Egypt Fears Return to Islamist Insurgency of the 1990s

Egyptian security forces tightened their grip on the capital on Friday as anti-government demonstrators held protests a day after a car bombing raised worries the country was entering a new phase of violence akin to the insurgency that plagued the country during the 1990s.

Egyptian officials have yet to accuse any specific group for the attempted assassination of Mohamed Ibrahim, the interior minister, and have not disclosed whether the explosives-laden vehicle was set off by remote control or by a suicide bomber.

But they have begun bracing Egyptians for stringent security measures ahead of a possible conflict that could resemble the years-long fight between security forces and Islamist insurgents.

“What happened today is not the end but the beginning,” said Mr Ibrahim, a pillar of the interim administration that replaced the elected Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi following a July 3 coup.

But experts are warning that Egypt may be ill-prepared to handle a potential Islamist armed rebellion the same way it weathered the killings and bombings of the 1990s. Its economy is far more fragile, its Islamist groups potentially more violent and its tools of governance considerably weaker than 20 years ago.

Considerable blood has already been spilled by both sides, entrenching positions on both camps. Since security forces stormed a pro-Morsi protest encampment in eastern Cairo in mid-August, 117 police officers have been killed around the country, state media reported. More than 1,000 supporters of Mr Morsi have been killed in the past two months.

More violence erupted during several pro-Morsi rallies around the country on Friday. At least five people were reported to have been killed. Security forces also said they had fended off an armed attack on a police station in the southern city of Minya.

“In the last few years people have become much more politically mobilised,” said H.A. Hellyer, an Egypt analyst at the Royal United Services Institute and the Brookings Institution. “I think there are a lot more people on both sides. Support for the state is a lot more intense, and on the Islamist side you’ll find far more people willing to back the Islamist narrative, if not methods.”

There are suggestions that the state is mobilising against the Islamists far more quickly than it did in the 1990s. Supporters of Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood claim 8,000 opponents of the coup have been detained in the last two months, including second-tier leaders of various Islamist groups, leaving followers to decide on their own whether to take up arms.

“In the 1990s, all the insurgents were rather centralised. They followed a certain command,” said Mohamed Dahshan, an Egypt-based researcher at Harvard University. “What we have now is a much more decentralised series of armed and militant groups – a lot of unconnected groups that are much more difficult to fight.”

Insurgent groups also appear to be ramping up their activities faster than in the 1990s. Weapons have been pouring into Egypt from Libya, and advances in communications technologies and the spread of global jihadi ideology make joining and engaging in armed struggle easier.

“It’s a lot easier to co-ordinate these sorts of things now than 20 years ago,” Mr Hellyer said. “In the 1990s this was just in Egypt. There weren’t the same sorts of foreign relations that there are now. Now you have Syria going on. You have the Iraq war. You’ve got the Arab uprisings.”

Security forces may have more counterinsurgency tools at their disposal than in the 1990s, but Egypt’s state institutions have become considerably weaker since then, and especially during the past three years. And while Egypt’s economy managed to survive the occasional shocks to its vital tourism industry, such as the 1997 attack on the Hatshepsut temple in Luxor, it may now be far more exposed.

“Right now we have an economy that can’t handle any worse of a security situation,” said Mr Dahshan. “And if we’re heading down the 1990s path, this will last much longer than several years.”

Source: The Financial Times