Sinai attack shows Sisi has lost control

Sinai attack shows Sisi has lost control
Comment: Sisi's reign of terror against those who seek justice has created an ideal incubator for radical violent ideologies such as that of the Islamic State group, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
29 Nov, 2017
The Rawdah mosque in the immediate aftermath of the attack [AFP]
The massacre at al-Rawdah mosque in the Northern Sinai by the local IS franchise, named Wilayat Sinai, is indescribably tragic - but unfortunately of no great surprise. Or, at least, it ought not to be.

Since the Sisi regime overthrew not just the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi - of the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) - but democracy itself in Egypt, the Sinai peninsula has gone from being already unstable to an outright warzone. 

Parts of the peninsula are no longer controlled by the Sisi regime, but rather have fallen under the control of IS. 

The very presence of IS in the Sinai and Egypt emerged only after Sisi seized power. While the Sisi regime adeptly exploits every instance of terror on Egyptian soil to shore up the veneer of cognitive dissonant propaganda that he is what stands between an Egypt of "chaos" and an Egypt of "stability", the reality is that the chaos is already here: Sisi is the main cause of it.

To fully grasp this point, if it isn't already obvious, one must conceive of the roots of the rise of IS, not just in the Sinai but across all of Egypt, in two inter-related ways. First, there's the general repression unleashed by Sisi. The goal was the absolute destruction of Egypt's nascent democracy, which emerged out of the January 25 revolution. In practice, this means the seemingly endless repression of the main agents of that democratic transition, and all other forces that support democracy or simply show dissent against Sisi's counter-revolutionary order. 

Acts of state terror by Sisi, such as the Rabaa and Nadha massacres, in which at least 817 civilians were murdered in one day, put blood into the air, so to speak. But one must understand that while the FJP represented a democratic form of Islamism, one that believed in peaceful incrementalism in carrying out its political agenda, the violent repression unleashed by Sisi against them has fundamentally subverted this logic among what might be called the "base" of Islamism. 
It's not just a physical turf war between these two groups, but a battle over minds

There's no doubt that, in response to Sisi's violence, violent Islamist ideologies - including that of IS - have gained ground in Egypt. This can be most evidently viewed inside Egypt's prisons, which are stacked with activists imprisoned for supporting Morsi or democracy in general, and where sometimes literal battles have broken out between Brotherhood members and supporters of the IS brand of violent Salafi-jihadism. 
Sisi's crackdown on opposition has seen thousands
swept up in mass arrests [Click to enlarge]

It's not just a physical turf war between these two groups, but a battle over minds - one can, in this context, understand why violent approaches to such an uncompromisingly brutal enemy as Sisi might gain ground. 

IS' message is pernicious, but it has a logic - Islamism tried to adapt to democracy, but it ended up being violently smashed; thus, violence must be met with violence. 

Second, there's the response unleashed by Sisi to the problems in the Sinai. The Sinai has long been neglected by consecutive Egyptian leaders, stretching back decades.  With the security vacuum in the wake of the January 25 revolution, long-ignored Sinai Bedouin tribes began an uprising.

Though Morsi was working towards a political solution to address the root causes of the uprising, such as unemployment, discrimination against Bedouins in the military and government jobs, as well as a general lack of development, the focus of the Egyptian state was on a failed military solution.
Special coverage: Police state Egypt

With Morsi's overthrow, and the beginning of Sisi's reign of terror, the uprising turned into a full-on insurgency that became hegemonised by IS. Sisi pursued a more ferocious policy towards the Sinai, intensifying airstrikes on civilian areas and carrying out a host of brutal attacks in the name of "counter-terrorism" - including extra-judicial executions. 

Far from preventing terror, Sisi's tactics have not only boosted it, but created a cycle of violence. Sisi's selling point to the world is that he's on the front line against "Islamic terror" - but it's a front line that he has created.  Since his power grab, IS, far from being depleted, has been able to launch extremely effective attacks on the Egyptian military, killing hundreds of soldiers and security personnel.

But the main victims, as ever, have been innocent civilians.  Since he stole power, the president field marshal has watched as IS has reached well beyond the Sinai into the Delta and Nile Valley. There have been numerous attacks on Christians and tourists, while passenger planes have been blown out of the sky. 

The attack on al-Rawdah mosque is yet another clear sign that the Sisi regime has lost control of the Sinai and cannot guarantee the safety of the civilian population. And this is where one must be nuanced - it is a necessity to oppose the self-defeating terror of the Sisi regime, while also understanding that IS pose a very real threat to all Egyptians, whether Muslim or Christian or neither.

Much has been made of the fact that the attack on al-Rawdah was against a Sufi gathering, but this is quite misleading. Not misleading in the sense that IS' hatred of Sufism wasn't the primary factor in the attack, which it certainly was, but that Sufism is so fundamentally attached to Egyptian Islam that it effectively means no one is safe.
The attack on al-Rawdah was thus an attack on Egyptian culture itself

While official statistics have the number of Sufis in Egypt at 20 percent of the population, this merely measures members of Sufi tariqas (paths), without considering that many Egyptian Muslims take part in Sufi rituals and practices without formal membership of a Sufi order. 

The attack on al-Rawdah was thus an attack on Egyptian culture itself, with its hundreds if not thousands of mawlids every year, celebrating the life of Sufi saints, and with its syncretic popular Islam that fuses historic Egyptian identity with an Islamic identity. 

IS despises all of this and poses a real threat to it - they have openly proclaimed their desire to eradicate Sufism from the Sinai, where it once dominated but is now only found in pockets, and only last year beheaded a local Sufi sheikh on the charge of sihr (witchcraft). 

As with its attacks on Christians, the attack is against the pluralism of Egyptian culture and society - this is supposed to be what Sisi protects. Instead, he is overseeing its destruction. His reign of terror against proponents of democracy and those who seek justice in Egypt - those who might tackle the root causes of the Sinai insurgency - has birthed a monster in the form of Wilayat Sinai. 

In many ways, it's a perfect monster for Sisi. A civilian population driven by real fear is precisely what tyrants like him rely on to maintain power, while the international community accepts and bolsters his tyranny in the name of the "war on terror".

It's of no surprise that the Sisi regime's first response to the attack has been to carry out more airstrikes - thus the vicious cycle continues.

But Sisi and the military and civilian kleptocrats who keep him in power will never be the direct victims of this cycle of violence - the victims will be normal Egyptians seeking to celebrate Mawlid an-Nabawi or Christmas or anything else deemed shirk (idolatry) or bid'ah (heresy). 

One can only hope that the Egyptian people break out of the chains of fear and propaganda that keep Sisi in power and thus allow forces like IS to prosper.  

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.