January 26, 2014 — A New Player Emerging In Egypt’s Political Turmoil?

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Last weekend, large crowds once again filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Saturday to mark the third anniversary of the protests that toppled longtime dictator President Hosni Mubarak. Just three short years ago, most of Egypt’s long-suffering people mobilized in open revolt against a corrupt, ineffective and often brutal regime.

Then, the eyes of the world were closely focused on Egypt, mesmerized specifically by the satellite television images emanating from Tahrir. Literally millions of Egyptians had gathered in the plaza and surrounding streets of the capital of the very center of the Arab world to demand Mubarak’s resignation. As they marched through the streets or stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the square in front of the Mogamma, the aging stone monolith that has stood for decades as a symbol of Egypt’s dysfunctional bureaucracy, the crowds often shouted at Mubarak in unison, “Irhal!” (leave!).

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Some demonstrators chanted the old Nasser-era mantra of “dignity, bread and social justice.” Those gathered in Tahrir in those heady days faced down a cordon of black-clad riot police stationed along the crowd’s perimeter or repeated attacks by gangs of thugs hired by the ruling National Democratic Party. All too briefly, the various groups set aside their sharp ideological, religious and social differences to unify and demand not only a change in leadership, but also a change in the way Egypt was ruled.

For 18 days, the largest crowds the nation had ever seen gathered in Cairo, Alexandria, Assuit, Minya, Suez, Ismailiya and elsewhere, chanting anti-government slogans, beating drums and pots, waving banners, enduring cold temperatures and fatigue — all under the watchful eyes of uniformed Egyptian soldiers manning tanks and armored personnel carriers. Always fearful that the Army would intervene to save Mubarak, demonstrators surrounded many of the units. Many of the protesters climbed aboard the tanks, hugging the men in uniform, trying to reassure the soldiers and themselves that the people and the Army were one.

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The atmosphere in Tahrir those days was simultaneously charged with excitement, fear and hope, as the pulsating crowds, many of them young Egyptians, reveled in their newfound defiance. It is an iconic scene that even the most stalwart activists could not have even dreamed of a few months or years before, as the seemingly benign, but plodding and brutal regime of Mubarak had managed to survive a series of isolated political protests during its nearly 30 years in power.

Indeed, Egyptians seemed to be seizing upon the Nobel Peace Prize-winning speech made in Cairo only two years earlier by U. S. President Barack Obama to move forward toward greater freedom and democracy.

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Finally, the stubborn, 81-year-old Mubarak was forced to resign, pushed out by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which promised to cede power and guide Egypt down the path toward full democracy. Mubarak, who had flown to his personal residence in Sharm-el-Shiekh on the Red Sea, was later arrested with his sons, Gamal and Alaa, on charges of corruption. He would later stand trial, be found guilty and was subsequently imprisoned for his involvement in the deadly state-sponsored violence that attempted to break the back of the demonstrations in Tahrir.

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Mubarak took the verdict lying down — literally being carried into the courtroom defendants’ cell in his pajamas on a stretcher, sunglasses shielding his eyes, owing to his failing health. It was as stark an image of his fall from grace as was the haggard appearance years before of a disheveled and bearded Saddam Hussein standing in the dock in an Iraqi courtroom.

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Memories of those magical days seemed very distant amid a political atmosphere that has never been more polarized in Egypt’s modern history. Euphoria, hope and optimism have been replaced by cynicism, frustration and fear. Egyptians have voted in elections for parliament and elected Islamist Mohamed Morsi as president in the first free and fair elections the nation ever held. A year later, the nation revolted against the heavy-handed, incompetent rule of Morsi and the ruling Moslem Brotherhood, compelling the Army to intervene, once again. The nondescript constitutional court judge, Adly Mansour, was tapped as the interim president to jump-start Egypt’s stalled democratic transition, but he is a gray-haired figurehead.

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Since Morsi’s fall, Defense Minister General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has called the shots. Ironically, al-Sisi was handpicked by Morsi to lead the military after he forced the septuagenarian Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi to resign shortly after taking office.

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Younger than Tantawi by more than 20 years, al-Sisi stood apart from the faceless grandfathers at the helm of Egypt’s military. His well-known religious piety, as well as the fact that his wife wears the higab, were seen as obvious factors in Morsi’s decision to promote al-Sisi.

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Despite a smiling face, Egypt’s de facto leader has ruled the country in much the same manner as his predecessors — with an iron fist. Nevertheless, al-Sisi is widely popular for sacking Morsi and the Brothers. He has quickly developed his own personality cult, suddenly elevating himself to the pantheon of national heroes, where his image is often depicted on banners and posters flanked by former President Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Al-Sisi has made no secret of his intention to remain in charge after fulfilling his constitutional obligation to discard his Army uniform and enter the upcoming presidential elections as a civilian. He will be the prohibitive favorite.

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Much has happened since al-Sisi seized power. The ironies are even more striking when one views them in sharp relief from the first days of the January 25th Revolution.

Mubarak’s conviction was overturned. The aging deposed leader is out of prison, but remains in custody at the Maadi Military Hospital. Meanwhile, it is Morsi who is behind bars. Egypt’s first democratically-elected president is on trial for the death of scores of demonstrators during protests shortly before his own ouster and faces trial on several other charges. All of these alleged crimes carry the death penalty. However, Morsi and his Moslem Brothers have not been singled out by the new regime.

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Many of the secular activists of the April 6th movement, who took first to the Internet and then to the streets to organize the protests that overthrew both Mubarak and Morsi, are in prison or detained, facing trial for continuing their criticism of the transitional government. The ever-expanding dragnet has nabbed college professors, filmmakers and journalists, who demonstrated the temerity to question or satirize the humorless men now running Egypt.

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The Moslem Brotherhood has once more been outlawed, its leadership either in prison or in hiding, its assets frozen. Membership in the group is now a crime. But the group still stages public protests against Morsi’s ouster. This despite the government’s bloody crackdown against two encampments on the streets of Cairo and Giza, the Rabaa al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda mosques, respectively, by some estimates slaughtering anywhere from 600 to 2,500 people, most of them Morsi supporters, including women and children. None of the security forces in those bloody assaults have been charged with a crime, just as only a handful of police have faced prosecution for abusing, torturing or killing any of the demonstrators who took to Tahrir three years ago.

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The Brotherhood, despite formally renouncing terrorism decades ago, has been officially labeled by the government as a terrorist group. Largely discredited, even among its supporters during its year of misrule, the Brotherhood retains a significant core of popular support in an increasingly conservative society.

Yet on the eve of the Second Revolution’s third anniversary, it was the shadowy Islamist guerrilla group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which has captured the headlines. Ansar militants, who opposed the military coup, had been focusing most of their attacks on government outposts in Egypt’s barren, empty Sinai Peninsula, but they surprised almost everyone by launching their most audacious and deadly attack to date on the streets of the capital.

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Militants detonated a remote-controlled car bomb in front of the downtown headquarters of the national police in Cairo, killing at least six and wounding more than 100 others. It’s the type of attack that one would normally associate with Beirut, Baghdad or Damascus, but one never seen before in Cairo. Three other bombing attacks took place on Friday in Cairo, but none as powerful or as deadly as the one that rocked residents to their feet that morning.

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On Friday, the Islamist militants struck again, setting off another bomb at a camp of the feared General Security Force (GSF), the government’s large paramilitary group, in the city of Suez, killing 16 people. Armed gunmen made six bold raids on shopping districts and metro stops throughout the day in Cairo and elsewhere. The next day, the group produced a video to support their claim that they shutdown an Egyptian Army helicopter in the Sinai with a surface-to-air missile.

Now Egyptians hold their breath. Many wonder what has happened to their revolution. There are additional concerns on how their military-run government will respond after being publicly embarrassed by a coordinated attack that devastated a bedrock institution of the “Deep State” in the very heart of the capital. Who will the government strike, and where? How will Ansar Beit al-Maqdis respond in a bloody tit-for-tat?

The Ansar’s stronghold is the northern Sinai, a sparsely-populated, lawless scrubland, which has already become a vast free-fire zone. The government has been unable to locate their training bases there in past Army sweeps. Will the regime settle for arresting, detaining and torturing a few thousand more “suspects” without charge? Egypt’s prisons are already bursting at the seams. Will any crackdown eliminate political opposition or, perhaps more importantly, kick-start Egypt’s tottering economy? The harsh reality is that simmering public discontent and a growing insurgency can’t be conveniently locked in a prison cell, no matter how large.

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What seems clear is that the security apparatus will strike back. Targets will be produced upon demand — either legitimate or imaginary — and Egyptians will be the worse for it. The peaceful, non-violent phase of Egypt’s Second Revolution appears emphatically over. The nation has already witnessed unparalleled political bloodletting and there seems little hope of avoiding even more.

Egypt 2011 tourism revenues seen down by a third

Meanwhile, Egypt’s troubled economy, which has always tottered on the brink of collapse, continues to reel. Millions of tourists still find the lure of the Pyramids and the Sphinx irresistible, but many more are staying away from these wonders of the Ancient world, as well as the world-class Red Sea resorts, like Sharm El-Shiekh and Hurghada. The country’s main foreign exchange earner, tourism, has nosedived amid three years of political upheaval. Tourism revenues for 2013 were officially $5.9 billion, less than half of what they were before the start of the Revolution. Foreign exchange reserves have also been more than halved from the $36 billion they stood at in January 2011.

Needed foreign investment has dried up. Factory production has yet to recover from pre-Revolutionary output. Were it not for the reported $20 billion cash infusion last summer from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Egypt’s economy would probably have collapsed. The funds have spurred a domestic building boom, which may be short-lived. The Gulfies have warned Cairo’s rulers that even their deep pockets are not bottomless.

I have never been more pessimistic about Egypt’s future than I am now, on this third anniversary of the thrice-hijacked Second Revolution.

Perhaps most sobering is the historical tendency of Egypt’s leaders to double-down.

There appears to be a deep-seated proclivity to compound the impact of one bad decision by making another.

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This pattern can be seen right down through the years — from the effete King Farouk, who fiddled in his palace while a massive fire roared through Cairo. Then there was the charismatic Nasser, who played and lost the game of brinksmanship in military confrontations with Israel. The egomaniacal Sadat launched a fateful crackdown against his opponents, just weeks before he was assassinated. He never lived to see the peace dividends of the Camp David treaty that he had promised his countrymen.

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A media darling in the West and an uncompromising autocrat at home, Sadat was succeeded by Mubarak, the man who sat beside him on the reviewing stand on the Autostrade during that fateful October day in 1981. Dull, plodding and tone-deaf, Mubarak spent 30 years trying to avoid taking any major risks — until they were too little, too late to save himself from the Tahrir tsunami.

And then there was the clueless Morsi, who mistakenly thought his razor-thin electoral victory in the presidential run-off entitled him and the Brothers to the dictatorial powers of his predecessors. Now Egypt is speeding along toward the electoral “coronation” of its latest pharaoh, the ambitious al-Sisi. A budding narcissist, al-Sisi brims with the self-confidence of a man who thinks he alone has the solution to all of Egypt’s myriad of problems. Inshallah.

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Bad leadership is a large part of the failure to find solutions to Egypt’s many problems. However, the traditional obedience of the downtrodden Egyptian people is equally complicit. Since the time of the pharaohs, Egyptians have been conditioned from birth to worship their leaders, regardless of results, only to march in lock step, time after time, toward the next national disaster. So much so that, in the modern era, dissent has been criminalized in Egypt. Free expression has been bludgeoned and propaganda has been elevated in the place of debate. The space for the fledgling civil society to even exist, let alone operate, has become ever smaller.

Too many of us were naïve enough to believe that that pattern had finally been broken three years ago. We allowed ourselves to believe that the reactionary forces holding Egypt back were in full retreat. Sadly, what we have witnessed since is that old habits are hard to break as Egypt returns to its default position, only this time far more blood will be spilled to maintain the status quo. And for those who love Egypt, like me, they realize that to love this fascinating land and its people is to embrace the heartache of dreams perpetually crushed.

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Even today’s events mirrored Egypt’s divisions. Only pro-Sisi demonstrators were allowed into Tahrir Square to voice their well-rehearsed slogans pledging loyalty to the general, a man who is not yet officially their leader. Protest marches by Islamist, nationalist and secular opposition groups in Cairo and elsewhere were brutally put down by uniformed and plainclothes state security forces. The beefed-up presence on Egypt’s streets this weekend gave the lie to President Mansour’s unflinching public statement on Thursday that Egypt was no longer a police state.

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A more visible presence by police, the GSF paramilitaries and the Army will not be enough to guarantee security. They, themselves, cannot secure their own safety. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis detonated another car bombing at a GSF camp in Suez. The repeated use of car bombs, which had never been seen in Egypt before Morsi’s ouster and the massacre of Brotherhood supporters last August, is a major tactical escalation in the insurgency.

Some of my friends in Egypt have joined the regime’s chorus of blaming the Brotherhood for this weekend’s spectacular attack. They do not buy the Brothers’ denunciation of the attacks or their public rejection of violence to achieve their political aims. I think that those who continue to conveniently scapegoat the Brotherhood might be missing an important point — namely, the emergence of another, far more dangerous player in Egypt’s political and social turmoil: Ansar Beit al-Maqdis.

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The origins of this group and the source of its funding remain sketchy, but the proclaimed affiliate of al-Qaeda might be al-Qaeda itself. There is an important distinction. This might not be a loosely-organized al-Qaeda franchise on some far-flung battlefield in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen or even Syria. This might be the genuine article that has somehow managed to transplant itself on Egyptian soil just in time to take advantage of the nation’s spiraling crisis. Let it not be forgotten that Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man and successor is Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the erstwhile Egyptian physician-turned-fanatic, who merged the outlawed Jihad movement with al-Qaeda several years ago.

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Strong circumstantial evidence might be in this week’s bombing attacks and in the fact that, before this weekend, a succession of Egyptian jihadi groups, including the Brotherhood, al-Jihad and al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, had never managed to pull off anything approaching the sophistication of the attack on the central police headquarters in Cairo. It doesn’t make sense.

How could the Brotherhood manage to go from decades of armed incompetence and paramilitary inactivity to meticulously planning, coordinating and executing a remote-controlled car bomb that devastated the protected national police headquarters in the heart of downtown Cairo? Look at the photos. You will see that the massive force of the blast blew out every window in the modern, eight-story structure, damaging large sections of the concrete façade, collapsing the roof and some of the internal walls. Even the venerated Museum of Islamic Art across the street sustained heavy damage. The images are reminiscent of the aftermath of the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, or countless bomb blasts in Iraq and Lebanon.

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What seems abundantly clear is that “amateur hour” is over. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, it appears, has a cadre of highly-skilled, professional extremists, who can strike into the very heart of Egypt’s “Deep State,” or the wealthier redoubts of the nation’s political elite and expatriate community.

Not much is known of the specific political agenda of this group, which was largely unknown before Morsi’s ouster. Ansar rejects the coup of the fellow Islamists, but they are not known to have direct ties to the now-banned Brotherhood. But relations between groups in the Sinai and the rest of Egypt have always been distant and strained, owing to the unique Sinai culture and the remote location of the territory away from the rest of the country, as well as the 15 years that the territory was occupied by Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis is reportedly comprised of small units of disgruntled Bedouin tribesmen in the Sinai, a tight-knit society resentful of the decades of abject neglect, mistreatment and discrimination by the government since Egypt resumed full control of the Sinai in 1982. Government efforts to economically develop the Sinai have focused on the resorts and beaches of the southern part of the peninsula — projects said to have benefited Mubarak and the regime’s crony businessmen to the virtual exclusion of the relatively more populated north. Adding to the decades of mistrust are the heavy-handed tactics employed by clumsy government conventional forces in operations to brutally root out the insurgents. This has only further embittered the local populace, which remains sympathetic to their own.

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Repeated attempts by Cairo to reduce the illicit trade through the Sinai to tunnels to Hamas-run Gaza have put them in direct confrontation with the Bedouin communities, who have relied heavily on the lucrative trade of consumer goods to the impoverished and blockaded Strip. The Sinai has essentially functioned as Gaza’s garage.

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With the fall of Qadhafi’s regime in neighboring Libya and the fall of army garrisons there, the flow of weapons across Egypt’s borders has made the Sinai a convenient trans-shipment point for arms. Some of those arms have fallen into the hands of expanding criminal gangs in Cairo and other Egyptian cities and towns. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has also obtained their share of these weapons and has turned them on Egyptian troops. They’ve also managed to fire random shells on Israel’s resort city of Eilat.

Don’t ask me to believe the fiction that the Brothers could pull this off. To their credit, past Islamist groups have scored successes in attacks against the state, the most famous being Jihad’s assassination of Sadat in 1981. And during the height of al-Gama’a’s campaign against the Mubarak regime, scores of so-called “Afghan Arabs,” battle-hardened veterans of the jihadi war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, returned to fight the Mubarak regime. Although they managed a few high-profile attacks on soft targets, such as luxury hotels in Cairo and a failed assassination attempt on the reviled interior minister, Hassan al-Alfi, al-Gama’a never constituted a serious threat to the regime.

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Gama’a fighters had little more than rudimentary infantry skills in Afghanistan. Most were viewed by Afghan rebels as a nuisance and ineffective in actual battle. Once they had returned to Egypt, the Afghan Arabs were unable to execute coordinated or sophisticated attacks on state institutions. The government’s scorched Earth tactics flushed the guerrillas out of their small pockets in Upper Egypt, as well as their presence in a few urban areas.

Within a few years, most of the Gama’a mujahudeen were either imprisoned or dead. When they formally ended the armed struggle with a press release, they had no choice and nothing to show for their sacrifice. When the movement was allowed to register as a political party and competed in the 2011 parliamentary elections, their meager electoral showing revealed the Gama’a as a spent force.

So far, that’s the opposite case with Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and the newest generation of Islamist insurgents. Mercenaries from across the Arab world learned sophisticated skills, such as manufacturing IEDs (improvised explosive devices), which inflicted repeated loses on U. S. and coalition forces that occupied Iraq and Afghanistan. They learned advanced battlefield tactics and intelligence gathering, especially in urban environments. They are a far more formidable foe for government security forces, as we have seen, in Egypt and elsewhere.

In some respects, Ansar has already achieved some gains. In recent months, the group’s attacks and presence has forced isolated government institutions, such as local courts, to relocate from the peninsula back across the Suez Canal to Ismailiya. They have repeatedly sabotages pipelines carrying gas to Israel, as well as recently skirmished with Israeli units along the border.

Last fall, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis struck twice in Cairo. In September, narrowly missed assassinating Egypt’s Interior Minister, Mohamed Ibrahim Moustafa, in a coordinated, brazen daytime attack. In November, the group claimed responsibility for the murder of Mohamed Mabrouk, the security officer involved with the trial of deposed President Morsi. Mabrouk was killed outside his Nasr City home.

Last month, the group bombed a police compound in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura, killing 16 people, including 14 officers.

Whether they are Egyptian or foreign-born jihadis, who learned their trade fighting the U. S. in Afghanistan or Iraq doesn’t really matter. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has loudly announced its presence and they are likely to be part of the Egyptian political landscape for the foreseeable future. Each attack, and subsequent government retaliation, will likely draw the group fresh recruits.

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Ansar Beit al-Maqdis are a quantum leap above any insurgent group Egypt has seen before. They are hard to find and even more difficult to strike at. Al-Sisi’s impending political “coronation” isn’t likely to change this situation any time soon.

Most analysts long ago concluded that Egypt was not Tunisia or Libya, but few ever thought that the streets of Cairo would resemble the shattered cityscapes of war-ravaged Beirut, Baghdad or Damascus.

Let us pray that Egypt’s leaders don’t delude themselves that they can obliterate any movement through force alone. Egypt cannot return to 1954, as some of its leaders tend to think, when Nasser outlawed the Moslem Brotherhood for the first time. The policy failed then and will continue to fail until an accommodation can be reached. A genuine political solution is Egypt’s only chance to avoid a much deeper social and economic crisis and spiraling into civil war.

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