Desert storm: the chaos in Egypt

The murderous attack on Friday at a Sufi mosque in the Sinai Peninsula that killed at least 305 people is a grim reminder of the threats Egypt faces from a stronger and more brutish Islamist militancy. Over the past three years, groups operating from the Sinai peninsula, particularly a local arm of the Islamic State, have carried out several terror attacks. The ease with which dozens of militants, carrying the IS’s black flags, unleashed the assault on the mosque in Bir al-Abed, surrounding it with vehicles and attacking devotees with bombs and guns, has set alarm bells ringing in Cairo. This is the bloodiest attack in modern Egypt’s history. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general who had captured power through a coup in 2013 promising stability and security, has vowed to respond with “brutal force”. General Sisi had made similar promises after terrorist strikes in the past, including when a Coptic church in the mainland was bombed by the IS on the Palm Sunday this year, killing at least 45 people. With the Bir al-Abed mosque attack, the terrorists have now raised the stakes and also called into question General Sisi’s counter-insurgency strategy.

The IS’s strategy in Egypt is similar to that in Syria and Iraq. The group is targeting Christians, who make up about 10% of the Egyptian population, and minority sects within Islam. It makes no secret of its plan to deepen the sectarian divisions in societies and then exploit these divisions to win over hardline Sunni segments. Egypt’s Sinai, a region historically neglected by Cairo and with a vast terrain of desert, mountain and long coasts, is an ideal operational base for the IS. For the same reasons, counter-insurgency in the Sinai is a challenging task even for a formidable military force. The Egyptian military has also been under strain on account of regional developments since the fall of Muammar Qadhafi’s regime in Libya in 2011 and the resulting chaos in North Africa. The black market trade in weapons from Qadhafi-era depots has strengthened militant groups, including those in the Sinai. Besides, it is suspected that following the more recent collapse of IS networks in Iraq and Syria, Egyptian Islamists who were fighting in those countries have returned home and joined local networks. This poses a daunting challenge to President Sisi. The battle before Cairo is not just a counter-insurgency mission. It has to defeat the militants and disrupt the supply of weapons, which is a huge challenge given the difficult terrain of the Sinai. But the Egyptian government also needs to take steps to address the long-term grievances of the Sinai’s population and deny militants local sympathy or support.

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Printable version | Oct 26, 2020 4:14:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/desert-storm-the-chaos-in-egypt/article20944918.ece

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