Is the Muslim Brotherhood the Key to Egypt's War on Terror?

If you can't beat 'em, co-opt 'em.

As Egypt seeks to reclaim its prominence in regional affairs, President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi must acknowledge the fact that his rule is not infallible.

The Arab Spring showed that Egyptians have the power to remove their leader, and if he cannot provide them with security, then he will be next. That is why el-Sisi is cracking down so hard on Islamic terrorism today. But his counterterrorism strategy will not work. Today’s security environment is different from the one his predecessors fought in. The rise of ISIL, fall of Libya, and democratization of information, all require a new approach. To stay in power—and continue to work with America towards common regional interests—President el-Sisi must bring the Muslim Brotherhood back into the political fold.

Terrorism is on the rise across Egypt, and it affects more civilians now than it has in years. In the face of this threat, el-Sisi has returned to an old, established counterterrorism strategy. Like his presidential predecessors, President el-Sisi is focused on Egyptian Islamists. An “Islamist” is many things depending on who you ask.

But from el-Sisi’s perspective, it is an Egyptian who actively advocates for the implementation of sharia law in Egypt. The implementation of this vision runs wholly against the military’s own historically secularist, socialist, and nationalist vision for society. Furthermore, the rise of independent Islamist parties is a threat to regional stability, especially for el-Sisi’s closest regional allies and financial backers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  

President el-Sisi’s current counterterrorism strategy can be summed up as: separate, silence, and neutralize dissident Islamists. To separate Islamists from the rest of Egyptians, President el-Sisi is deploying an aggressively anti-Muslim Brotherhood narrative. The narrative portrays all Islamists as Muslim Brothers and all Brothers as terrorists bent on destroying the state. The narrative’s purpose is to frighten mainstream Egyptians into rejecting the Islamists and putting their faith in el-Sisi—a strategy that has historically worked.

The “silence” part of el-Sisi’s strategy focuses on denying Islamists places to congregate, discuss ideas, and organize. First and foremost, that means keeping Islamists off the streets. To that end, the Egyptian government killed at least 817 people while clearing Rabaa Square in August 2013. It also means controlling the mosques and NGOs that Islamists gather in. For example, in February 2015, the government shut down 27,000 mosques across the country because it could not control what their imams preached. Similarly, on March 1, the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity dissolved 112 NGOs because they were “affiliated” with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Finally, el-Sisi has deployed the Egyptian military to neutralize Islamists by either killing or imprisoning them. To that end, the Egyptian army is operating at a high tempo throughout the country. In the Sinai Peninsula, it is heavily engaged with Wilayat Sinai—an old Egyptian terrorist organization turned ISIL affiliate. And throughout the country, the armed forces continue to round up Islamists en masse. Recent numbers are hard to come by, but to illustrate the magnitude of the arrests being made: over 16,000 Egyptians were arrested between August 2013 and March 2014.

This type of counterterrorism strategy has more or less worked in Egypt for the past several decades. But recent changes to the Egyptian security environment have rendered it ineffective, if not self-defeating. Those changes are the rise of ISIL, fall of Libya, and the democratization of information.

ISIL’s expansion into Egypt began last fall, when Ansar Bait al-Maqdis—infamous for wreaking havoc in the Sinai since 2011—pledged allegiance to the group. But while this development is important, it is not revolutionary in itself. The Egyptian military has extensive experience crushing localized terrorist groups. The real threat posed by ISIL is its potential ability to mobilize disaffected Islamists—of which Egypt has plenty.