Paul Pillar

A New Terrorist Campaign in Egypt

While President Obama expends political capital trying to win backing for a military endeavor that most Americans oppose and that received scant support at the G-20 summit meeting, upheaval in the Middle East is about to enter a new phase no matter what happens in Syria. We are probably seeing the beginning of a new wave of terrorism in Egypt. Although it would be a mistake to extract too many conclusions from a single incident, a powerful bomb—for which no one claimed responsibility—in Cairo on Thursday that was aimed at a convoy carrying the Egyptian interior minister may mark the start of such a wave. Two days later Egyptian military engineers defused a bomb placed on a railroad line near the Suez Canal.

A surge in terrorism in Egypt was made all but inevitable by events there of the last few months. The regime led by General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi has excluded from political participation a major stream of sentiment in the Egyptian body politic, as represented in particular by the Muslim Brotherhood. It has exhibited brutality by killing hundreds in the process of quashing otherwise peaceful protests. The combination of an absence of peaceful channels and anger over the severe and bloody methods of the regime is just the sort of recipe that inspires a move to terrorist violence.

It is not the Brotherhood—which condemned Thursday's bombing—that will be making that move. It will be small extremist groups and cells, which probably are only now gelling and will be led by organizers who point to Egypt's history over the past year as demonstrating that the Brotherhood's commitment to peaceful political competition is foolish and ineffective. Some individual members of the Brotherhood will leave the organization to join the extremist groups. The incarceration of most of the Brotherhood's senior leadership will make it hard for those leaders to persuade the wayward individuals not to make the turn to violent extremism.

A new terrorist campaign in Egypt will creep up on the sensibilities of U.S. policy-makers; it will not suddenly become a preoccupation as Syria is now. But it is interesting to compare in a couple of respects the U.S. postures toward recent events in Egypt and in Syria. Where the principal adversaries of a head-cracking regime have been peaceful political contestants (who even had won a fair election), the U.S. response was to do essentially nothing. Where much of the principal opposition to the regime has consisted of violent extremists and terrorists, the proposed U.S. response is to weigh in with military force on the side of the opposition. Legally, where U.S. law requires a suspension of aid after a military coup, the administration response has been to flout the law. Where international law prohibits the use of military force except in self-defense or with the sanction of the United Nations Security Council, the proposed response is again to flout the law.

About the only thread of consistency here, besides the illegality, is that the U.S. postures toward both Egypt and Syria have been the ones preferred by the foreign government that for many years has been the dominant influence in shaping so much of U.S. policy in the Middle East. That may make the politics of what we are seeing easier to understand. But from any other perspective what we are seeing is an embarrassing and destructive inconsistency.

Destructive, partly because it sends the message that just as the squeaky wheel gets the grease, only with a resort to extremist violence does it seem that one has a chance to get attention and even support. Maybe that is one of the thoughts in the minds of those ginning up the new terrorist campaign in Egypt.

Image: Flickr/David F. Barrero. CC BY 2.0.