned). Other Islamist groups are struggling to come up with a
The Gamaa al-Islamiya movement, a former terrorist group which
entered politics after the toppling of Mubarak, expressed the Islamists’ dilemma
in the clearest way. Speaking to Al-Ahram newspaper, one of its leaders said
that after Mubarak’s fall, they had ‘became engaged in the political process. We
made some mistakes, of course. Such is the nature of the political game. But now
society wants to ban us. How are we supposed to persuade our youth not to engage
in politics and not to turn to violence again?” The answer, from the point of
the view of the present Egyptian authorities, is something like: “That’s your
Sisi’s approach may appear unfamiliar to contemporary Western
observers, because he is not seeking to hold the Islamists to a stalemate and
then seek an accommodation.
Rather, his goal appears to be strategic
victory in his battle with the Brotherhood and the smaller Islamist
To this end, he is offering them two alternatives: accept
political oblivion, or choose to resist it – and be destroyed by the army.