16 June 2015

Egypt’s new Pharaoh


Last week a suicide bomber killed himself in a failed attack at the Temple of Karnak in the Egyptian city of Luxor. A day later the attack was claimed by a group claiming to be part of the Islamic State movement, the same group that claimed responsibility for a rocket attack the previous week in Egyptian-controlled North Sinai. In the same week there was a gun attack at the Pyramids of Giza to the south of Cairo.

Egypt is a security state. Since the army staged what was effectively a coup two years ago, the Egyptian president Field Marshal Abdul Fatah al-Sisi has staked his regime on his ability to bring stability back to a country that has been in political turmoil and economic free-fall since the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring. The Egyptian army has immense power and al-Sisi is in undisputed command of it – yet once again, there is terror on the streets. Is Egypt slipping back to the dark days of the Islamist insurgency of the 1990s?

Luxor is a symbolic target. The massive complex of temples at Karnak is one of the most visited of the many thousands of sites that still attract tourists to Egypt, and any attack there has an immediate impact on Egypt’s tourist trade. It was at Luxor that in 1997 the Islamist group Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya staged its bloodiest attack, the massacre of 62 people, mainly tourists, at the Temple of Hatshepsut in the Valley of the Kings, just over the river from the scene of last week’s suicide bombing. In the annals of Egyptian Islamism, government is as oppressive as the Pharaonic state that ruled from Luxor three millennia ago.

The symbolism goes further. One of the last acts of President al-Sisi’s doomed civilian predecessor was to appoint as governor of Luxor a crony with affiliations to Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the group which had massacred so many in the city. It was the moment when the Egyptian army decided that the elected Islamist government had to go. By attacking Luxor last week, the underground forces of violent Islamism are saying ‘we are back.’

Do these attacks matter in the larger scheme of things? They certainly matter to the Egyptian economy. Although the tourism business has been shrinking since 2007, it still accounts for 14% of Egypt’s GDP. There may be other economic impacts too; in the last year the al-Sisi government has managed to attract a lot of new investment to Egypt, with growth now running at about 5% compared to around 1% before the army took over. The stock market has been booming too, all thanks to growing confidence that the al-Sisi government is capable of maintaining a stable Egypt.

The Egyptian economy is largely Egypt’s business. A resurgence of Islamist terrorism in Egypt is another matter. On that score what happens in Egypt is everyone’s business. What happens in Egypt permeates the Middle East, and beyond.

Egypt always has been and remains a store of ideology in the Middle East. Islamism has its roots in Egypt, its earliest modern formulations being the work of the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, executed by the Nasser regime in 1966. It is sometimes forgotten that while Saudis played a large role in the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the Saudis only provided the money and the muscle. The ideas came from Egypt.

Osama bin Laden’s mentors, for example, were Egyptian. His second-in-command was the Egyptian surgeon Ayman al-Zawahiri, while his organiser and military chief was the Egyptian Mohammad Atef. Earlier still, bin Laden’s inspiration while at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah was the Palestine-born but Egypt-educated Abdullah Azzam, a follower of Sayyid Qutb. Egyptians have frequently provided the brains and the organising capability of jihadism, drawing on lessons learned under the repression of successive Egyptian governments.

And when it comes to repression, the government of Field Marshal al-Sisi is proving itself energetic. Arrests by the security forces – not just the police, but also the Ministry of the Interior and the General Intelligence Service – are not infrequently followed by disappearances, or worse. Torture in detention is routine. A Facebook page run by human rights activists in Egypt currently lists over 160 people who have ‘disappeared’ since April this year. Increasingly the arrests are carried out by men in civilian clothes whose only identification is their guns.

Some of this is very familiar to Egyptians. The previous military government of President Hosni Mubarak conducted a ruthless security war against Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya during the 1990s, detaining many hundreds of suspects not just from the Islamist underground, but also followers of the more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood political movement and others who were merely critical of the government. What is less familiar is the almost random quality of the present security crackdown. It is enough to walk past a demonstration or a police station at the wrong moment for a person not to return home, ever.

The force behind these events is the most powerful army in the Middle East. The Egyptian army is unique – it has not only dominated politics ever since a coup in 1952, it also dominates many other aspects of Egyptian society. The army (or rather the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which includes the air force and navy) runs what is effectively a parallel economy in Egypt, complete with its own infrastructure. For example, the army effectively controls the Suez Canal Authority, owns much of the vast industrial zone associated with it and is playing the leading role in re-developing the zone, as well as acting as contractor in many of the largest construction and industrial projects in Egypt. Today, no large contract is signed without a uniformed okay.

After the confusion and incompetence of the year-long government of Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who was dismissed by the army in 2013 and who is now under sentence of death, President al-Sisi has presented himself to Egyptians as a pious saviour of the country. His gamble is that Egyptians will accept untrammeled army control of the economy and an unrestrained security state in return for growth and predictability.

That of course is always the dictator’s equation, everywhere. All that history tells us is that the equation works, until it stops working. To opponents, al-Sisi is the new Pharaoh, the oppressive figurehead of the super-state, a concept that Egypt introduced to the world. But today Egypt is the most populous, the most urbanised, and the most educated country in the Middle East. Will the new iron-fisted Pharaoh in uniform keep the lid on this fractious society? And if so, at what cost?

Richard Walker is a journalist and communications advisor to financial companies.