Egypt is threatened by Islamists on all fronts, internally and externally
It does not take much for even a casual observer to see that the Middle East is today embroiled in conflict and bloodshed. Worse, there appears to be no end in sight. On the face of it, Egypt would seem an island of stability where the conflict between the Islamist Muslim Brothers (MB) and the wide majority of Egyptians who rejected Islamist rule was resolved in favour of a secular State. That was back in June 2013 when some 33 million Egyptians took to the streets to demand the overthrow of the MB who had risen to power in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011. The military responded and, on 3 July, the Islamist president Muhammad Mursi was overthrown. Today Egypt has a secular Constitution and president—Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi; both were voted in by landslide majorities in January and June 2014 respectively. The country is gearing for parliamentary elections, the proceedings of which are already underway.
Despite the pain of getting the economy back on its feet and striving for prosperity, Egyptians in their wide majority feel happy by what they have so far achieved. But does this mean Egypt may now solely focus on the huge task of rebuilding what was lost to the Arab Spring? Not so. The havoc wreaked on the region by Islamist militias that strive for regional authority represents a direct threat to Egypt’s hard-earned secular State.
Egyptians have only to see what neighbouring States are suffering at the hands of Islamists, in order to fully realise what Egypt has achieved and what is now at stake. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya and Yemen are being dismembered, divided and terrorised in unfathomable Islamist wars. President Sisi has said that Egypt is facing lethal threats by outside forces that target her very existence. “I cannot alone, nor can the police or the military on their own, confront this theat. Yet no one can bring to its knees a State whose people are well informed, aware of and alert to the perils that target it.” He has a strong point, of course. The people of Egypt confronted and brought down the oppressive Islamists little more than a year ago, now they need to mobilise their energies and efforts to stave them off.
But does the man in the street in Egypt realise that the country is at war? Not just an internal war against the Islamists using the most horrendous forms of terrorism to get back at Egyptians for having overthrown them, but an all out war?
Some among the public believe the war against Egypt comes solely from internal Islamist terrorism. University graduate Josephine Samir is convinced that: “We’re not at war! Egypt finally won her battle against Islamism when Egyptians voted in [the secular] Sisi as president. Today we’re rebuilding our country, and the terrorist attacks despite the pain they cause are the utmost the Islamists can do.” And Maged Bekheit, who owns a shoe shop in Cairo, believes that the ‘war’ is between the terrorists on one hand and the police and army on the other. “May God help them against the terrorists,” he says. “We civilians have been at peace since Sisi became president.”
The real target: Egypt
According to former Interior Minister Deputy Major General Farouq Hamdan, the police and security authorities are well aware of the dangers ahead, and have in place thorough plans to battle terrorism. He is wary, however, that the success of the police in many anti-terrorist operations leads them to underestimate the danger in others; the result being the hundreds of policemen and officers who lost their lives in terrorist operations. “The police should have been more cautious,” he says. “Yet the people should also understand that the real target is Egypt, not just her police or army.”
Many Egyptians understand that the threat is more ominous than the internal terrorist attacks. Sheikh Mazhar Shahin, Imam of the Omar Makram mosque in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, says that what is taking place in Iraq at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Syria) ISIL, and in Libya at the hands of Islamist militias, should be taken with the utmost wariness as far as Egypt is concerned. Egyptians should be on their toes, in a state of emergency at all levels. “Don’t let down your defences!” Sheikh Shahin tells Egyptians. “We’re at war, real war.”
Both housewife Hind Safwat who is in her forties and the young military conscript Hany al-Mehallawi believe there is real danger of militant Islamists sneaking into the country. “They’d turn the country into another Libya or Iraq,” Safwat says. “The real threat to Egypt comes from outside forces.” Mehallawi says he believes the militant Islamist groups outside Egypt “are very serious about targeting us. We should be prepared to confront them, especially given that they are an enemy that knows nothing about combat ethics. War with them is a hideous, atrocious event.”
Former MP Muhammad Abu-Hamed confirms President Sisi’s outlook that terrorism is a threat that targets the entire world, not Egypt alone. “Sisi insisted we are before a real war which we should face firmly and strongly, and will surely win.” The President warned in no ambiguous terms that the countries which support terrorism will sooner or later suffer at the hands of the terrorists they today egg on.
Egypt is being attacked on both its eastern and western borders, analyst Galal Aref says. On the west lies Libya in the throes of total anarchy: a collapsed State with fallen institutions, and open borders that stretch along 4000km, and warring Islamist Jihadis. The internal situation is so insecure that the United States and western countries have ordered their nationals to exit the country. The some one million Egyptians who for years were working in Libya are desperately trying to go back home; thousands stranded on the Libyan Tunisian border waited to be flown home through an airlift by the Egyptian government and the national carrier EgyptAir. Those who made it home had bloodcurdling stories to tell of the horror they escaped. The recent attack waged by militant Islamists against an Egyptian checkpoint on the Libyan border, which left 22 Egyptian soldiers dead, illustrates the threat Islamist Jihadis in Libya now pose to Egypt’s security. The Egyptian Libyan border stretches some 1000km long.
On Egypt’s eastern border, there is the Sinai Peninsula which was practically handed over to Islamist Hamas-affiliated Jihadis during the time when the MB held the reins in Egypt in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Once the MB were overthrown in 2013, the Jihadis turned the Sinai into a battlefield against the Egyptian army and a launchpad for operations against Egypt.
Islamist spillover into Sinai?
Fast forward to the current Israeli Palestinian battle taking place in Gaza on Egypt’s eastern border. Analysts see that battle as a direct threat to Egypt since it places the country between a rock and a hard place. Egypt, which is trying hard to broker a peace deal between the warring parties, has opened its borders and hospitals to wounded Palestinians and is allowing the passage of humanitarian aid. The Egyptian administration is under pressure to open the border unconditionally, but this poses the threat of huge numbers of Islamist Palestinians coming into the Sinai, practically defeating Egypt’s overthrow of the Islamists little more than a year ago.
The Gaza dilemma has its roots in Israeli interests. Years ago, Israel realised that the Palestinian burgeoning population posed a serious demographic threat to the Hebrew State; all estimates pointed to a not-so-far future when the Arabs would surpass the Jews in numbers. This risked the Jewish, democratic character of Israel, its very essence and raison d’être. Hence the unilateral autonomy granted by Israel to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in 2005, to give them a homeland away from the Jewish State. Egypt was offered administrative control of Gaza but, possibly realising that such a move would open the door to a spillover of Palestinians into Sinai, Hosni Mubarak declined. In 2007, the Islamist Hamas gained power in Gaza and has stayed on ever since. The relation with Egypt was a love-hate one, especially after Israel imposed an embargo against Gaza and the Egyptian border became the only way for trafficking people and goods in and out of the Strip. Egypt fought the illegal activity, but the few numbers of police allowed in Sinai by the peace treaty with Israel rendered them highly inadequate for the task.
The entire situation in the Middle East today calls to mind the notorious US New Middle East Project, so named in 2006 by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice who said it aimed at generating “creative chaos” in the region. The idea was to create conditions of violence and warfare throughout the region to produce “creative chaos” that would be used by the US and Israel to redraw the map of the Middle East in accordance with their geo-strategic interests and objectives. Regional ethnic and racial differences would be exploited to generate the warfare, under the pretext of fostering democracy. Parallels between this plan and the ‘Arab Spring’ are unmistakable. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2010 and moved to Egypt and Libya in 2011, purportedly to replace longtime totalitarian regimes with new democratic ones. On the ground, the new regimes were invariably Islamist. When ‘people’s revolutions for democracy’ did not work to topple the longtime presidents, NATO had to step in. In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi had too much support and the ‘revolution’ looked poised to fail, so NATO drones were sent to finish off the operation. And in Syria the Islamists could not break the wide support for President Bashar al-Assad, so NATO countries supplied arms to the Islamist militias despite the atrocious crimes they committed. Yet Syria stood firm and in Libya the popular tide turned against the Islamists. In 2013, Egypt rose as one man and overthrew the MB. Was the New Middle East Project crumbling at the will of the peoples in the region? Would the West stand still?
In Libya, militant Islamists turned the country into a total miserable mess, and threatened to launch operations against Egypt from there. The Islamist terror of ISIL swept over Syria and Iraq. As Egypt took steady steps towards democracy and economic progress, Islamist armed violence erupted on its eastern and western borders.
Political analyst Hazem al-Refai wrote on 2 August in the State-owned Cairo daily al-Ahram that Gaza, with its more than 2 million-strong and fast-growing Arab population, is perceived by Israel as a demographic threat that can be diffused by moving into the Sinai. Since Egypt utterly rejects this plan, Israel and the US might be looking at a historical precedent. With the downfall of Eastern Germany in the 1980s, the Berlin border was confronted with a human deluge fleeing from east to west. If the Rafah Crossing on the Egypt Gaza border today faces a similar deluge of Palestinians, what are the Egyptians to do? Would the border guards shoot at the Palestinians? How would Egypt manage the refugees? Would the reality on the ground impose Egyptian-Israeli-American collaboration in managing Egyptian land allocated to Palestinians? The prospect holds at heart US Israeli intervention on Egyptian soil.
6 August 2014