Egypt: stirrings of Islamic radicalism?

President Hosni MubarakOver the past few days, Christian churches have been attacked in at least two countries — Nigeria and Egypt — while small packages
containing improvised explosive devices were placed on the doorsteps of
Christian families in Iraq. Attacks against Christians are not uncommon
in the Islamic world, driven by local issues and groups, and it is
unclear whether these latest attacks were simply coincidental and do not
raise the threat to a new level or whether they indicate the existence
of a new, coordinated, international initiative. There is a strong case
to be made for the idea that there is nothing new in all of this.

Yet I am struck by the close timing of events in three distant and
dispersed countries. Certainly, Egyptian intelligence services are
looking for any regional connections (e.g., whether Iraqi operatives
recruited the Egyptian bomber). While there have been previous bombings
in Egypt, they have focused on tourists, not churches. What is important
is this: If the recent attacks are not coincidental, then a coordinated
campaign is being conducted against Christian churches that spans at
least these countries. And it is a network that has evaded detection by
intelligence services.

Obviously, this is speculative. What is clear, however, is that the
attack on a church in one country — Egypt — is far from common and was
particularly destructive. Egypt has been relatively quiet in terms of
terrorism, and there have been few recent attacks on the large Coptic
Christian population. The Egyptian government has been effective in ruthlessly suppressing Islamist extremists and has been active in sharing intelligence on terrorism with American,
Israeli and other Muslim governments. Its intelligence apparatus has
been one of the mainstays of global efforts to limit terrorism as well
as keep Egypt’s domestic opposition in check.

Therefore, the attack in Egypt is significant for no other reason
than that it happened and represents a failure of Egyptian security.
While such failures are inevitable, what made this failure significant
was that it occurred in tight sequence with attacks on multiple
Christian targets in Iraq and Nigeria and after a threat al Qaeda made
last month against Egyptian Copts. This was a warning, which in my mind
increases the possibility of coordinated action, but the Egyptians
failed to block it.

Egypt’s Historical Significance

Egypt is the largest Arab country, with a population of about 80
million. Cairo is the historic center of Arab culture and served as the
engine shaping the Arab response to the collapse of the British and
French empires. Under Gamal Abdul Nasser, the political founder of the
Pan-Arab (as opposed to Pan-Islamic) movement, Egypt was a radical,
militarized engine in the region. When Egypt allied with the Soviet
Union in 1956, it redefined the geopolitics of the Mediterranean region.
When it switched alliances in the 1970s, geopolitics changed as well.
More than any other Arab country, Egypt matters. When it is assertive,
it frames regional politics. When it withdraws into itself, the region
becomes prey to outside forces, Islamic and otherwise.

That last major move made by Egypt was signing a peace agreement with
Israel in 1979 that demilitarized the Sinai Peninsula and removed the
strategic threat to Israel’s south. This in turn freed Israel to focus
its primary interests to the north and to develop its economy, leaving
Syria isolated and dependent on Iran. The consequences of the treaty were enormous and have defined the geopolitics of the region for a generation.

The death of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and the subsequent
elevation of Hosni Mubarak to the position led to a period in which
Egyptian national strategy was frozen into place. Egypt’s core
relationship was with the United States. It was secure on all external
fronts. However, as Sadat’s death showed, the treaty with Israel
generated resistance inside Egypt. Whereas the Egyptian regime derived
from a secular Arabist point of view, for which the peace with Israel
posed ideological but not theological problems, the opposition, built
around the Muslim Brotherhood, was Islamist and therefore opposed to the treaty on theological grounds.

The assassination of Sadat initiated a period of intense activity by
Egyptian security forces to destroy the assassins’ organization as well
as Islamist forces in the country that opposed the regime and the treaty
with Israel. A combination of ruthless intelligence and security
services, disorganization among the Islamists and deep divisions in
Egyptian society reduced the Islamist threat to the regime to a weak
political force and terrorism to a fairly rare occurrence.

It was this focus on internal security that froze Egyptian foreign
policy into place. First, the internal situation towered in significance
over foreign policy. Second, conducting a vigorous foreign policy in
the face of internal terrorism was dangerous, if not impossible. Third,
the fight against Islamic radicalism was an intelligence war, and Egypt
needed the intelligence cooperation of other countries, particularly the
United States and Israel. The internal threat not only froze Egypt’s
foreign policy but also contributed to social and economic inequality.

As a result, Egypt appeared — from the outside at least — to have
disappeared from history. News from Cairo galvanized the world from the
1950s to the 1970s, but by the 1980s, Egypt had ceased to be a player in
the region. Even after 2001, when all American allies were mobilized in
the war against militant Islam, Egypt’s role was to control its own
terrorist movement. It achieved that, which was an enormous benefit to
the United States. Had Egypt radicalized, it would have been a profound
strategic challenge to the United States. Far from radicalizing, Egypt
became the country neither the United States nor the Israelis had to
worry about.

Egypt’s Current Climate

Mubarak is old and, by some accounts, suffering from cancer. He had hoped to have his son Gamal replace him, but this has run into resistance from the political and military apparatus that supports him and that derives from the regime Nasser founded. The regime has the
support of some of the population, particularly government workers who
make their living from it. At the same time, there are secularists who
want to see a more liberal, business-oriented regime. The argument
against them has been the threat of the Islamist radicals, who had been
seen as a spent force.

That’s one reason the attack on a church in Egypt is important. The
argument that the Islamist threat has been dealt with is challenged by
the attack, and with it the argument that the continued focus on a
security state is archaic. Should there be follow-on attacks, Mubarak’s
policies become re-legitimized, and can be passed on to whoever follows
him as Egypt’s leader.

And this brings us to the heart of the matter. It is unclear what is
stirring beneath the surface of Egypt. Whatever it might be is by
necessity cautious. But radical Islamism has caught the imagination of
people in other Muslim and Arab countries, and it is unreasonable to
assume that it has passed Egypt by. Indeed, it was very much there until
Mubarak suppressed it, and it is unlikely to have gone away.

The most vulnerable time in Egypt is the period before Mubarak leaves the scene.
No firm new government will be in place, no dynamic leadership will be
provided. If the radical Islamists assert themselves now, they could
well draw down the wrath of the security services. In that case, they
would be no worse off than they were before. But if the impending
succession crisis divides an already sclerotic state, it might open the
door to a resurgence of radical Islamism.

Egypt’s Political Future

This, in turn, would introduce two possibilities. In one, Egypt
enters a period of internal strife and instability and the regime fails
to suppress the Islamists but the Islamists fail to take power. In the
other, a massive Islamist movement repudiates the Nasserite heritage and
establishes an Islamic republic in Egypt. There are many countervailing
forces to the second scenario, but it is not an impossible scenario in
the long run, even if instability is probably the most Islamists can
hope for. And there is, of course, a third scenario — an orderly

Let’s consider for a moment what an Islamist Egypt would mean. The
Mediterranean, which has been a strategically quiet region, would come
to life. The United States would have to reshape its strategy, and
Israel would have to refocus its strategic policy. Turkey’s renaissance would have to take seriously a new Islamic power in the Mediterranean.
Most important, an Islamist Egypt would give dramatic impetus to radical
Islam throughout the Arab world. One of the linchpins of American and
European policy in the region would be gone in a crucial part of the
world. The transformation of Egypt into an Islamist country would be the
single most significant event we could imagine in the Islamic world,
beyond an Iranian bomb.

If this were happening in most other countries, it would be a matter
of relative unimportance. But Egypt used to be the dominant Arab power,
and the last 20 years have been, in my view, an abnormal period.
Egyptian inwardness has been driven by an effective effort to repress
radical Islamists. It has taken all of the regime’s energy. But the
internal dynamic in Egypt is certainly changing as the succession
approaches, and the recent church attack was a rare failure of Egyptian
security. If such failures were to continue, it would be difficult to
predict the outcome.

For a country as important as Egypt, it is a matter to be taken
seriously. It is certainly not clear how significant the attack on the
church was, whether it is the beginning of something bigger. At this
point, however, anything out of the ordinary in Egypt must be taken
seriously, if for no other reason than because this is Egypt, Egypt
matters more than most countries, and Egypt is changing.

"Egypt and the Destruction of Churches: Strategic Implications is republished with permission of STRATFOR."


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