The UK and US authorities have recently listed two Egyptian groups, Hassm and Lewaa al-Thawra, as terrorist organizations.
Hassm, an abbreviation for ‘The Arms of Egypt Movement’ (established in July 2016), and Lewaa al-Thawra, which translates as ‘The Banner of the Revolution’ (formed in August 2016), have claimed responsibility for several operations targeting Egyptian security and religious figures. These operations include the assassination of Brigadier General Adel Ragaie, a senior officer in the armed forces, in October 2016 by Lewaa al-Thawra, and the attempt by Hassm to assassinate former Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa in August 2016.
Although some of the members of these two groups were previously associated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the two groups reject any organizational ties to the Brotherhood.
In Egypt, since the beginning of the wave of religious violence in the 1970s, violence had previously been solely connected to the Salafi jihadi ideology. But Hassm and Lewaa al-Thawra represent a new type of violent group, distinguished from the Salafi jihadi movement by ideology, audience and strategy. Ultimately, those differences will limit their influence.
Ideologically, these groups offer a religious justification for the use of violence by underlining the religious concept of dafa’ al-sa’el, which translates as ‘repelling the assailant’. According to this religious approach, the assailant should be resisted in a gradual manner. This would start with the least violent measures – for instance, threats. However if only killing the person would stop their assault, they claim that dafa’ al-sa’el decrees the person can be killed.
This new ideological framework is distinct from Salafi jihadi ideology, which relies on the principle of takfir, or excommunication, as the basis for the military struggle against state institutions. The approach of these new groups does not excommunicate people who use violence, such as members of the security forces, and insists that state institutions should be resisted not because of their faith but for their actions.
These violent groups also seek to address a more diverse audience. Their target audience includes all the revolutionary forces that oppose the current political regime, regardless of their place on the political spectrum, as well as the Coptic community. Hassm even addressed foreigners in Egypt after a warning by the US embassy in Cairo regarding a possible attack by the group. The statement came in English and insisted, ‘We are the Resistance and we are not terrorists. There is no need to worry; we are Muslims, not killers.’
A final difference lies in their strategy: these groups’ main aim is to bring down the regime in Egypt by attacking its security and religious figures. Unlike some Salafi jihadi groups like ISIS, they refuse to target civilians or religious minorities. Both Hassm and Lewaa al-Thawra condemn the ISIS attacks against Coptic churches. In its statement after the suicide attack against a chapel adjoining St Mark’s cathedral in Cairo in December 2016, Lewaa al-Thawra insisted that its resisting strategy does not include attacking civilians, regardless of their personal political attitudes or religious affiliations.
These groups are trying to create a new type of violence inspired by the experience of the Palestinian Hamas movement. Hassm often refers to itself as a liberation movement that seeks to free Egypt and the Egyptians from military rule. However, such groups are less likely to be able to compete for followers with Salafi jihadi groups in Egypt exactly because of their three main differences.
On the ideological level, the religious approach of these groups is highly contested by figures from within the Islamist movement itself, such as the historical leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood who rejected their interpretation of the concept of dafa’ al-sa’el. In addition, most of these groups’ target audience does not support them. A large part of the youth opposition, not to mention the political opposition and the Copts, see no difference between them and jihadi groups.
Finally, the strategy these groups have of using violence to bring down the political regime does not seem feasible. Much of the youth opposition, including the Islamists, doubts that using violence against Egyptian state institutions would destabilize the political regime given the imbalance of power between the two sides. Salafi jihadi groups do not face this dilemma as they are fighting the regime because it is their religious duty to fight against infidels, regardless of the outcome of this struggle.
There is currently fierce competition between the two main jihadi groups active in Egypt, ISIS and Al-Qaeda, to attract Muslim Brotherhood youth to their ranks. Because they rely on a highly contested interpretation of ideology, a divided audience that does not share their views or practices and an unrealistic plan of action, groups such as Hassm and Lewaa al-Thawra are not likely to gain wider influence in this environment.
Those who still believe in the Muslim Brotherhood will not join these new groups as the Brotherhood’s leadership rejects their approach. Those who gave up on the Muslim Brotherhood ideology altogether are not likely to join them either, as these people are looking for a more radical approach and hence would likely join Salafi jihadi groups instead. In the brutal calculation of terrorism, for Hassm and Lewaa al-Thawra, there is no market for their kind of violence.
Dr Georges Fahmi, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.