Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi presents himself as a bulwark against terrorism, but under his watch the Sinai has become a preferred destination for terrorists. Unfortunately for him, the insurgency is not the only major failure of his rule.

Five years on from the military coup d’etat in Egypt that brought to power Abdel Fattah el Sisi, the problems of the country—political, economic, demographic, security—remain as intractable as ever. Indeed, in many cases, the problems are worse than before. Among the problems that are noticeably worse now than in 2013 is security, specifically the Islamic State (Daesh) insurgency in the Sinai.

The self-immolation of a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in Tunisia on 17 December 2010 triggered a wave of protests against the government’s corruption and misrule that ended in mid-January 2011 with the fall of long-time dictator Zine al Abidine Ben Ali. This caused a stir in a region plagued with autocratic rulers, but it was two weeks later, in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, that the movement against tyranny “found a stage worthy of its ambitions”, as the late Fouad Ajami put it.

Hosni Mubarak, the colourless officer who had been in power in Egypt for thirty years, was pushed out on 11 February, and from there the “Arab spring” gathered pace. Days later, the Libyan population rebelled and the violent crackdown by Muammar Qaddafi triggered a NATO intervention that ended in his overthrow and death.

Protests that had already begun in Yemen turned increasingly violent. In June 2011, Yemen’s Janus-faced dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh was nearly killed. Saleh resigned in November 2011 and finally exited in February 2012, giving way to a political reform protest that was interrupted by an Iranian-backed coup in 2014 and the subsequent Saudi-led intervention to try to restore the political protest. In Syria, a peaceful uprising erupted in March 2011 that militarised over time and has now been transformed out of all recognition.

Sisi and the Brotherhood

The immediate post-Mubarak period in Egypt had disappointed the enthusiasm of the protesters. A military junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), had taken hold of the country and seemed in no hurry to cede power. Under pressure, an election was held in June 2012, the first in Egypt since 1950 during the liberal experiment that followed the First World War. The victor was Muhammad Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood government alarmed the felool (the remnants of the old regime); the national minorities, the Coptic Christians above all; and other states in the region and beyond. There was continued violence against Copts, accelerating their departure to America and elsewhere; and the torture in Egyptian prisons continued, too. Neither of these problems were new and neither was directly attributable to the government: sectarian mob violence is an endemic problem and the police are a law unto themselves. Anti-Brotherhood protesters were abused, though they succeeded in forcing Morsi to rescind a decree that would have granted sweeping powers.

Morsi’s downfall on 3 July 2013 remains the subject of some controversy. One view, as expressed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is that “the army…intervened at the will of the people”. The Egyptian military claimed between fourteen and thirty million people were on the streets demanding Morsi’s ouster. These numbers are absurd on their face and the reality might be as low as two million. The problem with this narrative is not just quantitative.

First, it is now clear that so far from intervening in reaction to popular sentiment as expressed in street demonstrations, the Egyptian military helped orchestrate the street demonstrations to provide a pretext to intervene. The Tamarod (Rebellion) movement that led the protests against Morsi was bankrolled by the Egyptian military (and some Gulf states) and acted at their behest, something some members have come to regret as the post-coup crackdown widened to include those who made it possible.

Second, the supposed urgency for the coup—the notion that Morsi was just about to run away with the country—is false.

“The Brotherhood couldn’t have become dictators even if they had wanted to: the military, interior ministry, the judiciary, and much of the rest of the bureaucracy—the so-called deep state—were firmly against the Brotherhood and held many of the real levers of power,” says Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who noted that “the Brotherhood couldn’t even keep its own headquarters safe.”

The unofficial social control mechanisms—the merchant class and the media—were also largely beyond Morsi’s control. Eric Trager, a scholar with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in his book, Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days, put it this way: by the summer of 2013 and “arguably before that, [Morsi] was a president in name only—held the title but in fact controlled nothing.”

If the intention was to discredit the Brotherhood and their sympathisers more broadly, allowing Egyptians to repudiate them at the polls would have been far more effective.

Within Egypt, the military broke the Brotherhood’s leadership structure and fractured the movement. This surely had some effect on the Brethren’s ability to recruit and “the Brotherhood hasn’t done itself any favours in its post-coup strategy,” Hamid notes. “What we’re seeing today is really an unprecedented split within the Brotherhood.”

This brought different problems. Some of the splinters have turned violent in a manner the Brotherhood formally abandoned decades ago, presenting a new challenge for the Egyptian state. Moreover, the military coup united the disparate “Islamist” contingents in a common goal and pushed them towards the most radical, that is to say violent, means.

While the Brotherhood was in power, it administered the peace treaty with Israel. This meant enforcing the blockade against Hamas, however grudgingly. It pitted the Brethren against the insurgency in the Sinai that was led by Al Qaeda-linked elements, notably Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM), a group that subsequently defected to Daesh. The Brotherhood also had to compete with Hizb al Nur, the Salafist party in Egypt. The coup, and the violent suppression of those who protested about it, put all these forces on the same side, in opposition to the renewal of dictatorship.

A broader political impact from the coup was to vindicate the extremists, who said that religious parties participating in elections was a waste of time since no matter how far these parties went in playing by democratic rules, the West would never allow them to take power. To see the Brotherhood deposed after it had won five elections on the character of Egypt’s governance, and have the US describe the military as “restoring democracy”, played into extremist hands.

“No one can offer…to America more than what Morsi offered,” Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri said in a speech in January 2016, “and despite that they overthrew him. So take a lesson from this”.

In remonstrating with al Qaeda’s wayward branch in Syria at the end of 2017, al Zawahiri again invoked “the fate of … Morsi” to argue that the organisation’s severance of relations with Al Qaeda and attempt to embed itself locally would do it no good; America would still come for them.

In January, al Zawahiri used Morsi as an example to say that no matter how much the Brotherhood can “polish their image” to America will always reject them; the only answer is a violent seizure of power that sweeps away the deep state and its American agents. Daesh’s spokesman has also made use of the Sisi regime for propaganda purposes.

Sisi's self-defeating actions

The Sisi government has instrumentalised anti-Western conspiracy theories, hyper-nationalism, religion, and sectarianism to justify an escalating authoritarianism, which in the name of providing security has defined even the most peaceful dissent as a threat. This has proven effective in, for example, persecuting homosexuals, "disappearing" peaceful activists, and in generally eliminating what was left of civil society. The security promises are yet to materialise.

Already by late 2013, the boost given to the extremists by the coup was already making itself felt as the Sinai insurgency began reaching Cairo. The Egyptian army institutionalised torture in its campaign to pacify the Sinai and resorted to demolishing homes, including virtually the whole city of Rafah, as well as areas of al Arish.

Rafah had 70,000 inhabitants, most of whom are now displaced, and over 400,000 people in Sinai require humanitarian assistance. Cairo claims to have killed 3,000 terrorists in Sinai; it is unlikely that all or even most of the dead are militants, but the figure for fatalities inflicted by the army might well be correct. (Obtaining exact numbers is difficult because of the media blackout.)

None of these methods have succeeded in separating the population from the terrorists, a necessary precondition for tamping down the insurgency, nor have the attempts to manipulate the various groups against one-another borne much fruit. To the contrary.

At least 1,000 members of the Egyptian security forces have been killed since the coup, and the country is now faced with a diversifying and growing insurgency, with Daesh, Al Qaeda, and some Muslim Brotherhood components. 

After the collapse of Daesh’s “caliphate”, it has begun transferring seasoned operatives abroad to assist its foreign branches, and Egypt has been a particular focus. Unsurprisingly, all of these elements seek to play on Egypt’s sectarian fault lines to bolster their own legitimacy, leaving the Christians and even Sufis more threatened than at any time in living memory.

The US and the West have tended to look at this situation through a counter-terrorism lens, as has happened elsewhere in the region. This purblind perspective ignores the factors that gives space to extremists and makes their message seem plausible. The Trump administration signalled early that it wanted to further the normalisation of Sisi’s regime and has done so, as have many European governments, even if they are less warm in their (public) embrace.

Accepting that Sisi is not going anywhere and that Egypt is an important strategic partner is one thing; accepting the regime unreconstructed is quite another. Egypt is considerably dependent on outside help. This means “Trump, the deal-maker, could be in a real position to ask for at least a few things in return” for bringing Sisi in from the cold, as Hamid puts it.

This path is worth exploring since the alternative path of ratifying the Sisi regime, while making no effort to curb its cruelties, press for economic reform, or open space for dissent, is—putting aside the affront to liberal values—to reinforce a situation that is unsustainable.

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