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Egypt Between Jihadist Terror and Blind Repression

The sequence of acts that have caused bloodshed in Egypt is an expression of the unstable and violent season that sees the country squeezed between the infiltration of ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Sisi. The jihadists aim to construct an authentically Islamic system. The Brotherhood seeks to destabilise the government, enforcing indiscriminate repression that will eventually suffocate society's positive energies.

During this blood-stained Ramadan, the shadow of jihadist terror also continues to extend over Egypt. In less than a month, the country has witnessed an impressive array of violent acts: 21 June, an attack on the Attorney General of the Republic Hisham Barakat, who died of injuries sustained in a car bomb explosion; 22 June, an attack, also with car bombs, in the 6th of October City, 20 km south-west of Cairo; 1 July, an assault on various Egyptian military posts in Sinai by the Egyptian branch of Islamic State, the Wilayat Sinai; 12 July, devastation of the Italian Consulate in Cairo, again with a car bomb.



The masters behind the assault on 1 July are clearly identifiable, while the attribution of the other three operations is more uncertain. Responsibility for the attack on the Italian Consulate was claimed by Islamic State, but the Egyptian authorities traced it back to the Muslim Brotherhood. This overlap raises more than one question on the nature of the Egyptian Islamist terrorism, on the possibility of a bond between the actions of Islamic State and those of the Brotherhood, and on the reaction by President al-Sisi's regime.



A key to understanding what is happening today is offered by the content of an audio-message from 30 August 2013 entitled "Peacefulness, the religion of whom?", which Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, spokesman of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (then still little-known to most people), addressed to the Muslims who had taken part in the revolutions of 2011 and in particular to the Egyptians. Al-Adnani stated that they had yet to find the right "medicine" for their ills. The basic problem was not the "ruling regimes, but the idolatrous laws with which they rule." "If we wish to remove injustice and gain dignity, we must shun the earthly, polytheistic laws and empower the law of God, and there is no path to this except through jihad in the path of Allah."



The statement was both a declaration of war against the Egyptian army, accusing it of "apostasy and disbelief", and a harsh criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose failure, according to ISIS, attested to the impossibility of building a truly Islamic regime through peaceful means of democracy. The Brotherhood was thereby delegitimised both "from the left", because it was not democratic enough to be able to lead Egypt out of authoritarianism, and "from the right" because it was too compromised with democracy to establish a system that complies with the most intransigent Islamic normativity. If the groups linked to Islamic State, like Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, seem to have followed the recommendations of the "parent company" to the letter, the repositioning of the Muslim Brotherhood following the dismissal of their president Mohammed Morsi was apparently more nuanced. Officially, they have maintained a peaceful line, but while actually taking the road of violent protest, especially since a new younger and fiercer leadership took control of the organisation, multiplying actions intended to destabilise what they call the "coup regime". However, despite the partial convergence between Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood against the Egyptian regime, the two organisations continue to have different objectives, especially as the former considers the latter merely to be "a secular party covered with an Islamic patina."



Al-Sisi does not intend to make distinctions within the Islamist galaxy, however. Since his election to the presidency, he has explicitly based its legitimacy on the "fight against terrorism" per se and the need to restore security after the turmoil that began with the Revolution of 25 January 2011. In this framework, the Muslim Brotherhood has not only been assimilated to other violent jihadist groups, but was described by the President as the "putative fathers of all the terrorist organisations."



To follow up on his project, al-Sisi has implemented harsh repression, involving both members of the Brotherhood and the militants of organisations and civil society groups who had given rise to the great revolutionary events. Following the latest attacks, the Egyptian government has also prepared a draft anti-terrorism law that defines acts of terror in such a generalised and vague way that it is easily abused and imposes heavy restrictions on the freedom of the press, for example by requiring journalists to recount possible terrorist attacks in accordance with the information contained in the official statements by the government.



So far, al-Sisi's position has met with some approval, especially in Europe, where the Egyptian president is considered a vital ally in the fight against terrorism (on 12 July Renzi stated in an interview with al-Jazeera that "at this time Egypt can only be saved by the leadership of al-Sisi"). However, the Egyptian president's policy is not only likely to be unjust, because it indiscriminately affects people who are not responsible for terrorism, but also ineffective. On the one hand it confuses actions, movements and groups that are not necessarily comparable in the single all-encompassing category of "terrorism", thereby immediately giving up on a proper understanding of the phenomenon, the causes that generate it and the forms it may take.


On the other hand, al-Sisi's crackdown ends up stifling the expression of both civil society and of those political forces which, without being Islamist, do not recognise themselves in the regime's actions, thus leading to an increasingly aggressive confrontation between factions and a regime increasingly isolated from an exasperated society. By its nature, this confrontation can only perpetuate itself, because it provides a terrorists with a stable justification for their actions (the presence of an unjust regime) and gives the regime the only source of legitimacy it can actually have (the fight against terrorism), in keeping with the schema that has paralysed a large part of the Arabic societies for many years.



Significantly, on 3 July, the Egyptian daily al-Tahrir, founded to give voice to the revolutionary ideals of 2011, recalled the words al-Baradei, former Nobel Peace Prize winner, expressed when giving up his post as vice-president of the Republic following the bloody repression of the Rabaa al-Adawiyya square protests: "We are now in a state of extreme polarisation and dangerous division. The social fabric is threatened by laceration, because violence only generates violence ... Similar experiences teach us that in the end reconciliation will come, but only after paying a high price, that, in my opinion, could have been avoided ... Unfortunately, those who will benefit from what happened today [the massacre of Rabaa] will be the violent and terrorist partisans and extremist groups. So you will remember what I am saying while I trust in God." In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood have serious responsibilities in the current crisis, which has also squandered the consensus they enjoyed in Egyptian society. However, al-Baradei may have been right. But as we know, no one is a prophet in their homeland.