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Does the Islamic State have a real presence in Egypt?

When local militants groups become Islamic State franchises, regimes can reframe their authoritarian politics as part of an inevitable war

Following the exploding of the Russian airplane as it was leaving Sharm-el-Sheikh to head to Saint Petersburg on 31 October 2015, killing all of its 224 passengers, the Islamic State's Egyptian branch claimed responsibility for the attack. The claim was surprising to some, who asked: "when did the Islamic State reach Egypt?" Egypt has no physical border to IS's heartland in Syria and Iraq.

The Egyptian militants had sworn allegiance to IS November 2014, adopting the new name Wilayat Sinia (Sinai Province). Prior to that, the group was known as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem), officially coming into existence after the 2011 uprising that toppled former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

This group was the most prominent one in an insurgency in the Sinai that had flared up following the 2013 military coup that overthrew Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first elected leader. But even before that, the Sinai region, whose inhabitants complain of marginalisation and mistreatment, had frequently been plagued with anti-government violence.   

Masked jihadis waving the black banner demonstrate strength and suggest that the militant group took over territory not only in Egypt but also in other countries like Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan. However, the Islamic State did not send troops from Syria and Iraq to claim territory.

Instead it absorbs small local groups providing them with its label - similar to an international franchise company. These local groups are based in countries with authoritarian regimes who lack legitimacy within the population and thus face various forms of resistance.

Reframing the narrative

A triangle relationship lies beneath. When local jihadis become IS franchises, the regimes can reframe their authoritarian politics as part of an inevitable struggle against the Islamic State. The increased repression drives more people into the hands of the jihadists and ultimately strengthens the Islamic State which can expand the number of franchises.

Why is this important? Because the perception of the Islamic State determines the responses of politicians as well as entire societies.

In the case of Egypt, a key response is the international support for Abd-al Fattah al-Sisi's military regime given the perceived threat of spreading IS influence in the country. That support creates the risk of losing the eye for the underlying conflicts which provide the breeding ground for terrorism. It goes even further: the one-dimensional focus on the Islamic State's banner leads to an escalation of those conflicts and therefore to an even more fertile breeding ground.

Ansar Bait al-Maqdis emerged after the Egyptian revolution in 2011. However, the roots of armed struggle and jihadism in Egypt go back decades, entangled in the conflict between various military regimes and opposition forces, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. Radical elements united under the banner of jihadism and found a safe haven on the Sinai - a region characterised by tribal structures where the nation state's influence is historically limited.

The power vacuum that followed the revolution in 2011 strengthened those radical elements. Following the counter-revolution of 2013 when the Egyptian military forced the elected president Mohamed Morsi out of office and the brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, Ansar Bait al-Magdis radicalised and increased its attacks on the army and security forces.

Merger and growth of IS

The merger of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis with the Islamic State is a showcase model of how the Islamic State interacts with local jihadi groups in other countries. Like an international franchise company, the Islamic State provides resources and gets promotional value in return. Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, a group of only 1000-2,000 fighters, benefited a lot from the improved image that came free of charge.

IS supported the jihadists with logistics, finances and knowledge through contacts in Syria and Iraq. But, above all, with media attention. There is one constant in the intricate political landscape of the Middle East - regardless of its seriousness: the fight against the Islamic State is top priority. Paradoxically, the form plays into the hands of the jihadists. Affiliates in different countries and on different continents increase the reach of IS's ideology, which is based on the propagated narrative of modern crusaders oppressing Muslims.

After the coup d'état in 2013, Egypt's new President Sisi proclaimed a war on terror. Yet, Sisi considers the opposition overall as terrorists, blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for attacks claimed by jihadists like the Sinai Province. Sisi thus equates the nationalist insurgency with jihadism. The underlying goal is to discredit the Muslim Brotherhood with its tens of thousands of members and millions of sympathisers that cannot be labelled as terrorists in general but constitute a social movement that is deeply rooted in significant parts of Egypt's society.

As part of the war on terror, Sisi's regime persecutes political opponents and restricts civil rights. The military demolished houses of locals and forced the relocation of thousands of residents in order to build a buffer zone at Egypt's border to the Gaza Strip. The local population suffers curfews, telecommunication restrictions and arbitrary actions by the army and security forces.

Vicious cycle continues

The knocked down revolution and the new-old military regime frustrates many Egyptians and radicalises plenty. The Islamic State's ideology attracts some of them and Sisi's brutal crackdown spurs extremism. Tens of thousands of regime opponents are currently being held in Egyptian prisons under harsh conditions, another breeding ground for extremism.

However, it is not so much about individuals that feel attracted by jihadism - a phenomenon that will always exist - it is about the masses. The Muslim Brotherhood's young generation witnessed how its democratically elected president was ousted by force and thousands of members were killed. As long as Egypt's military dominates the political sphere and Western countries support its rule, people will radicalise and join groups like the Sinai Province in order to fight the accursed regime.

This pattern can be found in various countries in the Middle East ranging from Syria to Algeria. Making things more intractable, radicalisation benefits the players with power. Local jihadi groups — like Ansar Bait al-Maqdis — are upgraded. The Islamic State gains reach. The authoritarian regimes can continue their brutal crackdowns. Yet, the causes of the conflicts fade. In contrast, government oppression, poverty and the spiral of violence grow.

- Lars Hauch studied International Development in Vienna and worked as head of editorial at the German media outlet Commentarist. With a focus on the MENA region, he published a commented roundup www.menaroundup.com, in addition to writing for EAWorldview and the German CARTA.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: An Egyptian man stands in an armoured vehicle as residents gather outside a police station in North Sinai's provincial capital of El-Arish after it was targeted by a car bomb on 12 April, 2015 (AFP)