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Security watch Egypt: Another threat emerges

Earlier this month, the Egyptian government detained 49 people on the Sinai Peninsula, accusing them of being members of a Hezbollah cell determined to execute attacks on Egyptian soil. It’s a sensational accusation that might give further evidence to the rising cooperation between Islamist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood. It would also speak to continued tensions in the Arab world over Egypt’s relationship with Israel.

It only takes spending a couple of hours in Egypt to discover that the entire structure of the Egyptian state is centered around the security apparatus. Policemen dot nearly every street corner in the city, plain-clothes agents patrol tourist hotspots, and the military runs checkpoints on highways throughout the country.

Security is also the frequent excuse made by government officials, President Hosni Mubarak chief among them, for why Egypt has been slow to enact political reforms. The tenuous security situation, they argue, is evidence that the country needs a strong leader and a powerful military. As a result, protests are quickly squashed and opposition parties antagonized. Critics say that the Mubarak regime sets up and uses non-existent threats as an excuse to rule with an iron fist.

The threats against Egypt, real or perceived, have long been low-grade. And the security machine in the country has insured that Egypt remains an island of relative stability at the heart of this turbulent region. Over the last decade, violence has been isolated to infrequent bombings, shootings and kidnappings in tourist destinations. This may not sound like a great record, but incidents of terrorism has been infrequent enough that numbers in the tourism sector have exploded over the last 10 years.

So here, in no particular order, is your guide to the government’s favorite boogeymen:

1) The Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 and eventually became a leading militant voice for the founding of an Islamic state in Egypt. The group worked to undermine the Egyptian government — first the monarchy and then the republic — through bombings and targeted assassinations. By the 1970s, the Brotherhood had moved away from violence in favor of playing an opposition role in government. The group has made serious gains in the last several parliamentary elections, and government officials are getting jittery. The Brotherhood now controls 20 percent of seats in parliament. In recent years, the government has started a practice of arresting members of the Brotherhood political wing. They also passed a law that will effectively shut the group out of the next presidential elections in 2011.

2) Gama’a al Islamiyya. When the Muslim Brotherhood decided to seek political legitimacy in the 1970s, a group of radical clerics and militants split off from the group to form Gama’s al Islamiyya which, they said, would preserve the principles of militant jihad. The group killed scores of foreign tourists throughout the 1990s, including the 1997 slaughter of 62 people in Luxor. One of its leading clerics was arrested in connection with the first World Trade Center bombing. In the last few years, the group’s leaders have come to reject violence, though many argue that a splinter group remains active in the country.

3) The Bedouins. Bedouins are a fiercely tribal group that live across the barren sands of the Sinai. They’ve long enjoyed a great deal of autonomy in the country, but the Mubarak government in recent years has made an effort to crack down on the 30-plus tribes in an effort to slow the Sinai drug trade, a black market for weapons, and smuggling tunnels into Gaza. As a result of that and of internal tribal disputes, violence has been a recurring theme on the Sinai. Bedouin militants were responsible for the 2005 bombings in Sharm el Sheikh which killed 80 people. In 2006, bombings in the popular vacation town of Dahab killed more than 20 people. The result of these attacks has been a tense and sometimes violent relationship between various tribes and state security forces.

4) The Rogue Islamists. Many of the lower level attacks that happen in Egypt are the result of homegrown one-off terrorists. Don’t let the names of their militant groups fool you; they come about as the result of small ideologically driven groups that attack and are largely never heard from again. Take the attacks that took place around Cairo in April 2005, for example. A number of individuals were arrested in connection with a series of bombings and shootings, and a couple of before unheard of groups took responsibility. No credible evidence was ever presented suggesting that any established organized group was behind the attack. In February of this year, a bomb exploded in the crowded tourist market called Khan el Khalili. One Frenchwoman was killed. Several Egyptians were arrested, but no groups claimed responsibility and no evidence emerged that the accused were affiliated with any militant organizations.

5) Hezbollah. The newcomer to the list, Hezbollah continues to show broad international reach with its leader even conceding that it had planted a cell in Egypt. Several weeks ago, Egyptian authorities arrested a number of Egyptians, Palestinians, Lebanese, and Sudanese on the Sinai accusing them of acting as a Hezbollah cell that was planning to carry out attacks on tourist destinations in the Sinai. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah conceded that Hezbollah has agents inside Egypt, claiming, though, that they were there to facilitate the flow of arms into Gaza. Security forces have detained more than 20 of the 49 suspected Hezbollah members, and authorities have been making sweeps of towns throughout Sinai in an attempt to round up the rest.

So there you have it: the latest and greatest groups that the Egyptian government claims are threatening state security. As long as the government continues to conduct public campaigns against groups like these, whether or not they actually pose a threat, look for the State of Emergency that has been in place since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat to endure and for security concerns here to trump all others.