THE BLOG

Back to the Future: Egypt's Battle With Islamic Terrorism

While last week's violence in Egypt was shocking and tragic, the unfortunate likelihood is that the conflict between the military-backed regime and radical Islamic forces that support the ousted President Mohammed Morsi will continue. What is less clear is the nature of that potential conflict and the path which the now-fractured opposition may embrace.

Hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested or detained since Mori's overthrow, while many others have been killed in the subsequent protests and street violence. The Egyptian government has signaled that it may seek to formally dissolve the organization as a political entity. Notwithstanding this effective decapitation of the movement, representatives maintain that the Brotherhood remains committed to a peaceful solution to the political crisis and a restoration of democracy.

The danger emerging from the situation in Egypt is the potential shift of large numbers of Brotherhood members and sympathizers to embrace violence. Egypt has a long history with radical Islamic terrorism, and if the peaceful strategy advocated by the Brotherhood is perceived as failed or impossible in light of recent events, there may indeed be a resurgence of terrorist violence against the regime and its supporters.

The assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 for his betrayal of the Arab and Islamic cause by signing the Camp David Peace Accords with Israel may now be viewed as one of the first modern acts of Islamic terrorism. During the 1990s two organizations, al-Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Gama'a al Islamiya (The Islamic Group), led by the "Blind Sheikh" Omar Abdul Rahman, unleashed a wave of terror across Egypt. Targeting Egypt's tourism industry, military and police officials, public figures and politicians, and secular cultural symbols, the terrorist campaign shook the nation. Al-Jihad, allegedly working with Sudanese intelligence agents almost succeeded in the assassination of President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia in June 1995.

The turning point came with the massacre of 58 mostly-European tourists at Luxor in November 1997. This highly visible and heavily publicized atrocity created a large-scale popular backlash against the jihadists and the Egyptian security forces cracked down on both groups. At the same time, the Mubarak regime also implemented a series of political reforms and economic measures focused on undermining the jihadist message and alleviating the plight of many poorer Egyptians.

Both Egyptian terrorist leaders should be familiar to most American observers. Rahman currently resides in a U.S. federal penitentiary for his alleged role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Since Osama bin Laden's death, Zawahiri has been the nominal leader of al Qaeda. Jailed and tortured in connection with the Sadat assassination, Zawahiri would eventually move to Pakistan in the mid-1980s where he met bin Laden. Both sought to contribute to the growing effort to help the Afghan Mujahedeen defeat the Soviet Union. As Afghanistan descended into civil war after the Soviet withdrawal, both men left pursuing different paths. However, after the failure of the Luxor attack, Zawahiri was reunited with bin Laden in Afghanistan, then under the control of the Taliban. Having been defeated in Egypt, Zawahiri supported bin Laden's strategy for a global jihad targeting what he considered the primary and overarching "far enemy," the United States. However there was always a tension for Zawahiri, who had sought to vanquish the "near enemy" in Egypt.

Given the perceived heavy handedness of the military regime's crackdown and the potential international isolation that Cairo may face in its wake, Zawahiri and likeminded jihadists within and outside of Egypt may see a ripe opportunity to renew the battle against their most despised "near enemy." At the same time, with the Muslim Brotherhood effectively removed from Egyptian politics, there may be a reservoir of willing energized recruits and a greater willingness to embrace violence in the perceived absence of any viable peaceful alternative.

It is imperative that the Egyptian regime attempt to construct a broad-based transitional government that can reestablish legitimacy at home and abroad and begin to implement policies to jumpstart the moribund economy and tangibly improve the day-to-day lives of ordinary Egyptians. Despite last week's actions, the interim government seems to have maintained the support of much of the populace, but that support will be fleeting unless visible progress is made on both political and economic grounds. Continuing instability only plays into the hands of Islamic radicals and increases the probability of violence targeting the regime and more secular and democratic elements of Egyptian society over the long-term.