Unrest in Egypt could provide room for violent Islamist groups to reemerge, although these groups face organizational challenges likely to prevent a repeat of the 1990s’ insurgencies.
A Salafi jihadi organization—self dubbed “the Salafi Jihadi Current”—has recently proclaimed ‘war’ on the Egyptian armed forces in support of Mohamed Morsi. Another Islamist group, Ansar al-Sharia, has declared that it is a duty for Egyptian Muslims to gather weapons and undergo military training to prepare for the next potential confrontation in Egypt. Despite such extreme declarations made by shadowy groups, it is unlikely that Egypt will witness a return to the violent insurgency that plagued the country in the 1990s.
The landscape of Egypt's militant and former militant organizations has evolved significantly since the 1990s. Thus, the continued presence of actors that were in the past involved in a protracted conflict with the state does not, in and of itself, provide an accurate prediction for the direction that Egypt could take. Tellingly, one of the movements that used to be at the forefront of the violent opposition to the regime in Egypt, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (“Islamic Group”), is in a fundamentally different situation today; it is highly unlikely that the group will use violence again in the near future.
Politically, the group currently leads the Construction and Development Party, which has proven its political maturity and moderation in its positions for the past two years. Building on their rejection of violence, which resulted from the group's ideological revisions of the past decade, leaders of the group have demonstrated their understanding of Egypt's political scene after the 2011 revolution. For example, not only did they condemn the call for violence from the supporters of Salafi devotee Hazem Abu Ismail after the latter's disqualification in last year's presidential elections, they also refused to lend him or Mohamed Morsi their political support at the time, preferring to back the more comprehensive platform of moderate candidate Aboul Fotouh.
Organizationally, the group is a mere shadow of its 1980s self, when it enjoyed large popularity across the country. Its limited popularity and strained resources today seriously hinders a repetition of the contentious relationship with the state that prevailed in the 1990s. Back then, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya’s popularity as a rebellious movement and the sympathy it enjoyed promoted it as an alternative to the authoritarian state and encouraged many youths from the lumpenproletariat to join it. In return, it facilitated a cycle of violence with the security services that neither its leadership in prison nor abroad desired at the time. The new generation of Egyptian militants has rejected al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya altogether—as confirmed by the leadership of the group, whose mufti, Sheikh Abd al-Akhr Hamad, acknowledges that it has failed to reach out to the new generation, whom he contends have been socialized by “Sheikh Google.” The group returning to its belligerent past is therefore highly improbable according to these new ideological, political, and organizational realities.
Likewise, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya’s main competitor in the 1990s, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, is in no better shape. While pundits have often pointed out the vehement preaching of some of its former leaders and members after the 2011 revolution, they have not always successfully presented an accurate understanding of the group or of its abilities to trigger an armed insurrection in present circumstances. In reality, the large majority of its members has rejected any use of violence after the revolution and has, for the most part, only been concerned about the murky future of the group and its political survival. Even if recent events prompt them to alter their views on the legitimacy of violence, their resources and networks are even weaker than al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya’s, and their pool of supporters is severely limited. Some Egyptian Islamic Jihad leaders, including Osama Qassem, Ali Farag, and Magdi Salem, recognize that they too have failed to forge the new generation of Egyptian militants. On account of weak networks, no popular support, and little resources, the Islamic Jihad does not have the ability to launch or sustain armed attacks.
Nevertheless, it is true that some of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad’s former leaders have been more vocal since 2011, symbolizing a threatening Salafi jihadi trend in Cairo, calling for jihad and waving al-Qaeda flags. In doing so, they have managed to attract many young Salafi jihadi militants. However, despite the hardline positions of some of its leaders, the Salafi jihadi current becoming the next insurgency in Egypt remains at best a remote prospect for several reasons. Most importantly, internal theological and personal divisions have plagued this movement since its emergence. The shared creed of its members, for instance on the rejection of democracy and the political process, has not sufficed to overcome ongoing rifts for the past two years. For example, the multiple cases of mutual excommunication cases among the group’s sympathizers epitomizes the nature of this current and illustrates its internal failure to unite its members or create inclusive networks and structures that would allow for the group’s further development.
In the absence of a structured organization or developed networks, the Salafi jihadi trend in Egypt is consequently likely to stay under the radar and await further developments. Many of its members already have made their presence discreet. During the ongoing crisis, they are likely to use the military coup to propagate their message among sympathizing Salafis and denounce what they see as illusory hopes of implementing Islamic law through engagement with the democratic process.
Under the current circumstances, an insurrection led by a well-organized armed group is therefore highly unlikely. However, the absence of structured militant organizations does not exclude the sporadic use of armed violence, which could set off a new violent confrontation. The clashes that have been witnessed since the military coup could unleash an uncontrolled spiral of violence. In similar circumstances in the past, the use of force by various actors led to cycles of violence that progressively legitimized the use of armed violence against political opponents. This further led to the emergence of ‘entrepreneurs’ of violence who fueled and proliferated the conflict.
The current chaotic situation could also allow Islamist militants—who are more prone to adopting violent views even if they have not used violence until now—to promote their own agendas and use their antipathy toward the army as a possible justification to target the armed forces with violent attacks. Some members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad have already expressed their anger, a few months ago, at Mohamed Morsi for his failure to prosecute well-known officers of the security services who were complicit in the use of torture against their members. A deterioration of the security situation could provide a cover to settle old scores.
Finally, the opposition or the army could arrive at the view that they have a blank check from the population to suppress Islamist movements and exclude them from the political process; this development alone could trigger a violent reaction among Islamist supporters who fear potentially facing the same repression they experienced under past regimes.
Jerome Drevon is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Durham University. The article is based on interviews with members of radical groups in Egypt.