During a visit to the Egyptian governorate of North Sinai on Aug. 10, I watched as scores of pickup trucks, packed with hard-line Islamists waving the black flags associated with al-Qaeda, poured onto a major road. They were heading to the funeral of five militants who had been killed the day before in a drone strike — allegedly Israeli — as they prepared to launch a rocket into Israel from the border city of Rafah. Those in the procession waved signs calling for jihad against the Egyptian military and Israel, whose cooperation on counterterrorism operations has been condemned by Sinai-based jihadist groups. The procession passed a seemingly abandoned police station, and no security personnel were visible, although some of the Islamists carried weapons and many others were loudly calling for an armed insurgency against Egypt’s interim government.
In the turbulent weeks since Egypt’s military removed President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government from power, this cyclical narrative of martyrdom and revenge has become a recruitment tool for hard-line Islamists. It is also contributing to the radicalization of a new generation of extremists in the already volatile Sinai Peninsula.
Since the military assumed power July 3, armed attacks by militants with increasingly sophisticated weaponry, stolen from police stations or smuggled from Libya and Sudan, have killed at least 70 security personnel just in North Sinai. Increasingly, Sinai-based militants justify their violent tactics as legitimate retribution for state-perpetrated crimes that the official justice system cannot be trusted to prosecute.
For months leading up to the protests that ultimately brought down his government, Morsi was justifiably criticized for his exclusionary policymaking and a series of power grabs — notably his declaration last year immunizing his own decisions from judicial review — that appeared to consolidate the Brotherhood’s monopolistic control over the Egyptian state and society at the expense of non-Islamists, women and religious minorities. From the Brotherhood’s perspective, the appropriate remedy would have been to hold Morsi accountable at the ballot box. Instead, the military intervened illegally and then violently to reverse the democratic process: first suspending the constitution and then conducting a scorched-earth campaign of mass arrests and disproportionate force against pro-Morsi protesters that appears aimed at eradicating the Muslim Brotherhood from political life.
Islamists initially tried to capitalize on the dubious legality of the coup by promoting the Muslim Brotherhood as the defender of democracy and the rule of law. But with the Brotherhood incapacitated by arrests, asset freezes and the possible revocation of its legal status, Islamists see little incentive to reenter a political process in which they will not be permitted to participate freely. Increasingly, they view street mobilization — and, with it, the implicit threat of force — as the only remaining mechanism with which to promote their agenda. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups will exploit the humiliating reversal of the Brotherhood’s short-lived electoral victory to argue that ideological moderation is a losing strategy.
Formerly militant Islamist groups such as Gamaa Islamiya, which formally renounced violence in 2003 and took a further step toward moderation in 2011 by launching a political party, now argue that they are being punished for participating peacefully in politics. In a widely circulated video in July, a pro-Morsi protester warned Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi: “You have created a new Taliban and a new al-Qaeda in Egypt.” In Sinai, this message resonates with both radical and more mainstream Islamists who increasingly resort to violence to avenge what they regard as criminal state action.
In this context of radicalization, a growing number of informal Islamic courts in North Sinai — at least 14 have been established since the 2011 revolution — are promoting sharia as an alternative to a dysfunctional state judicial system. The largest sharia court in the North Sinai city of Arish claims to have absorbed 75 percent of the caseload once handled by the official justice system. Egyptian media reported last week that state courts in North Sinai had been forced to close and transfer all of their cases due to security concerns, another symptom of the rapid collapse of state institutions and the rule of law.
The legal and security vacuum created by the government’s inability to enforce the rule of law in Sinai is being exploited by hard-line Islamists who aspire to establish a parallel state governed not by Egypt’s constitution — now suspended — but instead by a retrograde interpretation of sharia that relegates women and religious minorities to second-class citizenship. One sharia judge in Arish was so outraged by the impunity with which police and soldiers killed hundreds of Morsi supporters in Cairo on Aug. 14 that he posted on his Facebook page a faux verdict calling for the public execution of Sissi, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim and other “infidel” officials. For now, that “ruling” is only symbolic, but the judge is optimistic that it will one day carry the force of law in the Islamic state he hopes to see established in the Sinai.
Until Egypt’s government seriously investigates the use of lethal and disproportionate force by state security personnel against Morsi supporters in Cairo, Islamists in Sinai will continue to seek retribution on their own terms.
Mara Revkin is a student at Yale Law School and a former assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.