Analysis: Egypt has all the ingredients for an insurgency

Analysis: Egypt has all the ingredients for an insurgency

Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shout slogans during a protest at Rabaa Adawiya Square, where they are camping, in Nasr City, east of Cairo, on Aug. 7.

By Richard Engel, Correspondent, NBC News

News analysis

CAIRO — A troubling thing happened at the Cairo airport early one morning this week. 

Two Egyptian men arrived on a predawn flight from Istanbul. As they were walking through the arrival hall, airport officials say, one of the men threw something in a wastepaper basket before reaching customs control. The action seemed suspicious.

Their passports indicated the men had started their journey in Chechnya, a center of Islamic unrest in the Caucasus. Customs officials inspected their luggage and discovered they were carrying military uniforms, a black “al Qaeda flag,” and computer memory cards containing what seemed to be radical Islamist propaganda. Fishing through the trash, officials also found what they described as counterfeit passports. 

The men were taken into custody. Egyptian officials said they believe the men were Islamic extremists traveling to Egypt to wage jihad. 

It’s a very bad sign of what may be coming – a time of jihad and death on the Nile.

Middle East analysts and U.S. intelligence officers have told me they worry an insurgency may break out in Egypt. At a minimum, such an uprising could cause sporadic violence against the government, the Egyptian military and foreign visitors. Far worse, it could cause serious instability in this 5,000-year-old civilization.

After the military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood’s elected President Mohammed Morsi earlier this summer, Egypt has joined Syria as the cause du jour for Islamic crusaders. Al Qaeda’s chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, who U.S. officials say ordered his Yemeni captain to carry out a big terrorist attack somewhere in the vast West, has released an audio message urging Islamists to take their struggle to Egypt. Zawahiri, himself an Egyptian, has accused Washington of orchestrating the coup, saying it was paid for with money from Persian Gulf states and carried out with the complicity of Egyptian Christians.

At daily Muslim Brotherhood rallies in Cairo and Alexandria, protesters threaten jihad against the mostly-secular Egyptian military. 

The Egyptian military has said it will no longer tolerate the demonstrations, and may move to clear them out by force. The move could be what tips the kettle of Egypt’s brewing insurgency.

This week Sen. John McCain told NBC News he worries Egypt could follow the path of Algeria. In the 1990s, Islamists in Algeria won elections like the Brotherhood did in Egypt. The Algerian military refused to allow the Islamists to take power. A war erupted, killing between 100,000 to 200,000 people, depending on which estimates are to be believed.

Egyptians should hope McCain is wrong, but there are undeniable parallels. An Algeria redux in Egypt is the worst possibility, the nightmare of a total breakdown of order, death on the Nile every night. 

Intelligence officials and analysts say that horror show is possible, but expect a somewhat less dire, but still violent and persistent armed insurgency that could last years. 

Insurgencies are easy to make and hard to stop. Only a few ingredients need to combine to create an insurgency; like oxygen and fire, they’re very common and mix all too often. The recipe is simply: a legitimate grievance against a state, a state that refuses to compromise, a quorum of angry people, and access to weapons. 

Egypt appears to have them all.

Morsi was legitimately elected in 2012. His government’s performance was, by almost any standard, disastrous and didn’t respect the rights of other political groups. He is accused of colluding with Hamas, and of allowing the Sinai Peninsula, where the Bible says Moses handed down laws to his people, to become a lawless safe haven for wild-eyed jihadis and gun runners. 

Morsi was, of course, overthrown in what the United States doesn’t want to call a coup. He may have deserved it. Many Egyptians certainly think so. But does the Muslim Brotherhood have a cause to rally around? Yes. The first ingredient is there.

Is the military willing to compromise? It and the government it backs say they want to talk and find a solution. The government has reached out to religious leaders hoping to use them as intermediaries. But the military isn’t willing to step down. Is the state refusing compromise? Yes, but only from the Brotherhood’s perspective.

Insurgencies also need insurgents.  Does the Brotherhood have the numbers? The group claims that the majority of Egyptians support them, since they won the election by a majority. The Brotherhood’s opponents say the group only won the election because other parties weren’t organized and say the Brotherhood alienated many Egyptians during its year in power. But even the Brotherhood’s toughest critics say the group has a base of support that numbers at least in the millions. 

For an insurgency, you don’t need millions. Al Qaeda in Yemen, which now has powerful nations shutting its embassies around the globe, only has a core of about 1,000 members.  Does Egypt have the numbers for an insurgency? Yes, it does, and then some.   

The last ingredient is weapons. 

There was an insurgency under President Hosni Mubarak in the 1990s. Egyptian police and soldiers fought weekly battles with Islamists in the sugarcane fields and thick reeds along the Nile in rural southern villages like Minya, Sohag, Enna and Assiout.  Whenever I traveled to Assiout in the 1990s, I had to inform the Egyptian government of my movements ahead of time. On one trip, I was given a full military escort, including two tracked armored personnel carriers with machine guns. In 1997, Islamic extremists killed nine German tourists in front of the painfully rich Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. Two gunmen boarded the bus, started shooting tourists and set the vehicle on fire with Molotov cocktails. I lived down the street at the time and climbed on the smoking bus to see the bodies, still seated, melted to the nylon and plastic foam seats. Two months later, Islamic militants butchered 58 foreign tourists with assault rifles in front of the temple of the Pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut in Luxor, better known to the ancients as Thebes.

There weren’t many weapons in Egypt in the 1990s. Police controls on guns were very strict back them. That is no longer the case in Egypt today. When Libya collapsed after NATO airpower guided Mad Max rebels into Tripoli, Muammar Gadhafi’s weapons were smuggled out like rats off a sinking ship. The weapons went to Mali, Niger, Syria, Egypt and everywhere. Do Egyptians have access to enough arms for an insurgency? Oh, yes.

So what can be done? The easy answer would be to tell the military and the Brotherhood to work out a deal, to compromise and play nice together. But that seems unlikely. The military and the Brotherhood both want power and both feel they deserve to have it; both sides also have passionate supporters encouraging them to hold their ground. 

Analysts may be right to worry that death on the Nile may be coming.

Will Sissi seek Egypt’s presidency?

Updated 2013-08-09 04:41:30

CAIRO: He is a savvy operator, people who have worked with him say, a career military officer who methodically campaigned a year ago to become Egypt’s defence minister under its first democratically elected president.

Now Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sissi is faced with a society even more bitterly divided than it was a year ago, when Mohamed Morsi took office as president.

Islamist supporters of Morsi, who was ousted by the military last month, warned on Wednesday that authorities risk provoking “civil war” if they go ahead with plans to break up protest camps, as officials have threatened to do after the collapse of international mediation efforts.

To those Islamists, al Sissi is intent on wiping their faction off the nation’s political map in a quest for absolute power. But a substantially larger share of Egyptians appears to ardently support the general, and many tout his name above all others in the search for a new leader.

Al Sissi, viewed as a pious Muslim, was supposed to be the Muslim Brotherhood’s man running the military. Now his sunglass-clad face is venerated in Cairo’s streets and his pictures pasted on the windows of minibuses and storefronts and clutched by men and women who wave Egyptian flags in Tahrir Square. For the most popular man in Egypt, the question is: Does he want to be the country’s next president?

Al Sissi, 58, has been coy about his plans, saying in an interview with The Washington Post last week that he did not aspire to a higher office but declining to rule out a presidential bid. “When the people love you,” he said, “this is the most important thing for me.”

Egyptian officials say that al Sissi’s commitment to returning the country to civilian-led democracy is genuine and that they do not think that he will run in elections, expected to be held next year.

But in a country where the only leader in six decades not to have a military background was just deposed in a coup, many say they would not be surprised if the charismatic al Sissi decided to throw his high-brimmed officer’s hat into the ring. Some supporters are hailing him as a new Gamal Abdel Nasser, the revered general who led the 1952 coup that overthrew Egypt’s monarchy.

”I think it’s hugely tempting for anyone,” said a high-ranking Western official, referring to the possibility that al Sissi might take his popularity to the polls. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.

The clamour to bring al Sissi into the presidential palace is ironic, critics here say, given that many of his advocates were bitter foes of the military-backed rule of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, a former air force commander. Public support also quickly soured for the armed-forces council that temporarily ruled after Mubarak was toppled in the 2011 revolution. After Morsi’s inauguration in June 2012, al Sissi was seen as a man who would be willing to work with the Muslim Brotherhood despite decades in which the military had persecuted the organisation. Al Sissi, considered by acquaintances who have talked faith with him to be deeply religious without being dogmatic, was considered a natural ally for Morsi, who was struggling to assert civilian control over the army.Al Sissi was then a fast-rising officer who had taken over as head of military intelligence and was assigned to serve as the armed forces’ liaison to the Brotherhood after the 2011 revolution.

His most prominent turn in the news during the year that Egyptian generals ran the country came when he defended the military after security forces were accused of administering “virginity tests” to female protesters. Rights groups said the practice amounted to state-sanctioned sexual assault.

US and Egyptian observers say al Sissi was quietly positioning himself as a successor to Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, a man about two decades al Sissi’s senior who was then leading the military.”I personally was not surprised at all that he would be picked” as defence minister, said Sameh Seif el-Yazel, a former Egyptian intelligence officer with close ties to the military who said he had spoken frequently to al Sissi since the 2011 revolution. “He’s a man who is straightforward, black and white. There is no gray area in dealing with strategic issues.”

Even before the revolution, al Sissi was among a group of rising leaders in Egypt’s army, participating in a prestigious international programme at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., in the mid-2000s. There he wrote a paper titled “Democracy in the Middle East” and studied civilian-military relations, according to his adviser, Stephen Gerras. The focus was on the war then raging in Iraq, not on Egypt.

”He said this isn’t going to go the way you think,” Gerras said.

”The culture, the influence of religion, the poor quality of education, the impact of state-run media – all of those things make it very difficult to bring a Western form of democracy in the Mideast. And he would say, ‘You guys were kind of naive in Iraq.’” Another professor, Sherifa Zuhur, said the general was reserved but very intelligent.

”He distinguished himself with this quiet and reflective character. But then when he spoke, you could hear his experience,” she said. “The whole discussion of what happens when you suppress democracy was very much part of the discourse.”

Zuhur said al Sissi’s wife wore the niqab, or a face covering.

That piety led many to think that Morsi’s August 2012 appointment of al Sissi as defence minister meant a new era in relations between the military and the civilian Islamist leadership.

But by al Sissi’s own account, their relationship quickly became strained. Even before he became defence minister, he said in The Post interview, he was concerned about Morsi’s attempts to rein in the judiciary, which was packed with appointees from the Mubarak era.

At October celebrations to commemorate the 1973 war with Israel, al Sissi was miffed to have to sit in the stands near Tarek el-Zomor, who was convicted of being complicit in the plot to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, according to a fellow Egyptian officer who spoke to Sissi about the incident.

When Morsi granted himself vastly expanded powers in late November, al Sissi unilaterally called for a meeting of the country’s political leaders—an unusual step for a defence minister in a civilian-led government.

Morsi overruled him, before dialing back his broad assertion of power. By spring, tensions were even higher, as the economy continued to plummet and lines started building up at gas stations.

Former Morsi advisers accuse al Sissi of meeting with opposition leaders behind Morsi’s back. Al Sissi has said that he warned Morsi and US officials that Egypt’s problems were worsening. “Months ago, I told [US officials] there was a very big problem in Egypt. I asked them for their support, for their consultation, for their advice, as they are our strategic partner and allies,” he said.

By arrangement with The Washington Post/Bloomberg News Service

Egypt’s Islamists Turn Violent

The Muslim Brotherhood says that its protests are purely peaceful — but evidence is mounting of torture and weaponry at its Cairo sit-ins.


CAIRO — Ahmed Sabet, 22, has been hospitalized for over a week.

“They stamped on his face," said his cousin, Aly al-Masry, 20, who told Sabet’s story from his bedside as he drifted in and out of consciousness. “He has three stab wounds, a bullet hole through his leg and stick marks all over his body. There are bruises where he was dragged along the asphalt."

On the night of July 26, during clashes with supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, Sabet, who is part of the April 6 Youth Movement that opposes the former leader, told Foreign Policy he was a victim of an armed assault by an Islamist mob. He says was dragged by pro-Morsy protesters to a nearby mosque, where a dozen other individuals were being held. There, he says, they tortured him for 14 hours.

The turmoil in Egypt has shown no sign of ending since Morsy’s ouster more than a month ago. And there are ominous signs that the violence is poised to worsen: The Egyptian government ordered the police last week to take “all the necessary measures" to disperse the two major pro-Morsy sit-ins that have been going on for more than a month, raising fears that the security services could once again open fire on Islamist demonstrators, as they have done previously. Meanwhile, President Adly Mansour delivered a speech on Aug. 7 declaring that the period of negotiations with the Muslim Brotherhood “ended today," and other officials have denounced the Islamist protesters as “terrorists" contending the sit-ins are armed encampments that represent a danger to national security.

There is now mounting evidence that some Brotherhood loyalists within the pro-Morsy sit-ins  — which up until now had remained largely peaceful — are indeed armed, and have committed what some human rights groups describe as torture against their political opponents. In interviews, multiple Egyptians who clashed with or observed the pro-Morsy sit-ins describe being beaten and fired on by Morsy supporters.

Amnesty International released a report on Aug. 2 in which anti-Morsy protesters recount being “captured, beaten, subjected to electric shocks or stabbed" at the Islamists’ two encampments in the Cairo districts of Nasr City and Giza. Ten citizens have reportedly filed torture complaints at local police stations, Amnesty reported. And the violence has even claimed lives: “[W]e were told by the morgue five bodies bearing the marks of torture were found near both camps," says Mohamed Lofty, an Amnesty researcher.

The body of 32-year-old tuk-tuk driver Amr, whose family requested that his full name not be published, was one of those found bearing signs of torture near a pro-Morsy sit-in. Amr’s corpse was dumped naked and mutilated by a metro station near the Giza encampment on July 20.

“I didn’t know my own brother from the body in the morgue. You could see the burn marks," said his sister Samah, 35. “He was beaten by sticks everywhere from his head to his feet, and they electrocuted his face and his chest."

Amr was on his way to the neighborhood near the encampment when he went missing on July 17. Days later, the police tracked Amr’s phone to a man based in the Giza camp, who said he had found the phone in the sit-in and claimed Amr had been accused of spying and stealing by the protesters. Samah believes Amr was tortured to death inside the sit-in.

Lofty explained that individuals like Amr are picked up by the self-appointed sit-in security guards if they are considered to be thieves, spies, or pro-military infiltrators. “People take justice into their hands, they think they are entitled to apply punishments, investigate and use cruelty," he said. “They apply their own law in the camps."

Authorities are still investigating the murder.

In addition to the torture allegations, human rights groups also say there is evidence that some Morsy supporters have brought guns to the protests — echoing claims by government officials, including Prime Minister Hezam al-Beblawi, that the protesters are armed and have “broken all the limits of peacefulness." These reports don’t bode well for likely upcoming efforts to break up the sit-ins: If protesters are armed, Egypt’s poorly trained police force may not be able to shut down the encampments without considerable use of force and possibly further bloodshed.

“We can say with confidence that there are weapons in the Giza sit-in … it is not very well concealed," says Karim Ennarah, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He pointed to a pro-Morsy rally in the nearby neighborhood of Bain el-Sarayat on July 2, when pro-Morsy protesters, marching back to the sit-in, opened fire on local residents as clashes erupted.

There is video evidence of how armed Islamists have used violence against their opponents. Ali Bazeed, 27, who works in a photocopying business overlooking the scene of the Bain el-Sarayat fighting, showed Foreign Policy the shop’s CCTV footage from the night of the clashes. In the video, bearded men and youth trash the premises. One man carries a rifle, while others brandish a pistol and a sword. Bazeed claims to know one of the men wielding a knife in the footage: “He’s from here and lives in the sit-in."

Later in the video, dozens of men from the same group brutally beat a young man caught up in the clashes.

The Muslim Brotherhood says that its protests are purely peaceful — but evidence is mounting of torture and weaponry at its Cairo sit-ins.


The next day, July 3, which saw the military move in to depose Morsy, brought further evidence that the Giza sit-in was armed. Mohamed, a 22-year-old local journalist and human rights worker, reported seeing handmade shotguns, made by citizens in underground workshops, at the site. “They were lying on the floor in the corner of a tent."

Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a 31-year-old renowned activist and blogger opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood who lives in the area, also recounts being shot at with live ammunition from the direction of the sit-in on July 23.

“We clearly saw a couple of guys with machine guns who were shooting constantly in the air in an Islamist march towards the Giza sit-in a few weeks ago," Abdel-Fattah says. He describes unidentified shooters from within the area of the encampment “taking pot shots" at anyone believed to be a “thug or a threat" during these fights. Abdel-Fattah himself took one bystander who had been shot through the shoulder, with the bullet entering his chest, to the hospital, but the man later died from his wound.

“I talked to people in the camp who admit that they have weapons, but their version is that they are constantly attacked by thugs supported by the police," Abdel-Fattah says. However, he says, those with weapons are in the minority. “We’re dealing with a few highly armed individuals — this is not the whole sit-in."

Meanwhile, reports of attacks on Egyptian journalists at Morsy rallies continue to rise. The Brotherhood has feuded with local media since the military takeover — and most Egyptian news outlets are staunchly critical of the protests, sometimes to a fault. In reaction, demonstrators appear to be taking matters into their own hands.

Cameraman Shehab Eldin Abdel Razeq, 23, who works for ONTV, a television channel widely perceived to be anti-Morsy, was one of the victims of the protesters’ anger. He sustained head injuries after he was beaten with sticks in the Nasr City sit-in on the day of Morsy’s ouster. “They took me to a tent where there were five other people, bound and in a mess," he said. “I had to pretend that I worked for an American network."

The Muslim Brotherhood and the “Anti-Coup Coalition," which has organized the nationwide demonstrations calling for Morsy’s reinstatement, have repeatedly denounced the allegations of violence as a campaign by the authorities to rally public support for a crackdown. And inside the sit-ins themselves, Morsy backers vehemently deny that they are armed.

“We want to talk to the Egyptian media, they’re the ones who turned their backs on us, check my tent, we have nothing like weapons," says Radwan Ragheb, 32, an electrician living at the Giza sit-in.

Top Brotherhood officials, meanwhile, argue that the charges of violence are fabricated by the media and security apparatus ahead of an impending police crackdown.

“The main purpose is to put the protests in the context of terrorism, so that they have to be dissolved as a threat to national security," says Amr Darrag, a former minister of international cooperation under Morsy and leading Brotherhood figure.

In response to Amnesty’s report, those organizing the sit-ins invited the international rights group on a tour of the encampments. Lofty, the Amnesty researcher, interviewed the Nasr City sit-in’s security team, which is charged with instigating much of the violence. They admitted to conducting “interrogations" of “thugs" underneath the sit-in’s main stage, but denied the presence of torture cells.

Despite its recent report, Amnesty has also slammed the government’s calls to clear the sit-in as a “recipe for further bloodshed" given the security forces’ routine use of excessive and unwarranted lethal force. Rights groups say the actions of a few individuals do not give the army carte blanche for a violent dispersal of mainly peaceful protests.

However, with new reports that attempts at reconciliation between the interim government and the Brotherhood have been officially declared a failure, the clock is now ticking for the encampments. The Egyptian security forces are likely to use testimonies of violence and torture as a reason that the sit-ins must be cleared. And with the Muslim Brotherhood showing no signs of giving in, it’s becoming increasingly hard to see how Egypt avoids another round of bloodshed.



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