Egypt’s war on terror
A string of violent episodes took place in Egypt last week, highlighting once more the country’s predicament of cyclical repression and violence.
On Monday 29 June, Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s chief prosecutor, was killed in a bomb attack targeting his convoy in Heliopolis, a suburb in the northeast of Cairo.
The assassination came just one day before the anniversary of the mass protests that led to the eventual ousting of former Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, by a military-backed takeover. Egypt hasn’t seen such a high-ranking official being killed since the 1990s.
The following day, two car bombs exploded near a police station in Cairo’s October 6 suburb. The explosion killed 3 people: 2 inside the vehicle and a passerby.
Then, on Wednesday, militants in north Sinai launched a major offensive against the Egyptian military, carrying out simultaneous attacks on at least 11 military checkpoints and a police station in Sheikh Zuweid, a town in the northeast of the peninsula, while 3 suicide bombs were detonated in al-Arish.
The attacks were claimed by Wilayat Sinai (or Sinai Province), a jihadist group known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis until the group pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State back in November 2014.
The group attempted to seize control of the town, closing off the area with fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and lining incoming roads with mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The militants managed to control the area for a few hours. In response, the army sent over F-16s and helicopters, launching aerial bombardments.
Security officials told the Associated Press that 64 soldiers had been killed by Wednesday evening. The following day, however, a military spokesperson announced that the army’s casualties were much lower, with the death toll at 17 soldiers and over 100 militants killed.
While the militant insurgency has been causing turmoil in north Sinai for the past 2 years, Wednesday’s assault is notable as it is one of the largest wrought by Wilayat Sinai, and signals a turn to increasingly sophisticated co-ordination and attacks by the group.
As Wilayat Sinai has been able to hold territory, even for a short period, and organize simultaneous attacks and suicide bombers, backed up by mortars and small firearms, analysts have suggested that the group’s capabilities are escalating and that its strategy is growing closer to that of ISIS.
Meanwhile, on the same day, back in Cairo, special security forces raided a flat in the October 6 suburb. Nine members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including a former member of parliament, were killed.
Since Morsi’s removal and the military’s subsequent return to power, the state has been touting its own ‘war on terror’ as the means to bring back stability and security to the country.
While the al-Sisi regime has been adamant about ridding the country of terrorists, attacks have escalated and increased, both in the Sinai and mainland Egypt.
The government has largely used the banner of terrorism as a catch-all to crack down on opponents across the political spectrum, with the Muslim Brotherhood as its preferred target.
Shortly after Barakat’s murder, the government promptly blamed the Muslim Brotherhood. A statement released by the State Information Services said that the assassination was carried out ‘by elements of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood gang’.
Barakat was appointed as general prosecutor in June 2013, barely 3 weeks before Morsi’s ousting in 2013.
During his time in office, he oversaw a number of controversial cases, including the detention of thousands and mass death sentences handed down to hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members, and was largely considered by critics as being at the forefront of the crackdown on the country’s Islamists.
For its part, the Brotherhood has rejected the accusations, and instead says the guilt for the country’s ongoing tribulations lies with the government itself.
A statement by the group referred to the violence in the country and specifically to the targeting of the prosecutor as ‘the responsibility of the criminal coup junta that set the scene for violence and turned Egypt away from a promising democratic experience to mass execution, violence and bloodshed’.
No group has officially claimed responsibility for targeting the prosecutor’s convoy, although there have been speculations that Wilayat Sinai could have been behind the bombing.
The group had released a video entitled ‘the Liquidation of Judges’, calling for the killing of judges only a day before the prosecutor’s death. In mid-May, members of the group claimed they had killed 3 judges and a driver in a drive-by shooting in north Sinai.
The group had also made an attempt to assassinate Mohamed Ibrahim, the former Interior Minister, in a car-bomb attack in September 2013.
Analysts have suggested that the attack on the convoy was more likely the doing of one of the smaller extremist groups that have begun to emerge since the beginning of the year, and which had previously claimed responsibility for small-scale explosions.
Toughening up anti-terrorism laws
During Barakat’s funeral on 30 June, Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pledged to further tackle terrorism by tightening laws.
‘The hand of justice is shackled by the law. We are not going to wait for this,’ said al-Sisi. ‘We’re going to amend the law to allow us to implement justice as soon as possible.’
By 1 July, the cabinet had already submitted a draft law to the State Council to revise and pass to the president for ratification.
Al-Sisi pushed through an anti-terrorism law in February this year which already gives the government extensive powers, including the ability to ban groups on charges of ‘harming national unity’ or ‘disrupting public order’.
Huda Nasrallah, a human rights lawyer, told independent Egyptian news site Mada Masr that the new law would likely extend the definition of terrorism, call for more severe punishments, and expand state authorities’ powers further.
With the law still waiting to be ratified by the president, it is Article 33 in particular that has caught the attention of human rights groups as well as the country’s syndicate for journalists, receiving widespread condemnation. The article criminalizes ‘reporting false data or news about any terrorist operations that contradicts the official statements released by the relevant authorities’.
As stories broke about the situation in Sinai, journalists reported death tolls of soldiers that exceeded those of the military’s official accounts. In turn, journalists began receiving emails from an organization called FactCheckEgypt, telling them to ‘correct’ their numbers immediately.
According to reports, FactCheckEgypt is affiliated with Egypt’s State Information Services (SIS), and its editor, Ayman Walash, is an employee at SIS and the Ministry of Investment.
While the email notices from FactCheckEgypt did not lay out specific consequences for those who don’t abide by the revisions, if the new law comes into effect, it would mean up to 2 years in jail for a journalist who publishes figures that don’t align with those of the state’s official reports.
A state-imposed media blackout in Sinai has made it increasingly difficult to report on the situation, with only a few local journalists remaining in the area to probe or verify the ‘official’ numbers the military pushes out.
Moreover, on Sunday, the Foreign Ministry released a ‘style guide’ for journalists, telling them how to refer to extremist groups. The ministry has deemed anything referring to religion to be unacceptable, including using the term ‘Islamic State’. However, ‘slayers’, ‘destroyers’, ‘savages’ and ‘eradicators’ have all been given the state’s stamp of approval.
War on terrorism
Last week’s events called into question the effectiveness of the current regime’s strategy in bringing stability and security to the country: the ‘war on terror’ seems to have served essentially as grounds for the implementation of harsh laws and the closing off of political space.
Critics have long warned that the state’s increased repression and heavy-handed approach with political opponents would in fact create a fertile ground for more extremism and violence to take hold.
As the state continues its crackdown, it will likely aid and abet the recruitment calls of extremist groups which have long held that the political participation model, such as the one the Brotherhood sought to implement, is largely ineffectual.
With the government pushing the Brotherhood further to the fringes, these groups may be able to attract increasingly disaffected Islamists.
With the new broad anti-terrorism law about to be passed, it is clear that the state has no interest in altering its strategy of quashing dissent, shrinking the political arena and controlling the media.
However, such repression will likely only add fuel to the fire: the longer the regime attempts to lay total claim over the country, the longer stability and security will remain a mirage.