Egypt strikes a perilous repose
By Betsy Hiel
Published: Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
CAIRO — Five turbulent months after millions of Egyptians demanded the removal of their Islamist ruler, the world's most populous Arab nation is uneasily calm.
That is “actually no small accomplishment,” said Eric Trager, an Egypt expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Security forces have killed more than 1,000 Islamist backers of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, and extremists — some allied with al-Qaida — have killed more than 100 soldiers and police in the Sinai Peninsula.
Hundreds of Morsy supporters from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic parties continue to protest in the capital, but in far smaller numbers. Human rights activists have taken to the streets, too, protesting a recent crackdown on dissent.
Yet the interim government installed by Egypt's military is finishing a constitution that could be put to a referendum next month. It would replace an Islamist-drafted document that angered most Egyptians and led to Morsy's ouster on July 3.
Trager, a Washington Institute fellow, said the situation is “more stable than it was on June 30,” when enormous anti-Morsy rallies swept the country.
“You had a president with no control over the bureaucracy, a really worrying cash crunch and a shutdown of services. All of that is resolved for now,” he said.
But the relative calm is “not stability,” he said. “There are many things that could happen that would once again throw the country into a very chaotic state.”
Analysts, for example, say the military is in an “existential” fight with the Brotherhood and its allies, even though most Islamist leaders are jailed or in hiding.
Jihadist groups in the Sinai are increasing their attacks and recently tried to assassinate Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim.
A new law limiting public protests enraged secular activists; several prominent opposition figures were arrested in the past month. Dr. Rasha Abdulla, a human rights activist and journalism professor at American University in Cairo, said that effort to silence critics is a concern “for every citizen.”
Trager predicts “low-grade instability at worst in the short run that could easily metastasize with any sort of ‘black swan' event” — say, terrorist attacks on the Suez Canal or the capital, or “some kind of high-profile political assassination.”
Those would trigger “more substantial” unrest, he said.
He said a pro-Brotherhood website recently claimed an assassination attempt on Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief who led Morsy's ouster. The military denied the report.
The growing Sinai bloodshed is especially worrisome and shows signs of spreading.
Sinai Bedouins and tribesmen have long complained about government neglect. Weapons have flowed to the area since the 2011 revolution that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak, accompanied by Islamist fighters using the largely lawless region as a training base.
Since Morsy's overthrow, those jihadi groups have attacked security forces almost daily.
David Barnett, a research associate at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington and expert on jihadis in the Sinai and the Gaza Strip, said the army faces “a well-armed, determined insurgency” using Morsy as its rallying cry.
Since a spike of more than 100 attacks in July, the army has poured troops into the area.
But “there were still 30 attacks last month, and in December, there have been two or three already,” Barnett said. “You are seeing an adaptation in the groups … larger bombings, suicide and car bombings,” and a slight shift from attacks of convenience to higher-profile targets.
The most formidable of the groups is Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, also known as the Partisans of Jerusalem. It claimed responsibility for several major attacks, including a Nov. 20 blast that killed 11 army conscripts and wounded 34.
In a video of that attack, a man writes “Ansar Beit al-Maqdis” and a message — “The war has not yet begun” — on the hood of a car used in the bombing.
Barnett maintains a database of such attacks and “can count at least 115 Egyptian security personnel killed between July 3 and today.” He suspects the toll is higher.
Some attacks occurred in Suez Canal cities and Cairo; he expects those to continue.
“The reality is it is not just a Sinai issue but an Egyptian issue,” he said.
Options for Washington
Trager recounts a Brotherhood leader's telling him: “We will put (Lt. Gen.) Sisi on trial, and he will not go to prison; he will be hung.”
“This is a very messy domestic fight that we really can't influence positively from 6,000 miles away,” he said, referring to Washington.
Instead, U.S. officials should focus “on preserving really small and unsexy things like regional peace, preferred access in the Suez Canal, (military) overflight rights and counter-terrorism cooperation.”
Rights activist Abdulla believes Egyptians will resist a return to authoritarianism.
“A revolution takes time, and we are in it for the long term,” she said. “People will not take repression anymore. The sooner this regime or any regime understands this, the better it will be for everyone.”
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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