The rise of the Islamic State (IS) has helped President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime to justify its security-oriented policies to both the domestic and international audienceas a necessary part of the fight against terrorism. IS’s links to Egyptian groups remain very limited, yet Cairo has portrayed IS as part of the spectrum of Islamist groups, linking it to the Muslim Brotherhood that is allegedly now threatening the country. Ironically, however, the ongoing authoritarian crackdown that followed the 2013 Egyptian military intervention is itself fuelling new violent extremism. In this environment, IS could find fertile ground to expand its influence in Egypt.
Since the military intervention in 2013, General Sisi has presented the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, which, during its time in power, incited violent discord and prioritised the interests of the Brotherhood over those of the Egyptian nation. General Sisi has used this narrative to legitimise the army’s crackdown on the Brotherhood and to rally political support behind his policies. Citing the Islamist threat, the military regime has called for public patience on delayed political reforms, human rights failings, and the state’s inability to provide key basic goods.
In this context, the rise of IS has been seamlessly integrated into the existing regime narrative and has been seized upon as further proof of the necessity of the army’s crackdown against any form of opposition. The regime has highlighted the brutality of IS in Syria and Iraq to paint a morbid picture of Egypt’s likely course if the military had not intervened or if Islamists had been able to regain the upper hand.
The Sisi regime has ignored the fact that Egyptian opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have denounced IS and have clearly outlined a strategy for non-violentstruggle. The government has found ways to justify this omission in the statements of the opposition: just weeks before the military intervention against him, for example, President Mohammed Morsi appeared to back the idea of a religious jihad in Syria at a public gathering of hard-line clerics in Cairo. Even though IS had not yet been recognised as a significant player in Syria at the time, Egyptian authorities have since used the gathering to blur the lines between the Brotherhood and IS.
Repeated violent protests and a number of militant attacks blamed on Islamists are cited as evidence of the immediate dangers now facing the country. The threat posed by armed groups in the Sinai Peninsula has given support to this narrative, particularly given the recent pledge of allegiance to IS by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, an Islamist militant group active in the area. The group has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks on military forces that have resulted in over 100 deaths, including a number of beheadings that have appeared similar to those carried out by IS.
Sisi’s supporters frequently point to regional developments, including neighbouring Libya’s steady descent into a conflict in which Islamists play a prominent role, as a warning against the radicalisation gripping the Middle East. They say that this could have happened in Egypt too, if the military had not intervened.
However, Sisi and his supporters may be over-confident about the regime’s ability to contain internal radicalisation. Sisi has gained the support of much of the population. But his failure to address core political and economic demands and to accommodate the opposition into the military-dominated order, along with the increase in state repression, are also serving as powerful recruiting tools for hard-line groups that are ideologically close to IS. Some opposition activists who are angered by the new order and have little or no faith in the ability of the non-violent Islamist movement to direct change are turning to more violent measures. The country is already facing an increasing pernicious security environment, and IS could look to exploit this space through expanded links with groups such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis.
At the same time, as many as 300 Egyptians are alleged to have already joined IS in Syria, raising fears about the potential for blowback if and when they return to Egypt. The county was shocked by the recent example of Islam Yaken, an upper class Egyptian law graduate from Cairo, who joined IS in Syria – and fears have been raised about the future if more Egyptians travel to fight in Syria.
On the regional level, meanwhile, the rise of IS is providing Sisi with increased leverage. Prior to IS’s rise, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) already viewed Sisi as a critical lynchpin in their common struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood, given his willingness to confront the group. But the rise of IS, which is seen as a direct threat to the Gulf monarchies, has further strengthened Sisi’s hand, making Egypt an even more important ally in the fight against Islamic extremism. The country recently demonstrated this strengthened position in Libya, where it participated in military strikes against Islamists.
The Egyptian military’s controlled, anti-Islamist regime is seen as a crucial ally. Its standing army, larger than that of either Saudi or the UAE, and the influence of the Al-Azhar religious establishment over the Sunni world, are seen as potentially important tools in the regional struggle. Consequently, Sisi has been able to make greater demands and expect greater support from his Gulf allies, who have already been key to sustaining the ailing regime economically. This has happened despite the fact that Sisi has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the basis of their abilities to counter regional extremism, which runs contrary in particular to Riyadh’s strong position in favour of the Syrian opposition.
IS gains have also helped the Sisi regime deflect Western criticism of its domestic policies. The September 2014 meeting between Sisi and United States President Barack Obama, and Egypt’s inclusion in the anti-IS coalition, boosted Sisi’s international status. Also in September, the US said it would supply Egypt with ten Apache helicopters, suggesting a shared focus on counter-terrorism and a greater role for Egypt in Western-backed efforts in the region, whether in its own backyard or against IS and other extremist groups. Given the importance of the fight against IS, the West is likely to further relegate concerns about the Egyptian military regime’s crackdown on political space and human rights abuses to the back burner.
Abdallah Helmy is a Cairo-based political researcher
This piece is one of a series of 14 looking at the regional dimensions of the IS crisis
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.