The Egypt Aid Dilemma
As Egypt is convulsed by violence, Al Qaeda celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary this past weekend. United States counterterrorism efforts, heavily reliant on missile strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles, significantly degraded the bulk of Al Qaeda’s core organization located in Pakistan. But the uprisings that roiled the Arab world enabled a jihadist expansion across the region, thereby creating new threats to U.S. interests from Al Qaeda affiliates and associated movements. Promoting democratic inclusivity as a means of undercutting their rise has repeatedly run headlong into other realpolitik concerns, and Washington has yet to devise a consistent policy for managing these competing interests. Events in Egypt have highlighted, once again, the vexed choice facing American policymakers.
While U.S. policymakers debate how to respond, Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who previously headed one of Egypt’s two largest jihadist groups, undoubtedly views events in his native land as an ideal anniversary present. Jihadist forums lit up after the Egyptian military launched its latest crackdown, which has since left over 1100 dead. Al Qaeda-associated elements are already active in the Sinai, where violence has escalated since the Egyptian military ousted the Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi. Many analysts expect it is only a matter of time before jihadist attacks come to Cairo--car bombs, suicide vests, and so on.
The last revolutionary jihad in Egypt, waged in the 1990s, was brutally suppressed.
The Muslim Brotherhood, after suffering decades of repression, had renounced violence by then in favor of an approach centered on proselytization and the provision of social services. Some of its frustrated members found their way into the Islamic Group, which became Egypt’s largest jihadist organization. Others formed the smaller, more clandestine and far less prolific al-Jihad, ultimately led by al-Zawahiri.
Whereas the Islamic Group leadership, largely imprisoned by the turn of the century, renounced violence, al-Zawahiri merged a faction of al-Jihad with Al Qaeda as a means of organizational survival. Exiled remnants of the Islamic Group later joined as well. Al-Zawahiri’s decision demanded that he adopt bin Laden’s agenda, which prioritized attacks against the United States. However, this was always a global means to a revolutionary end, as bin Laden believed ridding the Muslim world of American influence was necessary to create the conditions for local insurgencies to succeed.
The weakening of the core Al Qaeda organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks, the rise of its regional affiliates, the arrival of a new jihadist generation and the instability that resulted from the Arab Spring have shifted the focus back toward the local. Old jihadist groups are resurgent and new ones emerging in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia, Lebanon and the Sahel. Having learned from the violent excesses of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group in the 1990s and Al Qaeda in Iraq more recently, many of these groups are exercising restraint when it comes to dealing with local populations and are taking a more comprehensive approach that includes the provision of limited social services. This approach has helped to enable their gains across the region. Now Egypt may be on the precipice of a potential Islamist insurgency. At the very least, the country is primed to become a more active theatre for jihadist violence.
It’s unclear whether Egypt’s generals view this as a bad thing. The Muslim Brotherhood is not blameless for the recent spate of violence. Encouraging supporters at Cairo encampments to martyr themselves, as protest leaders reportedly did , is hardly a means of deescalating the situation. Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters have also traded fire with the security services, and targeted Coptic Christians across the country. But it was the military that balked at any reconciliation, renewed the conflict in the streets, threatened to ban the Brotherhood and arrested most of its top leaders, including its supreme guide Mohamed Badie. Many second-tier leaders are either dead or in hiding.
The Brotherhood has been a fixture in Egypt for over eighty years. It made a hash of governing, but, if past crackdowns are any guide, knows how to survive as an underground organization, having done so for decades in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Brotherhood leaders likely understand the surest path to destruction lies in abandoning their organizational commitment to nonviolence and pursuing a military confrontation with the state. However, the military’s arrest of top leaders who command respect and exercise caution could pave the way for hardliners. Moreover, communication with the Brotherhood’s grassroots network has been essentially cut off. As often happens when there is a power vacuum, the danger exists that more extreme elements crowd out those with limited aims, in this case a restoration of the political process. If the past is indeed prologue, then one can expect frustrated Muslim Brothers to form fissiparous jihadist units or join existing, clandestine networks committed to violence.