How Does Russia Fit into Egypt’s Strategic Plan?

Andrew McGregor

February 15, 2018

As Russian-Egyptian military and economic cooperation increases, there have been many comparisons made with Egypt’s early post-independence era (1956-1971), when Cairo grew close to Moscow. Egypt’s current strategic position, however, bears closer similarities to the foreign policy of the first decades of rule by the founder of modern Egypt, Ottoman Viceroy Muhammad ‘Ali (1805-1848). Like Egypt’s post-independence leaders, Muhammad ‘Ali sought to simultaneously modernize Egypt with foreign assistance while increasing its political independence. This was no easy feat, as it involved balancing allegiance to his suzerain, the Ottoman Sultan, while using (unofficial) French military assistance and training to strengthen his own hand without falling under French control. Current Egyptian president Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi now uses Russian military aid in much the same way to gain leverage in a deteriorating relationship with the United States.

Building an Egyptian Empire: Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha with his new navy and army

Some of the objectives shared by Muhammad ‘Ali and President al-Sisi include:

  • Intensifying the purchase and manufacture of arms
  • Expanding naval capacity
  • Conducting military operations abroad to project Egyptian power
  • Consolidating Egypt’s control of the Red Sea region
  • Securing the supply of Nile waters from the south
  • Diversifying international military suppliers and trainers
  • Exterminating the previous regime, and
  • Repressing Islamic extremists

The question for Moscow is whether their objectives meld with those of Cairo. The Kremlin is seeking enhanced military and economic relations with Egypt but has no desire to be used merely as leverage against Washington. Moscow will seek to obtain their own regional objectives by exploiting differences between Washington and Cairo and filling any void left by diminishing American military aid and engagement with the Sisi regime. For their part, Egypt’s leaders remain wary of getting too close to the Russians – the last period of close cooperation ended badly. Nonetheless, Egypt may be seeking external military support in their failing campaign against Islamist extremists in Sinai and Russia’s military track record in Syria makes it an enticing partner. Whether this can be achieved without paying a high price (such as the establishment of permanent Russian bases in Egypt) is Cairo’s dilemma.

Egyptian and Russian Paratroopers on the 2016 “Defenders of Friendship” Exercise (Egypt Independent)

Russia and Egypt have now conducted two joint airborne exercises; one in Egypt in 2016, the second in Russia in 2017. The third “Defenders of Friendship” exercise will be held in Egypt later this year. Egypt has never conducted a combat air-drop, while Russia has not carried out a combat drop since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989). However, the Russian Defense Ministry reported a successful drop of Syrian paratroopers behind Islamic State lines near the border of Raqqa and Homs governorates last August, with Syrian rocket fire directed by Russian Ka-52 combat helicopters (Sputnik, August 14, 2017). The ministry’s report could not be verified independently, but it could point to future Russian-assisted counter-terrorism para-drops in Egypt, possibly in Sinai or along Egypt’s remote western frontier.

Russia negotiated a deal last year that will allow Russian Air Force jets to use Egyptian airbases and airspace (Al-Monitor, December 18, 2017). The agreement could be the first step in allowing Russian airstrikes on terrorist targets in the Sinai or Libya. It would also preclude the necessity of further deployments of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean; its performance in Syria was unimpressive and two Russian fighters were lost attempting to land on the ship’s deck.

In mid-January, Russian naval commander-in-chief Admiral Vladimir Korolyov declared that the Russian Navy would focus on improving its system of naval bases, particularly to accommodate “strategic non-nuclear deterrence groups” (TASS, January 16, 2018). Egypt has suitable ports on both its Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts, but Egyptian policy forbids the establishment of foreign military bases on its soil. Russia has engaged in talks with both Sudan and Libyan factional leader Khalifa Haftar regarding the construction of naval facilities in both those nations, but Egypt would provide a more stable long-term partner. However, a Russian base on Egypt’s Red Sea coast would conflict with Egyptian efforts to increase its own influence in the region, as seen in its establishment of a new Egyptian Red Sea squadron.

In furthering its own objectives, Cairo was able to take advantage of the cancellation of the French sale of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Egypt not only obtained the ships but was able to purchase Russian Kamov Ka-52K ship-based helicopters originally designed for the vessels (Tass, July 18, 2017). One ship, the Gamal Abdel Nasser, will be deployed with Egypt’s Alexandria-based Mediterranean fleet, while the Anwar El Sadat will join the Red Sea squadron.

(Southfront.org)

With the help of financing from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Egypt has stepped up Russian arms purchases. Russia began delivery of 50 MiG-29 fighter jets last year, a process scheduled for completion in 2020 (Egypt Independent, September 17, 2017; TASS, September 11, 2017). Russia supplied the S300VM mobile long-range air defence system to Egypt in 2017 and 46 Russian-made Kamov Ka-52 “Alligator” reconnaissance and combat helicopters are in the process of being delivered.

However, Cairo has avoided over-reliance on Russian arms (as in the Sadat era) by turning to other suppliers, such as France.  Twenty-four Dassault Rafale twin-engine multi-role fighter aircraft were ordered in 2015, some of which have already flown combat missions over Libya. Egypt took delivery of one French-made Gowind 2500 corvette (the El Fateh) last year and is building another three at its Alexandria shipyard (Defence Web, November 7, 2017). It has also purchased a South Korean corvette (the Shabab Misr) and four German-made Type 209 diesel-electric attack submarines to replace its ancient Chinese and Soviet-made Romeo-class diesel-electric submarines.

Al-Sisi, like Muhammad ‘Ali, is eager to modernize and increase the capacity of Egypt’s military but appears determined to avoid reliance on either the U.S. or Russia. While Russian approaches will not be rebuffed outright, Cairo is making it clear that enhanced cooperation must be consistent with Egypt’s strategic objectives.

This article first appeared in the February 15, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Egypt Looks for Security Answers as Its War on Terrorism Moves to the Desert Oases

Andrew McGregor

January 15, 2018

The spread of the Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula to the heavily populated Nile Delta and Nile Valley regions of Egypt has been facilitated by the importation of arms from Muammar Qaddafi’s looted Libyan armories. Prior to Libya’s 2011 revolution, arms and explosives were difficult to obtain. Since then, the growth of new Egyptian militant groups such as Liwaa al-Thawra (Revolution Brigade) and Harikat Souad Masr (Hasm – Arms of Egypt Movement) have been enabled by the availability of arms smuggled over 370 miles through the vast wastes of Egypt’s Western Desert, the 263,000 square miles of which account for two-thirds of Egypt’s land mass. With the Libyan-Egyptian border stretching for more than 650 miles, uncontrolled entry points to Egypt are plentiful, allowing militants and smugglers to move back and forth.

The Oases of the Western Desert (Our Egypt)

The Oases

The only centers of population in the Western Desert are the ancient oases of Siwa, Dakhla, Farafra, Bahariya and Kharga. Over time, the oases have been occupied by Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Mamluks and Ottomans. Modern influences only began to enter the oases with the construction of a road connecting them to the Nile valley in the 1970s. The mostly Muslim peoples of the oases are a mix of their original ancient inhabitants, Berbers, Arab Bedouin from Libya and migrants from the Nile Valley.

Ruins of the Oracle of Amun Temple at Siwa Oasis

Despite their isolation, the recent battles fought in the oases between Islamist extremists and government forces are far from the first incidents of large-scale violence in these communities. The terrain of the Western Desert has been treacherous for military operations since the Persian King Cambyses lost an entire army to a sandstorm after it had been sent to destroy the Oracle of Amun in 55 BCE.

In the modern era, the oases only began to come under Egyptian government control in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1819, the Egyptian Viceroy Muhammad ‘Ali succeeded where Cambyses had failed by bringing Siwa under Egyptian control in a ruthless conquest in which he deployed Bashi Bazouks (ill-disciplined Ottoman irregulars), Bedouin fighters and a battery of artillery.

Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanusi

Conflict returned to the region during the First World War, when an Ottoman-allied expeditionary force entered the Western Desert from Libya. Commanded by Libyan Sanusi leader Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif and Egyptian defector and professional soldier Muhammad Salih al-Harb, the expedition was designed to sweep through the oases before inciting an anti-British rebellion in the Nile Valley. By March 1916, the Sanusis held all five major oases, but the rebellion failed to materialize. After a year of ever more difficult attempts to sustain an army in the desert, Ahmad al-Sharif returned to Libya with only 200 men, his reputation in tatters.

British officers in stripped-down Ford Model T’s began intensive exploration of the desert in the postwar years. When war again descended on the region in 1939, their work provided the basis for successful anti-Axis operations by the Commonwealth’s Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). In the years before the defeat of Germany’s Field Marshal Irwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps, LRDG vehicles ranged the desert, discovering the routes that are now used by smugglers and arms traffickers.

LRDG Patrol in Siwa Oasis (WWII Today)

Tensions rose in the region again after Qaddafi seized power in Libya in 1969. However, the colonel’s attempts to incite revolutionary activity amongst the cross-border Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin (with historic ties to Libya) were dashed by a four-day border war in 1977, in which Qaddafi discovered his small and amateurish army was no match for battle-tested Egyptian troops.

Egyptian Efforts to Control Arms Smuggling 

The movement of arms from Libya to Egypt began during the short tenure of Egypt’s President Muhammad al-Mursi, who was deposed by the army in July 2013. Security forces disrupted a major arms smuggling network, the so-called Madinat Nasr cell, in November 2012. The suspects claimed the arms were intended for Syria, but plans and documents found in their possession indicated the arms were to be used by the extremists to overthrow the government of President al-Mursi, whom they reviled for participating in democratic elections. [1] However, when an arms convoy was intercepted near Siwa Oasis in July 2013, it became clear that the problem was far from solved (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 22, 2017).

The Egypt-Libya border region is patrolled by the Egyptian Border Guards, a lightly armed paramilitary unit operating out of the western oases. The Egyptian armed forces do not have a counterpart to partner with on the Libyan side, although there are growing ties with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of a largely Cyrenaïcan (eastern Libyan) militia coalition known as the Libyan National Army (LNA). Restoring security in Libya is key to ending the cross-border arms shipments, and Egypt has agreed to reorganize the LNA with the intention of molding it into a true national force (Middle East Monitor, September 19, 2017).

Despite the efforts of the border guards and the Egyptian air force, shipments of Libyan arms (including advanced weapons) appeared to intensify in the last year:

  • May 8 2017 – The Egyptian Army announced the destruction of a convoy of 15 vehicles carrying arms and ammunition across the Libyan border into Egypt (Ahram Online, May 8, 2017).
  • June 27, 2017 – An Egyptian army spokesman claimed 12 vehicles loaded with arms, ammunition and explosives had been destroyed during 12 hours of airstrikes near the Libyan border (Reuters, June 27, 2017; AFP, June 27, 2017; New Arab, June 28, 2017).
  • July 16, 2017 – Fifteen vehicles carrying explosives, weapons and ammunition were reported destroyed by the Egyptian air force (Middle East Monitor, July 17, 2017).
  • October 23, 2017 – The Egyptian air force reported the destruction of eight vehicles in the Western Desert carrying arms and ammunition (Daily News Egypt, October 23, 2017).
  • October 27, 2017 – The Interior Ministry recovered 13 bodies as well as weapons and suicide bomb belts after a raid on a training camp for militants at a farm on the highway from Asyut to the oasis of Kharga (Reuters, October 27, 2017; Daily News Egypt, October 28, 2017).
  • October 31, 2017 – The Egyptian army reported the destruction of six 4×4 vehicles and the death of all their occupants. The vehicles were reportedly carrying arms and other illegal materials (Ahram Online [Cairo], October 31, 2017). Earlier that day, Egyptian airstrikes targeting facilities of the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, Libya killed at least 20 civilians (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 31, 2017). [2]
  • November 11, 2017 – An army spokesman reported the destruction of ten vehicles carrying arms and ammunition in the Western Desert (Ahram Online, November 11, 2017; Libya Herald, November 12, 2017).

In all, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claims that Egypt has destroyed no less than 1,200 vehicles carrying arms, ammunition and fighters in the 30 months prior to November 2017 (Xinhua, November 11, 2017). Though the list above may seem to indicate Egyptian success in controlling the border, the influx of modern weapons to Sinai and the Nile Valley suggests many arms convoys continue to get through the Egyptian defenses.

Controlling the border from the air without intelligence from the ground can lead to undesirable outcomes, particularly in a region that has become increasingly popular with tourists, who can now enjoy relatively safe excursions into the inhospitable desert thanks to 4×4 vehicles, satellite phones and GPS navigational equipment. From the air, there is little to distinguish tourist convoys from convoys of arms traffickers, as the Egyptian military discovered when one of their Apache attack helicopters mistakenly slaughtered 12 guides and Mexican tourists in September 2015, despite their having a police escort. Authorities claimed the group of four vehicles was in an area near Bahariya oasis “off limits to foreign tourists,” although a permit with a full itinerary had been obtained for travel in the region (BBC, September 13, 2015; PanAm Post, September 15, 2015).

Battle at Farafra Oasis

One of the most dangerous militants operating in the Western Desert is Hisham ‘Ali al-Ashmawy Musa’ad Ibrahim  (a.k.a. Abu Omar al-Muhajir), a graduate of the Egyptian military academy and a former member of the elite Sa’iqa (Thunderbolt) commando unit. Al-Ashmawy is reported to have received advanced military training in the United States (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017).

Hisham al-Ashmawy

After 10 years’ service in Sinai, al-Ashmawy was dismissed from the Egyptian army for Islamist activities and promptly joined the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis terrorist group in 2012, where he provided training in weapons and tactics.

In July 2014, al-Ashmawy led an attack on Egyptian border guards in the Western Desert’s Farafra oasis. The assault was carried out by uniformed militants in four-wheel drive vehicles and armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and other weapons (Egypt Today, November 28, 2017). The poor ground-air cooperation in the Egyptian military was again exposed when an injured officer was unable to call in air and ground support after the attackers broke off, allowing the militants to withdraw safely into the desert after killing 21 border guards (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017). Wounded during the operation, al-Ashmawy was taken for treatment in the Libyan city of Derna, an Islamist stronghold where he had strong connections with the now defunct Ansar al-Sharia group (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017).

Farafra Oasis

Soon after the Farafra assault, al-Ashmawy split from Bayt al-Maqdis over the group’s decision to pledge allegiance to Islamic State (IS). He appeared in a 2015 video under the name Abu Omar al-Muhajir to claim responsibility for the Farafra attack and to announce he was leading a new group, al-Murabitun (not to be confused with the Sahara/Sahel movement formerly led by Mokhar Belmokhtar).

In June 2016, militants struck again in Farafra, killing two officers and injuring three others (Daily News Egypt, October 23, 2017).

Disaster at Bahariya Oasis

Bahariya Oasis (Roderick Phillips)

The desert’s Islamist militants again displayed their military skills with the October 20, 2017 destruction of a column of Egyptian police. Working from air force intelligence that suggested a handful of militants were camped along the al-Wahat-al-Kharga-Assyut highway near the Bahariya oasis (85 miles southwest of Cairo), the Egyptian police sent to deal with them were working without air support and had only basic intelligence on the region (al-Arabiya, October 21, 2017).

Instead of a handful of terrorists, the police column ran into an ambush carried out by a larger than expected force. Egyptian security sources told multiple media outlets that over 50 security officers had been killed before the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying that only 16 had fallen with 15 militants killed (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 21, 2017). The ministry’s statement was followed by government criticism of all domestic and international media that published the numbers provided by security sources.

Abd al-Rahim al-Mismary (al-Hayat TV)

The only militant to survive the Egyptian pursuit that followed was a Libyan veteran of the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Abdullah al-Mismary. Al-Mismary stated that he belonged to a group led by Imad al-Din Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Hamid (better known as Shaykh Hatim), another graduate of Egypt’s military academy and a lieutenant of al-Ashmawy (Egypt Today, November 17, 2017; Libya Herald, November 17, 2017). Shaykh Hatim, whose Ansar al-Islam group claimed responsibility for the Bahariya attack, was killed in retaliatory Egyptian airstrikes shortly after the attack (Ahram Online, November 17, 2017; al-Arabiya, November 3, 2017). According to al-Mismary, Shaykh Hatim’s group had been present in Bahariya oasis without detection since January 2017 (Egypt Independent, November 17, 2017).

Military Shake-Up 

The fallout from the Bahariya massacre hit the highest levels of the armed forces command structure. Army chief-of-staff Mahmud Ibrahim Hegazi was replaced by Lieutenant General Muhammad Farid Hegazi (no relation), a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that ruled Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak was deposed (The National [Abu Dhabi], October 29, 2017).

General Mahmoud Farid Hegazy

Also replaced were a number of high-ranking interior ministry officials, including the director of Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA, responsible for domestic intelligence), General Mahmoud Sharawi,; Giza security director Hisham al-Iraqi; General Ibrahim al-Masri, chief of the Giza NSA; and head of special operations for the Central Security Forces General Magdy Abu al-Khair (MENA [Cairo], October 28, 2017; Daily News Egypt, October 29, 2017; Ahram Online, January 18, 2017).

The disaster at Bahariya made it clear that lightly armed interior ministry units cannot deal effectively with better-armed militant groups directed by leaders with advanced training in military tactics. Poor intelligence and unfamiliarity with the desert by security units drawn from the Delta or Nile Valley have hampered operations, while poor ground-to-air coordination has several times resulted in disaster. Nonetheless, Egypt’s military planners continue to neglect improvements in their capabilities in the Western Desert in favor of massive investments in prestigious, but likely useless, items such as French amphibious assault ships and German submarines.

Meanwhile, the instability in the Western Desert has pulled Cairo into the Libyan conflict at a time when it is struggling to control the Sinai and tensions with Sudan are increasing over the disputed Hala’ib Triangle region and Egypt’s alleged support for Darfuri rebels. Until improvements are made in Egypt’s operational capacity in the Western Desert, extremists and arms smugglers will continue to fuel militant and terrorist activities in the Sinai and Egypt’s main population centers.

NOTES

[1] See Andrew McGregor, “The Face of Egypt’s Next Revolution: The Madinat Nasr Cell,” Jamestown Foundation Hot Issue, November 20, 2012: https://jamestown.org/program/hot-issue-the-face-of-egypts-next-revolution-the-madinat-nasr-cell/

[2] The city of Derna, besieged by the LNA since 2015, appears to be the base for Egyptian extremists working out of Libya. Some of these have established bases in the vast Western Desert; according to Egypt’s interior ministry, Amr Sa’ad’s Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate), a militant group responsible for a series of attacks on Copts in the Delta and Nile Valley, was trained in the southern regions of the Western Desert, near the Upper Egyptian governorates (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 22, 2017).

This article first appeared in the January 15, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

The Brotherhood Fox: A Profile of Fugitive Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Leader Mahmud Ezzat

Andrew McGregor

January 12, 2018

Dr. Mahmud Ezzat (al-Jazeera)

How does a leader of an outlawed religious-political movement apply pressure on an inflexible regime at a moment of organizational weakness and internal division? This is the dilemma facing Dr. Mahmud Ezzat, the deputy supreme guide of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB).  The Brothers (Ikhwan) are struggling to maintain a foothold in Egypt’s political process four years after its members were slaughtered in the streets of Cairo by security forces following the 2013 overthrow of democratically elected president and Brotherhood member Muhammad Mursi by General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian military. With much of the movement’s leadership now serving long prison sentences or awaiting execution, the work of keeping the Brotherhood alive has fallen into the hands of fugitive leaders such as Mahmud Ezzat.

Ezzat is wanted by Egyptian authorities in connection with the death of anti-MB protesters outside the movement’s headquarters in the Muquttam district of Cairo on June 30, 2013 (Al-Monitor, August 21, 2013). His current location is unknown, though speculation has placed him in Gaza, Turkey or even inside Egypt.

Ezzat was among five Egyptians added last November to the terrorist list of the Arab Quartet (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates) (Egypt Today, November 26, 2017). Known as a “hardliner,” Ezzat’s long membership at senior levels of the MB has given him an insider’s knowledge of the movement’s organization and finances, much of which is directed by him. Narrow, sharp features and a reputation for organizational skills have led Ezzat to be known as “the Brotherhood Fox” (Al-Monitor, August 21, 2013).

Early Career

Ezzat was born August 13, 1944 in the eastern Nile Delta city of Zaqaziq. He joined the Brotherhood in 1962 as an 18-year-old medical student. [1]

Formed in in Isma’iliya by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, the MB is a religious organization intended to advance political Islamism through social work and political agitation. Much disrupted by events since the 2013 coup, the MB’s leadership structure includes a majlis al-shura (consultative council) below a powerful 15-member Guidance Bureau (maktab al-irshad) with a Supreme Guide (murshid al-‘amm) and his deputies at its head.

The movement has had a difficult relationship with the state since a young MB member tried to assassinate the Egyptian prime minister in 1948. Thousands were jailed and al-Banna himself assassinated by unknown assailants shortly afterward. The movement was banned by President Gamal Abd al-Nasser in 1954. When another Brother tried to kill Nasser in October 1954, a massive crackdown followed that put thousands of Ikhwan behind bars, including revolutionary ideologue Sayyid Qutb, whose works deeply influenced the young Ezzat.

Imprisonment

Ezzzat was arrested in 1965 and imprisoned alongside Sayyid Qutb and Dr. Muhammed Badi’e, who later became the movement’s Supreme Guide (2010 to present). Qutb had already endured torture during nine years in prison; his re-arrest would lead to his execution the next year on charges of conspiring to assassinate the president and overthrow the government. Qutb believed that an Islamic administration could only be imposed by a vanguard of believers (tali’a mu’mina) who would lead the masses to Islam through revolutionary activity.

Dr. Muhammad Badi’e (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

Ezzat became a pupil of fellow prisoner Shukri Mustafa, who took Qutbism to extremes after his release in 1971 with the formation of Jama’at al-Muslimin, better known as Takfir wa’l-Hijra (Excommunication and Flight) (Al-Monitor, August 21, 2013). Mustafa was also an adherent of the works of extremist icon Shaykh ibn Taymiya (1263-1328), but rejected most other Islamic scholarship, pulling his followers out of Egyptian society to live in caves (after the Prophet’s model, the concept of withdrawal from non-Islamic communities is known as hijra).  Mustafa’s jihad ended with his capture and execution in 1978.

Qutbist ideology was influential among the movement’s leaders serving long prison terms, a group that included Ezzat and Badi’e. Nonetheless, the efficiency of Mubarak’s security machine forced Ezzat and other Qutbists to acknowledge the temporary futility of a direct challenge to the state, and the movement shifted back to emphasizing religious education and social assistance as the means of expanding the MB’s influence. Ezzat explained the movement’s outreach efforts by saying Islam provided “a religion for Muslims and a civilization for non-Muslims.” [2]

After nine years in notorious prisons like Liman al-Turra and Abu Za’bal, Ezzat was released in 1974. Ezzat has noted that the cycle of arrests, torture and imprisonment of MB leaders in pre-revolution Egypt always increased membership and public support: “Regime repression is the glue that binds us together and reflects that we are on the right path.” [3]

After his return, Ezzat became a member of the all-important MB Guidance Bureau in 1981 before fleeing President Anwar Sadat’s crackdown on the MB in 1981. Ezzat traveled to Yemen, where he taught at the University of Sana’a, before moving on to England for several years of post-graduate studies (Egypt Today, November 26, 2017; al-Arabiya, November 23, 2017). [4]

By the mid-1980s, a conservative trend within the movement led by Ezzat and other figures who had emerged from prison or returned from exile drove many leading reformers from roles of influence. The ascendancy of the conservatives continued until the early 2000s, by which time Ezzat and conservative businessman Khayrat al-Shater dominated the ideological direction of the movement. [5] Ezzat was responsible for student recruitment and organizing movement cells across Egypt while working as a professor at the University of Zaqaziq’s faculty of medicine.

In 1992 Ezzat was arrested in connection with the “Salsabil Case,” in which security services claimed to have discovered documents detailing plans to overthrow the Mubarak regime in the offices of the Salsabil software company established by Khayrat al-Shater with Ezzat’s assistance. Two years later Ezzat was detained again alongside 153 other Ikhwan charged with plotting to depose the regime.

The Revolution

Ezzat served as MB secretary general from 2001 to 2010. During that time he became a prominent supporter of Khayrat al-Shater. Ezzat and other conservatives skilfully squeezed out or tamed the movement’s leading reformers in 2009-2010 and elected Muhammad Badi’e as the new supreme guide, replacing Mahdi ‘Akif, who was persuaded to step down. [6] Also forced out was ‘Akif’s first deputy, Muhammad Habib, who accused Ezzat of mounting a coup against him. [7]

By the time of the 2011 revolution, the movement was firmly in the hands of a conservative trend embodied by Ezzzat, al-Shater and MB spokesman Mahmud Ghuzlan.  Reformers began to flow out of the movement, a process accelerated by the events of the revolution and the uncertain response of the Brotherhood’s leadership.

Khayrat al-Shater (al-Arabiya)

Mubarak’s overthrow allowed the MB to form a political party for the first time in June 2011, the Ḥizb al-Ḥurriya wa’l-’Adala (Freedom and Justice Party – FJP). Ezzat’s ally Khayrat al-Shater became the FJP’s post-revolution candidate for president until his disqualification and replacement by Muhammad al-Mursi, who won the presidential election.

As al-Mursi was not the head of the Brotherhood, it remained unclear whether the Egyptian president was still answerable to the movement’s supreme guide. Despite efforts to portray the FJP as an autonomous political party, the Guidance Bureau’s importance became clear when Mursi and two other FJP leaders began to meet weekly with MB deputy supreme guides Ezzat, al-Shater, Ghuzlan and secretary general Mahmud al-Hussein to “coordinate” political activities. [8]

One consequence of the 2011 revolution was that the MB’s shura council was able to meet for the first time since 1995 without fear of arrest. During that time the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau (including Ezzat) made all the movement’s major decisions without input from the broader leadership. Yet even as the Brotherhood’s new political wing tried to convince Egyptians of their commitment to democracy and tolerance of different perspectives, Ezzat shocked many Egkyptians by making remarks endorsing the implementation of hudud punishments such as stoning, amputation and crucifixion for certain offenses under Shari’a. [9]

The Military Targets the Brotherhood

Following days of public protest, the July 3, 2013 military coup d’état brought an end to Mursi’s administration and yet another wave of anti-Ikhwan repression.  The Brothers’ insistence that the FJP was the legitimate and democratically elected government of Egypt was largely ignored by the international community.

Attempts by the Brotherhood to apply pressure on the military through public protests and sit-ins were met with a savage response by government security forces who killed hundreds and arrested thousands to make it clear to the movement and its supporters that it was no longer part of Egypt’s political process.

With supreme guide Muhammad Badi’e and deputy guides al-Shater and Rashad al-Bayumi in prison, Ezzat became the movement’s acting supreme guide in August 2013 (al-Arabiya, August 20, 2013). Kamal Helbawy, a former MB guidance bureau member who resigned in 2012 over the movement’s decision to run a presidential candidate, noted Ezzat’s affinity for “radical Qutbism” and questioned Ezzat’s appointment as the movement’s supreme guide: “Ezzat is a well-mannered, decent man; he is not a great public speaker and prefers to work in secret more than in public. … Given these characteristics, I don’t think that he is a suitable leader for the Muslim Brotherhood at this stage” (Al-Monitor, August 21, 2013).

Leadership in Exile

Ezzat evaded arrest unlike his comrades Badi’e, Mursi and al-Shater, all of whom are serving a variety of life sentences bestowed in trials on an assortment of charges, mostly involving terrorism, armed opposition to the state and espionage on behalf of foreign countries (Arab News, November 15, 2017; Daily News Egypt, September 16, 2017; Ahram Online, December 30, 2017).

Egyptian media reports in August 2015 maintained that Ezzat had been replaced as the MB’s acting supreme guide by his UK-based 80-year-old Guidance Bureau colleague, Ibrahim Munir Mustafa. Munir denied the report and insisted “Dr. Mahmud Ezzat is still the deputy supreme guide and acting supreme guide” (Middle East Monitor, August 10, 2015). Citing Ezzat’s alleged ill health, the claim resurfaced a year later (Youm7 [Cairo], September 22, 2016). However, there was no formal announcement, and Ezzat appears to remain the temporary supreme guide. [10]

A new generation of MB leaders suggest the conservative old-guard bears responsibility for the movement’s loss of power and post-coup persecution. Those conservatives still operating freely, such as Ezzat and secretary general Mahmud Hussein, maintain their influence with difficulty as new leaders seek methods of furthering MB aims in al-Sisi’s Egypt. [11]

Still insisting on the legitimacy of Mursi’s FJP government, Ezzat released a public letter from his place of concealment in August 2017 urging an escalation of violence against the al-Sisi regime. Admitting that the organization was “in pain,” Ezzat called for “victory and sovereignty or death and joy” (Egypt Today, August 14, 2017). The letter may have been designed to undercut the appeal to Ikhwan youth of the more militant Kamal faction of the Brotherhood that emerged after the military coup.

Muhammad Kamal (Middle East Monitor)

Muhammad Kamal, a member of the Guidance Bureau, led “special operations committees” engaged in violence intended to force out the new Egyptian regime. Kamal and another MB leader were both killed by shots to the head during a police raid in northern Cairo in October 2016 (Reuters, October 3, 2016). Nonetheless, Kamal’s followers (sometimes termed “the new guard”) attempted to take over the movement in December 2016 when they “dismissed” the existing guidance bureau and established their own “revolutionary” version, creating competing administrations within the movement (Mada Masr, March 22, 2017).

In early 2017 the Kamal faction announced that it would begin publishing internal assessments of the mistakes made by the movement’s leadership. Though this initiative of the MB’s youth wing was supported by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the movement’s Qatari-based spiritual leader, the Brotherhood’s “old guard” was alarmed by the announcement.  Ibrahim Munir reminded members that documents lacking the approval of Mahmud Ezzat did not represent the movement’s opinion (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 27, 2017).

The Kamal faction followed up with a report in March 2017 that was highly critical of the reaction of Ezzat and the movement’s “old guard” to the 2011 revolution, accusing the Brotherhood’s senior leaders of adopting a cautious and conservative stance rather than adhering to the revolutionary principles of MB founder Hassan al-Banna (Mada Masr, March 22, 2017).

In May 2017, the Kamal faction published a document they claim revealed that the Munir/Ezzat faction of the Brotherhood was recommending a pragmatic and conciliatory approach to the movement’s political isolation, both in Egypt and internationally. It was an apparent recognition that continued insistence on the legitimacy of the FJP government and the return of Mursi as president was preventing political re-integration. The Munir/Ezzat faction was urging ideological flexibility at a time of weakness in order to allow the movement to survive and avoid international condemnation as a terrorist organization (al-Arabiya, May 8, 2017).

The Egyptian government has rejected all Ikhwan attempts to restore the group, even in a diminished fashion. In August 2017, a Cairo court placed 296 Ikhwan on the national terrorist list and claimed Ezzat was forming a military wing for the movement that would focus on toppling the state and working alongside other extremists to target Coptic Christians (al-Arabiya, November 23, 2017). The charges are at odds with Ezzat’s protestations of MB peacefulness, in which Ezzat has quoted Dr. Badi’e: “Our motto remains ‘Our non-violence is more powerful than bullets’” (Ikhwanweb.com, September 13, 2016).

Conclusion

Ezzat insists that there is still a future for the MB, which has survived 90 years of confrontation with Egypt’s governments. The MB’s temporary leader declared last year that the movement is still working to “break the coup and restore legitimacy [i.e. the Mursi/FJP government]” (al-Jazeera, February 24, 2017).

The disaster ushered in by the Brotherhood’s full-scale entry into national politics was met with confusion and dissension within the movement. The detention or dispersal of many Ikhwan prevents the movement from gathering to develop strategies to move forward. In the meantime Ezzat and an aging and fugitive leadership spend much of their time fending off internal challenges from younger members urging defiance rather than the gradualism of the old guard leadership, which still cherishes values like discipline and obedience.

Notes

  1. Hesham al-Adawi, “Islamists in Power: The Case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” in Khair El-Din Haseeb (ed.): State and Religion in the Arab World, Routledge, 2017, pp. 193-94.
  2. Eric Trager, Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days, Georgetown University Press, 2016, p. 94.
  3. Khalil al-Anani, Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity, and Politics, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 142-43.
  4. Ibid, p. 151.
  5. Ezzat knew al-Shater from his days in al-Sana’a and London. For al-Shater, see: Andrew McGregor, “The Entrepreneur at the Heart of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood: A Profile of Muhammad Khayrat al-Shater,” Jamestown Foundation Militant Leadership Monitor, July 31, 2013.
  6. Hazem Kandil: Inside the Brotherhood, Cambridge, 2015, pp. 136-37; Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement, Princeton University Press, 2013, pp. 139-40.
  7. Khalil al-Anani, op cit, pp. 153-54.
  8. Eric Trager, op cit, p. 111.
  9. Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement, Princeton University Press, 2013, p.186.
  10. Nearly a year after this last alleged transfer of authority, Munir signed a statement regarding the Manchester terrorist attack as “Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood” (Middle East Monitor, May 23, 2017).
  11. 11. Khalil al-Anani, Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity, and Politics, Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 158.

This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

Jabal ‘Uwaynat: Mysterious Desert Mountain Becomes a Three-Border Security Flashpoint

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, June 13, 2017Before the advent of motorized desert exploration in the 1930s there were few areas as little known as the Libyan Desert, a vast and largely lifeless wasteland of sand and stone as large as India. In the midst of this forbidden wilderness stands a lonely sentinel, a massive mountain that covers some 600 square miles and rises to a height of 6345 feet, once possibly forming an island in the prehistoric sea that preceded the Saharan sands. Though its springs and rain-pools were known to the Ancient Egyptians, Jabal ‘Uwaynat was eventually forgotten for thousands of years by all but a handful of hardened desert dwellers who sought its fresh water and seasonal grazing. Since its “rediscovery” less than a hundred years ago, possession of this lonely massif has almost led to a war between Italy and Great Britain and is now at the heart of a security crisis involving Libya, Egypt and Sudan, whose borders meet at Jabal ‘Uwaynat.The Highway to Yam

The ancient importance of Jabal ‘Uwaynat is revealed in the rock art at the site depicting cattle, giraffes, lions and human beings, but no camels, which were only introduced into Egypt in roughly 500 BCE. The drawings suggest an occupation in the Neolithic period far earlier than the era of the Ancient Egyptians at a time when water was far more plentiful in the region. [1]

The Inscription of Mentuhotep II at Jabal ‘Uwaynat

Though ‘Uwaynat was long believed to lie beyond the regions explored by the Ancient Egyptians, the remarkable 2007 discovery of a depiction of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom king Mentuhotep II (11th Dynasty, 21st century BCE) promises to rewrite these perceptions. The portrayal of the seated king was accompanied by his name in a cartouche and an inscription mentioning the land of Yam, known as a destination for Egyptian trade caravans supplying exotic goods from the African interior from as early as the Old Kingdom reign of Merenre I (6th Dynasty, 23rd century BCE). [2] The exact location of Yam has never been determined, but the new evidence suggests it was somewhere south of ‘Uwaynat and further west into the African interior than previously thought by many scholars, possibly in Ennedi (modern Chad) or even Darfur (modern Sudan). The precise site of the inscription has been kept secret to avoid the ravages of “adventure tourism” that has led to the damage or destruction of many important Saharan monuments and rock art sites in recent years. [3]

Entering the Modern Era

The great mountain disappeared from the historical record until the early 19th century, when, according to English desert explorer Ralph Bagnold, an Arab from the Libyan oasis of Jalu and a resident at the court of Sultan Muhammad ‘Abd al-Karim Sabun of Wadai (1804-1815, modern eastern Chad), undertook to find a new trade route northwards through the Libyan Desert to Benghazi on the Mediterranean coast. The experienced Arab caravan leader, Shehaymah, headed northeast first to the remote springs at Jabal ‘Uwaynat, then worked northwest to Kufra and on through Jalu to Benghazi. [4] The fact that Shehaymah headed into this unknown wasteland suggested that he had some prior knowledge of ‘Uwaynat. Though this route was used by the Shehaymah and the Wadaians only once, this was the first known reference to the isolated mountain. From that time, caravan routes from Wadai bypassed ‘Uwaynat to the west on a more direct route north to the coast, while the famous Darb al-Arba’in caravan route from Darfur to Asyut in Egypt bypassed ‘Uwaynat far to the east, letting knowledge of ‘Uwaynat’s existence fade from all save the Tubu tribesmen of the eastern Sahara whose mastery of the desert and its mysteries was unparalleled.

Ahmad Muhammad Hassenein Bey

Nearly 3,000 years after its last known visit by the Egyptians, Jabal ‘Uwaynat was finally mapped by another Egyptian, the aristocrat Ahmad Muhammad Hassanein Bey, who “discovered” this “lost oasis” during an extraordinary 2200 mile trek by camel from the Mediterranean port of Sollum (near the Egyptian/Libyan border) to al-Fashir, the capital of Darfur. At the time of Hassanein Bey’s arrival, the mountain was the site of a settlement of some 150 Gura’an Tubu from Ennedi, relatively recent arrivals who did not wish to live under the rule of the French who had recently colonized the Chad region up to the Darfur border. Seven years later, only six remained; three years after that, the Gura’an settlement had disappeared forever. [5]

Two years after Hassanein Bey’s visit, Prince Kamal al-Din Hussein (son of Egypt’s Sultan Husayn Kamel, 1914-1917) visited ‘Uwaynat in a remarkable expedition using French Citröen Kegresse halftracks, supported by immense camel-borne supply convoys. This well-financed motorized journey by halftracks, as temperamental as camels in their own way, marked the beginning of the end of ‘Uwaynat’s ancient isolation.

The legendary English desert explorer Ralph Bagnold reached ‘Uwaynat by motorcar in 1930, inventing the techniques of desert-driving in the process. His atmospheric description of the place is still worth citing:

[‘Uwaynat] was by no means the flat-topped plateau it had looked from the plain; for the rock was hollowed out by a freak of erosion into spires and pinnacles over a hundred feet in height, separated by winding passages… Wandering through this labyrinth, we came out at unexpected places to the threshold, as it were, of a broken doorway high up in the battlements of some ruined castle, with nothing but a sheer thousand-foot drop beneath. From these openings the enormous yellow plain could be seen, featureless and glaring with reflected sunlight, reaching away and away in all directions (except to the south, where the peak of Kissu many miles distant rose like a lone cathedral) to a vague hazy horizon… With that little vision came a sudden overwhelming sense of the remoteness of the mountain – as if it included the whole world and was floating by itself, with Kissu peak as its satellite, in a timeless solitude. [6]

In 1931 an Italian expeditionary force under General Rodolfo Graziani crossed the desert to take the oasis of Kufra (northwest of ‘Uwaynat), where they defeated a desperate resistance put up by the Zuwaya Arabs. Unsatisfied with his conquest, Graziani (“the Butcher of Libya”) urged his men to pursue the survivors into the desert, attacking refugee families with armored vehicles and aircraft. Many of the refugees headed towards ‘Uwaynat, dropping dead daily in large numbers due to lack of food and water. Not knowing the region, some tried to follow the tracks of Prince Kamal’s halftracks, but when these became obliterated by sand and wind there was little hope left. Many of the refugees were rescued by British desert explorer Pat Clayton, who abandoned his survey work in the region to cover some 5,000 total miles of desert in his vehicles ferrying exhausted and dying refugees to safety. His efforts earned him a British medal and a ban from Italian-held Libya.

The British-Italian Struggle over ‘Uwaynat

The pursuit of the refugees brought Jabal ‘Uwaynat to the attention of the Italians, who sent expeditions to the mountain in 1931 and 1932 with an eye to claiming it for Italy, though it was already claimed by the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan Condominium government. Suddenly this desert massif known to the Europeans for only less than a decade became a site of strategic importance – a base there would bring Italian forces within striking distance of the Aswan Dam (550 miles away) using aircraft or motor vehicles. The Italians busied themselves with naming all the mountain’s prominent features for prominent Italian fascists, but were deeply disappointed to discover Bagnold’s cairn at the highest point of Jabal ‘Uwaynat.

In the meantime, both the Italians and the British in the region remained wary of encountering the deadly but phantom-like Gura’an raiders led by the notorious Aramaï Gongoï.  These Tubu raiders could cross hundreds of miles of trackless and apparently waterless deserts on their camels without benefit of any kind of navigational equipment before descending on unsuspecting oases or desert convoys. Mystified by these skills, their oasis-dwelling victims even claimed the Gura’an camels left no tracks in the sand.

The British and Italians began sending aircraft and patrols to ‘Uwaynat and by 1933 it seemed, incredibly, that Britain and Italy could go to war over possession of a remote place only a select few had ever seen or heard of until that point. Saner heads prevailed in 1934 as diplomats defined the border, giving Italy (and later independent Libya as a result) sovereignty over much of the mountain (including ‘Ain Dua, the most reliable spring) as well as the “Sarra Triangle” to the southwest of the formation in return for Italy abandoning its claims to a large portion of northwest Sudan.  These claims had been based on Italy’s view of itself as the sovereign successor to the Ottoman Empire in the region, the Ottomans having once made optimistic but largely unenforceable claims to large tracts of the Saharan interior in the late 19th century.

What the British Foreign Office had overlooked was that Italy had taken control of the remote but valuable Ma’tan al-Sarra well inside the so-called “Sarra Triangle.” The site for the well was chosen in 1898 by the leader of Cyrenaïca’s Sanussi religious order, Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanussi. Al-Sannusi wished to open a new trade route to equatorial Africa from his headquarters in Kufra, but was hindered by the nearly waterless 400 mile stretch between Kufra and the next major well at Tekro (northern Chad). Al-Sanussi said a prayer at the site, roughly mid-way between Kufra and Tekro, and ordered his followers to dig. Months passed with camel convoys ferrying supplies to the workers until they finally found, at a depth of 192 feet, an apparently unlimited supply of water. [7]

Lying two hundred miles west of ‘Uwaynat, the strategic value of Ma’tan al-Sarra would be realized by Mu’ammar Qaddafi, who used it as a staging point for a group of Sudanese dissidents and followers of Sadiq al-Mahdi (great-grandson of Muhammad al-Mahdi and two-time prime minister of Sudan) to launch a 1976 attack on his enemy President Ja’afar Nimieri in Khartoum. The force passed south of ‘Uwaynat but the coup attempt failed after several days of bloody fighting in the Sudanese capital, followed by a wave of executions of captured dissidents and their supporters.

Qaddafi later used the Ma’tan al-Sarra as a forward airbase in his unsuccessful attempt to seize the Aouzou Strip during the Libya-Chad war of 1978-1987. Chad’s largely Tubu army under Hassan Djamous seized the airbase in a devastating lightning raid on September 5, 1987, bringing an effective end to the war with a humiliating Libyan defeat.

‘Uwaynat in the Second World War

As World War II broke out, possession of ‘Uwaynat was contested between the modified Fords and Chevrolets of the Commonwealth Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), invented and commanded by Major Ralph Bagnold, and their motorized Italian counterparts in the Compagnie Sahariane, a largely Libyan force with Italian officers and NCOs. As the war began, Italian forces established posts at the ‘Uwaynat springs of Ain Zwaya and one at ‘Ain Dua, both equipped with airstrips and garrisoned largely by Libyan colonial troops under Italian command.

After the Italians had been driven from the region by British and Free French offensives, the British-led Sudan Defence Force (SDF) used the route past ‘Uwaynat for regular convoys of arms and supplies to the Free French garrison in Kufra.  This oasis had been taken by General Phillippe Leclerc’s Free French forces with the assistance of the British Commonwealth’s Long-Range Desert Group (LRDG) on March 1, 1941. [8]

A Libyan SIAI-Marchetti SF-260

When a Libyan National Army-operated SIAI-Marchetti SF.260 light aircraft disappeared in the region in May 2017, it was a reminder that extreme heat and sudden sandstorms can make aerial surveillance of the border region around ‘Uwaynat a perilous undertaking. The aircraft left Kufra airbase to investigate reports of armed Sudanese crossing the border in vehicles. Its pilot and co-pilot were discovered dead the next day (Libya Observer, May 24, 2017).

It was not the first. In 1940, a Bristol Blenheim light bomber being used for reconnaissance by Free French forces was forced down near Jabal ‘Uwaynat. Its crew wandered in the desert for 12 days before being picked up by an Italian patrol and packed off to Italy as prisoners. A second Free French Blenheim went missing on February 5, 1942 after a bombing mission on the Italian-held al-Taj fort at Kufra. The plane and the remains of its crew were discovered by a French patrol in the Ennedi region of Chad in 1959. [9]

A French Patrol Discovers the Lost Blenheim in Ennedi, 1959

Less fortunate were the crews of three South African Air Force Blenheims that became lost in May 1942 and were forced to land in the desert between Kufra and ‘Uwaynat when their fuel ran out. Only one man survived to be rescued; the others perishing in agony from heat, thirst and misguided attempts to preserve themselves through drinking the alcohol in their compasses and spraying themselves with blister-inducing foam from their fire-extinguishers. [10]

There are some surprising peculiarities to aerial surveillance in the open desert. Stationary vehicles can be extremely difficult to spot from the air, as patrols from the LRDG discovered while operating in the Libyan Desert in World War II. It became common practice to simply stop when the approach of enemy aircraft was heard, a tactic that saved many patrols no matter how counter-intuitive it might have seemed.

Modern Gateway for Rebels, Traffickers and Mercenaries

In the Qadddafi-era, a trans-Saharan desert road connecting Kufra through ‘Uwaynat to Sudanese Darfur was promoted as a means of establishing trade between the two regions. The collapse of security in southern Libya after the 2011 anti-Qaddafi revolution brought the route to the attention of smugglers, human traffickers and members of Darfur’s multiple rebel movements who were being slowly squeezed out of Darfur under pressure from Sudan’s security forces.

A June 1, 2017 report of the UN Libyan Experts Panel described how Darfuri rebel movements received offers for their military services from both rival governments in the Libyan conflict, broadly the Bayda/Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and its military arm, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), versus the Tripoli-based Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (GNA) and their allied Islamist militias. Due to a presence in Libya dating back to the Qaddafi-era (when the Libyan leader acted as a sponsor in their war against Khartoum), commanders such as Abdallah Banda, Abdallah Jana and Yahya Omda from Darfur’s largest rebel movement, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), were able to access Libyan networks to their benefit.

Rebel fighters from the rival Sudan Liberation Army – Minni Minnawi (SLA-MM) began operations in Fezzan in 2015 before joining LNA operations in the northern “oil crescent” in 2016. Fighters from another major rebel faction, the Sudan Liberation Army – Abdul Wahid (SLM-AW), were cited as being aligned with the LNA (Libya Herald, June 11, 2017). Through 2014-2015, there were numerous accusations from Haftar and his supporters that Khartoum was using the desert passage past ‘Uwaynat to send arms and fighters to reinforce Islamist militias in Benghazi, Kufra and elsewhere, resulting in a short diplomatic crisis. [11] Haftar recently claimed Qatar was funding the entry of Chadian and Sudanese “mercenaries” into Libya through the southern border (al-Arabiya, May 29, 2017).

Some 30 members of JEM, allegedly supported by Tubu fighters, were reported killed in two days of fighting north of Kufra in February 2016 (Reuters, February 5, 2016; Libya Observer, February 4, 2016; Libya Prospect, February 7, 2016). Some of the fighting took place at Buzaymah Oasis, 130 km northwest of Kufra, where the Darfuri rebels had attempted to set up a base. The Darfuris were attacked by Kufra’s Subul al-Salam Brigade, a Salafist militia formed in October 2015 and composed largely of Zuwaya Arabs, the dominant group in the Kufra region. Led by Abd al-Rahman Hashim al-Kilani, the militia was allied with Khalifa Haftar, who is reported to have supplied the unit with 40 armored Toyota 4x4s in September 2016 (Libya Herald, October 20, 2016). After a number of kidnappings and highway robberies committed by the alleged JEM fighters, the Subul al-Salam group again engaged the Darfuris in October 2016, killing 13 fighters. An October 23, 2016 Sudanese government statement claimed the Darfuris were supporters of Khalifa Haftar. [12] Subul al-Salam also clashed with Chadian gunmen 400 km south of Kufra on February 2, 2017, killing four of the Chadians, possibly Tubu from the Ennedi mountain range south of the border (Libya Observer, February 2, 2017).

A May 2017 Sudanese intelligence report repeated nearly year-old claims that elements of the Darfuri Sudan Liberation Movement – Minni Minawi (SLM-MM) under local commander Jabir Ishag were active in the Libyan south around Rabaniyah and around the oil fields north of Kufra. The report also claimed the presence of SLM-Unity and SLM-Abd al-Wahid (SLM-AW) units northeast of Kufra and JEM forces under commander al-Tahir Arja in the north, near Tobruk, where they were alleged to be supporting Khalifa Haftar (Sudan Media Center, May 22, 2017; Libya Observer, October 10, 2016; GMS-Sudan, July 27, 2016).

Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces Deploy at ‘Uwaynat

Sudanese troops were reported to have moved up to the Jabal ‘Uwaynat region on June 2, 2017 (Libyan Express, June 3, 2017). Most of these were likely to belong to Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF – Quwat al-Da’m al-Seri), a 30,000 strong paramilitary that was integrated into the Sudanese Army in January 2017. Prior to that, the paramilitary had operated under the command of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS –Jiha’az al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat ) and became notorious for the indiscipline and human rights abuses common to the infamous Janjaweed, from which much of the strength of the RSF was drawn at the time of its creation in 2013. The disorderly RSF has even been known to clash with units of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF).

Besides recruitment from a variety of Arab and non-Arab tribes in Darfur, the RSF also employs many Arabs from Chad, former rebels against the Zaghawa-dominated regime of President Idriss Déby Itno. Designed for high mobility, the RSF claims it can reach the Libyan border within 24 hours of an order for deployment (Sudan Tribune, January 17, 2017). [13] The RSF leader is Lieutenant General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo (a.k.a. Hemeti), a member of the Mahariya branch of the Darfur Rizayqat. The RSF enjoys the patronage of Sudanese vice-president Hassabo Abd al-Rahman, who is, like Daglo, a member of the Mahariya branch of the Rizayqat. Hemeti is nonetheless despised by many SAF officers as an illiterate with nothing more than a Quran school education (Radio Dabanga, June 4, 2014).

A June-July 2016 deployment of the RSF in the ‘Uwaynat region led to the arrest of roughly 600 Eritrean and Ethiopian illegal migrants, most of whom were attempting to reach Europe or the United States. The RSF activity was in step with a European Union grant of €100 million to deal with illegal migration that followed a Sudanese pledge to help stop human trafficking to Europe (Sudan Tribune, July 31, 2016). The funds were intended to construct two detention camps for migrants and to provide Sudanese security services with electronic means of registering illegal migrants. The traffickers, however, do not always go quietly; in April 2017 the RSF engaged in “fierce clashes” with human traffickers, leading to the arrest of five of their leaders and the capture of six 4×4 vehicles. According to one smuggler of migrants, the presence of the RSF has changed the situation on the border:  “The road to Libya is still working, but it’s very dangerous” (The Economist, May 25, 2017).

The RSF commander has suggested Europe does not appreciate the RSF’s efforts in fighting illegal migration on their behalf, stating that despite a loss of 25 killed, 315 injured and 150 vehicles in the fight against illegal migration, “nobody even thanked us” (Sudan Tribune, August 31, 2016). Daglo went on to warn his troops could easily abandon their positions and allow the migrants and traffickers free passage. Whether Daglo was speaking for the government or on his own behalf is uncertain.

RSF commander Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemeti”

Only days after Daglo’s complaints, Yasir Arman, secretary-general of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement–North (SPLA/M-N), claimed to have received details of a European operation to directly supply the controversial RSF with funds and logistical support. Arman maintained that this “Satanic plan” was intended to cover up the RSF’s participation in atrocities and genocide. The EU issued a prompt denial (Sudan Tribune, September 7, 2016). [14]

Rising Tensions between Egypt and Sudan

Egypt’s army has been engaged in a constant effort to prevent Libyan arms crossing its 1000 km border with Libya, the preferred route being to cross the border through the Libyan Desert and then on to the Bahariya Oasis in Western Egypt, connected by road with the Nile Valley. In late May 2017, Egypt’s president Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi announced that Egypt’s military had destroyed some 300 vehicles carrying arms across the Libyan border in the last two months alone (Ahram Online, May 25, 2017).

Last October, LNA chief-of-staff and HoR-appointed military governor of the eastern region, Abd al-Raziq al-Nathory, announced that Egyptian forces guarding the border with Libya had in some cases established positions as far as 40 km inside Libya (Libyan Express, October 15, 2016).

The issue of Darfur rebel groups entering Sudan from Libya, the possible establishment of a buffer zone on the border triangle between Egypt, Libya and Sudan, and a Sudanese proposal to create a joint border patrol force were addressed in a meeting between the Sudanese and Egyptian foreign ministers in Cairo on June 3, 2017 (Sudan Tribune, June 3, 2017). Tensions between Egypt and Sudan have flared up in recent weeks with new friction over the disputed status of the Halayib Triangle west of the Red Sea coast, Khartoum’s support for Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam construction (which Egypt claims will violate long-standing Nile Basin water-sharing agreements) and accusations from Khartoum of Egyptian material support for Darfuri rebels re-entering Sudan. Less than two weeks before the meeting, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir announced that the RSF had seized Egyptian armored vehicles used by Darfuri rebels crossing the border near ‘Uwaynat from Libya, while Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and NISS Facebook pages posted photos of captured or destroyed Egyptian vehicles allegedly used by the rebels (Sudan Tribune, May 24, 2017).

Conclusion: From Isolation to Insecurity

Jabal ‘Uwaynat’s magnificent isolation is quickly becoming a romantic memory. Today it has become a focal point for modern scourges such as human-trafficking, narcotics smuggling and militancy-for-hire. Its apparent future is one of more frequent clashes, greater surveillance and the introduction of more imposing barriers to movement. To some degree, this undesirable future can be averted if Libya’s political house can be put in order in the near future, thereby reducing the demand for foreign guns-for-hire, enabling the imposition of proper border controls to deter human-trafficking and allowing the introduction of more effective cooperative security efforts between Libyan, Sudanese and Egyptian security services.

Notes

  1. For the Rock Inscriptions at Jebel ‘Uwaynat, see: Francis L. Van Note, Rock Art of the Jebel Uweinat (Libyan Sahara), Akadem. Druck- u. Verlagsanst, Graz, Austria, 1978; András Zboray, Rock Art of the Libyan Desert, Fliegel Jezerniczky Expeditions, Newbury, 2005 (DVD); Maria Emilia Peroschi and Flavio Cambieri, “Jebel Uweinat (Sahra Orientale) et l’Arte Rupestre: Nuuove Prospettive di Studio Dalle Recente Scoperte,” XXIV Valcomonica Symposium, Art and Communication in Pre‐literate societies, Capo di Ponte, Italy, 2011, pp. 339-345, http://www.academia.edu/30404525/The_rock_art_of_Jebel_Uweinat_Eastern_Sahara._New_perspectives_from_the_latest_discoveries.pdf
  2. For the Jabal ‘Uwaynat inscription of Mentuhotep II and its implications, see: Joseph Clayton, Aloisia De Trafford and Mark Borda, “A Hieroglyphic Inscription found at Jebel Uweinat mentioning Yam and Tekhebet,” Sahara 19, July 2008, pp.129-134; Andrés Diego Espinel, “The Tribute from Tekhebeten (a brief note on the graffiti of Mentuhetep II at Jebel Uweinat),” Göttinger Miszellen 237, 2013, pp.15-19, http://www.academia.edu/8699848/2013_-_The_tribute_of_Tekhebeten ; Julien Cooper, “Reconsidering the Location of Yam,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 48, 2012, pp.1-21,http://www.academia.edu/5646190/Reconsidering_the_Location_of_Yam_Journal_of_the_American_Research_Center_in_Egypt_48_2012_1-22 ; Thomas Schneider, “The West Beyond the West: The Mysterious “Wernes” of the Egyptian Underworld and the Chad Palaeolake,” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 2(4), 2010, pp. 1-14, https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/jaei/article/view/82/86 ; Thomas Schneider, “Egypt and the Chad: Some Additional Remarks,” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 3(4), 2011, pp.12-15, https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/jaei/article/view/12651/11932
  3. For example, the roughly 7,000 year-old Nabta Playa stone circle (northwest of Abu Simbel in Egypt’s Western Desert) has been subject to pointless damage, theft and even re-arrangement by unauthorized “New Age” tourists to better correspond to their own theories regarding its purpose. Rubbish dumps around the site attest to the thoughtlessness of these visitors and their unlicensed guides.
  4. Ralph A. Bagnold: Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1941 edition (orig. 1935), pp.188-189.
  5. A.M. Hassanein Bey: The Lost Oases, Century Co., New York, 1925, pp. 219-234.
  6. Bagnold, op cit, p.173.
  7. Michael Crichton-Stuart, G Patrol, Wm Kinder and Co., London, 1958, pp.54-55.
  8. For the SDF convoys on this route in WWII, see “The Kufra Convoys,” http://www.fjexpeditions.com/frameset/convoys.htm
  9. See http://aviateurs.e-monsite.com/pages/de-1939-a-1945/morts-de-soif-dans-le-desert.html
  10. See http://www.fjexpeditions.com/frameset/convoys.htm
  11. “Are Sudanese Arms Reaching Libyan Islamists through Kufra Oasis?” Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report, April 30, 2015, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=1482
  12. http://www.sudanembassy.org/index.php/news-events/1258-report-new-information-on-the-involvement-of-darfuri-rebels-in-the-conflict-in-libya
  13. For the RSF, see Andrew McGregor, “Khartoum Struggles to Control its Controversial ‘Rapid Support Forces’,” Terrorism Monitor, May 30, 2014, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?tag=rapid-support-forces; Jérôme Tubiana, “Remote-Control Breakdown: Sudanese Paramilitary Forces and Pro-Government Militias,” Small Arms Survey, May 4, 2017, http://www.css.ethz.ch/en/services/digital-library/articles/article.html/571cdc5a-4b5b-417e-bd22-edb0e3050428
  14. For Yasir Arman, see Andrew McGregor, “The Pursuit of a ‘New Sudan’ in Blue Nile State: A Profile of the SPLA-N’s Yasir Arman,” Militant Leadership Monitor, June 30, 2016, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3652

Why are Egypt’s Counter-Terrorism Efforts Failing in the Sinai Peninsula?

Andrew McGregor

December 15, 2016

In October 2011, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi declared “the military situation in Sinai is 100 percent secure” (Daily News Egypt, October 6, 2011). Four years later, Army spokesman Brigadier General Muhammad Samir assured Egyptians that the North Sinai was “100 percent under control” (al-Jazeera, July 2, 2015). Even Dr. Najih Ibrahim, a former jihadist and principal theorist of Egypt’s al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI – Islamic Group) declared as recently as last August that for Sinai’s branch of the Islamic State: “This is the beginning of the end for this organization…  It cannot undertake big operations, such as the bombing of government buildings, like the bombing of the military intelligence building previously … or massacre, or conduct operations outside Sinai. Instead, it has resorted to car bombs or suicide bombings, which are mostly handled well [by Egyptian security forces]” (Ahram Online, August 11; August 15).sinai-ea-map

Since then, Islamic State militants have carried out highly organized large-scale attacks on checkpoints in al-Arish, killing 12 conscripts on October 12 and another 12 soldiers on November 24. Together with a steady stream of almost daily IED attacks, mortar attacks and assassinations, it is clear that militancy in North Sinai is far from finished.

Since 2004 there have been a series of jihadist groups operating in the Sinai. The latest face of militancy in the region is the Wilayet Sayna (WS – “Sinai Province”), a name adopted by the Sinai’s Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM – Supporters of Jerusalem) following its declaration of allegiance to the IS militant group in November 2014. The secretive WS has been estimated to include anywhere from several hundred to two thousand fighters. Despite operating for the most part in a small territory under 400 square miles in with a population of roughly 430,000 people, a series of offensives since 2013 by the Arab world’s most powerful army in North Sinai have produced not victory, but rather a war of attrition. The question therefore is what exceptional circumstances exist in the North Sinai that prevent Egypt’s security forces from ending a small but troubling insurgency that receives little outside support.

As in northern Mali in 2012, the conflict in Sinai has merged a localized ethnic insurgency with externally-inspired Salafi-Jihadism. The conflict persists despite the wide latitude granted by Israel in terms of violating the 1979 Camp David Accords’ restrictions on arms and troops deployed by Egypt in the Sinai. Unsettled by the cross-border activities of Gazan and Sinai terrorists, Israel has basically granted Cairo a free hand in military deployments there since July 2015.

At the core of the insurgency is Sinai’s Bedouin population, culturally and geographically separate from the Egyptian “mainland.” Traditionally, the Bedouin of the Sinai had closer relations with Gaza and Palestine to the northeast than the Egyptian nation to their west, though Egypt’s interest in the Sinai and its resources dates to the earliest dynasties of Ancient Egypt. The Israeli occupation of the region in 1967-1979 left many Egyptians suspicious of pro-Israeli sympathies amongst the Bedouin (generally without cause) and led to a ban on their recruitment by Egypt’s military or security services.

According to Egyptian MP Tamer al-Shahawy (a former major-general and military intelligence chief), social changes began in the Sinai after the 1973 war with Israel: “After the war a major rift in ‎tribal culture occurred — on one hand was the pull of the Sufi trend, on the other the pull of ‎money from illegal activities such as smuggling, drug trafficking and arms dealing… For a number of reasons the government was forced to prioritize a security over a socio-‎economic political response.”‎ (Ahram Online, August 15).

Lack of development, land ownership issues and Cairo’s general disinterest in the region for anything other than strategic purposes erupted in the terrorist bombings of Red Sea tourist resorts from 2004 to 2006. The deaths of at least 145 people led to a wave of mass arrests, torture and lengthy detentions that embittered the Bedouin and further defined the differences between “Egyptians” and the inhabitants of the Sinai Peninsula. With the local economy struggling due to neglect and insecurity, many young men turned to smuggling, a traditional occupation in the region. Like northern Mali, however, smuggling has proven a gateway to militancy.

In recent decades, Islamist ideology has been brought to the Sinai by “mainland” teachers and by students returning from studies in the Nile Valley. Inattention from government-approved religious bodies like al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Endowments left North Sinai’s mosques open to radical preachers denouncing the region’s traditional Sufi orders. Their calls for an aggressive and Islamic response to what was viewed as Cairo’s “oppression” and the support available from Islamist militants in neighboring Gaza led to a gradual convergence of “Bedouin issues” and Salafi-Jihadism. Support for groups like ABM and WS is far from universal amongst the tribes and armed clashes are frequent, but the widespread distaste for Egypt’s security forces and a campaign of brutal intimidation against those inclined to work with them have prevented Cairo from exploiting local differences in its favor. The army claims it could “instantaneously purge” Sinai of militants but has not done so out of concern for the safety of residents (Ahram Online, March 21).

Egypt’s Military Operations in the Sinai

Beginning with Operation Eagle’s deployment of two brigades of Sa’iqa (“Thunderbolt) Special Forces personnel in August 2011, Cairo has initiated a series of military operations designed to secure North Sinai, eradicate the insurgents in the Rafah, al-Arish and Shaykh al-Zuwayad districts of North Sinai, eliminate cross-border smuggling with Gaza and protect the Suez Canal. While meeting success in the latter two objectives, the use of fighter jets, artillery, armor, attack helicopters and elite troop formations have failed to terminate an insurgency that has intensified rather than diminished.

sinai-ea-al-saiqaAl-Sa’iqa (Special Forces) in Rafah

The ongoing Operation Martyr’s Right, launched in September 2015, is the largest military operation yet, involving Special Forces units, elements of the second and third field armies and police units with the aim of targeting terrorists and outlaws in central and northern Sinai to “pave the road for creating suitable conditions to start development projects in Sinai.” (Ahram Online, November 5, 2016). Each phase of Martyr’s Right and earlier operations in the region have resulted in government claims of hundreds of dead militants and scores of “hideouts,” houses, cars and motorcycles destroyed, all apparently with little more than temporary effect.

Military-Tribal Relations

Security forces have failed to connect with an alienated local population in North Sinai. Arbitrary mass arrests and imprisonments have degraded the relationship between tribal groups and state security services. Home demolitions, public utility cuts, travel restrictions, indiscriminate shelling, the destruction of farms and forced evacuations for security reasons have only reinforced the perception of the Egyptian Army as an occupying power.  Security services are unable to recruit from local Bedouin, while ABM and WS freely recruit military specialists from the Egyptian “mainland.” It was a Sa’aiqa veteran expelled from the army in 2007, Hisham al-Ashmawy, who provided highly useful training in weapons and tactics to ABM after he joined the movement in 2012 (Reuters, October 18, 2015). Others have followed.

The role of local shaykhs as interlocutors with tribal groups has been steeply devalued by the central role now played by state security services in appointing tribal leaders. In 2012, a shaykh of the powerful Sawarka tribe was shot and killed when it became widely believed he was identifying jihadists to state security services (Egypt Independent, June 11, 2012)

The use of collective punishment encourages retaliation, dissuades the local population from cooperation with security forces and diminishes the reputation of moderate tribal leaders who are seen as unable to wield influence with the government. Egypt’s prime minister, Sherif Ismail, has blamed terrorism in North Sinai on the familiar “external and internal forces,” but also noted that under Egypt’s new constitution, the president could not use counter-terrorism measures as “an excuse for violating public freedoms” (Ahram Online, May 10).

Operational Weaknesses

The government’s media blackout of the Sinai makes it difficult to verify information or properly evaluate operations.  Restrictions on coverage effectively prevent public discussion of the issues behind the insurgency, reducing opportunities for reconciliation. Nonetheless, a number of weaknesses in Cairo’s military approach are apparent:

  • Operations are generally reactive rather than proactive
  • A military culture exists that discourages initiative in junior officers. This is coupled with an unwillingness in senior staff to admit failure and change tactics compared to the tactical flexibility of insurgents, who are ready to revise their procedures whenever necessary
  • An over-reliance on airpower to provide high fatality rates readily reported in the state-owned media to give the impression of battlefield success. The suppression of media reporting on military operations in Sinai turns Egyptians to the militants’ social media to obtain news and information
  • The widespread use of poorly-trained conscripts. Most of the active fighting is done by Special Forces units who reportedly inflict serious losses in their actions against WS. As a result, WS focuses on what might be termed “softer” military targets for their own attacks; checkpoints manned by conscripts and conscript transports on local roads. There are reports of poorly paid conscripts leaking information to Sinai-based terrorists for money (Ahram Online, October 21).
  • A failure to prevent radicalization by separating detained Sinai smugglers or militants with local motivations from radical jihadists in Egyptian prisons
  • An inability to stop arms flows to the region. Though effective naval patrols and the new 5 km buffer zone with Gaza have discouraged arms trafficking from the north, arms continue to reach the insurgents from the Sharqiya, Ismailiya and Beni Suef governorates

Islamist Tactics in Sinai

The Islamist insurgents have several advantages, including intimate knowledge of the local terrain and a demonstrated ability to rejuvenate their numbers and leadership. Possession of small arms is also extremely common in Sinai despite disarmament efforts by the state. The WS armory includes Kornet anti-tank guided missiles, RPGs and mortars. Many weapons have been captured from Egyptian forces operating in the Sinai.

According to WS’ own “Harvest of Military Operations” reports, IEDs are used in about 60% of WS attacks, guerrilla-style attacks account for some 20%, while the remainder is roughly split between sniper attacks and close-quarter assassinations. Since 2013, over 90% of the targets have been military or police personnel as well as suspected informants (al-Jazeera, May 1). In 2016, IED attacks have numbered roughly one per day. The bombs are commonly disguised as rocks or bags of garbage.

sinai-ea-checkpointEgyptian Army Checkpoint, al-Arish

Well-organized assaults on security checkpoints display a sophistication that has worried military leaders. Checkpoint attacks since October 2014 often involve the preliminary use of suicide bomb trucks to smash the way through fixed defenses, followed by assaults by gunmen, often in 4×4 vehicles which have been banned in military operational zones since July 2015. Car bombs and mortars have been used to launch as many as 15 simultaneous attacks, demonstrating advanced skills in operational planning. Snipers are frequently used to keep security forces on edge and the ambush or hijacking of vehicles on the road complicates the movement of security personnel.

Military intelligence has not been able to overcome WS security measures. WS is notoriously difficult to infiltrate – recruits are closely vetted and often assume new identities. Trackable communications devices are discouraged and the group’s cell structure makes it difficult to obtain a broader picture of its organization and membership. At times it is not even clear who the group’s leader is. Sinai Bedouin chiefs have complained that when they do give warnings to the military of militant activity, their warnings are ignored (Egypt Independent, August 7, 2012)

There is intense intimidation of residents not sympathetic to WS and its aims. The group has even warned ambulance drivers not to transport wounded security personnel to hospitals (Shorouk News, December 21, 2015). Suspected informants are shot, though the WS tries to remain on good terms with locals by providing financial aid and social assistance. Sympathetic residents are able to provide a steady flow of intelligence on Egyptian troop movements and patterns.

sinai-ea-brigadier-mahmoudBrigadier General Hisham Mahmoud (Daily News Egypt)

WS focuses on state institutions as targets and rarely carries out the type of mass-casualty terrorist attacks on civilians common to other theaters of jihad. However, public, security and religious figures are all subject to assassination. In November, WS beheaded a respected 100-year-old Sufi shaykh of the Sawarka tribe for “practicing witchcraft” (Ahram Online, November 21). Even senior officers are targeted; in November Air Force Brigadier General Hisham Mahmoud was killed in al-Arish; a month earlier Brigadier Adel Rajaei (commander of the 9th Armored Division and a veteran of North Sinai) was killed in Cairo. Both men were shot in front of their own homes (Ahram Online, November 4). In July, a Coptic priest in al-Arish was murdered by Islamic State militants for “fighting Islam” (Ahram Online, July 1). Religious sites inconsistent with Salafist beliefs and values are also targeted for destruction. The shrine of Shaykh Zuwayad, who came to Egypt with the conquering Muslim army of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As in 640 C.E., has been attacked multiple times in the city that bears his name.

When Egyptian military pressure becomes too intense, insurgents are able to take refuge in Jabal Halal, a mountainous cave-riddled region south of al-Arish that acts as a main insurgent stronghold and hideout for fugitives. The area is home to many old Israeli minefields that discourage ground operations, though Egypt’s Air Force claims to have killed scores of militants there in airstrikes (Egypt Independent, August 20, 2012).

Conclusion

Egypt’s large scale counter-insurgency operations have been disappointing for Cairo. Such operations do not have the general support of the local population and are regarded by many as suppression by outsiders. The army and police are not regarded as guarantors of security, but as the violent extension of state policies that discriminate against communities in the North Sinai. So long as these conditions remain unchanged, Egypt’s security forces will remain unable to deny safe havens or financial support to militant groups.  Air-strikes on settled areas, with their inevitable indiscriminate and collateral damage, are especially unsuited for rallying government support.

Excluding the Bedouin from Interior Ministry forces foregoes immediate benefits in intelligence terms, leaving security forces without detailed knowledge of the terrain, groups, tribes and individuals necessary to successful counter-terrorism and counter-smuggling operations. However, simply opening up recruitment is not enough to guarantee interest from young Bedouin men; in the current environment they would risk ostracization at best or assassination at worst. With few economic options, smuggling (and consequent association with arms dealers and drug traffickers) remains the preferred alternative for many.

Seeking perhaps to tap into the Russian experience in Syria, Egypt conducted a joint counter-insurgency exercise near al-Alamein on the Mediterranean coast in October. The exercise focused on the use of paratroopers against insurgents in a desert setting (Ahram Online, October 12, 2016). Russia is currently pursuing an agreement that would permit Russian use of military bases across Egypt 10 October 2016 (Middle East Eye, October 10; PressTV [Tehran], October 10). If Cairo is determined to pursue a military solution to the Islamist insurgency in Sinai, it may decide more material military assistance and guidance from Russia will be part of the price.

A greater commitment to development is commonly cited as a long-term solution to Bedouin unrest, though its impact would be smaller on ideologically and religiously motivated groups such as WS. Development efforts are under way; last year President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi committed £E10 billion (US$ 560 million) to new industrial, agricultural, transport and housing projects (al-Masry al-Youm, March 8). Unfortunately, many of these projects are in the Canal Zone region and will have little impact on the economy of North Sinai. More will be needed, but with Egypt currently experiencing currency devaluation, inflation, food shortages and shrinking foreign currency reserves, the central government will have difficulty in implementing a development-based solution in Sinai.

This article first appeared in the December 15 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Beyond the Brotherhood: Egypt’s Yasir Hussein Borhami and the Salafist Revolution

Andrew McGregor

Militant Leadership Monitor, January 2016

With a growing debate over the role of Saudi-inspired Salafism in the development of Islamist extremism, it is worth examining the career and continuing influence of Yasir Hussein al-Borhami, one of Egypt’s most prominent Salafists. Despite the rigid ideology associated with Salafism, Borhami has proved flexible and pragmatic in ensuring a continued political presence for Egypt’s Salafists in a politically volatile atmosphere. Nonetheless, opposition to his approach has led to threats of violence from both Brotherhood supporters and fellow Salafists. Copts and more secular Egyptians also oppose Borhami’s intention to apply Shari’a across Egypt.

BorhamiYasir Hussin Borhami. The bump on his forehead is known as a zabiba (“raisan”), caused by repeated contact of the forehead with the ground during prayer and is regarded as a sign of piety by some Egyptian Muslims.

Early Years

Borhami was born in the Beheira region of the Nile Delta in 1958, the son of a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who imprisoned by President Gamal Abd al-Nasser. The young Borhami pursued degrees in medicine (pediatrics) at Alexandria University and aqida (“creed”) studies (which focus on the essential beliefs of Islam) at Cairo’s al-Azhar University. While still in college, Borhami performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, where he encountered a Salafist scholar who would be a great ideological influence, Abd al-‘Aziz bin Baz (Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia – 1993-1999) (Ahram Online, December 19, 2011). Borhami opened a clinic in Alexandria and preaches at Alexandria’s al-Khulafa al-Rashidun mosque. [1]

The Salafist Call

In 1984, Borhami became one of the six founders of Alexandria’s Da’wa al-Salafiya (Salafist Call), a movement that would borrow aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood’s preference for social organization and action, but not its structure or political aims.

Though there are many schools of Salafism even within Egypt, there is a shared trend towards a literal interpretation of core Islamic texts (the Qu’ran, Sunna, hadith-s, etc.) supplemented by the work of a few later scholars who sought to eliminate religious innovations (bidah) from Islamic practice. In this sense, Salafists view themselves as rational modernists rather than the popular Western perception that they are arch-conservatives seeking to live in the past. This approach to Islam, which habitually puts the movement at odds with many other Islamic trends, began to gain currency in Egypt in the 1970s, particularly in Alexandria. Traditionally, the Salafists have been apolitical based on a tradition of obedience to rulers, giving them a certain room in Egyptian society unavailable to other religious trends viewed as a challenge to the state (such as the Muslim Brotherhood). The movement has proved attractive to professionals and uses modern technology (such as its Ana Salafi website) to disseminate its message.

During the Mubarak era, the Alexandria Salafists were watched carefully but tolerated so long as they steered clear of violence and politics. Travel restrictions and occasional arrests served as reminders of the regime’s watchful eye. In 1987, Borhami was arrested in connection with the attempted assassination of former Interior Minister Hassan Abu Basha, though he was only held a month (Ahram Online, November 19, 2011). In 1994, the government decided the Salafist Call was posing a threat to the existing order and cracked down, imprisoning hundreds and banning the group’s activities. Borhami responded by lowering the group’s profile until restrictions eased in 2004. With the movement reinforced by newly-freed preachers and activists, Borhami now began an intensive period of organizing, leading to the Salafist Call finally obtaining state recognition as a legitimate social organization in April 2011. [2]

The Formation of al-Nur

Borhami is closely associated with Egypt’s leading Salafist political party, al-Nur (“the Light”), formed in June 2011 by Imad Abd al-Ghaffour. By December 2012, leadership had passed under pressure into the hands of Yunis Abd al-Halim Makhyoun, a Borhami loyalist, with al-Ghaffour and 150 members resigning to form the Watan Party. With loyalists in place in top party positions, the move gave Borhami effective control of the Party without being part of its official leadership. In theory, the Salafist Call pursues a more cooperative and collective method than the more hierarchal Muslim Brotherhood; in practise, personal loyalty to Borhami is almost essential to penetrate the leadership of both the movement and its political expression, the Nur Party.

By leading his movement into politics, Borhami intended to press for a Shari’a state without reliance on the Muslim Brotherhood while attempting to diminish the appeal of radicalism in the movement’s younger members.

Salafism and the Egyptian Revolution

The Salafists played only a minor role in the 2011 Revolution, most preferring to maintain a traditional apolitical stance, though individual members joined the protests in Tahrir Square that ultimately compelled the overthrow of President Mubarak by the Egyptian military.

In the parliamentary elections that followed the Revolution, al-Nur shocked the nation by forming a coalition with three smaller Salafist parties to take 24% of the vote, making the party the second-largest block in parliament after the Muslim Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party. Though Borhami opposed the participation of women and Christians in politics, he opened up the doors of the Nur Party to both as candidates in the election after their inclusion became legally required.

In the first round of the presidential election, Borhami steered al-Nur into support of Abd al-Moneim Fotouh rather than the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Muhammad al-Mursi. In the run-off, however, al-Nur switched its support to Mursi against the candidacy of Mubarak-era premier Ahmad al-Shafiq in the second round, won handily by Mursi.

Borhami played a major role in drafting a new constitution, but initiated a bitter dispute with the shaykhs of al-Azhar when he claimed the institution was trying to ensure its supremacy in the new constitution, accusing it further of advocating too forcefully for Christian rights in the document (Daily News Egypt, December 24, 2012). Borhami ultimately backed off, recognizing the importance of al-Azhar to most Egyptian Muslims. During the constitutional discussions, Borhami emphasized the necessity of curbing rights and freedoms, though “this doesn’t mean cancelling rights and freedoms” (Daily News Egypt, December 25, 2012). To the alarm of many Egyptians (even within the Nur Party), Borhami interpreted Article 10 of the constitution as allowing Salafis to establish Saudi-style Committees for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, religious police entitled to punish or arrest civilians believed guilty of Shari’a violations (Daily News Egypt, December 25, 2012). Others involved in the constitutional process did not share Borhami’s enthusiastic view that the draft constitution would implement restrictions on “freedom of thought, expression and creativity” and could eventually be used to strip apostates of their human rights (Daily News Egypt, December 24, 2012).

The Presidency of Muhammad al-Mursi

As the post-Revolution Mursi government faltered under economic and security pressures, Borhami’s feud with the Brotherhood intensified, with the Salafist leader warning the Brotherhood would pay the price for Mursi’s stubbornness in rejecting Salafist attempts to mediate a solution to the crisis (al-Masry al-Youm, March 15, 2013).

Under Borhami’s influence, the Nur Party approached the demonstrations against Mursi with caution, staying aloof but ready to join the opposition to the Brotherhood if the winds proved favorable. By the time Mursi was overthrown by General Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi on July 3, 2013, al-Nur was ready to display its full backing of the coup on public television. The decision to stand side-by-side with the Coptic Pope and human rights advocate Muhammad al-Baradei was met with outrage by both the Brotherhood and fellow Salafists outside the Nur Party who viewed Mursi as al-wali al-amr, a community guardian legitimized by Shari’a. Borhami considered Mursi to be a mere political figure and dismissed the opposition to al-Nur’s stance: “Maybe we lost some support from within the Islamic movement, but many have admired the party’s policies” (Reuters, January 23, 2014). [3]

After the Egyptian military’s slaughter of hundreds of Brotherhood supporters at two Cairo sit-ins, Borhami absolved al-Sisi of any blame, saying it was impossible for the general, “a religious man of high ability and competency,” to have issued a command to kill all protesters (Ahram Online, January 21, 2014; al-Masry al-Youm, January 26, 2014). Borhami laid the blame directly at the feet of the Brotherhood, saying they had encouraged their members to face bullets to create massive casualty counts that would discredit the army (Ahram Online, January 21, 2014).

Borhami opposed Islamist protests against al-Sisi in the summer of 2013 and claimed Western criticism of the general’s methods was in fact an attack on Egypt and Islam as a whole: “[The Islamists] should admit that the military saved the people from civil war in which millions of people were against Islamists” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], August 27, 2013). By early 2014, the rift with the Brotherhood had grown so much that calls to attack Borhami began to appear on Brotherhood Facebook sites (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 4, 2014).

In early February 2014, Borhami declared that the Salafist Call would not support al-Sisi’s candidacy for president, though it would not oppose him (Ahram Online, February 1, 2014).

Borhami’s Religious Rulings

There is often some confusion regarding the actual content of Borhami’s fatwa-s as he commonly backs away from controversial rulings when they appear to be out of step with the rest of Egyptian society, including the religious current. One such example was Borhami’s fatwa against the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which the shaykh claimed would distract Muslims from their prayers and encourage Muslims to admire non-believers playing for foreign teams. When his ruling was widely ridiculed in soccer-mad Egypt, failing even to gain support from other religious leaders, Borhami backed away, claiming he only meant to say “don’t waste your time” (International Business Times, April 27, 2014; al-Masry al-Youm, June 15, 2014).

Other rulings that have, at times, gained international attention, include:

  • A ruling that a man can abandon his wife to rapists if his own safety was threatened. Borhami claimed that the ruling was “woefully distorted” by the media and concerned only “absolving from sin those incapable of defending themselves” (Al-Monitor, October 21, 2015).
  • A fatwa calling on Muslims to refrain from congratulating Coptic Christians on their religious feast days led to a police report being filed by both Muslim and Coptic leaders accusing Borhami of contempt of religion and inciting sectarian violence (al-Masry al-Youm, April 27, 2014).
  • In February 2012, Borhami used the Salafi Call’s website to issue a fatwa pronouncing the impermissibility of standing for the national anthem (com, February 25, 2012). Borhami later admitted that he found it “unwise” to follow this fatwa in the face of a possible six-month stretch in prison for disrespecting national symbols (Al-Monitor, October 21, 2015).
  • In August 2012, Borhami clashed with other Salafists by issuing a fatwa that said an International Monetary Fund loan to Egypt at 1.1% interest was not usury (collection of interest is forbidden in Islamic finance) (al-Masry al-Youm, August 28, 2012).
  • Borhami was seen in a December 14, 2013 video explaining the permissibility of demolishing Christian churches, an activity that is generally understood to be impermissible in all but the most radical Islamist circles (com, March 18, 2015). Borhami’s remarks on this issue were condemned by al-Azhar and many leading Egyptians, leading him to deny he had ever issued a fatwa on this subject (Al-Monitor, October 21, 2015).

Among Borhami’s most pressing concerns are “radical secularism” and fears that Iran will spread Shi’ism to Egypt, where the small existing Shi’a community is closely monitored by the Salafi Call in cooperation with security services.  This collaboration with security forces has opened rifts with the rest of Egypt’s Islamists, including some members of the Nur Party.

Parliamentary Campaign – 2015

Al-Nur was targeted by the “No to Religious Parties” campaign that preceded the election. Supported by Egypt’s Ministry of Endowments, the campaign collected 1.25 million signatures in support of its claim that religious parties violated the section of the Egyptian constitution banning the formation of political parties “on a sectarian basis…” (Daily News Egypt, October 11, 2015). Borhami’s view was that the new constitution declared Egypt was an Islamic nation, making Islamic political parties permissible.

In contrast to their earlier success, the Nur Party was crushed in the 2015 election. After a poor showing in the election’s first phase, Borhami pleaded with Salafi leaders to urge their followers to the polls, but many Egyptian Salafists had had enough of politics. With only nine seats taken by the election’s conclusion, Borhami accused the government of detaining Salafist candidates and orchestrating a hostile media campaign, but many former party members cited the party’s political flexibility as the real reason for the party’s poor performance (al-Masry al-Youm, November 25, 2015; Reuters, November 23, 2015). One failed Nur candidate blamed the controversial fatwa-s issued by Borhami and other Salafist Call leaders for the failure (al-Masry al-Youm, October 25, 2015).

Relationship with the Islamic State

The Salafist Call has publicly condemned Salafi-Jihadism and radical Qutbist ideology, preferring a method of collective action over violence in the establishment of a Shari’a-based state. The movement believes greater religious education is the key to prevent radicalization of the sort that has led to the creation of an Islamic State chapter in the Egyptian Sinai.

Borhami insists the Salafi-Jihadis of the Islamic State do not belong to any particular Islamic trend, preferring to believe they are the natural result of human rights violations. Salafi preacher Muhammad al-Abasiry recently claimed that Borhami’s students have already joined Islamic State forces in Syria (Daily News Egypt, December 20, 2015).

Conclusion

Borhami has undoubtedly committed many missteps that have damaged the popularity of the Nur Party and the Salafist agenda, though some of these are no doubt due to the difficulty of forming political policy in a party based on a traditionally apolitical sector of Egyptian society. What is perhaps more damaging is public realization that the Salafist Call is prepared to use democracy in order to institute non-democratic reforms. Borhami has asked “Is anyone afraid of Shariʿa, the Shariʿa that achieves justice, welfare, and wisdom?” (al-Shorouk [Cairo], June 30, 2012).  The better question might be, “Is anyone afraid of a religious minority eager to impose their own version of Shari’a on a multi-confessional Egyptian state?” Last year’s election results appear to give the answer as “Yes.”

NOTES

  1. Stéphane Lacroix, “Yasser Borhami,” in: Bernard Rougier and Stéphane Lacroix (Ed.s), Egypt’s Revolutions: Politics, Religion and Social Movements, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.
  2. Ashraf El-Sherif, “Egypt’s Salafists at a Crossroads,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 29, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/04/29/egypt-s-salafists-at-crossroads/iir4
  3. Ibid, fn. 57

This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam and the Qaddafist Shadow over Libya

Andrew McGregor  

Militant Leadership Monitor, September 2015

Given that many might think Qaddafism as a political ideology died along with Mu’ammar Qaddafi in his hometown of Sirte at the hands of Libyan revolutionaries in October 2011, the announcement of a neo-Qaddafist Nidal (“Struggle”) Front by pro-Qaddafist exiles in Cairo on September 20 was not as surprising as it might seem, given the strong financial basis and apparent political protection that this group currently enjoys in al-Sisi’s Egypt. Though nominally led by former Libyan ambassador to Saudi Arabia Muhammad Sayyid al-Qasbat, the new movement’s driving force is Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam, a cousin of the late Libyan leader who serves officially only as a member of the Front’s central committee despite being the leader of the pro-Qaddafist community in exile (Libya Herald, September 20, 2015).

Qadhaf al-Dam ((Qadhaf al-Dam with strategically placed portrait of Libyan anti-colonial hero Omar al-Mukhtar (Reuters)

Qadhaf al-Dam has summed up the revised approach of the neo-Qaddafists (though they do not refer to themselves as such): “We do not desire a Libya governed by Islamists… but we reject also the idea of a return to the past” (L’Express, September 25, 2014).

Though other factions now dominate Libya’s internal agenda, the deposed Qaddafists have demonstrated they still have some bite, as seen in the September 9 car-bombing of Tripoli’s Hadba prison where eight condemned Qaddafists (including Qaddafi’s son Sa’adi and former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah Sanusi)) are being held. News of the death sentences issued against the men on July 28 were met by protests by pro-Qaddafists in Cairo (Libya Herald, July 29, 2015). The prison is run by Islamist militant Khalid Sharif and the bombing followed the release of videos showing a blindfolded Sa’adi being beaten by prison staff as well as other Qaddafist prisoners being tortured (Libya Herald, September 9, 2015; September 10, 2015).

Early Career

Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam was born in the Mediterranean coast town of Mersa Matruh inWestern Egypt in 1952 to a family of Libyan Bedouin who, like most of their formerly nomadic neighbors, had roamed on the Egyptian side of the Libyan/Egyptian border for hundreds of years. Ahmad and his brother Sayyid began long and powerful careers in Libya after their cousin Mu’ammar Qaddafi seized power in 1969, with Ahmad serving at times as Qaddafi’s personal envoy, chief bodyguard and international fixer. Qadhaf al-Dam resembles the late Libyan leader so much that he was frequently mistaken for his cousin at international gatherings (RFI, February 25, 2011).

During the 1973 Ramadan War with Israel, Qadhaf al-Dam was a senior officer alongside Khalifa Haftar in a Libyan contingent that failed to arrive in Egypt in time to take part in the main campaign, mostly due to Egypt’s decision not to inform Qaddafi in advance of the Egyptian plan to cross the Suez Canal and retake Sinai from Israeli occupation (Middle East Monitor, May 21, 2014).

Following a series of attempts on his life by Libyan Army officers, Qaddafi began in 1978 to place important military commands in the hands of his extended family and fellow members of the Qaddadfa tribe. Among those benefitting from the new arrangements were his cousins, the brothers Ahmad and Sayyid Qadhaf al-Dam, by now prominent members of Libyan military intelligence. [1]

By the mid-1970s Qaddafi had become obsessed with eliminating opposition to his rule within the Libyan exile community. Pledging to pursue these “stray dogs” to the North Pole if necessary, Qaddafi launched his intelligence services and revolutionary committees on an often inept but frequently deadly campaign of murder abroad. The campaign intensified in 1983 as Qadhaf al-Dam and four other senior intelligence figures were entrusted with eliminating Libyan dissidents abroad under the oversight of intelligence chief Younis Bilgasim. [2]

As a Brigadier Qadhaf al-Dam was appointed commander of the Tobruq military region, then commander in Cyrenaica, and later as Qadhafi’s special representative for relations with Egypt, a role that brought with it control of vast sums of Libyan oil cash being invested in Egypt, making Qadhaf al-Dam an influential player in Egypt as well as Libya. [3] For a time after 1995, Qadhaf al-Dam was also commander of a battalion of troops detailed to provide security for Qaddafi while still playing an important role in the direction of external operations of the Jamahiriya Security Organization (Hai’atamn al-Jamahiriya). [4]

The Sarkozy Controversy – 2007

One of the lasting controversies of the NATO intervention in Libya revolves around the personal relationship between Mu’ammar Qaddafi and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012), who was responsible for rallying NATO to help overthrow Qaddafi. As one of Libya’s leading diplomats, Qadhaf al-Dam met Sarkozy in person in Tripoli in 2005 (“he came to sell us arms and surveillance equipment”) and again during Qaddafi’s visit to Paris in 2007 (Le Monde, March 15).

According to Qadhaf al-Dam, Qaddafi believed the creation of a “United States of Africa” could never be completed without French cooperation and thought that Sarkozy was “a friend at the Elysée” who could help the project, telling Qadhaf al-Dam that “We must help Sarkozy become president” (Le Monde, March 15). Qadhaf al-Dam claims that Qaddafi provided Sarkozy’s successful presidential campaign with “tens of millions of Euros,” a charge vehemently denied by Sarkozy’s camp (L’Express, September 25, 2014).

A story that persists in Libya concerns allegations that Qaddafi sexually harassed Sarkozy’s ex-wife Cécilia (a former fitting model for a French fashion house) when she went to Libya to appeal on behalf of the one Palestinian and five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death for allegedly infecting Libyan babies with the HIV virus. When questioned during a television interview, about the possibility of a personal motive for Sarkozy’s military intervention in Libya, Qadhaf al-Dam described the allegation as an obvious “fabrication”: “This Cécilia… she looks like a ghoul… This is not even a woman, so how could anyone desire her?” (Dream2 TV [Cairo], January 17, 2015). Qadhaf al-Dam did not comment on his late cousin’s well-established propensity for sexual harassment and worse.

The Revolution: Playing Both Sides

Only days after the start of the Libyan Revolution Qadhaf al-Dam made a stunning resignation from all functions within the Libyan regime on February 24, 2011 that took many observers by surprise, though the ambivalent statement from his office announcing the resignation (merely calling it a protest “against the handling of the crisis”) led some to question whether this was simply a tactic to assist the establishment of a Qaddafist support group outside Libya (RFI, February 25, 2011). It was reported that Qadhaf al-Dam’s defection was spurred by news that he was to be included in a travel ban associated with an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into possible war crimes. After the “defection,” Qadhaf al-Dam’s name was dropped from the list of those named for a travel ban (The Guardian, March 3, 2011).

Qadhaf al-Dam I

Sunny Days: Qadhaf al-Dam with Cousin Mu’ammar

There were numerous reports that Qadhaf al-Dam had initially gone to the Egyptian/Libyan borderland that was his family home to recruit members of the cross-border Awlad Ali tribe to help repress the Libyan revolutionaries. Qadhaf al-Dam was reported to have gained influence within the tribe through his involvement in local real estate and tourism investments (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], February 25, 2011). The Awlad Ali were regarded with suspicion by successive Egyptian governments as possible Qaddafists, being essentially Libyan Arab tribesmen living in the Libyan Desert region of Egypt (known better to Cairo as the “Western Desert,” a region only effectively occupied by Egypt in the 19th century). Qaddafi’s promotion of a small-scale revolutionary movement amongst the border Bedouin tribes in the 1970s did nothing to alleviate government suspicions.

Unfortunately for Qadhaf al-Dam, the leaders of the Awlad Ali and other cross-border Libyan tribes quickly declared in favor of the revolution despite reported offers of millions of dollars and called for the Qadhaf al-Dam’s expulsion from Egypt (al-Arabiya, February 24, 2011). With a disapproving Egyptian intelligence establishment fully aware of his activities in the Western Desert, Qadhaf al-Dam headed for more favorable surroundings in Cairo, the center of the Qaddafist financial empire in Egypt.

Qadhaf al-Dam claims to have urged Qaddafi to enter a dialogue with the Libyan rebels, but the latter refused until French fighter jets began to hit Tripoli on March 19, 2011. Qadhaf al-Dam says he called Qaddafi from Egypt and now received a green light to negotiate with Qaddafi promising to withdraw from power if the bombing was stopped (L’Express, September 25, 2014). The account remains unconfirmed.

Qadhaf al-Dam’s financial establishment in Egypt allowed the alleged defector to live comfortably and surrounded by bodyguards under the name of Ahmad Muhammad al-Kazim on Hassan Sabry Street near the Marriot Hotel in Cairo’s fashionable Zamalek district, an island in the Nile that is home to many embassies, Egyptian officers’ clubs and some of Cairo’s wealthiest residents (Egypt Independent [Cairo], September 6, 2012). In August 2011, Qadhaf al-Dam emerged to deny speculation that he had not actually defected but was working as an agent of the Qaddafi regime in Egypt. Qadhaf al-Dam maintained his ambiguous “neutral” stance on the revolution, claiming that he had defected as a protest against both sides in the civil war (al-Arabiya TV, August 25, 2011).

While insisting that Qaddafist Libya was stable, safe and prosperous, Qadhaf al-Dam has suggested that Libyans had a right to rebel against the regime if they did not share the dreams and vision of Mu’ammar Qaddafi, “But what happened in Libya – and this is a shameful thing in our history – is that treachery became a legitimate point of view. All of a sudden, we sought help from foreigners. We befriended the Jews and the Christians – like Bernard-Henri Levy [a French and Jewish philosopher who played an important role in convincing his friend Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene in the Libyan Revolution], France and Italy…” (Dream2 TV [Cairo], January 17, 2015).

Post-Revolution Political Activism in Egypt

Following his “defection,” Qadhaf al-Dam’s Cairo home became a hub for Qaddafists in exile and various tribal leaders disenchanted with the results of Libya’s Revolution. Many of the exile community were major figures in the police, intelligence groups and the powerful Revolutionary Committees, numbering about 200 persons in all.

A significant scandal broke out in Tripoli in June 2012 when members of Libya’s ruling Transitional National Council (TNC) learned that TNC chairman Mustafa Abd al-Jalil had sent an envoy to Cairo to explore reconciliation efforts with the exiled Qaddafist community, most notably Qadhaf al-Dam, whom several sources identified as the initiator of the talks (AFP, June 7, 2012).

Qadhaf al-Dam’s Zamalek residence was raided by Egyptian police in March 2013. The police were fired on from within the residence, leading to the wounding of one officer before Qadhaf al-Dam and his entourage were disarmed (Daily News Egypt, December 9, 2013).

The raid, part of a Qaddafist round-up by the Islamist government of Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi, led to Qadhaf al-Dam being charged with attempted murder of police officers, resisting arrest and possessing unlicensed weapons, as well as being faced with a Libyan request for extradition.

In March 2013, Libyan authorities decided to essentially purchase the extradition of the detained Qaddafist leaders, depositing $2 billion in Egypt’s central bank as a kind of open loan during a foreign currency reserves crisis affecting Muhammad Mursi’s government. Libyan officials apparently understood that a reciprocal decision had been reached to extradite Qadhaf al-Dam, but they were to be sorely disappointed (al-Arabiya, March 25, 2013; AFP, March 23, 2013).

Cairo’s Administrative Court brought an end to Qadhaf al-Dam’s extradition proceedings on April 3, 2013, partly through his lawyer’s claim that Qadhaf al-Dam had Egyptian citizenship through his Egyptian birth, though former ambassador to Egypt Ali Marya and pro-Qaddafist Libyan businessman Muhammad Ibrahim Mansour were less fortunate, being returned to face Libyan corruption charges on March 19 and 26 respectively (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], April 3, 2013). In the meantime, Qadhaf al-Dam remained in the notorious Tora prison just south of Cairo to face charges related to the raid on his apartment.

Despite the apparent seriousness of the charges, Qadhaf al-Dam was acquitted on all counts on December 9, 2013 to the applause of relatives and supporters after the prosecution’s main witness (the police officer wounded in the raid) testified he was unable to identify the shooters (al-Masry al-Youm, December 9, 2013). Qadhaf al-Dam’s lawyer claimed that his client had been the victim of a deal between Libya and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood organization during the rule of deposed Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi (June 30 2012 to July 3, 2013) (Youm 7 [Cairo], December 10, 2013). The decision shocked Libyan political leaders and a major political spat followed.

Qadhaf al-Dam’s extensive media activities in Egypt were also condemned by Libya’s GNC government in December 2013. The GNC described Qadhaf al-Dam’s frequent television appearances as “unacceptable behavior” and a “provocation” that threatened relations between Libya and Egypt (PANA, December 17, 2013).

The European Union’s General Court lifted the sanctions against Qadhaf al-Dam in September 2014 on the grounds that the regime which had led to the imposition of the sanctions no longer existed and that even though the EU maintained that Qadhaf al-Dam continued to “represent a threat to restoring civil peace” it had provided no proof for the claim (AFP, September 24, 2014). The next day a statement from the Libyan Embassy in Paris asserted that Qadhaf al-Dam had “continued to destabilize Libya since the period of the Revolution,” adding that he had also participated in inciting murder and the misuse of public funds (L’Express, September 25, 2014).

Qadhaf al-Dam and the Islamic State

In a January 2015 television interview, Qadhaf al-Dam expressed support for the Islamic State organization despite the protests of an astonished interviewer who expressed his surprise at Qadhaf al-Dam’s support for a “Satanic terrorist organization” and offered his interviewee numerous opportunities to retreat from his position: “I support Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State organization). I support its establishment…. This enterprise should have been carried out 50 years ago… [young men] had nowhere to go, so they fled to Allah… I am blaming our governments, not the boys. We did not offer another way of confronting the West” (Dream2 TV [Cairo], January 17, 2015).

Elsewhere, Qadhaf al-Dam has claimed that the West and NATO created the Islamic State organization, adding: “There was no extremism in Iraq, Syria or Libya before the NATO intervention in these countries… [The extremists] came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and several other countries and foreign states provided them air support… Their main objective was to kill Muammar Qaddafi, because he wanted to unify the continent” (Sputnik News, June 18, 2015). In yet another interview, Qadhaf al-Dam insisted that the Islamic State organization was a conspiracy against the Libyan nation and Islam itself (Assarih [Tunis], June 3, 2015).

Though General Khalifa Haftar, Qadhaf al-Dam’s former military colleague and now the leader of the internationally recognized Tobruk government’s “Operation Dignity,” is generally viewed by the Qaddafi clan as a traitor turned CIA asset, Qadhaf al-Dam has expressed support for Haftar’s campaign against Islamist factions and the rival General National Congress (GNC) government in Tripoli:  “Thanks to these heroes, we shall soon crush the NATO revolution and all those claiming to be Islamists” (Middle East Monitor, May 21, 2014).

Conclusion

A savvy and experienced political operator with a great instinct for self-preservation and a Qaddafi-like ability to catch his opponents off-guard, Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam is at the center of a neo-Qaddafist movement poised to exploit any available opening in the political chaos that has enveloped Libya. There remain pockets of Qaddafi loyalists in many parts of Libya, though in the current environment they have typically kept their heads down. An exception is the city of Sabha in the Fezzan, where Qaddafists have made repeated and often provocative demonstrations that occasionally deteriorate into violence, most recently in August (Libya Herald, August 7, 2015).

The Nidal Front calls for a truth-and-reconciliation program (perhaps conveniently, given the record of human rights abuses by its proponents), the reformation of the security establishment, including the army and a rejection of violence, terrorism and religious extremism (Libya Herald, September 20, 2015). What is implied by their founding statement is that ruling Libya would be best left to the experienced hands of the Qaddafists, who, with a little democratic polish, might one day be acceptable to Libya’s war-weary populace. Having survived a number of critical legal challenges, Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam now appears secure in his Egyptian base where he will continue to attempt to insert himself back into Libyan divided political structure in the name of Libyan reconciliation.

While Qadhaf al-Dam now serves up counter-extremism rhetoric he hopes will find resonance in both Libya and the West (where he remains relatively unknown), his ambivalent and at times self-contradicting views on the desirability of the Islamic State organization and his record of eliminating Qaddafi-era dissidents will prove a hard sell within Libya. However, as Libya’s economy and security enter a phase of near-total collapse, Qadhaf al-Dam may find that both time and the substantial funds under his control are on his side as he attempts to restore Cairo’s exiled Qaddafist community to power in a politically volatile Libya.

Notes

  1. David Blundy and Andrew Lycett: Qaddafi and the Libyan Revolution, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1987, p.127.
  2. Ibid, p.163.
  3. M. Cherif Bassiouni, Libya: From Repression to Revolution: A Record of Armed Conflict and International Law Violations, 2011-2013, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2013, p.69.
  4. Official Journal of the European Union, “Judgment of the General Court 24 September 2014 – Kadhaf Al Dam vs Council,” http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:62013TA0348&rid=2

This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor

Egypt, the UAE and Arab Military Intervention in Libya

Andrew McGregor

September 5, 2014

A pair of recent airstrikes against Islamist-held targets in the Libyan capital of Tripoli have raised questions about Arab military intervention in Libya after reports emerged claiming the strikes were conducted by United Arab Emirates (UAE) aircraft using Egyptian airbases. The first strike, on August 17, hit up to a dozen sites in Tripoli held by the Misratan militia and their Islamist allies, killing six people and destroying a small arms depot. A second wave of attacks on August 23, struck numerous military targets shortly before dawn in southern Tripoli, but failed to prevent the Islamist-allied Libyan Shield militia (dominated by Qatari-backed Misratan fighters and allied to the Muslim Brotherhood and Ansar al-Shari’a) from seizing Tripoli’s airport and most of the capital only hours later (Middle East Monitor, August 27; New York Times, August 25).

UAE FighterUAE F-16 Fighter Jet

Though anti-Islamist commander General Khalifa Haftar attempted to claim responsibility for the attacks, their precision, the distance covered by the aircraft and the night operations all precluded the participation of Haftar’s small air element. The U.S. State Department initially said the airstrikes were conducted by UAE aircraft operating from an Egyptian airbase, but later issued a type of ambiguous retraction that suggested further questions should be addressed to the parties involved (Ayat al-Tawy, August 29; Ahram Online [Cairo], August 29). The participation of Egypt and the UAE was confirmed, however, by Pentagon spokesman Admiral John Kirby (Financial Times, August 21; Reuters, August 26). On August 26, a U.S. official said Washington was aware the UAE and Egypt were preparing an attack on Tripoli, but had warned against carrying out the operation (AP, August 26). When the two Arab militaries took the decision to strike Tripoli, they failed to inform their long-time military patron, possibly marking some dissatisfaction with Washington’s reluctance to take more decisive action in Libya and elsewhere.

An Arab Military Solution?

The apparent failure of General Haftar’s “Operation Dignity” has led his Arab backers in Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to consider more direct approaches to re-establishing security in Libya, where both of the nation’s major cities (Tripoli and Benghazi) have been effectively seized by Islamist militias, forcing the national government to move to Tobruk, close to the border with Egypt.

Rumors of an Algerian-Egyptian invasion of Libya circulated throughout August, though a prolonged Algerian military intervention would risk inflaming social and economic tensions within Algeria (Middle East Eye, August 21). The lack of military cooperation between Algeria and Egypt would also seem to argue against a joint operation.

Qatar supports the Islamist faction in Libya and hosts leading Islamist politician Ali Muhammad al-Salabi, an associate of former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group commander Abd al-Hakim Belhadj, now a prominent Islamist militia commander in Tripoli. Both the Algerian and Egyptian militaries are involved in ongoing counter-terrorism campaigns; the question is whether these nations view Libya as an unwanted second front or as an integral part of a wider international anti-terrorist campaign.

The UAE Adopts a More Muscular Foreign Policy

The UAE’s approach to regional security has been described by UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr. Anwar Gargash:

Arab affairs should be settled within the framework of the Arab world because the Arab arena then becomes [accessible] to many regional players. I think this is a risk that threatens all Arab countries… There must be strong and effective police and military forces because not every threat faced by countries is international. There are many regional challenges so we should have the potential to face these threats. As [much as] the UAE and other countries need regional allies, we have to start with our own self-power and potential (The National [Abu Dhabi], March 31).

Gargash later said that allegations of UAE interference in Libyan affairs were merely an attempt to divert attention from Libya’s parliamentary elections, in which the Islamists fared poorly: “The people have spotted [the Islamists’] failure and recognized their lies. Disregarding the results of the Libyan parliamentary election is nothing but an indication of the isolation of the group, which is seeking a way out of their segregation, and [to] justify their mismanagement… Since their seven percent does not form a majority, Islamists in Libya resorted to violence and spread chaos across the country” (Khaleej Times [Dubai], August 27).

UAE pilots certainly know the way to Tripoli; during the NATO-led intervention in 2011, the UAE Air Force (UAEAF) deployed six F-16s and six Mirage fighter jets during the anti-Qaddafi campaign (AP, April 27). The UAE has used some of its considerable oil wealth to obtain a modern and well-trained air arm to help ensure the security of the Emirates in an increasingly unstable region. Many of the pilots and technicians are Pakistani ex-servicemen serving the UAE on private contracts. With the Mirage jets being phased out in favor of American-built F-16s, many of the pilots are not trained in the United States or by American trainers in the UAE. The UAE is also one of the few nations in the region to have mid-air refueling capabilities for long-distance operations thanks to its recent purchase of three Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transports (MRTT). In recent years, the UAE has been improving its military capabilities to take a greater role in foreign affairs (particularly in the Arab world) and regional counter-terrorism efforts under the direction of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayid al-Nahyan.

The Egyptian Perspective

Although a cursory examination of a map of North Africa would seem to indicate Libya and Egypt are close neighbors, in reality, their interaction has been historically limited by distance, topography and culture. A brief 1977 border war that ended in disaster for Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s poorly trained Libyan forces marked the last military encounter of any significance between the two nations.

UAE - Egypt Libya Border WarLibyan Troops Celebrate Downing of an Egyptian Fighter by Libyan Mirage Jets during the 1977 Border War. (Tom Cooper Collection)

Egyptian president Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi told a U.S. congressional delegation on August 29 that Egypt respected Libyan internal affairs, but noted that democracies cannot be built on ruins: “Despite Egypt being one of the most harmed parties from the deteriorating political and security situation in Libya, it is committed to non-interference in internal Libyan affairs” (Egypt State Information Service, August 29; Ahram Online [Cairo], August 29). While Egypt has been reluctant to admit any involvement in the airstrikes, there are reports that its newly formed Rapid Intervention Force, a group of some 10,000 commandos with airborne capability dedicated to counter-terrorism operations, has been involved in intelligence collecting operations in eastern Libya focused on Ansar al-Shari’a activities (AP, August 26; Cairo Post, May 8; al-Bawaba, March 30).

Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry was adamant that Egypt was not involved in “any military activity and does not have any military presence on Libyan territories,” all of which might be technically true if Egypt only provided use of an air base to a UAEAF mission (al-Jazeera, August 26). UAE officials were more reticent, noting at first only that the Emirati authorities had “no reaction” to reports of UAEAF activity in Libya (al-Jazeera, August 26).

The day after the attack, the Egyptian and Libyan Foreign Ministers announced a bilateral initiative to restore security in Libya without military intervention by non-Arab (i.e. Western) nations. The plan calls for the disarmament of Libya’s militias with the aid of regional and international partners, but depends largely on commitments from international arms suppliers to halt sales to the militias after disarmament. Though well-intended, neither the Egyptian nor Libyan armed forces have the ability or will to further this initiative (Ahram Online [Cairo], August 25).

Egypt’s Concerns

The political chaos in neighboring Libya is the source of a number of security concerns being examined by Cairo. These include:

  • Contacts and arms trading between Libyan Islamists and Salafi-Jihadist groups operating in the Sinai;
  • Harassment and assaults on Egyptian nationals working in Libya could lead to the return of hundreds of thousands of workers who would become reliant on a state already experiencing its own economic and unemployment crises for their welfare. Other economic impacts have been slight so far, as there is little trade between Libya and Egypt and only a small degree of Egyptian investment in Libya;
  • The absence of state control over Libyan borders, seaports and airports raises a host of security concerns;
  • New armed Islamist groups operating in the greater Cairo region and the Nile Valley (possibly including returnees from the fighting in Syria and Iraq) may seek arms supplies from Libya transported over the largely defenseless southern region of the border between Libya and Egypt. Gunmen and smugglers operate openly in the region and in July attacked an Egyptian base for counter-smuggling operations in the western desert oasis of Farafra (Wadi al-Jadid Governorate), killing 22 soldiers. Securing this region with some type of permanent military presence would require an expensive and logistically difficult deployment of officers and troops, most of whom (despite Arab stereotypes) have little to no experience of the desert and share a great aversion to serving in the Libyan desert in any prolonged capacity;
  • Libya could provide a rallying point for Egyptian jihadists, likely in the newly-declared “Islamic Emirate of Benghazi” (see Terrorism Monitor, August 7). Though the anti-Sisi “Free Egyptian Army” with supposed Qatari-Turkish-Iranian backing appears to have a greater presence in the virtual world than the battlefield, a small number of Egyptian extremists have taken refuge in Libya and could attempt to form new armed opposition groups there (al-Ahram Weekly [Cairo], April 24; al-Akhbar [Beirut], April 10). Working in favor of the Egyptian government is the relative difficulty of mounting operations of any size in Egypt from Libyan bases.

Egyptian Options

Among the options available to Egypt to impose a political/security solution in Libya are the following:

  • An air campaign of limited or sporadic intensity targeting Islamist bases in Libya;
  • Securing the length of its 700 mile border with Libya (a near physical and financial impossibility aggravated by the lack of credible partners on the Libyan side);
  • A limited incursion into Libya establishing a secured buffer zone in the northern reaches of the Libyan-Egyptian border (a move of dubious international legality that would invite Islamist attacks, inflame relations with some Arab nations and drain Egyptian resources better used in the Sinai);
  • A broad multi-year military occupation (with or without allied Arab contingents) designed to disarm militias and support a new government that is likely to be viewed in many quarters as an Egyptian proxy (diplomatically provocative, militarily risky and financially draining);
  • Covert military/logistical/intelligence support for new anti-Islamist factions (created with the help of Egyptian military intelligence) or existing militias. This has been the Egyptian strategy so far, but its support for the “National Libyan Army” forces of Khalifa Haftar and their allies has failed to yield results so far. Cairo may look elsewhere in Libya for someone with greater credibility in Libya to lead anti-Islamist forces – Haftar’s long American exile and CIA associations have worked against him in Libya;
  • Training and arming Libyan nationals to form a new national Libyan army with some limited political direction from Cairo. According to Libyan Army chief-of-staff Major-General Abdul Razzaq al-Nazhuri, Egypt has offered military training for Libya’s new army, an important consideration given that both NATO and the United States have backed off from earlier pledges to provide training due to the continuing unrest in Libya (Stars and Stripes, August 28);
  • Continuing its policy of cultivating tribal elites in the border region for intelligence gathering and counter-terrorist operations. These elements will not work for free, however; they are seeking development projects and legal concessions in return for their cooperation. The tribes that straddle the modern border now control much of the smuggling of arms and other contraband from Libya to Egypt.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood responded to the airstrikes by issuing a statement warning of the “disastrous consequences” of an intervention in Libya and calling for the expulsion of Khalifa Haftar from his Egyptian residence:

Forcing the Egyptian army into this war to achieve foreign powers’ goals and agendas represents the biggest threat to Egypt’s national security and tarnishes the reputation of the Egyptian army, making it look like a group of mercenaries. It also weakens its capabilities when it comes to face real enemies, which brings to mind painful memories of the intervention of the Egyptian army in the war in Yemen, which later led to a disastrous defeat in 1967 in the war against the Zionist entity [i.e. Israel] (Ikhwanweb [Cairo], August 24).

Libya’s branch of the Brotherhood, which fared badly in the elections last June, is now setting up a rival regime in Tripoli to that of the elected parliament.

Conclusion

The lack of consensus in the Arab world regarding the direction of Libya’s future precludes military intervention by an allied force under the direction of the Arab League. Any Arab attempt to impose order in Libya with a military presence on the ground would rely overwhelmingly on forces from Egypt, the Arab world’s largest military power and Libya’s neighbor. However, there are long memories in Egypt of the nation’s last major foreign adventure, the disastrous 1962-1967 Egyptian military intervention in Yemen, which disrupted the Arab nationalist movement, diminished Egyptian influence and weakened its military in the lead-up to the 1967 war with Israel. [1]

The turmoil in Libya strengthens al-Sisi’s posture as the Egyptian and even regional defender of Arabs from religious-political extremism, giving him the freedom to impose stricter security regimes designed to eliminate the Islamist opposition. The question now is whether Qatar will step up its military support of Libya’s Islamists to counter the UAE’s and Egypt’s support of anti-Islamist factions. The August airstrikes on Tripoli suggest that this distant arena is gradually becoming a battleground in the struggle between pro-Islamist states such as Qatar and Turkey and their more conservative opponents – the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Note

  1. See Andrew McGregor, A Military History of Modern Egypt: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Ramadan War, Praeger Security International, Westport CT, 2006, Chapter 19.

This article first appeared in the September 5, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Islam’s Leading Muftis Condemn the “Islamic State”

Andrew McGregor
September 4, 2014

Egypt’s Grand Mufti (chief Islamic jurist), Shaykh Shawqi Ibrahim Abd al-Karim Allam, has opened a new campaign to combat Islamist militancy of the type promoted by the Islamic State through electronic means such as internet sites, videos and Twitter accounts. The campaign, which will involve Islamic scholars from across the world, aims to: “correct the image of Islam that has been tarnished in the West because of these criminal acts, and to exonerate humanity from such crimes that defy natural instincts and spread hate between people” (Middle East News Agency [Cairo], August 31; September 1; AP, August 25). There were 37 million internet users in Egypt as of September 2013 (Ahram Online, September 1).

Grand Mufti EgyptGrand Mufti Shaykh Shawqi Ibrahim Abd al-Karim Allam

Egypt’s Grand Mufti has also been pulled into the controversial death sentences issued against leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their followers in connection with a series of violent incidents that followed last year’s popular rising/military coup that toppled the rule of Muhammad Morsi and the Freedom and Justice Party (the political wing of the Brotherhood). The specific case in which the Grand Mufti was invited to give his opinion involved death sentences handed down to Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Muhammad al-Badi’e and seven other Brotherhood leaders in June (six others were sentenced to death in absentia, but have the right to new trials if they return) in connection with murder charges related to the clashes at the Istiqama mosque in Giza on July 23, 2013 that left nine people dead.

Egyptian legal procedure calls for all death sentences to be confirmed by a non-binding decision of the Grand Mufti, though in practice such decisions are nearly always followed. Unusually, in this case, the Mufti’s original decision to commute the June death sentences to life imprisonment was returned by the court for reconsideration (Ahram Online [Cairo], August 30; al-Jazeera, August 8). Shawqi Allam declined to take the hint and instead reaffirmed his position that the death penalties were inappropriate given that the evidence consisted solely of unsupported testimony from a police operative (Deutsche Welle, August 30). The Grand Mufti’s actions have been interpreted as a rebuke to the judicial process that has delivered hundreds of death sentences to Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters this year following the group’s official designation as a “terrorist” organization. Muhammad al-Badi’e still faces another death sentence in relation to a separate case regarding the Brothers’ alleged armed response to a July 2014 demonstration at their al-Muqattam headquarters in eastern Cairo.

The decisions of Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta (House of Religious Edicts) are typically closely aligned to official government policy, leading many observers to consider it a quasi-governmental agency. Nonetheless, the office and Egypt’s Grand Mufti remain important sources of spiritual direction throughout the Sunni Islamic world, with thousands of fatwa-s being issued every month in response to questions of faith and practice from around the Islamic world. Compared to institutions such as Cairo’s 10th century al-Azhar Islamic University (also brought under government control in 1961), Dar al-Ifta is a comparatively modern institution, having been created at the order of Khedive Abbas al-Hilmi in 1895.

Grand Mufti Saudi ArabiaGrand Mufti Shaykh Abd al-Aziz al-Ashaykh

In Saudi Arabia, Grand Mufti Shaykh Abd al-Aziz al-Ashaykh, chairman of the Council of Senior Ulema and the General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta (the Kingdom’s fatwa-issuing office), used an August 28 radio interview to respond to the arrest of eight men charged with recruiting fighters for the Islamic State by urging young Saudis to resist calls for jihad “under unknown banners and perverted principles” (Nida al-Islam Radio [Mecca], August 28).

The interview followed a statement entitled “Foresight and Remembrance” made several days earlier in which the Saudi Grand Mufti described members of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State as “Kharijites, the first group that deviated from the religion because they accused Muslims of disbelief due to their sins and allowed killing them and taking their money,” a reference to an early and traditionally much despised early Islamic movement whose advocacy of jihad against rulers they deemed insufficiently Islamic (similar to the takfiri pose adopted by the modern Islamist extremists) led to nearly two centuries of conflict in the Islamic world: “Extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on earth, destroying human civilization, are not in any way part of Islam, but are rather Islam’s number one enemy, and Muslims are their first victims…” (Saudi Press Agency, August 19).

The Grand Mufti’s comments reflect a growing concern in Saudi Arabia that the Kingdom will inevitably be targeted by the so-called Islamic State, a development that could shatter the partnership between Wahhabi clerics and the al-Sa’ud royal family that dominates the Kingdom both politically and spiritually. Thousands of Saudis are believed to have left to join Islamic State and al-Nusra Front forces in Iraq and Syria in recent months (Reuters, August 25). The Islamic State poses a direct challenge to the religious legitimacy of the al-Sa’ud monarchy and their rule of the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah by presenting the creation of a caliphate as the true fulfillment the Wahhabist “project” while simultaneously undercutting the authority of Wahhabist clerics such as Shaykh Abd al-Aziz, whom the movement views as having been co-opted by their partnership with a “corrupt and un-Islamic” royal family.

This article first appeared in the September 4, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Egypt’s Domestic Security Threat: Ajnad Misr and the “Retribution for LIfe” Campaign

Andrew McGregor 

July 10, 2014

A Cairo-based extremist group using the name Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt) has intensified its bombing campaign in the Egyptian capital with a surprising attack on the Ittihadiya Palace in Heliopolis, the home of Egyptian president Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi. The bombing was part of the movement’s “Retribution for Life” campaign, apparently mounted in support of pro-Muhammad Mursi/Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations in the capital met with ruthless responses by Egyptian security forces that have left hundreds dead. Ajnad Misr refers to Egypt’s police as “criminals” who carry out “massacres” and has made them the main target of their bombing campaign so far (Ahram Online [Cairo], April 3).

Moments after a Bomb Blast at Cairo’s Ittihadiya Palace

The movement announced itself via Twitter on January 23, following the announcement the next day with the release of its “Retribution for Life” manifesto. [1]  The manifesto deployed the usual references to the Salafists’ preferred religious authority, Ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328), but also spoke in sympathy with the Brotherhood, suggesting it was only their failure to eradicate corruption that allowed the old military regime to “re-emerge in an even uglier and more criminal form” (Al-Monitor, July 3).  [2]

The movement professes a reluctance to incur civilian casualties in its bombing campaign, claiming it had canceled many operations out of fears “shrapnel” could inflict damage on civilian bystanders (al-Arabiya, April 2). In its manifesto, the group appeared to have reached a conclusion in the ongoing jihadi debate over the legitimacy of killing innocent Muslims in pursuit of an Islamic state,  declaring that those fighting the Egyptian regime “must remain extremely vigilant and careful not to inflict damage upon the innocents among us, even if they oppose us” (Al-Monitor, July 3).  [3]

Ajnad Misr issued a video in April that claimed responsibility for eight bombing attacks in Egypt, including a series of bombings on April 2 that killed a senior police officer and wounded five policemen outside Cairo University (Ahram Online [Cairo], April 17). Within days of the video’s release, Ajnad Misr deployed a car bomb to kill police Brigadier General Ahmad Zaki outside his home in Sixth October City, later issuing a statement saying the time and place of the blast had been carefully chosen to avoid civilian casualties (Ahram Online [Cairo], April 24).

In the April 2 attack, two bombs were detonated in quick succession on the Giza campus of Cairo University, killing police Brigadier General Tariq al-Margawi and wounding several other officers. A third blast of a smaller device occurred as police responded to the earlier blasts, wounding the Giza deputy chief of police, Major General Abd al-Raouf al-Sirafy (al-Arabiya, April 2; Youm 7 [Cairo], April 2). In its statement of claim, Ajnad Misr said the last explosion was delayed to avoid harming civilians, though it may also have been intended to strike first responders (Ahram Online [Cairo], April 3). Police had been deployed on the campus that day in anticipation of a demonstration by pro-Mursi students.

The movement was declared a terrorist organization by Egypt’s Court for Urgent Matters in May as the death toll from extremist attacks since the anti-Mursi coup approached 500 people (Ahram Online [Cairo], May 22). Most alarming were the bombs detonated in several stations of Cairo’s busy underground metro system on June 25 (al-Arabiya, June 25; Daily News Egypt, July 3). The bombs were fortunately small in size and inflicted a limited number of casualties, but served as a warning that mass-casualty terrorist attacks could lie in Cairo’s future. The attacks were not claimed by Ajnad Misr and may be the work of one of several other terrorist cells that appear to be mobilizing against the new government.

Another bomb planted outside a court in Heliopolis the same day as the metro bombings killed two policemen (including a senior officer) and wounded Major General Ala’a Abd al-Zaher, the head of Cairo’s bomb disposal unit. Al-Zaher was attempting to defuse the bomb after Ajnad Misr tweeted their location in an apparent change of heart regarding their detonation (al-Arabiya, June 25; Egypt State Information Service, July 1). [4]

Ajnad Misr stepped up its campaign significantly with a dramatic June 30 bombing attack on the presidential palace in Heliopolis (an integrated suburb of Cairo).  Two policemen were killed and 13 others wounded as they struggled to defuse the two bombs planted just outside the palace. Most disturbing from a security point of view was the fact that the movement had issued a warning via social media on June 27 indicating it was about to plant explosives on the palace grounds, yet security services were unable to secure the area and prevent the blasts (Daily News Egypt, July 1).

Ajnad Misr’s membership, leadership and exact connections to the Muslim Brotherhood remain largely unknown, though it is possible the group has been created to enable the imprisoned Brotherhood leadership to apply pressure on President al-Sisi’s government, which appears set on the physical extermination of the Brothers and their ability to challenge the state. The group’s focus on police targets and stated reluctance to inflict civilian casualties is obviously designed to enable the group to attract wider public support, something the casual destructiveness of most jihadi groups has prevented in the past. Whether this approach will have resonance with the large number of Egyptians unhappy with the manner of the replacement of Mursi’s Islamist government by yet another pseudo-military regime is worth watching.

Notes

1. The movement’s Twitter account can be found at: https://twitter.com/ajnad_misr

2. https://twitter.com/ajnad_misr_am/status/457501373458694144/photo/1

3. https://twitter.com/ajnad_misr_am/status/457501373458694144/photo/1

4. EuroNews, “Twin Blasts Kill Policemen in Egypt,” June 30, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_KlAOfKygs

This article first appeared in the July 10, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.