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Opinion: Egypt Trapped Between Two Wars | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Armored personnel carriers (APC) of the Egyptian Army patrol on a road close to El Gorah in northeastern Sinai, Egypt, 21 May 2013. (EPA)

Egypt is facing a fierce attack that aims to drag the country into a quagmire of chaos and instability that a number of other regional states have already fallen into. The terrorist attacks, which have escalated in recently, aim to weaken and destabilize Egypt, drowning it in a spiral of domestic crises that prevent any form of recovery. While Egypt’s armed forces are now especially being targeted as they are the sole guarantor of Egyptian security.

Over the past few decades we have witnessed the systematic destruction of the region and its states—by terrorism, conflict or civil wars—to the point that many people in the region have completely forgotten the very taste of stability and security. Iraq was destroyed and is now facing the likelihood of partition and division. Syria today more closely resembles Berlin after the Second World War in terms of the extent of the destruction and displacement that has been visited on its population. Libya is drowning in destructive wars following the proliferation of arms and militias on the ground. Yemen is reeling from the advance of the Houthis and their control of key state institutes. Lebanon has suffered one setback after another and is beset by fears of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) advancement. The list goes on.

Therefore nobody in the region today feels safe or reassured in the face of what is happening and the long chain of unending wars and terrorist attacks that we are witnessing. Even when one fire is put out, another is quickly ignited in another part of the Middle East and quickly spreads from state to state.

There are major concerns over the fate of Egypt. The fear is that Egypt is the next target in this unending chain of regional crises which aim to weaken states. When a terrorist attack takes place, the main aim is to weaken the state, if not to completely topple it. This is because these terrorist attacks target a state’s stability, weakening its economy and security and shaking public confidence in its institutions. Egypt may have successfully dealt with terrorist threats before, but this new wave of terrorism is coming at a time when the domestic situation in Egypt is completely different, not to mention the situation in the region.

The large number of soldiers who have been killed, and the nature of the battlefield in the Sinai Peninsula, confirms that Egypt’s war against terrorism will be a long, arduous and hard-fought campaign. These terrorists hope to repeat the ISIS scenario in Egypt and establish an Islamic “emirate” in the Sinai Peninsula where they can attract support and fighters from all corners of the world. This is precisely what ISIS has been able to do in Iraq and Syria, or what the Taliban and Al-Qaeda managed to do, for a time, in Afghanistan. The Egyptian state is well aware of this threat, as can be seen in the defiant statement issued by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to the Egyptian people following the terrorist operation that cost the lives of 31 Egyptian soldiers. Sisi explicitly stated to the Egyptian public that this is a “huge” war and an existential battle.

Such long wars, of course, require patience and for the state to take action that not only directly affects the security side of things, but also other aspects such as pushing for domestic cohesion and uniting society behind the objective of throttling terrorism, targeting its financial resources and addressing its causes. We can read Sisi’s latest statements—in which he said that the war on terror must be a “comprehensive” effort that goes beyond the military aspect—as part of this objective. The Egyptian president said that this war on terrorism must be based on a holistic approach that also includes social and economic dimensions, particularly as there are well-known social and economic issues in the Sinai Peninsula that have accumulated after many years of neglect and this is also something that the people of Sinai have long complained of.

The Egyptian state is well aware of all this. Part of its strategy in this war on terror in the Sinai may well be to work to address the dissatisfaction felt by the people there and deal with the problems that the terrorists are using to convert this massive landmass into a hotbed of conflict and terrorism.

The problem is that some parties are continuing to talk about emptying the Sinai Peninsula of its inhabitants, albeit temporarily, in order to assist the Egyptian army in this battle against the terrorists that are present there. These calls ultimately do not serve Egypt’s war on terrorism, but will only serve to complicate the situation by angering the people of Sinai and inevitably helping the terrorists in their efforts to gain more recruits. So Egypt must seek to win over the people, not alienate them. What happened in Fallujah in Iraq is an important lesson, as Baghdad lost the support of the people there who ultimately backed the terrorists against the state. Although there are many differences between Sinai and Fallujah, and the situation in Egypt and Iraq, this is still an important lesson that Cairo must understand.

There is another aspect of this war that requires careful consultation in order to ensure that the terrorists cannot exploit the Egyptian position. Here, I am talking about some of the actions taken by the state within the framework of addressing the Muslim Brotherhood’s plots and schemes and even with how it is seeking to confront and prevent terrorist operations. This has become the subject of controversy and criticism by some political and youth groups in Egypt that strongly backed the revolution and which nobody can say have any ties to the outlawed Brotherhood. For example, there is a lot of controversy surrounding Egypt’s anti-protest law, as well as the arrest and trial of a number of youth activists. This is not to mention criticism of security apparatus entering university campuses, the establishment of a “community police” force and some proposed amendments to Egypt’s anti-terror legislation which some fear could lead to restrictions on basic freedoms.

Those who love Egypt and wish it the best—and they are many—want to see it overcome the current challenges and recover its traditional position, because this is something that would serve the interests of the region as a whole. The most important gamble, and the biggest challenge, is for Egypt to win this war on terror without either losing Sinai or the battle for freedom and democracy.