The rise of Abdelfatah al-Seesi in Egypt is pouring fuel on an Islamist militant campaign that threatens his image as the only man who can restore stability.
The defense minister, who overthrew elected leader Mohamed Mursi in July, is increasingly touted as a presidential candidate himself, winning the blessing of fellow generals last month. Expectations that he’ll end Egypt’s turmoil are helping to drive gains on markets. Yet the army-backed government’s strategy for restoring order risks fueling reprisals by militant Islamist groups who are expanding their capacity to attack.
Bombings and shootings that were mostly confined to the Sinai peninsula have spread to Cairo and the Nile Delta. Militants claimed to have shot down a military helicopter in Sinai last month with surface-to-air missile, suggesting they have upgraded their arsenal. The army’s growing war against those groups runs in parallel with a drive to crush Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has left its leaders in jail and hundreds of its supporters dead.
“The repressive tactics used by the military establishment in trying to restore stability, the crackdowns on human-rights activists and protesters, are turning Egypt into a breeding ground for extremist groups,” said Islam Al Tayeb, a research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Manama, Bahrain. “It’s no surprise that these attacks are gaining momentum.”
Al Tayeb says the violence recalls the campaign of assaults in the 1990s when security forces and foreigners were targeted. That’s ominous for an economy that needs a tourism revival to exit the worst slump in two decades. Visitors have shunned the country amid the unrest that followed the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak.
A group called Ansar Bayt el-Maqdis has claimed responsibility for some of the most high-profile attacks, including a bombing at a Cairo security headquarters.
The government has blamed the Brotherhood for much of the violence, labeling it a terrorist group. The Brotherhood says it’s committed to peaceful protests against Mursi’s overthrow.
“We have shut up the moderate Islamists, banned them and called them terrorists,” said Ziad Akl, senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “So what are you expecting, other than that the radicals will be the ones speaking?”
‘We Love You’
Polarization has intensified since Mursi’s removal, with much of the tension focused on al-Seesi himself. Hailed as a hero and savior for ending the Brotherhood’s rule, he’s charged by critics with treason against the elected leader who made him defense chief, and with trampling human rights.
Banners and posters by supporters urging al-Seesi to run have sprung up in Cairo, some of them in areas where protests against the army intervention have boiled over into clashes.
A photo of the uniformed defense chief in sunglasses towers over passers-by outside a downtown courthouse where police trucks are parked. “We love you, support you and pledge allegiance to you, al-Seesi, as president, commander and leader,” it reads.
At a nearby market, where vendors hawk clothes, wallets and shoes from rickety stalls, housewife Walaa Ezzat declares her allegiance to al-Seesi. She says she was one of the hundreds of thousands who poured into the streets in support of the defense minister when he demanded a popular mandate to combat violence.
Al-Seesi “stood by the country in the face of difficulties and terrorism,” she said. “We want someone who is decisive and won’t let the country and people suffer.”
For teacher Wael Mohamed, al-Seesi is already tarnished. “He has been the de-facto leader for months and yet failed to control the street,” Mohamed said by phone, adding that he expects more instability, protests and attacks if the army chief becomes president. “People’s hatred is growing because he’s ruling with the security fist.”
Today, speculation about a potential al-Seesi run intensified after the military said a Kuwaiti newspaper report about his plans for the vote wasn’t a “direct statement from the field marshal” and included interpretations by the journalist.
Al-Seesi will tell “the great Egyptian people -- and not others” whether or not he will contest the race, military spokesman Ahmed Mohamed Ali said in a statement on his official Facebook page. The Kuwaiti Al-Seyassah reported that when asked if he was “coming to Egypt’s presidency,” al-Seesi said: “yes, it has been decided and I cannot but respond to the demand of the people of Egypt.” No election date has been set.
Sameh Seif Elyazal, a retired army general, said militant attacks will probably continue this year regardless of who lands the top job.
“If we get another president, a non-Islamist liberal president, do you think they will leave him alone?” he said. He also dismissed arguments that the crackdown on the Brotherhood is fueling radicalization. “Those who are killing people on the streets, hurling Molotov cocktails and burning people’s cars, are we supposed to let them go free?”
‘Dens and Strongholds’
Ansar Bayt el-Maqdis said its downing of the helicopter was part of strikes against “the dens and strongholds of the militias of al-Seesi and Mohamed Ibrahim,” the interior minister, in Sinai.
Of more concern to Egypt’s authorities is a video the group posted online, which shows a fighter with a blurred face firing what appears to be a missile balanced on his shoulder, at what is said to be a military helicopter in Sinai, to the background of a song that declares: “Victory is ours.”
The army spokesman’s official Facebook page only said that five personnel were killed when a helicopter crashed in the area on Jan. 25.
The Ansar claim raises the prospect that the Sinai Islamists are in touch with Libya, where armed militias have been operating largely free of central government control after the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi, said Robert Springborg, former director of the London Middle East Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Libya could offer “a very significant base of support, to say nothing of weapons.”
Attacks by the Egyptian militant groups will raise concerns in Israel and the U.S., and “cause both to support the government more than they otherwise would have,” he said. “Ultimately the insurgency is counterproductive for the Islamists, as it will entrench the military in power.”
Ansar has been around since 2011, and there are suggestions of links to al-Qaeda, said David Barnett, a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington who specializes in Salafi jihadist groups. While some Brotherhood activists may be engaged in “low-level violence,” there’s little evidence to suggest the group’s involvement in bombings and assassinations, he said.
“The government sees itself as in an existential battle -- it’s us or them, kill or be killed,” Barnett said. “They are so entrenched in that battle, they are losing sight of what’s developing around them, which is a serious jihadist threat.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at firstname.lastname@example.org