Is Egypt’s Instability Shifting Inward from Sinai?

Workers inspect the bombed site of a security building in the Shubra-el-Kheima district. Cairo, Egypt, August 20, 2015. (Ahmed Abd el Fattah/Demotix/Corbis)

Recent high profile bombings and terrorist incidents in Greater Cairo have increased concerns that Islamist extremist violence in Egypt may increasingly impact areas outside of the chronically insecure North Sinai governorate. While the frequency of attacks in towns and cities along the Nile and in the Nile Delta has been high since late 2013, the latest incidents appear to particularly target foreigners and be the product of larger, better coordinated groups, primarily the Islamic State (ISIS)-affiliated Sinai Province, which poses fresh challenges for already strained security forces.

In July, a Croatian national, Tomislav Salopek, was abducted near 6th of October City in the Greater Cairo area. The incident was claimed by members of the Sinai Province, which threatened to execute Salopek if Muslim women held in Egyptian jails were not released. The demand was, not surprisingly, ignored and in early August the hostage was purportedly beheaded.

Days later, the Sinai Province claimed another attack in Egypt’s core. A car bomb detonated in Greater Cairo’s Shubra el-Kheima area. The blast outside a courthouse and security facility wounded 30 people. The Sinai Province claimed this attack responded to the May execution of six members of the Arab Sharkas Cell, a group of suspected militants accused of killing a number of state officials in 2014. This bombing was preceded by a car bombing outside the Italian consulate in Cairo. The attack, claimed by ISIS itself, killed one person and wounded 10 others.

Egypt watchers and foreign nationals in the country have viewed the attacks with particular concern. Thoughts of the widely publicized ISIS beheadings of foreigners in Syria in 2014 and in Libya in 2015 have resonated widely and questions have been raised about the state’s ability to meet the challenges, particularly in Cairo, the political heart of the country and home to a large number of expatriates and foreign firms. A number of governments have adjusted their travel advisories or at least made note of the recent incidents.

This is but the latest development in a near unprecedented surge in violence across Egypt since 2013. Police patrols, officials, military sites, state infrastructure, and government interests have been bombed or shot at on a near daily basis. The initial catalyst was the military’s clampdown on Islamist protesters in Giza and Cairo in August 2013 following the military-led coup and the subsequent political suppression of the widely supported Muslim Brotherhood.

The government’s actions promoted the extremist agenda across the political and social spectrum. Numerous militant groups, including small city-based cells linked to political parties or student anarchist groups, and larger, more organized organizations such as Ajnad Misr and the Sinai Province (formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) have emerged to challenge the regime.

Data supplied by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy support the assumption that the national share of violence has increasingly moved from the North Sinai to wider Egypt in recent years. In 2013, the North Sinai accounted for 67% of national attacks. This figure dropped to 38% in 2014. The figures aren’t indicative of an improvement of the situation in that region, where the conflict has actually escalated over the past year, but shows that violence in the rest of Egypt has increased.

The latest attacks also seem to indicate that Sinai Province, ISIS, and other larger groups are now accounting for a larger share of the violence in this core area of the country, and attacking non-state assets as they do, though more time will be required for this to be properly assessed. Nonetheless, there are a number of conditions the Egyptian government and its security forces will need to address if they are to limit the ability of these groups to extend their reach.

To begin with, Egypt’s neighbors on all sides are far from secure. Libya’s implosion since 2011 has particularly undermined security across much of North Africa and arms proliferation and the movement of criminal and militant groups has occurred across large parts of the region. While security in Egypt is better than in Libya, Egypt’s large and underpopulated western desert has been a fertile ground for criminal syndicates and smugglers. This area could also increasingly be used by Islamist extremist groupings to operate and plan attacks against the Egyptian core.

A failure to address poor political conditions and a restive youth population in towns across the country will also aid the extremist agenda. Access to political representation during the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012 and 2013 previously served to delegitimize extremist violence. The group’s suppression by the military has expanded the number of people opposed to the political system and the state and reignited violent forms of opposition, even among moderate Islamist supporters. Among this group, youth are particularly susceptible to recruitment by extremists. This sector of society is struggling with excessively high levels of unemployment and poverty—approximately 30% of those aged between 18 and 29 in Egypt are unemployed.

The Sinai Province has established a firm foothold in the North Sinai governorate and has the loyalty of hundreds, if not thousands, of fighters and support personnel and will likely seek to expand and increase in size in the North Sinai, as well as in greater Egypt. For now, the country’s security and intelligence apparatus remains robust and will serve to limit much of the desired growth of these and other militants. We are therefore unlikely to see a repeat of the type of large gains ISIS has been able to achieve in Iraq and Syria and, to a lesser extent, Libya and Yemen.

Nonetheless, if the government does not move to stabilize the political system and address key economic concerns, Islamist extremist violence could still escalate to worrying levels in greater Egypt. If, as seems likely, the extremists will also increasingly look to target foreign interests, this could have a detrimental effect on the national economy and ultimately help prolong the cycle that aids recruitment to violent causes.