It is natural that Egyptians feel shock and anger about last Friday’s terrorist attack in Sinai, which killed 30 soldiers. It is also natural for there to be widespread calls across the country for a decisive response to this crime, and for the liquidation of terrorist elements in the country as quickly as possible.
But the reality, painful as it may be, is that this is a fight that will likely take some time and will require much patience, determination and perseverance in the face of further attacks—and this is clear from past attempts to combat the phenomenon, whether in Egypt or elsewhere.
Terrorism is not new to Egypt. During the last three decades there have been a number of violent confrontations between the state and several terrorist–extremist groups of different ideological stripes, especially during the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. These confrontations, which claimed hundreds of lives, also had an adverse effect on the country’s all-important tourism sector, especially after the 1997 massacre at the Hatshepsut Temple in Luxor, which claimed the lives of around 60 innocent tourists, and the Sharm El-Sheikh bombings in 2005.
These waves of terror changed rapidly throughout the years, first in the 1970s, and then in the 1980s after the assassination of president Anwar Sadat, when a number of these groups returned to Egypt following their participation in conflict zones across the world, most notably the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. During this time several previously disparate Egyptian extremist groups, as well as foreign ones such as Islamic Jihad and Al-Qaeda, merged with other groups to pool ideology, methods and even funding.
At times the general environment was terrifying, especially in the 1980s when it almost seemed like there was an actual war going on between Egyptian state security and the two prominent domestic extremist groups of the time, Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya. Every successive wave of terror ended with a mix of armed and ideological confrontations between the state and the extremists, with each of these waves taking considerable time to eventually ebb.
But these waves pale in comparison to the current one we are experiencing, for it is undoubtedly fiercer, and far more complex and dangerous than its predecessors. This time, regional circumstances have resulted, for the very first time, in a terrorist organization taking over vast swaths of land across Arab countries currently ridden with conflicts or crises, as we have seen in Syria and Iraq with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a group which regards itself, as the name suggests, as a state and not just a jihadist organization. The group is also allied to a number of others, who have sworn allegiance to it, or who adopt the ideology of Al-Qaeda, although it is now past its heyday and no longer appeals to the new generation of extremists. We even witness today Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri struggling to keep up with his new rivals, who do not acknowledge his leadership.
This new wave has also coincided with another phenomenon, one which makes today’s terrorist threat more complex and dangerous. We see a number of extremist groups or political forces possessing armed militias with differing ideological backgrounds now able to extend their power over nation states which are no longer as powerful as they once were. We see this in Lebanon with Hezbollah, which has been able to make military decisions on behalf of the country in light of the power vacuum there; in Yemen, where the state’s influence has retreated drastically in the face of the advance of militias belonging to the Houthi movement; and in Libya, with the state currently struggling to regain control of parts of the country overrun by armed militias. Among all these terrorist groups and armed militias whose activities lie outside the state’s purview, we find a common thread: the dismantling of the states in question along with all their institutions.
This is the bitter reality the region is witnessing at the moment, one which makes this latest wave of terror more dangerous than all those that have come before. This current wave of terror needs a strong, determined response in order to be repelled and subdued, whether the threat is domestic or foreign. But it also needs patience and stamina, and a comprehensive strategy that doesn’t just focus on responding to this or that attack.
In Egypt’s case, the terrorist threat it faces aims to halt or slow down the country’s progress through the political and economic road map laid out for it since last July. And this is something that must not be allowed to happen.