Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s victory in Egypt’s presidential election will deal yet another blow to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose once formidable political machine has been in shambles since the Egyptian military ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last July. Although Sisi has effectively been running the country since the coup he initiated as commander of the Egyptian Armed Forces, the election — extended into a third day of voting amid low turnout — will undoubtedly formalize an authoritarian regime that is a military dictatorship in all but name.
On its face, the election represents a clear victory for secular authoritarianism over moderate Islamism. After all, Sisi campaigned on a platform of annihilating the Brotherhood. Although the military will claim victory, however, the election may have another, less obvious beneficiary: militant Islamist groups. From al Qaeda’s perspective, the election results have validated its core ideological claim that violence — rather than peaceful participation in politics — is the only way to build an Islamic state.
The evident failure of the Brotherhood’s political strategy presents al Qaeda and like-minded groups with an opportunity to reverse the setbacks they suffered as a result of the Arab Spring protests in 2011. The success of those protests, which were overwhelmingly peaceful and nonideological, appeared to refute the jihadist claim that change can be achieved only through violence. But since then, the overthrow of a democratically elected Islamist president in Egypt, the criminalization of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the arbitrary detention of thousands of its members have played directly into the hands of extremists.
For one, in the immediate aftermath of the July coup, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s Egyptian-born head, and other jihadist leaders were able to blame the Brotherhood’s downfall on its abandonment of violence in favor of political participation. Jihadists could likewise point to the military’s brutal crackdown on pro-Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo on August 14, in which over 500 people were killed. Rather than tamp down on radicalization, the military’s heavy-handedness has created perverse incentives for it, as Islamist Egyptians — alienated from political processes — become more inclined to take up arms. In recent weeks, pro-Brotherhood protesters have been accused of rioting, vandalism, and torching police vehicles. Meanwhile, a number of new jihadist groups have carried out a wave of armed attacks and suicide bombings outside the Sinai Peninsula, and are increasingly threatening urban areas far west of the Suez Canal.
In this context, al Qaeda will likely exploit Sisi’s imminent victory to further discredit moderate Islamists and recruit new followers from among the ranks of disenchanted Brotherhood supporters. In the absence of any guidance from leaders who are either in prison or in hiding, members of the Brotherhood may become increasingly sympathetic to militant groups, which offer one of the only remaining avenues for resistance to a military regime that is rapidly consolidating its control over politics, the economy, and the media.
In a sign that al Qaeda might be ramping up its outreach efforts in Egypt, a few weeks before the election, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri made a rare expression of solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood. In an audio interview released on jihadi forums on April 26, he condemned the military’s violent crackdown on the Brotherhood, asserting that its members “have the right to use force against the injustice they face.” In a separate video message released on May 3, al-Zawahiri said that the return of military rule in Egypt is “a full-fledged crime” that demands resistance.
Zawahiri has routinely expressed his support for jihadist groups in Egypt — as he did in a January 24 audio message that acknowledged “our people in the Sinai” — but only rarely for the Muslim Brotherhood. Although al Qaeda and the Brotherhood share a common objective — building an Islamic state — they diverge sharply when it comes to strategy: the former promotes militant jihad while the latter has pursued peaceful political participation in democratic processes that include secular as well as non-Islamist parties. Zawahiri himself was once a member of the Brotherhood but later parted ways with the group over its decision to renounce violence.
In the years since, al Qaeda has consistently criticized the Brotherhood’s democratic inclinations and willingness to cooperate and bargain with non-Islamist political forces, including Hosni Mubarak’s former ruling party. After Islamist parties won big gains in Egypt’s legislative elections in 2005 and Palestine’s in 2006, al Qaeda and other radical groups were displeased. Zawahiri himself denounced Egypt’s Brotherhood for “lur[ing] thousands of young Muslim men into lines for elections … instead of into the lines of jihad.” That criticism continued after 2011. After Morsi’s election, Zawahiri repeatedly questioned the president’s commitment to Islamic law and criticized the 2013 constitution, which was drafted by a Brotherhood-dominated committee, for being insufficiently Islamic.
RAGE COMES TO CAIRO
From al Qaeda’s perspective, Sisi’s rise to power represents the failure of moderate political Islam even more than the victory of secular authoritarianism. That leaves thousands of disillusioned Brotherhood supporters susceptible to recruitment by more radical groups.
The radicalizing effects of military rule were apparent long before Sisi declared his presidential ambitions. In the absence of inclusive democratic institutions, violence is rapidly replacing politics as the only means of challenging the status quo. Recently, Egypt has seen a dramatic increase in domestic terrorism, with well over 300 documented attacks and at least two new jihadist organizations formed since July 2013. On May 23, unidentified militants bombed a natural gas pipeline in North Sinai for the 23rd time since the 2011 uprising. The vast majority of this violence has been attributed to homegrown jihadist groups such as the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based group that first emerged in 2011 and is now estimated to have between 700 and 1,000 members. These emerging jihadist networks may draw ideological inspiration from al Qaeda but do not appear to have formal ties to the group.
Although Egypt has a long history of terrorism, the latest wave of violence is unique for several reasons: the geographical range and operational sophistication of the attacks, the transnational nature of the violence, and the radicalization of Islamist as well as non-Islamist groups.
First, Egyptian jihadist groups that were once confined to the Sinai Peninsula are demonstrating unprecedented geographical range, carrying out armed attacks in densely populated areas of the Nile Delta and Cairo itself, including the attempted assassination of the interior minister last September, followed by the deadlybombing of state security headquarters in Mansoura in December. In addition to this broadened geographical scope, recent terrorist attacks are marked by unprecedented sophistication in both weaponry and tactics. For example, in early September 2013, extremists fired on cargo ships in the Suez Canal using rocket-propelled grenades. In late January, Islamists in Sinai successfully downed a military helicopter using a shoulder-fired missile — apparently the first time that such advanced weapons have been deployed in the area. Car bombs, which until recently had never been used in Egypt, are now becoming commonplace, inviting comparisons to Iraq. Advanced weaponry will only become more prevalent in Egypt as illegally trafficked arms stream across the border from an increasingly unstable Libya.
Second, the current wave of violence is also much more transnational than the domestic terrorism of the 1990s. The Egyptian government claims to have arrested a number of foreign fighters in Sinai, including Syrians and Palestinians. Meanwhile, the flow of hundreds of Egyptian jihadists into Syria suggests that Egypt is not only an importer of global terrorism but an exporter as well. Increasingly, al Qaeda–affiliated groups across North Africa are referencing Egypt in their propaganda. For example, Somalia’s al Shabaab explicitly blamed the Brotherhood for Sisi’s takeover and started using the Twitter hashtag “#MBWakeup” on July 4, urging Brotherhood supporters to “remove those rose-tinted spectacles and see the world as accurately as it is” and instructing them that “change comes by the bullet alone; NOT the ballot.”
The third distinctive feature of the current wave of violence is the fact that Islamists are not the only perpetrators. Antigovernment youth groups that have anarchist tendencies but no explicit religious identity, such as Walaa’ (the Arabic word for “burn”), have claimed responsibility for recent attacks against police and military targets. The rise of militant groups representing a range of ideologies suggests that opponents of military rule — whether Islamist or secular — are looking to violence as the only means of challenging a regime that is rapidly closing off avenues for political competition.
ON THE WATCH
There is little concrete evidence that al Qaeda is directly involved in the current surge of violence. But whether the group has a physical presence in Egypt or not, it is clear that its leaders are watching the country with great interest. Al Qaeda wants to see the Brotherhood fail at politics –something that would validate Zawahiri’s core strategic and ideological claims.
As an Egyptian by birth and the brother of the leader of the Egypt’s militant Salafi Jihad movement, Zawahiri has a personal stake in the country and has often commented on its politics and foreign policy. During the 2011 uprising, he denounced Mubarak’s regime while stressing that jihad, not democracy, was the only way to implement sharia. Most recently, Zawahiri has described the coup that ousted Morsi as “the greatest proof of the failure of taking the democratic path to reach power in Islam” and attributed the Brotherhood’s downfall to its misguided renunciation of jihad and “appeasement” of secular forces.
Al Qaeda’s claims have a growing appeal in Egypt, not only to jihadist groups that are already engaged in violence but also to previously moderate Islamists and Brotherhood supporters who are radicalizing in response to state repression. With the Brotherhood incapacitated by arrests, asset freezes, and the revocation of its legal status, its members see little incentive to reenter a political process in which they will not be permitted to participate freely.
Sisi’s victory is likely to perpetuate a vicious cycle of violence and retaliation between the military and the Islamists, in which each side uses the other’s supposedly unprovoked aggression as a pretext for escalation. In Sinai, the military has raised the stakes by cooperating with Israel to launch drone strikes, while Islamist insurgent groups have deployed surface-to-air missiles for the first time. Ultimately, the Egyptian government’s decision to officially designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as more of its members resort to violence as the only remaining outlet for opposition to the regime.
This article was originally published by Foreign Affairs.