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Analysis: Egypt has all the ingredients for an insurgency

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shout slogans during a protest at Rabaa Adawiya Square, where they are camping, in Nasr City, east of Cairo, on Aug. 7.Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

News analysis

CAIRO -- A troubling thing happened at the Cairo airport early one morning this week. 

Two Egyptian men arrived on a predawn flight from Istanbul. As they were walking through the arrival hall, airport officials say, one of the men threw something in a wastepaper basket before reaching customs control. The action seemed suspicious.

Their passports indicated the men had started their journey in Chechnya, a center of Islamic unrest in the Caucasus. Customs officials inspected their luggage and discovered they were carrying military uniforms, a black “al Qaeda flag,” and computer memory cards containing what seemed to be radical Islamist propaganda. Fishing through the trash, officials also found what they described as counterfeit passports. 

The men were taken into custody. Egyptian officials said they believe the men were Islamic extremists traveling to Egypt to wage jihad. 

It’s a very bad sign of what may be coming – a time of jihad and death on the Nile.

Middle East analysts and U.S. intelligence officers have told me they worry an insurgency may break out in Egypt. At a minimum, such an uprising could cause sporadic violence against the government, the Egyptian military and foreign visitors. Far worse, it could cause serious instability in this 5,000-year-old civilization.

After the military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood’s elected President Mohammed Morsi earlier this summer, Egypt has joined Syria as the cause du jour for Islamic crusaders. Al Qaeda’s chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, who U.S. officials say ordered his Yemeni captain to carry out a big terrorist attack somewhere in the vast West, has released an audio message urging Islamists to take their struggle to Egypt. Zawahiri, himself an Egyptian, has accused Washington of orchestrating the coup, saying it was paid for with money from Persian Gulf states and carried out with the complicity of Egyptian Christians.

At daily Muslim Brotherhood rallies in Cairo and Alexandria, protesters threaten jihad against the mostly-secular Egyptian military. 

The Egyptian military has said it will no longer tolerate the demonstrations, and may move to clear them out by force. The move could be what tips the kettle of Egypt’s brewing insurgency.

This week Sen. John McCain told NBC News he worries Egypt could follow the path of Algeria. In the 1990s, Islamists in Algeria won elections like the Brotherhood did in Egypt. The Algerian military refused to allow the Islamists to take power. A war erupted, killing between 100,000 to 200,000 people, depending on which estimates are to be believed.

Egyptians should hope McCain is wrong, but there are undeniable parallels. An Algeria redux in Egypt is the worst possibility, the nightmare of a total breakdown of order, death on the Nile every night. 

Intelligence officials and analysts say that horror show is possible, but expect a somewhat less dire, but still violent and persistent armed insurgency that could last years. 

Insurgencies are easy to make and hard to stop. Only a few ingredients need to combine to create an insurgency; like oxygen and fire, they’re very common and mix all too often. The recipe is simply: a legitimate grievance against a state, a state that refuses to compromise, a quorum of angry people, and access to weapons. 

Egypt appears to have them all.

Morsi was legitimately elected in 2012. His government’s performance was, by almost any standard, disastrous and didn’t respect the rights of other political groups. He is accused of colluding with Hamas, and of allowing the Sinai Peninsula, where the Bible says Moses handed down laws to his people, to become a lawless safe haven for wild-eyed jihadis and gun runners. 

Morsi was, of course, overthrown in what the United States doesn’t want to call a coup. He may have deserved it. Many Egyptians certainly think so. But does the Muslim Brotherhood have a cause to rally around? Yes. The first ingredient is there.

Is the military willing to compromise? It and the government it backs say they want to talk and find a solution. The government has reached out to religious leaders hoping to use them as intermediaries. But the military isn’t willing to step down. Is the state refusing compromise? Yes, but only from the Brotherhood's perspective.

Insurgencies also need insurgents. Does the Brotherhood have the numbers? The group claims that the majority of Egyptians support them, since they won the election by a majority. The Brotherhood’s opponents say the group only won the election because other parties weren’t organized and say the Brotherhood alienated many Egyptians during its year in power. But even the Brotherhood’s toughest critics say the group has a base of support that numbers at least in the millions. 

For an insurgency, you don’t need millions. Al Qaeda in Yemen, which now has powerful nations shutting its embassies around the globe, only has a core of about 1,000 members. Does Egypt have the numbers for an insurgency? Yes, it does, and then some.

The last ingredient is weapons. 

There was an insurgency under President Hosni Mubarak in the 1990s. Egyptian police and soldiers fought weekly battles with Islamists in the sugarcane fields and thick reeds along the Nile in rural southern villages like Minya, Sohag, Enna and Assiout. Whenever I traveled to Assiout in the 1990s, I had to inform the Egyptian government of my movements ahead of time. On one trip, I was given a full military escort, including two tracked armored personnel carriers with machine guns. In 1997, Islamic extremists killed nine German tourists in front of the painfully rich Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. Two gunmen boarded the bus, started shooting tourists and set the vehicle on fire with Molotov cocktails. I lived down the street at the time and climbed on the smoking bus to see the bodies, still seated, melted to the nylon and plastic foam seats. Two months later, Islamic militants butchered 58 foreign tourists with assault rifles in front of the temple of the Pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut in Luxor, better known to the ancients as Thebes.

There weren’t many weapons in Egypt in the 1990s. Police controls on guns were very strict back them. That is no longer the case in Egypt today. When Libya collapsed after NATO airpower guided Mad Max rebels into Tripoli, Muammar Gadhafi’s weapons were smuggled out like rats off a sinking ship. The weapons went to Mali, Niger, Syria, Egypt and everywhere. Do Egyptians have access to enough arms for an insurgency? Oh, yes.

So what can be done? The easy answer would be to tell the military and the Brotherhood to work out a deal, to compromise and play nice together. But that seems unlikely. The military and the Brotherhood both want power and both feel they deserve to have it; both sides also have passionate supporters encouraging them to hold their ground. 

Analysts may be right to worry that death on the Nile may be coming.