Does Egypt’s President Really Want to Fight Terrorism?

The Islamic State’s affiliate in Egypt is on the march. On Palm Sunday, a pair of bombs killed 45 people at church. This was the third major attack on Coptic churches in less than four months — and the first such attack recently in major Egyptian cities, which many people believed were more secure. These attacks follow after months of terrorism, and they could have been predicted: Just two months ago, the Sinai-based Islamic State affiliate issued a video promising that the group would target Copts in Egypt’s mainland.

hese attacks demonstrate that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s counterterrorism strategy is failing. Mr. Sisi claims that he is committed to fighting terrorism, but in reality his energy is directed toward his other enemies: secular activists, journalists, independent members of Parliament, businessmen and academics who oppose him, human rights organizations and peaceful dissident Islamist groups.

In response to Sunday’s bombings, Mr. Sisi declared a three-month-long state of emergency. North Sinai province has been under emergency law since October 2014. But the deterioration in the security situation there over the past year is a reminder of how such policies fail. The fact of the matter is that the national emergency law will do little beyond giving legal cover to the brutal practices that have already been enforced for the past few years in flagrant violation of Egypt’s Constitution. (After all, Mr. Sisi has previously stated that the Constitution was written with “naïve intentions.”)

Mourners gathered at the funeral for the victims of a bomb explosion at Mar Girgis Coptic church in Tanta, Egypt on Monday.
Credit Mohamed Hossam/European Pressphoto Agency

North Sinai looks increasingly like Mosul, which until recently was the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Iraq. Earlier this year, Egyptian news media was full of images of desperate Christians being forced from their homes in Sinai by Islamic State militants in a scene reminiscent of the jihadist group’s takeover of Mosul in 2014. In al-Arish, North Sinai’s capital, the Islamic State has reportedly set up checkpoints to force female public servants to adhere to a strict Islamic dress code. Young men have reportedly been flogged in public squares for the “crime” of selling cigarettes.

The situation has deteriorated precipitously. Bombings and assassinations of security forces in Sinai are now a regular occurrence. The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy found that the number of attacks in North Sinai has jumped from 143 in 2014 to 681 in 2016. And just as Mosul was a center for orchestrating suicide bombings in Baghdad, Sinai is now a potential hub for such attacks in mainland Egypt.

Shortly after Mr. Sisi took control of Egypt in a coup in July 2013, he called on Egyptians to take to the streets to give him a mandate to fight terrorism. People complied, even though terrorist attacks at the time were limited and mostly directed against military targets in Sinai near the border with Gaza. However, Mr. Sisi capitalized on this popular support to push for his real agenda and move against young secular activists, peaceful Islamist dissidents and human rights organizations.

Even as Sinai’s Christian community was being displaced, terrorism was not a top priority for Mr. Sisi or his supporters. Mr. Sisi’s puppet Parliament was focused on expelling the former head of its human rights committee, Anwar el-Sadat. Mr. Sadat, who is the nephew of the former Egyptian president and has been one of the few dissenting voices inside the legislature, calling for the establishment of a deradicalization and rehabilitation program for prisoners and questioning what effects the government’s human rights abuses will have on radicalization.

Mr. Sadat has a point. The Sisi government, as it professes to fight terrorism, is in many ways fueling it. Brutal security measures in Sinai — including forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions — have helped drive members of the indigenous Bedouin community into the Islamic State’s waiting arms as the group has gone around al-Arish distributing pamphlets promising revenge. And Egypt’s prisons, which Mr. Sisi has kept full of anyone who opposes his rule, have become fertile recruiting grounds for jihadist groups. While secular pro-democracy activists like Alaa Abd El Fattah serve sentences in solitarily confinement and aren’t allowed to receive books or messages, jihadists roam the country’s prisons, radicalizing and recruiting inmates.

In an interview last year with Foreign Policy magazine, Sameh Shoukry, Mr. Sisi’s foreign minister, complained that Egypt lacks international solidarity in its fight against terrorism, a complaint that has been echoed repeatedly by the Egyptian government since the coup in 2013. That’s a gross misrepresentation.

A senior European Union official recently told me that Mr. Sisi’s government objected to the appointment of a counterterrorism attaché to the European Union’s mission in Cairo, presumably fearing that it is part of a Western conspiracy. Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under President Barack Obama, said at an event in Washington last month that Egypt does not heed the Pentagon’s advice on the campaign against the Islamic State in Sinai. According to sources familiar with the issue, Mr. Sisi’s government even threatened to expel the International Red Cross from Egypt because of an internal memo that recommended classifying the situation in Sinai as a “noninternational armed conflict.”

It seems the only international support Mr. Sisi wants is the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization — despite the lack of evidence and the near-unanimous objection by international and Egyptian experts on the group.

There is little reason to think that the sweeping powers of the emergency law will be deployed to fight terrorism. On the same day the state of emergency was declared and the legislative amendments were announced, a number of human rights defenders were summoned for investigation in relation to the prosecution of a group of nongovernmental organization staff for receiving foreign funding.

The failure that resulted in Sunday’s bombings and the measures that followed reflect how Mr. Sisi’s government views terrorism: as an excuse to advance his real political agenda, not as a problem that needs to be addressed. Eliminating alternatives to his failing rule is Mr. Sisi’s top priority, even as jihadist groups make headway across Egypt.

Bahey eldin Hassan is the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

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