Egypt's Islamist Nightmare

By Philip Jenkins

Few Western observers predicted the scale of the recent military crackdown in Egypt, or the nation's sudden lurch to something like civil war. The next question troubling policymakers is just how bad the violence will become, and history does give us some strong indicators about the near future. The resulting picture is alarming.

I begin with a useful principle: Egyptian state security is very good at counter-subversion, but not as good as it thinks it is. For decades, Egyptian officials have prided themselves on their ability to penetrate radical organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which for years has operated under constant surveillance. Unless the organization was so riddled with government informers and double agents, the Egyptian state would never have risked its recent decapitation attempt against the group and its leadership.

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History, though, suggests that official activities are strictly limited in their usefulness. Time and again, state security has won dazzling victories against subversion, only to have the state's enemies rebuild their infrastructures over the following years. Repeatedly, the Egyptian state has been utterly wrong in its claims about the end of Islamist radicalism. The Muslim Brotherhood survived the assassination of its founder, Hassan al-Banna in 1949, and the execution of its prime theorist, Sayyid Qutb, in 1966. Radicals rebuilt, though, forming the guerrilla group al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, which in 1981 killed President Anwar al-Sadat and some of his closest allies. Repression again triumphed, until the radicals in the 1990s created the ferociously violent Egyptian Islamic Jihad. This eventually became a major component of the new al-Qaeda organization.

The state again claimed victory over the terrorists -- but political Islamists remained very strong and numerous. Apart from the Brotherhood itself, other potent groups include the Salafist al-Nour Party. Together, the Brotherhood's political wing and al-Nour won 18 million votes in the 2011-12 parliamentary elections -- two thirds of votes cast. Even if we assume that recent crises have severely undermined support for Islamism generally and the Brotherhood in particular, that still leaves (at least) several million Egyptians profoundly disaffected with the Egyptian regime, and the democratic process.

Excuse me, then, if I don't sound too convinced when I hear the new government crowing over the annihilation of the Muslim Brotherhood.

This time, though, we can expect not only that armed Islamist violence will continue, but that it will develop new structures, and new tactics. Probably, we will see a period of some months when armed resistance against the government will subside, giving a misleading impression of calm. During that time, we would expect a large number of militants to be traveling overseas to seek training from like-minded groups. Unlike previous years, Egyptian radicals no longer have to look far afield to find well-armed and organized militant groups, most affiliated to some degree with al-Qaeda. They might for instance turn to the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP; or else face west, to Libya, and to the Algerian-based forces of AQIM, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Most promising, perhaps, is the large new al-Qaeda bandit territory of western Iraq and eastern Syria. Who needs to go all the way to Afghanistan to find a training camp?

Newly trained and equipped, those militants would return to Egypt. The first sign of their presence would likely be a resort to suicide bombings, of a kind not new to the Egyptian situation, but never common hitherto. Given the strength of the Egyptian military, and its strong intelligence networks, those attacks would initially be directed at soft targets, poorly defended places and institutions where the goal would be to kill the maximum number of civilians. Once upon a time, Western tourists would have been the obvious targets of choice, but such visitors are not likely to be much in evidence in coming months.

By default, then, the most likely such targets would be Coptic Christian churches and communities across the country. Such attacks would divide Egypt along religious and sectarian lines while offering the added bonus of infuriating the West. They would also put Egyptian security forces in a dreadful quandary: how much repression could they properly launch against bloodthirsty terrorism, without appearing to take the side of Christians against Muslims? If that scenario played out, we might expect to see Upper Egypt sliding into overt sectarian conflict, as Christian and Muslim militias battled.

Apart from Christians, the most tempting targets would be any place or person connected with Israel, especially border installations. Watch particularly for renewed attacks along the border with Eilat, and the Gaza Strip. But also, expect urban terror campaigns, initially against the wealthy bastions of Egypt's secularist and liberal elites, who have spoken out so strongly in support of the military coup.

New patters of insurgency are extremely likely in Egypt. As to how successful they might be, there is one critical variable. If Egypt's armed forces were engaged in prolonged internal warfare like the horrors that overwhelmed Algeria in the 1990s, how long would they be able to maintain the loyalty of their (conscripted) ordinary soldiers, and of their junior officers? If the armed forces split, that would, simply, open the way to a revolution.

Such a scenario is undoubtedly very high on the wish-list of al-Qaeda's leaders right now. And to counter it, the West proposes... what, exactly?

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and a columnist for RealClearReligion. His latest book is Laying Down the Sword.

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