Image credit: Alexander Velez-Green / CNAS

August 08, 2017

From Reform to Revolution

A Schism in the Muslim Brotherhood and the Rise of Homegrown Jihadism in Mainland Egypt

By Alexander Velez-Green

A New Phase in U.S.–Egyptian Relations

The United States has long looked to Egypt as a key partner in the Middle East. Egypt’s adherence to the Camp David Accords is fundamental to Israeli security. Cairo has also been a key player in the Israeli–Palestinian peace process for many years. In addition, the Egyptian state has played an essential role in supporting the U.S. fight against global jihadism. Its provision of reliable access to the Suez Canal, Egyptian airspace, and intelligence sharing directly enables U.S. operations against al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) across the Middle East. That is not to mention the blood and treasure that Egypt itself has spent to defeat terrorist groups operating in the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere.

President Donald J. Trump has stated his desire to forge a “great bond” between the United States and Egypt.

President Donald J. Trump has stated his desire to forge a “great bond” between the United States and Egypt.1 As part of this effort, Trump has emphasized that his administration will not seek to impose Western values on other nations.2 This promise signals a break from past U.S. administrations, which pressed former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and then President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to adopt democratic reforms. President Trump has also committed the United States to fully supporting Cairo’s fight against Islamic extremism.3 This assistance will be critical as Egypt faces its own serious terrorist threats.

U.S. President Donald Trump met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the White House on April 3, 2017. Both leaders committed to strengthening U.S.–Egyptian relations. (Getty Images)

The Egyptian terrorism landscape is shifting in disturbing ways. Egypt is confronting ISIS affiliate Wilayat Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula. At the same time, the Egyptian mainland faces a growing threat from homegrown jihadism. This threat, driven by the ongoing fracturing of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is often overlooked by international observers. The Egyptian state has a long history of fighting Salafi jihadists, like the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. But mainland-based, non-Salafi jihadists are innovating in ways designed to exploit Egypt’s traditional, force-centric counterterrorism model. If they succeed, it would deal a severe blow to U.S. counterterrorism efforts regionwide. 

It will take a more balanced approach for Sisi’s administration to defeat homegrown jihadists in the Egyptian mainland. Specifically, Cairo must stay the course on economic liberalization, reform Egypt’s security sector in order to minimize collateral radicalization, and take steps to discredit violent actors’ revolutionary Islamist agenda. While the United States must respect Egypt’s sovereignty, it can – and should – do much to facilitate Egyptian efforts along each of these vectors. To do otherwise would be to risk Egypt’s descent into greater instability and the erosion of one of America’s key allies in the fight against global jihadism.

Terrorism Is on the Rise in Egypt

Terrorism has been on the rise in Egypt since 2013. Nearly 800 people died in attacks in 2015, most of them members of Egypt’s security forces.4 Some of those attacks were of particularly high visibility. The downing of Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 fastened the international community’s attention on Egypt in October 2015. The world’s eyes shifted back to Egypt once more after blasts killed dozens at Coptic churches in December 2016 and April 2017. 

The road ahead will not be any easier. ISIS and al Qaeda are both active. The Sinai Peninsula–based insurgent group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) joined ranks with ISIS and changed its name to Wilayat Sinai in November 2014. Wilayat Sinai has proven difficult to defeat due to its combat effectiveness and, according to some analysts, local backlash against the government’s scorched-earth tactics.5 The group has killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police since its formation and, in early 2016, staged a series of attacks against U.S. troops stationed in the Sinai.6 In addition, Mokhtar Awad reported that ISIS-affiliated cells emerged in Greater Cairo in late 2015. These cells have thus far carried out only small-scale attacks with minimal fatalities. Nonetheless, their emergence signals that ISIS is seeking a foothold in mainland Egypt and may direct additional resources there in the future.7

St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai is one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world. Wilayat Sinai attacked a checkpoint near the monastery on April 18, 2017, killing a police officer and wounding four others. (Berthold Werner/Wikimedia Commons)

Al Qaeda has also set its sights on Egypt. Al Qaeda loyalist – and former ABM operations commander – Hisham Ashmawy announced the formation of al-Mourabitoun in July 2015. The group is based in Libya, but Ashmawy is looking eastward and is believed to have sleeper cells in Egypt.8 Another group, Ajnad Misr, also has close ties with al Qaeda but is not formally affiliated with the global jihadist organization. Ajnad Misr staged a series of high-profile attacks in mainland Egypt in 2014, then quieted after its leader was killed in 2015. However, its early successes highlighted opportunities for other jihadists to carry out attacks in mainland Egypt.9

ISIS, al Qaeda, and affiliated groups will likely threaten Egypt for the foreseeable future, although the precise contours of that threat remain difficult to pin down. How Wilayat Sinai will react if ISIS collapses in Syria and Iraq is an open question. It is equally difficult to say what will happen to the many hundreds of Egyptians fighting for ISIS in Syria if the so-called caliphate implodes. On the other hand, even though al Qaeda’s footprint in Egypt is smaller than ISIS’s to begin with, the organization has shown a remarkable ability to co-opt or capitalize on local insurgency movements. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s exploitation of the Syrian uprising to create a new al Qaeda foothold in the Levant testifies to this reality. Egypt is by no means home to the levels of instability presently seen in Syria or Iraq. Nonetheless, the co-optation model’s prospects are likely to grow if security in mainland Egypt continues to deteriorate. 

The Egyptian mainland faces a novel jihadi threat. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has fractured as a result of Mohamed Morsi’s failure of governance and heightened state repression of Egyptian Islamists. This has left a growing number of Egypt’s Islamists and their allies vulnerable to radicalization – a vulnerability that is compounded by Egypt’s weakened economy and that is being exploited by a series of new homegrown, non-Salafi jihadists.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Its Allies Under Siege

Homegrown jihadism is on the rise in the Egyptian mainland. This trend is tied directly to the ongoing fracturing of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is the nation’s largest Islamist organization with supporters numbering in the hundreds of thousands or millions, according to different estimates.10 The conditions enabling today’s patterns of violence materialized shortly after the January 25 Revolution. 

A Failure of Governance

The Arab Spring reached Egypt in January 2011. The subsequent uprising – known as the January 25 Revolution – forced then–Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign his position on February 11, 2011. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed control of the government following Mubarak’s departure. It soon called for a new round of presidential elections. At this time, Mohamed Morsi was a senior Brotherhood leader and the chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, a political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood ultimately chose Morsi as its candidate for the presidency. Two rounds of elections were held in May and June 2012. Egypt’s election commission declared Mohamed Morsi president on June 24, 2012.

Morsi supporters celebrate in the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, following his election in June 2012. Morsi’s rule was short-lived, however. His failure of governance set the Brotherhood on a path to division. (Alexander Velez-Green)

Morsi’s tenure was punctuated by controversy. Majoritarian rule, executive overreach, and a failure to provide security and critical economic relief led to a popular outcry for his removal.11 The SCAF, led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, then Egypt’s Minister of Defense, removed Morsi from office on July 3, 2013. 

The failure of Morsi’s government seriously damaged the Muslim Brotherhood’s reputation. Many of Egypt’s Islamists and sympathetic onlookers attributed this failure to bureaucratic obstruction. They claimed that the Egyptian government was packed with SCAF allies determined not to let Morsi succeed. Still others saw Morsi’s failure as evidence that the Brotherhood had not acted aggressively enough to shut out or cripple the Egyptian “deep state,” or the military elites working far from the public eye to maintain the status quo in the country.12 Morsi’s failure was the beginning of the end of the Muslim Brotherhood as a unified organization.




The Egyptian State Acts to Restore Order

The Muslim Brotherhood’s unraveling accelerated after Morsi’s ouster. Beginning in July 2013, the Egyptian government took steps to reestablish public order. It focused first on clearing protestors, most of them nonviolent, from the streets.13 Officials turned their attention next to limiting the opposition’s – particularly the Brotherhood and its allies’ – ability to organize, voice dissent, and obstruct the path to stability. Cairo uses a broad definition of “terrorism” to classify this wide array of dissidents as terrorists, thereby legalizing the use of coercive measures – from detainment to death sentences – to silence them.14

The human costs have been significant. Security forces have killed well over 1,000 Egyptian civilians, primarily Islamists, in the mainland since 2013.15 Egyptians often refer to the Rabaa massacre as evidence of state brutality. On August 14, 2013, security forces killed at least 800 nonviolent protestors while clearing a protest outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo.16 President Sisi’s administration has also used violence to deter unauthorized public gatherings, making even nonviolent protests a dangerous business.17 In addition, tens of thousands of Egyptians have been detained, charged, or sentenced. Mass trials of civilians arrested on charges of unauthorized protesting, the use of political violence, terrorism, or membership in banned groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, are common. Once in prison, detainees have been tortured. Alleged sexual assault against female detainees has further ignited public outrage. There is also a reported problem of forced disappearances.18

The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies protested Morsi’s deposal outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo. Security forces dispersed the protest on August 14, 2013, killing at least 800 nonviolent protestors. The Rabaa massacre fueled many Islamists’ hatred of Sisi’s government. (H. Elrasam for Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons)

This force-centric approach to restoring order has consequential strategic shortcomings as well. The Egyptian state’s repression of Islamists has exacerbated tensions between reformists and revolutionaries within the Muslim Brotherhood. The resulting fissures are being exploited by homegrown jihadists to the detriment of Egyptian national security.

The Obama Administration’s Response to Morsi’s Deposal and the Rabaa Massacre

The Obama administration responded to Egyptian human rights violations by suspending significant military aid to Egypt in October 2013. The U.S. government conditioned the resumption of aid on the Sisi government’s “credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections.”19 President Sisi was formally elected president in May 2014 with a reported 96 percent of the popular vote.20 President Obama ultimately restored U.S. military aid to Egypt in March 2015 in response to the rise of ISIS.21 In a break from the past, however, the Obama administration announced that, beginning in FY 2018, U.S. foreign military financing grants to Egypt may be used only to buy equipment specifically for counterterrorism, border security, Sinai security, and maritime security missions, in addition to maintaining equipment that Egypt already has. Past U.S. military aid to Egypt included a large number of conventional military assets – such as F-16 fighter jets and M1A1 tanks – that are significantly less relevant to counterterrorism and related missions.22

The Muslim Brotherhood Fractured

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is undergoing a period of dramatic transformation. This transformation is a response to Morsi’s failure of governance. It is also – to a greater extent – driven by President Sisi’s ongoing crackdown on the organization. As this transformation unfolds, the Brotherhood’s adherence to a path of reform has deteriorated significantly. A growing number of its members are calling for the use of violence to resist the current government in Cairo.

Incremental Reform versus Violent Revolution

The Egyptian government designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization in late 2013, thereby denying it any sanctioned role in Egypt’s political sphere. It ranks the group as the ideological root of today’s terrorist threat. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said as much in March 2016:

In fact, the extremism and radicalism which serve as the lifeblood of today’s terrorist groups is based directly on Brotherhood thinkers and ideologues that are still venerated and closely adhered to by the organization, such as Sayyid Qutb. To put it simply, the threat of terrorism as we see it today owes its existence to the Muslim Brotherhood [italics in original].23

There is some truth to this. Sayyid Qutb – a radical ideologue who inspired later generations of Salafi jihadists – was an influential figure in the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s. And some Qutbists do remain in the organization.24 But the Muslim Brotherhood stood for nonviolent, incremental reform from Supreme Guide Omar al-Tilmisani’s tenure in the 1970s until 2013. That is not to say that the Brotherhood denounced violence solely or even primarily on ideological grounds: strategic considerations were likely the driving factor. It is to say, however, that the Brotherhood abandoned revolution as its preferred method of change. That is, the organization no longer looked to overthrow existing power structures. Nor did it endorse collapsing the entire political system. The group chose instead to pursue incremental reform and effectively endorsed the system as such. The Muslim Brotherhood opted to work within the system – by the vote, not violence – rather than topple it altogether. But that is all changing now.

President Sisi named the Muslim Brotherhood a top threat to Egyptian national security. His crackdown on the organization has inadvertently inspired a new strain of homegrown jihadism. (State Information Service)

A Return to Violence?

The Muslim Brotherhood is fracturing. Growing segments of the Brotherhood’s base reject the old guard’s strategy of nonviolent incrementalism. That base – made up of increasingly angry youth – views Morsi’s failed presidency as proof that incrementalism cannot yield the needed political change.26 Furthermore, the youth resent old-guard appeals for nonviolence when they – to a greater extent than their elders – are the ones targeted by the state’s anti-Brotherhood campaign.27 Hence, many of the Brotherhood youth now favor violent revolution instead of nonviolent, incremental reform.28 They argue for Islamists to disrupt and take over the system or, in some cases, destroy it altogether and rebuild it per an Islamist model.29

Members of the Brotherhood’s base may not be alone in their calls for a return to violence. Evidence suggests that a group of senior Brotherhood leaders led by Mohamed Kamal broke from the traditional old guard shortly after Morsi was deposed. Kamal, now deceased, and his associates allegedly enacted “special committees” in late 2013 and early 2014. These so-called committees were authorized to destroy state infrastructure targets but not to kill.30 These groups, in turn, were followed by organizations like the Popular Resistance Movement (PRM) and Revolutionary Punishment (RP) in 2014 and 2015.31 PRM and RP expanded the use of force to target security personnel as well as state infrastructure. Some analysts argue that RP and its contemporaries were “rogue” operations that were either inspired by or split off from the original committees. Others are skeptical of these claims. No evidence has surfaced to date showing that these groups took direction from Brotherhood officials.32

This schism within the Muslim Brotherhood – between proponents of violent resistance and more stalwart reformists – has taken on an ideological character as well. Proviolence members of the Brotherhood’s old guard reportedly met with a group of Islamic scholars in 2015. They sought the scholars’ agreement to reinterpret existing Brotherhood religious precepts in a way that allowed for the use of violence against the Egyptian state. The result was The Jurisprudence of Popular Resistance to the Coup. The text was written in strictly non-Salafi terms in order to appeal to a broader Islamist audience. It did not name Sisi and his cadre as “apostates,” a practice that is endorsed by al Qaeda, ISIS, and other Salafi jihadists but that is alienating to the majority of Egyptian Islamists. Instead, it labeled them “seditionists” who have, from an Islamic jurisprudential standpoint, rejected Egypt’s rightful ruler. The text found that Islamists could therefore use violence against Egyptian security forces and government officials as a legitimate form of self-defense.

Hassm and RB characterize their attacks as forms of “revolutionary action,” or religiously sanctioned acts of self-defense.

This religious finding has been used to justify the use of force by other Egyptian homegrown jihadist organizations, such as Hassm and Revolution’s Brigade (RB). These groups were established in 2016.35 As with PRM and RP, their relationship with the Brotherhood command structure is uncertain. What is clear is that Hassm and RB are more sophisticated than their predecessors. They have targeted state officials and facilities using well planned assassinations, ambushes, and bombings, including by vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. Hassm and RB justify their actions using rhetoric similar to that found in The Jurisprudence of Popular Resistance to the Coup. They do not justify their actions as a form of jihad. Nor, even, do they consider their use of force as “violence” per se. Rather, they characterize their attacks as forms of “revolutionary action,” or religiously sanctioned acts of self-defense. This justification resonates far more reliably with disaffected Islamists than do outright calls by Salafi jihadists for jihad against an “apostate” regime.

Homegrown Jihadism in the Egyptian Mainland

Non-Salafi actors like Hassm, RB, and their successors are the vanguard of a new jihadist movement in mainland Egypt. These organizations operate as insurgents, using a variety of tactics and appeals to attract recruits, to broaden their bases of support, and to prosecute their terror campaigns against the Egyptian state. These groups are increasingly sophisticated and well organized. The Egyptian state has thus far been able to contain the threat they pose. But terrorist activity at the heart of mainland Egypt has a disproportionately destabilizing effect on the nation’s psyche. As these groups’ operational methods improve, their ability to outmaneuver security forces and destabilize the Egyptian state may increase as well. 

That potential is only amplified by these actors’ recruitment strategy. By virtue of the “democratization of information,” these jihadist organizations can connect with more Egyptians than ever before. And they know what to say. As previously mentioned, actors like Hassm and RB avoid being labeled as “jihadi” organizations, a position that can alienate Egyptian Islamists. Instead, they channel rhetoric from The Jurisprudence of Popular Resistance to the Coup, framing their actions as a legitimate form of self-defense.

Egyptian Islamists and allies raise the four-fingered symbol of Rabaa in solidarity with victims of the 2013 massacre. Homegrown jihadists capitalize on government repression to recruit new members. (H. Elrasam for Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons)

At the same time, they focus on validating disaffected Islamists’ belief that incrementalism can no longer – if it ever could – bring Cairo to address their grievances. They mobilize resistance against Sisi’s government not on the basis of jihadi ideas but in response to the administration’s heavy-handed suppression of protests, use of torture, sexual assault in prisons, and other violations of Egyptian Islamists’ dignity.36 Inasmuch as most Egyptian Islamists reject Salafi jihadism in ideological terms, this alternative justification for violence may find increasing purchase within Egyptian Islamist society. Extremist groups are also likely aware of the radicalizing effects of repression by the Egyptian state. They may expect violent acts to trigger strong responses by Egypt’s security forces, which often inadvertently harm innocent Egyptians, thereby feeding grievances and creating new targets for radicalization.

These groups thus seek to earn the trust and reliance of Egypt’s Islamists and their allies. To be sure, the ability of group’s like Hassm, RB, and their predecessors to carry out large-scale terror campaigns has proven limited to date. But as these groups become more sophisticated and better organized – and as their relationships with Islamist and sympathetic audiences expand – their ability to call more openly for jihad in Egypt may grow. In the meantime, they intend to continuously destabilize the Egyptian state – feeding the cycle of violence seen thus far – such that, as their capabilities mature, the state will be continuously more vulnerable to terror campaigns. 

Importantly, however, those campaigns may not be led by homegrown organizations alone. Al Qaeda has demonstrated its ability to co-opt local opposition movements – including movements initiated by non-Salafi actors – to serve its own global jihadist agenda. And it is watching the shifting terrorism landscape in mainland Egypt with interest. Indeed, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) al-Masra magazine featured an account of Hassm’s activities in Egypt in January 2017.37 If al Qaeda is able to persuade local jihadists that it can help them to achieve their revolutionary aims – especially by providing crucial paramilitary training, advising, and assistance – the threat to the Egyptian state will rise substantially. And that threat will only grow if the ongoing cycle of violence continues to a point where al Qaeda–affiliated groups can credibly portray themselves as protectors of the people – a mantle that Egypt’s homegrown jihadist organizations are already working to uphold.

The “Democratization of Information” and Terrorism in Egypt

The “democratization of information” has put cell phones, e-mail, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of connectivity in the hands of thousands of Egyptians. That proliferation is likely to accelerate as the technologies cheapen and Internet access expands. This information technology facilitates both radicalization and organization.

The isolating effects of “echo chambers” is already widely discussed in the United States.38 These chambers promote polarization to the detriment of moderate and thoughtful engagement. The democratization of information creates and expands echo chambers by connecting like-minded Egyptians, who might never have otherwise met, over broad geographic expanses. It is too expensive for many to travel far, and the Egyptian government has effectively prevented dissidents from publicly gathering. But these impediments are now easier than ever to overcome. The cyber domain has become a place of safe haven for jihadi recruiters and their targets.

At the same time, information technology has substantially facilitated the planning and execution of street movements in recent years.39 That is not to say that technology alone is either sufficient or necessary. But it often acts as an accelerant. Applied in Egypt, the democratization of information will likely continue to open new populations to exploitation by jihadi actors. This, combined with these actors’ own diversifying messages, means that more and more Egyptians are at risk for radicalization. It means as well that jihadi actors will find it easier to organize more sophisticated action and inspire lone wolves.40

The Economy Isn't Helping

The Egyptian homegrown jihadi threat is escalating against a weakened economic backdrop. A large number of Egyptians are unable to reliably feed their families. More still have only a limited chance to find growth, fulfillment, or dignity through work. These economic realities compound the threat posed by mainland-based terrorists.

Egypt’s Weakened Economy

Egypt’s difficult economic situation is evident in the numbers. The Egyptian economy has grown at or above 4 percent since 2014. This is a substantial improvement from a growth rate near 2 percent in 2011–2014.41 But substantial portions of Egypt’s population are not benefiting from this growth. 

As of mid-2016, the latest official data showed that 27.8 percent of all Egyptians lived in poverty.42 At the same time, overall unemployment was 12.5 percent, as compared with 9 percent in 2010, and overall youth unemployment was at least 30 percent.43 The youth unemployment rate may be particularly difficult to improve given recent increases in Egypt’s population growth rate.44 That makes for an especially frightening prospect, with young, unemployed men considered by many to be likely potential targets for jihadi recruitment.45

At the same time, credit remains basically inaccessible for most Egyptians, rendering entrepreneurship a nonstarter.46 And the prices of food, fuel, and other essentials have risen concurrently over the past several years. This has made it very difficult for poor and lower middle-class Egyptians to feed their families.47

Economic Reform Is a Must

Egypt’s weak economy fuels popular grievances that may be exploited by homegrown jihadists. President Sisi recognizes that more Egyptians may become vulnerable to radicalization the longer the nation’s economy struggles. But his administration has had difficulty stabilizing the economy. 

Cairo has long subsidized the cost of food and fuel for its cash-strapped citizens. However, the costs of subsidies have risen with the prices of food and fuel.48 This has placed a tremendous strain on government resources that have been made scarce by public corruption, lackluster competition in private industry, and a collapsed tourism industry.49 Foreign direct investment, primarily by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since 2013, has helped Egypt to support the economy despite scarce revenue. But Egypt’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has proven volatile. Saudi Arabia cut aid to Egypt in late 2016 after Cairo voiced support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad – a client of Saudi Arabia’s chief rival, Iran. Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman apparently healed the rift in early 2017, and aid has resumed.50 But the episode highlighted that Egypt’s dependency on Gulf aid makes it vulnerable to economic coercion, which, in turn, can undermine Egypt’s economic recovery. 

At the height of the Cairo–Riyadh tensions, Egypt sought help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which approved a $12 billion loan in November 2016.51 The loan – in addition to at least $6 billion already raised by Cairo from other sources – gives Sisi’s administration the breathing room it needs to implement other, much needed economic reforms. Such reforms include allowing the Egyptian currency to trade freely, reducing energy subsidies, and introducing a value-added tax. These changes are designed to help Cairo attract the scale and diversity of foreign investment needed for sustainable economic growth. That growth, in turn, will help to improve Egyptians’ livelihoods, enhance the Sisi government’s popular legitimacy, and stabilize the political environment.

An Uncertain Future for Reform

Sisi’s reform agenda may have already begun to stabilize Egypt’s economy. Pursuant to the IMF agreement, Cairo has allowed the Egyptian pound to float, reduced subsidies, and introduced new taxes. As a result, foreign investors are showing higher confidence in the Egyptian economy.52 But the nation is still early in the reform process. There are reasons for concern that Egyptian economic reform will stall or that, even if it continues, changes will not occur quickly enough to allay public discontent. 

Egypt’s government has historically been reluctant to reform its economy. While reforms are being made, they may be driven more by desperation than by a genuine belief in their necessity. If that is true, President Sisi’s administration may prove unwilling to follow through on all the much needed changes. For instance, resumed Gulf aid may lead Egypt to reinstate subsidies or delay other reforms. Reform efforts may also suffer due to backlash from special interest groups. For example, the Egyptian military is a dominant actor in Egypt’s economy.53 Sisi may face pushback from the nation’s military elite if his administration pushes too hard, too fast on the economic liberalization front, causing financial shocks or losses for this community of interest.

President Sisi shakes hands with King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Economic aid from Saudi Arabia has helped keep Egypt’s economy afloat, but it cannot replace structural economic reform. (Getty Images)

Even if President Sisi does sustain reform, however, successful economic reform does not guarantee stability in the near term. Reform will likely be a tumultuous process, as is already evident.54 Egyptians are being forced to make do with less – food, electricity, and other necessities – while their currency stabilizes and subsidies are reduced. This suffering can be mitigated by foreign aid, but it won’t be fully alleviated until reforms have taken hold and Egypt has become a target for sustained foreign investment, as planned. The civil unrest that will likely accompany such indelible suffering – as well as a potential uptick in terrorist activity – may pressure Cairo to abort reform.

Economic liberalization does not guarantee long-term stability either. For instance, Hosni Mubarak sought a similar economic revitalization in the 1990s. His liberalization reforms helped to grow the nation’s economy. But they did not yield the types of lasting improvements to average Egyptian households that could have helped to strengthen his legitimacy and stave off revolutionary sentiment.55 This stagnation contributed, in part, to the 2011 revolution in Egypt. As of early 2017, the average Egyptian has not begun to see the benefits of Sisi’s reforms.56

These are all legitimate reasons to fear that Egypt’s economic reforms will not yield the stability the country needs. But if President Sisi does not sustain reform – or if reforms prove ineffective – the Egyptian economy is unlikely to right itself. The only path forward, then, would be to more limited production, rising prices of necessities, expanded unemployment, weakening of the social welfare system, and escalating civil unrest. All this would only compound the threat already posed by Egyptian terrorists.

What Is at Stake for the United States?

President Sisi’s current approach to counterterrorism has thus far managed to contain violence in the mainland. However, if current security trends hold, homegrown jihadist organizations will likely continue to gain ground. Their foreign counterparts – especially al Qaeda – may then be able to exploit local successes in order to penetrate mainland Egypt. Economic trends are also concerning. Violent actors’ messages may gain traction among Islamists – not to mention others who may have reason to hate Sisi’s government – who believe that they do not have an economic future in Egypt. These trends threaten to push Egypt toward higher levels of civil unrest and state responses. This, in turn, could lead back to the cycle of violence that actors like al Qaeda have demonstrated their ability to co-opt. 

Egypt’s descent into heightened cycles of violence would bode poorly for U.S. national security interests in Egypt and the Middle East as well. American support for Cairo during heightened security crackdowns may validate the narrative that the United States is at war with Islam, a narrative that is prominent across the Middle East and that fuels radicalization. Visible jihadi inroads into Egypt may also embolden like-minded actors throughout the region. That inspirational effect would be magnified if al Qaeda is able to capitalize on local unrest in Egypt, as it has in places like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, where the state’s monopoly on violence has eroded.

Al Qaeda’s entry into Egypt – a cultural hub of the Arab world – would constitute a major prize in its 16-year quest to push the United States out of the Middle East.

Al Qaeda’s entry into Egypt – a cultural hub of the Arab world – would constitute a major prize in its 16-year quest to push the United States out of the Middle East. It would signal to onlookers – friends and foes alike – that its strategy of slow expansion, stoking and capitalizing on local unrest, works. That would pose a serious threat beyond Egypt to U.S. partners in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern nations. It would speak poorly for North Africa’s future as well. Libya remains in a very fragile state. Jihadi gains in Egypt may yet embolden bad actors there, who may find opportunities for operational cooperation as well.

Moreover, Egypt’s security forces will be increasingly stretched if the jihadi threat – along with broader political unrest – continues to expand. Not only will they require more assistance from the United States to sustain operations, they will also be increasingly hard-pressed to secure the Israel–Sinai border. This could allow Gaza-based actors to smuggle in more weapons and men, at a time when Israeli–Palestinian tensions are on the rise. U.S. forces in the Sinai Peninsula may also come under a more serious threat. Their departure would only further heighten the risk to Israel.

There is also the question of the Suez Canal, which would be a high-value target for Egyptian jihadists. Damaging canal infrastructure or striking vessels on their way through the channel would seriously undermine Egypt’s reputation for securing passage, including that of U.S. commercial and military vessels. That, combined with low global oil prices, could shift even more traffic away from the Suez, only further damaging Egypt’s economic standing and exacerbating domestic instability.

U.S. ships sail through the Suez Canal, a critical passage for U.S. forces operating across the Middle East. The canal would be a prime target for Egyptian jihadists. (U.S. Navy)

A More Balanced Approach

President Sisi can contain and roll back recent gains by Egypt’s homegrown jihadists. But doing so will require adopting a more balanced approach to counterterrorism. His administration’s efforts thus far have emphasized the use of force over all else. That has proven counterproductive, especially in light of Egypt’s weak economy. The use of force will form a key part of any successful Egyptian counterterrorism strategy. But it should be complemented by efforts to remedy the conditions that have allowed Egypt’s homegrown jihadi threat to escalate in the first place.

Policy Options for Egypt

To defeat homegrown jihadists in mainland Egypt, the Egyptian government must invalidate jihadists’ pitch that nonviolent means alone cannot bring Cairo to address Egyptian Islamists’ grievances. Sisi’s administration must devise and enact policies designed to show Egyptians that they can find dignity through hard work and peaceful political participation. To achieve these objectives, President Sisi’s administration should consider the following policy options:

Demonstrate that the burden of economic reform is borne by all Egyptians. The Egyptian government will likely face increased public outcry during the period of transition to a more liberal economic order. Yet this transition must succeed if Egypt is to remain a pillar of stability in the Middle East. To ease the pain of transition, President Sisi’s administration should continue to impress upon Egyptians how important these changes are. Strategic communications should focus on why economic reform is essential for their well-being and how it will affect them while it is taking place. Cairo should emphasize as well that the wealthy are bearing their share of the burden, as validated by shifts in the Egyptian industrial base.

Frame the economic reform imperative in terms of the business – and political – elite’s core interests. President Sisi must sustain efforts to persuade Egypt’s current industrial leaders to compete in a more inclusive economic environment. His pitch to disenchanted industrial leaders should stress that, without these reforms, Egypt’s economy will falter and could ultimately collapse. Such an outcome would be to the economic detriment of all. It would also seriously endanger the political and security interests of these actors, who benefit most when Egypt is stable, secure, and led by someone with military experience. 

Sustain efforts to target irreconcilable jihadi actors. Top-down efforts are needed to protect Egypt’s national security. Many of Egypt’s homegrown jihadists are likely irreconcilable. They are unlikely ever to be persuaded to return to the Egyptian political fold. Whether for ideological reasons or simply a profound loss of faith in the Egyptian government, they have opted for a path of violence and are unlikely to give up their arms or ill intentions. These actors should be dealt with justly but decisively so that they cannot continue to use or incite violence against the Egyptian state. 

Improve detainee treatment. Egyptian officials should take visible steps to curb the mistreatment of detainees. The Egyptian state’s use of mass trials, the indefinite detention of unconvicted inmates, and the alleged use of forced disappearances have fueled jihadi propaganda. Abysmal prison conditions, as well as torture, sexual assault, and other abuses in Egyptian prisons, do likewise. The net effect of detainee mistreatment is to accelerate the growth of populations vulnerable to radicalization in the Egyptian mainland.  

Exercise restraint in the treatment of nonviolent protestors. Egyptian security forces should show greater restraint when dealing with nonviolent protestors. As with the mistreatment of detainees, the use of indiscriminate violence to keep nonviolent protestors off the street is strategically counterproductive. Egyptian security forces should be trained, equipped, and mandated to disperse protestors using nonlethal force whenever possible. This will be especially important if civil unrest results from the economic reform process. 

Update sources and methods used to inform Cairo’s threat perception. The Egyptian government frequently assesses Egypt’s Islamists as a monolithic group. As Mokhtar Awad and Mostafa Hashem detail, this approach to threat analysis not only increases the likelihood of poor targeting and collateral radicalization. It also denies Egyptian authorities the opportunity to identify and engage Islamists who may be willing to cooperate in Cairo’s fight against terrorism.57

Prepare a political agenda to complement economic reform. Economic reform is an inherently painful and uncertain process. The Sisi administration should design a political agenda to mitigate blowback caused by slow or failed economic reform. This agenda’s goal should be to provide Egyptian Islamists with an outlet for their grievances that does not include violence. This has been done before. Hosni Mubarak allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to operate freely in broader Egyptian society and run for a minority of parliamentary seats. President Sisi might initiate engagement by offering lighter sentences to imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood officials who publicly renounce violence. His administration might also publicly state its desire to cooperate with exiled members of the reform-oriented Brotherhood old guard in order to build a more peaceful Egypt or ease the targeting of Islamist advocates of nonviolence. 

Accept – as necessary – greater risk in reintegrating the Muslim Brotherhood into Egyptian politics. Egypt’s government may fear that the Muslim Brotherhood could become too powerful if it is brought back into the political fold. But that is unlikely to occur in the near term, as the Brotherhood works to rebuild its degraded organization and regain lost influence in Egypt’s Islamist community. Moreover, if the Brotherhood were to regain power in the future, the Egyptian government will nearly certainly be better positioned economically and politically to deal with it then than it is today. Lastly, the Egyptian armed forces remain a powerful check on Islamists’ political ambitions. Mohamed Morsi’s removal from office in 2013 stands as a reminder of the costs of trying to impose an Islamist agenda against the people’s will. That is a powerful deterrent for the future.

Policy Options for the United States

President Trump has rightly stated that his administration has no desire to interfere in the domestic affairs of other nations. This principle of noninterference should form the basis of renewed U.S.–Egyptian cooperation on the counterterrorism front. As Mr. Trump and other senior U.S. officials build relationships with their Egyptian counterparts, they should communicate that the U.S. administration’s chief objective in engaging Egypt on counterterrorism issues is to advance the two countries’ shared interest in defeating global jihadism. In this regard, the policy recommendations listed below are designed to help the Sisi administration as it faces a particularly innovative terrorist threat. U.S. policymakers should consider the following options: 
 
Increase U.S. economic aid to facilitate Egypt’s pivot toward economic liberalization. Washington should offer additional economic aid to help Cairo provide or finance food and other important social welfare initiatives. This may help to stabilize Egypt’s domestic political situation as reforms take hold. In addition, the U.S. State Department and other agencies can offer technical assistance as Egyptian agencies restructure the nation’s subsidy, tax, and monetary policies. U.S. agencies may also be able to help identify ways to reduce regulations that obstruct competition, expand access to finance for Egyptian small businesses, and improve the efficiency and coverage of Egypt’s social welfare programs.

Sustain the counterterrorism focus for U.S. military aid to Egypt. The Trump administration should uphold its predecessor’s decision to deny Egypt’s use of U.S.-provided foreign military financing grants to buy new conventional assets, like F-16 fighter jets and M1A1 tanks. Future U.S. military aid to Egypt should be restricted to the equipment required to conduct counterterrorism, border security, Sinai security, and maritime security missions. Pending updated analysis of Egypt’s absorption capacity, the United States might also consider increasing the amount of counterterrorism-focused military aid provided to Egypt annually from the current $1.3 billion amount. This reconfiguration of U.S. military aid is important to ensure that Egypt has access to the equipment – and training – required to more reliably and discriminately target and defeat its unconventional opponents. Given how critical Egypt’s success in the fight against terrorism is for U.S. national security, congressional authorization of counterterrorism-focused military aid should not be made contingent on Egypt’s progress toward democratization. 

Open an additional – conditional – stream of U.S. military aid to Egypt that includes conventional military assets. The United States should also consider opening a second stream of military aid to Egypt that includes conventional military assets.58 The aid should be authorized by the U.S. Congress contingent upon certification by the U.S. Secretary of Defense and/or Secretary of State that Egypt has taken steps to improve detainee treatment and police tactics. Congress should stipulate that certification cannot be waived. This would clarify for Egyptian officials that conventional military aid cannot be legally authorized until reforms are made. Doing so would help to deter attempts by Cairo to sidestep the reform requirement. The conditional stream of conventional military aid may provide Egypt with greater incentive to pursue security reform. It may also offer the United States a more credible source of leverage over Egyptian counterterrorism policymaking. The Obama administration’s promise to withhold military aid until Egypt enacted political reform was not credible. Cairo rightly anticipated that America would eventually be forced to reinstate aid to keep ISIS from destabilizing Egypt. In contrast, the Trump administration could reduce conventional military aid without implicating core U.S. counterterrorism interests.

Take a renewed look at partner capacity-building in nonmilitary areas. The U.S. Department of State should lead a review of U.S. interagency engagement or cooperation with Egypt on law enforcement issues. The State Department and partners in the U.S. interagency should prioritize the development of programs designed to facilitate the exchange of intellectual capital between U.S. and Egyptian law enforcement practitioners. Particular focus should be given to identifying and cultivating best practices for the use of force – especially nonviolent force – to manage protests in the social media era. Such exchange programs would not only help Egyptian partners to better manage domestic instability in a time of potentially fitful economic transition. It would also allow the United States to better understand the challenges faced by Egyptian forces operating in a unique threat environment. 

Expand intelligence cooperation to enable Egyptian policymakers to better understand the threat landscape. Expanded U.S.–Egyptian intelligence cooperation may help Egyptian policymakers to better understand the complexity of the Islamist organizations – including the Brotherhood and others – that they are surveilling. Recognizing the diversity of backgrounds, beliefs, goals, risk tolerances, and other key characteristics of surveilled individuals and groups would enable Egyptian policymakers to identify reform-minded actors while improving the targeting of irreconcilable actors. In view of this, the U.S. government should seek to build on existing U.S.–Egyptian intelligence cooperation. But it should do so carefully. U.S. intelligence agencies must take steps to prevent the misuse of any shared information. In particular, they should craft protocols to help ensure that Egyptian actors do not use newly available intelligence to deliberately target reform-minded Islamists. 

Leverage the U.S. administration’s unique credibility, if so required, to persuade Sisi to engage reform-minded Islamists. If economic reform fails to deliver stability – and President Trump is persuaded of the need for Cairo to engage reform-minded Islamists – the U.S. administration would be a uniquely credible advocate for just such engagement. Administration officials have made clear their unyielding commitment to defeating Islamic extremism. They have made equally clear that the U.S. government will use whatever tools are required – including military force – to defeat this threat. President Trump has also emphasized his belief that states should not interfere in one another’s domestic affairs. The U.S. administration’s position on these issues stands in contrast to Presidents Bush and Obama’s past emphasis on democratization and human rights in Egypt. Should economic reform fail to deliver stability, this contrast would allow President Trump’s administration to argue more credibly for the security merits – as opposed to values-based considerations – of engaging reform-minded Islamists.

Conclusion

President Sisi’s handling of internal strife over the next several years will determine whether Egypt remains a pillar of stability in the Middle East. Egypt’s future, in turn, has serious implications for U.S. national security interests in the Middle East and beyond. 

A successful Egyptian counterterrorism strategy must account for the deep roots of the rising threat of homegrown, non-Salafi jihadism. Egypt’s security forces must use force decisively, when necessary. But military efforts cannot win this struggle on their own. They should be complemented by economic and political initiatives designed to erode Egyptian terrorists’ bases of support. Egypt’s adoption of this approach would upend the nation’s long-standing, force-centric counterterrorism strategy. That change will no doubt make many uncomfortable. But Cairo must adapt as quickly as its targets do if it is to emerge victorious. 

The United States can help President Sisi’s administration adjust to this shifting threat landscape. Additional U.S. economic assistance may help to stabilize Egypt’s domestic political situation as the nation pursues economic liberalization. Likewise, the U.S. government has the capacity to help Egypt better target irreconcilable actors while minimizing collateral radicalization. And the Trump administration would be uniquely well positioned to engage President Sisi on the security merits of political inclusivity, if economic reform fails to deliver stability.

If President Sisi can successfully defeat Egypt’s homegrown jihadi threat, it will amount to a strategic defeat for jihadist movements across the Middle East and beyond. The significance of such a success can hardly be overstated in the midst of America’s 16th year fighting against the global jihad.

Acknowledgements

The author is indebted to Mokhtar Awad, Nitin Chadda, Elbridge Colby, Loren DeJonge Schulman, Ilan Goldenberg, Shadi Hamid, Nicholas Heras, and Robert D. Kaplan for their thoughtful feedback. He would also like to thank Maura McCarthy and Melody Cook for their direction of the editing and design processes.

Endnotes

  1. Vivian Salama, “Trump Says U.S. Will Forge a ‘Great Bond’ with Egypt,” Associated Press, April 3, 2017, https://apnews.com/90ab1909ac0c4c04b70922181dc6ae37/trump-welcomes-egyptian-president.
  2. “Transcript: Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Speech,” The New York Times, April 27, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/28/us/politics/transcript-trump-foreign-policy.html; and TIME Staff, “Read Donald Trump's Full Inauguration Speech,” TIME, January 24, 2017, http://time.com/4640707/donald-trump-inauguration-speech-transcript/. 
  3. “Readout of Donald J. Trump’s Meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi,” DonaldJTrump.com, September 19, 2016, https://web.archive.org/web/20160920080956/https://www.donaldjtrump.com/press-releases/readout-of-donald-j-trumps-meeting-meeting.
  4. This is the latest year for which data is available. See Global Terrorism Database, “Egypt” (START), http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/.
  5. Mokhtar Awad, “IS in the Sinai,” in Beyond Syria and Iraq: Examining Islamic State Provinces, ed. Katherine Bauer (Washington, DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 2016), 12-17, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/beyond-syria-and-iraq-examining-islamic-state-provinces; Ruth Eglash, “As ISIS Roils Neighboring Sinai, Israel Keeps This Border Highway Empty,” The Washington Post, November 14, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/as-isis-roils-neighboring-sinai-israel-keeps-this-border-highway-empty/2016/11/12/cc82efe6-a10f-11e6-8864-6f892cad0865_story.html?utm_term=.48e7edcdb6b2; and Yoram Schweitzer, “The Ramifications of the Weakening of Wilayat Sinai,” INSS Insight No. 851 (The Institute for National Security Studies, August 31, 2016), http://www.inss.org.il/publication/the-weakening-of-wilayat-sinai/.
  6. Sudarsan Raghavan, “Suspected Islamic State Attack Kills 12 Egyptian Soldiers in Sinai,” The Washington Post, October 14, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/suspected-islamic-state-attack-kills-12-egyptian-soldiers-in-sinai/2016/10/14/5aa0940a-9214-11e6-bc00-1a9756d4111b_story.html?utm_term=.755d801f499f; and W. J. Hennigan, “US Shifts Troops in the Sinai Peninsula after Attacks by Militants,” Military.com, April 25, 2016, http://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/04/25/us-shifts-troops-in-the-sinai-peninsula-after-attacks-militants.html.
  7. Mokhtar Awad, “The Islamic State’s Pyramid Scheme: Egyptian Expansion and the Giza Governorate Cell,” CTC Sentinel, April 22, 2016, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-islamic-states-pyramid-scheme-egyptian-expansion-and-the-giza-governorate-cell. 
  8. I am grateful to Mokhtar Awad for his insights about al-Mourabitoun’s current disposition and strategic objectives. For additional information, see Awad and Samuel Tadros, “Bay`a Remorse? Wilayat Sinai and the Nile Valley,” CTC Sentinel, August 21, 2015, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/baya-remorse-wilayat-sinai-and-the-nile-valley; and Thomas Joscelyn and Caleb Weiss, “Former Egyptian Special Forces Officer Leads Al Murabitoon,” The Long War Journal, July 23, 2015, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/07/former-egyptian-special-forces-officer-leads-al-murabitoon.php. 
  9. For a revealing account of Islamist insurgent dynamics in Egypt, see Mokhtar Awad and Mostafa Hashem, “Egypt’s Escalating Islamist Insurgency” (Carnegie Middle East Center, October 2015), http://carnegieendowment.org/files/CMEC_58_Egypt_Awad_Hashem_final.pdf. 
  10. Marc Lynch, “Is the Muslim Brotherhood a Terrorist Organization or a Firewall against Violent Extremism?” The Washington Post, March 7, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/03/07/is-the-muslim-brotherhood-a-terrorist-organization-or-a-firewall-against-violent-extremism/?utm_term=.04ad075696be. Estimates differ as to the size of the Muslim Brotherhood. See Kareem Fahim, “The Muslim Brotherhood, Back in a Fight to Survive,” The New York Times, January 5, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/06/world/middleeast/the-muslim-brotherhood-back-in-a-fight-to-survive.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&hp&pagewanted=all; and Foreign Affairs Committee, “‘Political Islam’, and the Muslim Brotherhood Review,” Sixth Report of Session 2016-17 (House of Commons, November 1, 2016), 20-21, https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmfaff/118/118.pdf. 
  11. Michele Dunne makes an important point that Mohamed Morsi’s – and, by extension, the Muslim Brotherhood’s – reversion to majoritarian tactics is not uncommon for political opposition parties that suddenly find themselves in positions of power. See Eric Trager, Nancy Youssef, and Michele Dunne, “The Rise and Fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,” Policywatch 2723 (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 8, 2016), http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-rise-and-fall-of-egypts-muslim-brotherhood. 
  12. Shadi Hamid, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016), 102, 104. For an overview of the Egyptian deep state, see Sarah Childress, “The Deep State: How Egypt’s Shadow State Won Out,” Public Broadcasting Service, September 17, 2013, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/the-deep-state-how-egypts-shadow-state-won-out/. 
  13. “All According to Plan: The Rab’a Massacre and Mass Killings of Protestors in Egypt” (Human Rights Watch, August 12, 2014), https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/08/12/all-according-plan/raba-massacre-and-mass-killings-protesters-egypt. 
  14. “Egypt’s Anti-Terror Law: A Translation” (The Atlantic Council, September 3, 2015), http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/egypt-s-anti-terror-law-a-translation. 
  15. “Egypt: Events of 2015” in “World Report 2016” (Human Rights Watch, 2016), https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2016/country-chapters/egypt. 
  16. “All According to Plan.” 
  17. Amina Ismail, “After University Crackdown, Egyptian Students Fear for Their Future,” Reuters, June 1, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/egypt-students/. 
  18. “‘We Are in Tombs’: Abuses in Egypt’s Scorpion Prison” (Human Rights Watch, September 27, 2016), https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/09/27/we-are-tombs/abuses-egypts-scorpion-prison; and “Egypt 2016/2017” in “Amnesty International Report 2016/17: The State of the World’s Human Rights” (Amnesty International, February 2017), https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/middle-east-and-north-africa/egypt/report-egypt/. 
  19. Elise Labott, “U.S. Suspends Significant Military Aid to Egypt,” CNN.com, October 9, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/09/world/meast/us-egypt-aid/. 
  20. “Egypt Declares el-Sisi Winner of Presidential Election,” CNN.com, June 4, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/03/world/africa/egypt-presidential-election/.  
  21. Spencer Ackerman, “Obama Restores US Military Aid to Egypt over Islamic State Concerns,” The Guardian, March 31, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/mar/31/obama-restores-us-military-aid-to-egypt. 
  22. “Obama Unblocks Military Aid to Egypt,” Economist Intelligence Unit, April 2, 2015. For a helpful analysis of the Egyptian government’s long-standing prioritization of conventional military capabilities, see “Egypt’s Conventional Military Thinking,” Stratfor Worldview, June 12, 2015, https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/egypts-conventional-military-thinking. In addition, for an in-depth review of past U.S. military assistance to Egypt, see Jeremy M. Sharp, “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations,” RL33003 (Congressional Research Service, March 24, 2017), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33003.pdf. 
  23. Ahmed Tareq, “Response to Washington Post Article ‘Is the Muslim Brotherhood a Terrorist Organization or a Firewall against Violent Extremism?’” Egypt MFA Blog (Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 13, 2016), https://mfaegypt.org/2016/03/13/response-to-washington-post-article-is-the-muslim-brotherhood-a-terrorist-organization-or-a-firewall-against-violent-extremism/.
  24. Nathan Brown, “The Muslim Brotherhood’s (and Egypt’s) Qutb Conundrum,” Foreign Policy, May 17, 2010, http://foreignpolicy.com/2010/05/17/the-muslim-brotherhoods-and-egypts-qutb-conundrum/?wp_login_redirect=0. 
  25. Samuel Tadros, “The Brotherhood Divided” (Hudson Institute, August 20, 2015), http://www.hudson.org/research/11530-the-brotherhood-divided. 
  26. Mostafa Hashem, “The Great Brotherhood Divide,” Sada (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 2, 2016), http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/?fa=62942.
  27. The Brotherhood’s old guard has not been uniform in its calls for nonviolence. Actors like Mahmoud Ghozlan have adamantly reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to nonviolence. But these statements often alienate younger, more “revolutionary” members of the Brotherhood. As a result, others in the old guard have moderated their language. Some have justified certain low-level types of violence. Others have taken care not to openly condemn other acts of violence. And some – like Mohamed Kamal and his associates – have themselves at times called for violence. This dynamic reflects the Brotherhood old guard’s ongoing crisis of legitimacy. The old guard’s reformist tactics have been delegitimized by Morsi’s failure of governance and the ensuing government crackdown. For more, see Abdelrahman Ayyash, “The Brotherhood’s Post-Pacifist Approach,” Sada (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 9, 2015), http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/?fa=60665; Mokhtar Awad and Nathan J. Brown, “Mutual Escalation in Egypt,” The Washington Post, February 9, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/02/09/mutual-escalation-in-egypt/?utm_term=.018a294024d7; Nathan Brown and Michele Dunne, “Unprecedented Pressures, Uncharted Course for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 29, 2015), http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/07/29/unprecedented-pressures-uncharted-course-for-egypt-s-muslim-brotherhood-pub-60875; and Tadros, “The Brotherhood Divided.” See also “Pro-Muslim Brotherhood Clerics Call to Overthrow Al-Sisi regime in Egypt, Restore Mursi to Presidency,” Special Dispatch No. 6073 (The Middle East Media Research Institute, June 17, 2015), http://www.memri.org/reports/pro-muslim-brotherhood-clerics-call-overthrow-al-sisi-regime-egypt-restore-mursi-presidency.
  28. Brown and Dunne, “Unprecedented Pressures, Uncharted Course for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.” 
  29. For a seminal account of the Muslim Brotherhood’s internal dynamics – and especially the growing divide between reformists and revolutionaries within the group – in the aftermath of Morsi’s deposal, see Hamid, Islamic Exceptionalism, 110–128. 
  30. Mokhtar Awad, Research Fellow at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, testimony to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the United Kingdom Parliament, July 2016, http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/foreign-affairs-committee/political-islam/written/32560.pdf; Mokhtar Awad, “What Egypt’s Assassination Attempts Say About Its Islamist Insurgency” (The Atlantic Council, October 3, 2016), http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/what-egypt-s-assassination-attempts-say-about-its-islamist-insurgency; and Mohamed Hamama, “Interior Ministry announces death of influential Brotherhood leader,” Mada Masr, October 6, 2016, http://www.madamasr.com/en/2016/10/06/feature/politics/interior-ministry-announces-death-of-influential-brotherhood-leader/. 
  31. Awad, testimony to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the United Kingdom Parliament.  
  32. Awad, “What Egypt’s Assassination Attempts Say About Its Islamist Insurgency.” 
  33. Mokhtar Awad, “Egypt’s New Radicalism: The Muslim Brotherhood and Jihad,” Foreign Affairs, February 4, 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/egypt/2016-02-04/egypts-new-radicalism.
  34. Mokhtar Awad and Samuel Tadros, “The Muslim Brotherhood: Terrorists or Not?” (Hudson Institute, March 1, 2017), https://www.hudson.org/research/13398-the-muslim-brotherhood-terrorists-or-not.
  35. Mokhtar Awad, “An Agent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood? A Postmortem of Hassm Leader Mohamed Ashour Dashisha” (The Jamestown Foundation, February 2017).
  36. Awad and Hashem, “Egypt’s Escalating Islamist Insurgency.”
  37. “The Hassm Movement Publishes a Video Documenting Its Operations against Egyptian Security Forces,” Al-Masra, January 17, 2017, https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/al-masracc84-newspaper-36.pdf.
  38. For an excellent report on this phenomenon, see Alex Thompson, “Parallel Narratives,” VICE News, December 8, 2016, https://news.vice.com/story/journalists-and-trump-voters-live-in-separate-online-bubbles-mit-analysis-shows.
  39. Bill Wasik, “#Riot: Self-Organized, Hyper-Networked Revolts – Coming to a City Near You,” WIRED, December 16, 2011, https://www.wired.com/2011/12/ff_riots/.
  40. The Popular Resistance Movement has already had an inspirational effect on other “lone-wolf-type” groups in Egypt. Awad and Hashem, “Egypt’s Escalating Islamist Insurgency.”
  41. “Egypt: GDP growth (annual %), 2000–2015” (The World Bank), http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?end=2015&locations=EG&start=2002.
  42. “27.8 percent of Egyptian population lives below poverty line: CAPMAS,” Egypt Independent, July 27, 2016, http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/278-percent-egyptian-population-lives-below-poverty-line-capmas.
  43. Ilan Berman, “Egypt's economy is in big trouble,” The National Interest, September 28, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/egypts-economy-big-trouble-17863; Adel Abdel Ghafar, “Educated but Unemployed: The Challenge Facing Egypt’s Youth” (Brookings Doha Center, July 2016), 1-2, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/en_youth_in_egypt-2.pdf; and Mohsin Khan and Elissa Miller, “The Economic Decline of Egypt after the 2011 Uprising” (The Atlantic Council, June 2016), 2, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/images/publications/Economic_Decline_Egypt_SjC_web060316.pdf.
  44. “Egypt” (The World Bank), http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/egypt/overview; Daniel LaGraffe, “The Youth Bulge in Egypt: An Intersection of Demographics, Security, and the Arab Spring,” Journal of Strategic Security, 5 no. 2 (Summer 2012), 72, http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1156&context=jss; Ragui Assaad and Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi, “Youth in the Middle East and North Africa: Demographic Opportunity or Challenge?” (Population Reference Bureau, 2007), 1-3, http://www.prb.org/pdf07/youthinmena.pdf; and “Of Men and Mayhem,” The Economist, January 23, 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21688587-young-single-idle-males-are-dangerous-work-and-wedlock-can-tame-them-men-and-mayhem.
  45. For a seminal article to this effect, see Henrik Urdal, “The Devil in the Demographics: The Effect of Youth Bulges on Domestic Armed Conflict, 1950-2000” (The World Bank, July 2004), http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/794881468762939913/pdf/29740.pdf. This view remains well represented in top policy discourse. A noteworthy rebuttal to this position is Christopher Cramer, “Unemployment and Participation in Violence” (World Bank, November 2010), http://web.worldbank.org/archive/website01306/web/pdf/wdr%20background%20paper%20-%20cramer.pdf. Cramer argues that the causal link between un- or underemployment and violence remains tenuous.
  46. Klaus Schwab, ed., “The Global Competitiveness Report: 2015–2016,” Insight Report (World Economic Forum, 2015), 160-161, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/gcr/2015-2016/Global_Competitiveness_Report_2015-2016.pdf.
  47. Sylvia Westall and Tom Perry, “Food Price Rises Put Restive Egypt on Edge,” Reuters, March 13, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-egypt-food-idUSBRE92C0PW20130313; Reem Abdellatif and Neena Rai, “What Egypt Wants: Cheaper Bread,” The Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2013, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323342404579076393770615038; Deya Abaza, “Egypt Revises July Inflation Rate up to Reflect Impact of Government Price Hikes,” Ahram Online, September 1, 2014, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/3/12/109756/Business/Economy/Egypt-revises-July-inflation-rate-up-to-reflect-im.aspx; Eric Knecht, “Egypt Inflation at Five-Month High as Government Fights Price Rises,” Reuters, December 10, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/egypt-inflation-idUSL8N13Z2DN20151210; and Tarek el-Tablawy, “Egypt Inflation Driven To Highest in at Least 7 Years,” Bloomberg, September 8, 2016, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-09-08/egypt-august-inflation-driven-to-highest-in-at-least-seven-years. 
  48. Ahmed Farouk Ghoneim, “Egypt and Subsidies: A Country Living Beyond Its Means” (Middle East Institute, May 2014), http://www.mei.edu/content/egypt-and-subsidies-country-living-beyond-its-means. 
  49. “Egypt” in “2017 Index of Economic Freedom” (The Heritage Foundation, 2017), http://www.heritage.org/index/pdf/2017/countries/egypt.pdf; Max Reibman, “Five Years after the Revolution: Curing Egypt’s Corruption,” The National Interest, February 1, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/five-years-after-the-revolution-curing-egypts-corruption-15073; Ken Stier, “Egypt's Military-Industrial Complex,” TIME, February 9, 2011, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2046963,00.html?xid=rss-mostpopular; Ahmed Morsy, “The Military Crowds Out Civilian Business in Egypt” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2014), http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/06/24/military-crowds-out-civilian-business-in-egypt-pub-55996; Heba Saleh, “Egypt’s Tourism Industry Dealt Body Blow by Air Crash,” Financial Times, May 20, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/e40729a0-1e94-11e6-b286-cddde55ca122; and Ruth Michaelson, “Egypt's tourism industry is still reeling but hope is on the horizon,” The Guardian, October 21, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2016/oct/21/egypt-tourism-industry-plagued-by-lack-of-visitors.
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  54. Lin Noueihed, “Egyptians Are Losing Patience with President al-Sisi over the Tanking Economy,” Business Insider, October 23, 2016, http://www.businessinsider.com/r-egyptians-losing-patience-with-sisi-as-economy-deteriorates-2016-10.
  55. Paolo Verme, Branko Milanovic, Sherine Al-Shawarby, Sahar El Tawila, May Gadallah, and Enas Ali A.El-Majeed, “Inside Inequality in the Arab Republic of Egypt: Facts and Perceptions across People, Time, and Space,” A World Bank Study (The World Bank, 2014), 6, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/17583/9781464801983.pdf?sequence=1.
  56. “Egypt’s Economy Shows Signs of Life,”
  57. Awad and Hashem, “Egypt’s Escalating Islamist Insurgency.
  58. The idea of splitting U.S. military aid to a partner nation is raised by Stephen Tankel in his recent report, “The Art of the Possible: Restructuring the Defense Relationship with Pakistan” (Center for a New American Security, June 2017), https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/art-of-the-possible. The model proposed in this paper varies from that constructed by Dr. Tankel for application in the U.S.–Pakistani defense relationship. It differs, in particular, in that it would be used to incentivize strategic change – rather than simply tactical adjustments – by the target government.
  • Alexander Velez-Green

    Research Associate, Defense Strategies and Assessments Program

    Alexander Velez-Green is a Research Associate with the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program. He specializes in defense, deterrence, and escalation management issues. His...

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