After a long wait, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM)—a group active in northern Sinai—has moved from the stage of sympathizing with the Islamic State (IS) to being a part of the international organization. It has sworn allegiance to IS and changed its name to Wilayat Sinai. This is but one reflection of the growing radicalization among Egyptians, particularly Islamist youth.
The formal announcement of the pledge of allegiance was delayed—after ABM’s preacher prayed for IS during this year’s Eid al-Fitr prayers—because the group held a consultation between all jihadi factions in Sinai. While some of them objected to the pledge, given that they had already sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in the end they agreed to support IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, according to sources close to the group.*
This announcement of allegiance has intensified ABM’s confrontation with the Egyptian government and reflects the use of more aggressive methods to counter its crackdown in Sinai. ABM released subsequent statements saying it considers any individual in the army to be a target. These remarks coincide with an escalation in the year-and-a-half campaign waged by the Egyptian state to confront militants in northern Sinai, particularly following the October 24 attack on the Karm al-Qawadis checkpoint in Sheikh Zuweid, during which 28 Egyptian soldiers were killed in the bloodiest attack since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The state has evicted residents of Rafah and established a buffer zone on the border with Gaza. A three-month state of emergency has been imposed in the area and a curfew put in place from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Despite these intensified security measures and the ongoing military campaign, jihadi attacks continue. The Egyptian army’s popularity is declining daily in Sinai, which has aided the group’s support and helped it attract recruits amid an increasing number of civilian deaths. In a recent incident in Rafah, ten members of the same family were killed, including three children and three women.
A growing number Islamist youth, in light of the military’s crackdown on religious parties, are welcoming ABM’s pledge of allegiance to IS. For the first time, chants in support of the group were heard in Cairo’s demonstrations on Friday, November 21. Some protesters carried the black flag of IS and renounced peaceful means, something they had called for over the past year and a half, under the pretext that adopting a peaceful approach was a key reason the new regime is even more authoritarian than Hosni Mubarak’s.
The Salafi Front, which until yesterday was part of the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy (an Islamist political coalition that opposes Morsi’s ouster), organized the “Muslim Youth Uprising” protests that took place on Friday, November 28; demonstrators raised black flags in the Matriya district of Cairo. On the same day, ABM, to show support for the “Uprising,” carried out three attacks in Cairo, Qalyubiyah, and North Sinai that killed an army officer and three recruits and injured two officers and dozens of policemen. Some of the Brotherhood youth announced that they would participate in the “Uprising” as well, only to back out the night before to hold their own separate protests.
The following day, November 29, a judicial ruling was issued that acquitted Mubarak, his two sons, former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, and the latter’s aides of charges of killing protesters. This ruling heightened the anger these youth felt, pushing them further toward supporting a local affiliation for ISIS. Meanwhile, thousands of those who participated in and called for the January 25 Revolution languish inside prisons, and hundreds of others have been sentenced to death. Following the verdict, a number of youth—particularly from the Brotherhood—launched the hashtag campaign #ISIS_is_the_solution on Facebook and Twitter. This slogan played on “Islam is the solution,” a well-known slogan of the Brotherhood’s from the Mubarak era.
Rising support for IS in Sinai and elsewhere represents the small but growing conviction that the state’s violence can only be met with counter-violence. This gradual shift toward violence began with the breakup of the Rabia al-Adawiya sit-in in August 2013, which led to the death of as many as 1,000 people, according to Human Rights Watch. Some Brotherhood youth have since immersed themselves in the writings and ideology of Sayyid Qutb and shared his articles and writings on social networking sites. They now mock peaceful slogans they themselves had adopted in the past, such as “our peacefulness is stronger than bullets.” Some have also begun to express intent to join IS and participate in extending the caliphate so that Islamic conquerors can enter Egypt.
These days, the Brotherhood is split between those who call for an “Islamic Revolution” that entails allying with jihadis and focusing on Morsi’s return to power and those who support a “Popular Revolution” that entails allying with liberal movements and garnering the international community’s support for removing Sisi and his government. The Brotherhood’s recent statements about participation in the “Muslim Youth Uprising” illustrate these internal tensions. Party leaders—as well as leaders of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and other Islamic parties, such as al-Wasat and the Homeland Party (al-Watan)—declared they would not participate in the Salafi-organized protests and that demands and slogans must be unified among the various strata of Egyptian society.
While the Muslim Brotherhood still officially rejects violence as an approach, it has encouraged resisting the authorities and security services in “innovative ways” by cutting off roads, burning government buildings, and exhausting the regime economically and politically.* While many among the Brotherhood’s youth continue down the radicalization path, some of the group’s leaders are trying to position themselves as an alternative, a centrist force between the jihadis and the security services that can play a role down the road to placate both jihadis and liberals. In the meantime, many among the group’s leadership continue to promote the idea that allowing the Brotherhood to participate in a democratic process—despite the group’s mistakes during its experience in government—would have been better than the country sliding into this cycle of violence and counter-violence.*
As the government continues its repressive approach, there is a growing feeling among youth that they have lost their dreams of “freedom and human dignity” three years after the January 25 Revolution. More than 47,000 people languish in Egyptian prisons, according to a member of the Egyptian Coordination of Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), who said that 3,000 people were arrested just in the one week before the “Muslim Youth Uprising.”* It seems that real political dialogue is all but gone in Egypt amid the growing expansion of state oppression and the subsequent uptick in terrorist activity in response. An increasing number of Islamist youth and sympathizers are embracing violence. If the political landscape continues to retract and the Sisi government refuses to release detained youth, including Islamists, more trouble will follow, because Egyptian prisons are notorious as breeding grounds for extremism. Tensions in Egypt could evolve into more violence, making the country more susceptible to terrorist attacks.
Mostafa Hashem is an Egyptian journalist specializing in jihadi movements, political Islam, and youth issues.
This article was translated from Arabic.
* This article is the result of a series of interviews with jihadi and Salafi leaders, youth from the Muslim Brotherhood, liberal activists, and security experts.