Egypt’s president turns to religion to bolster his authority

The New York Times reports: When President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi opened a much-heralded extension to the Suez Canal in August, the official Friday Prayer sermon that week hailed it as a “gift from God.”

When Egyptian voters elected a new Parliament in December, a preacher on state TV urged its members to “obey those in authority, specifically the highest authority,” and referred indirectly to Mr. Sisi as “God’s shadow on earth.”

And when a Russian airplane leaving the Sharm el Sheik resort crashed in the Sinai Desert in October, killing 224 people and crippling Egyptian tourism, the Ministry of Religious Endowments encouraged clerics to vacation at the deserted resort — notable because many observant Muslims here view it as a sinful fleshpot.

Fears of Islamist rule helped propel Mr. Sisi, then a military general, to power in 2013 following giant protests that led to the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government. But as Mr. Sisi wrestles with militant attacks and a struggling economy, he has increasingly turned to religion to bolster his authority and justify a crackdown on his rivals. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt now looks a lot like it did in 2010, just before 2011 unrest

Michele Dunne and Nik Nevin write: Egypt of December 2015 is looking a lot like Egypt of late 2010 and the final months of Hosni Mubarak‘s three-decade rule. The country’s longtime military president had little political sophistication; then as now, there were struggles between the military and businessmen for economic and political power, human rights abuses, economic woes, and jihadi groups in the Sinai. But today, these things appear more pronounced.

The membership and mission of the recently elected 598-seat House of Representatives bear similarities to the parliament chosen a few months before the January 2011 uprising, but each is more exaggerated. Other developments in Egypt echo the dysfunction of 2010, raising questions about whether another upheaval might be brewing. [Continue reading…]

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The war on freedom of expression across the Middle East

Rami G Khouri writes: It is useful to spot meaningful patterns that help us make sense of our bewildering world, and to acknowledge positive developments to be continued alongside negative ones to be avoided.

Applying this principle to the last year in the Middle East reveals several troubling trends that have made life difficult for hundreds of millions of people. One in particular stands out, and strikes me as a root cause of many other negative trends that plague our region. This is the tendency of governments to use increasingly harsh measures to restrict the freedoms of their citizens to express themselves and meaningfully to participate politically and hold power accountable.

Several aspects of this behavior make it especially onerous. It is practiced by all states in the region—Arab, Israeli, Iranian, and Turkish—leaving few people in this part of the world who can live as fully free and dignified human beings. It is justified on the basis of existing constitutional powers, so governments can jail tens of thousands of their citizens, rescind their nationality, or torture and kill them in the worst cases, simply because of the views they express, without any recourse to legal or political challenge. It shows no signs of abating, and indeed may be worsening in lands like Egypt, Turkey, and others. And, it is most often practiced as part of a “war on terror” that seeks to quell criminal terror attacks, but in practice achieves the opposite; the curtailment of citizen rights and freedoms exacerbates the indignities and humiliations that citizens feel against their government, which usually amplifies, rather than reduces, the threat of political violence. [Continue reading…]

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Egyptian border guards gun down unarmed Palestinian man trying to escape from Gaza

The New York Times reports: Something drove Ishaq Khalil Hassan, 28, into the Mediterranean last week, to walk naked in the shallow surf, to attempt what has become all but impossible for Palestinians: an escape from the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian officials insisted that Mr. Hassan, who tried to wade across the border into Egypt on Thursday, was mentally ill. His family said he was sane, but desperate — he had been trying all year, unsuccessfully, to legally enter Egypt for medical treatment for an old injury.

“Ishaq thought that Egyptians will be like Europeans, who deal with Syrians and welcome them,” said his brother, Ibrahim Hassan.

But as soon as Mr. Hassan crossed the frontier, Egyptian border guards opened fire, spraying the sea with bullets while ignoring a Palestinian guard who whistled and frantically gestured with his hands that Mr. Hassan had mental problems. A video that captured the shooting made at least one thing clear: Mr. Hassan appeared to pose no immediate threat to anyone. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt’s expanding military economy

Yezid Sayigh writes: On November 29, 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi amended the powers of the Armed Forces Land Projects Agency, which was set up by presidential decree in 1981 to manage the sale of real estate no longer in use by the armed forces. The latest amendment now additionally empowers the agency to engage in commercial activity “to develop its resources, for which purpose it may form companies in all their guises, whether on its own or jointly with national and foreign capital.”

At first glance, Sisi’s Presidential Decree 446 of 2015 on military land and proceeds merely confirms and continues the expansionary trend of the Egyptian military’s involvement in the civilian economy since he took power in July 2013. Over the past two years, the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) have taken on the management role for a number of mega-projects, including construction of a second Suez Canal and plans for over one million new housing units and a new administrative capital. This is part of a broad trend that, according to a study by Shana Marshall published by the Carnegie Middle East Center in April 2015, has made the EAF “the primary gatekeeper for the Egyptian economy” since 2013, if not earlier. [Continue reading…]

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This is how ISIS has spread beyond Syria and Iraq

Borzou Daragahi reports: His killers knew who he was and where he was going.

Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s top prosecutor, was driving away from his home in an upscale quarter of Cairo’s Heliopolis District. The force of the blast that struck the highest-ranking Egyptian official assassinated in decades shattered windows for blocks around. It was a clean hit. No one else was killed and no suspect was caught.

“The sound was horrible,” recalled Mona Murad, 58, the owner of a nearby women’s clothing store that was destroyed in the blast on June 29. “I was in the street. People were telling me, ‘Your shop is burning.’”

No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but it came amid a string of operations by ISIS’s branch in Egypt. ISIS thrives in collapsed states such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, where it seizes control of territory and resources and attempts to set up its 21st-century version of the medieval Islamic Caliphate. But ISIS’s operations in Egypt provide a blueprint of how it can absorb a knowledgeable local jihadi group — in this case the Sinai-based Ansar Beit al Maqdis — to make its presence felt in countries that are not war zones. The local groups give ISIS and its ideology global reach. ISIS supplies Ansar Beit al Maqdis with weapons through smuggling networks and inspiration to roil a flailing state.

“Like a multinational company, the jihadis merge with ISIS, mostly because of the media, finance, logistics, and manpower it can provide,” said retired Egyptian Interior Ministry Gen. Hussein Hamoudeh. “They take the trademark of ISIS in the terror war. But it’s not just a brand. You have to take up the Daesh thinking,” he said referring to the group by its Arabic acronym.

The Egyptian jihadi group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis announced its merger with ISIS in November 2014. The killing of Barakat last summer came days before a multipronged attack on security forces that was among the first warning signs that ISIS’s Egyptian branch, called Wilayat al-Sina, or Sinai Province, was gathering momentum. In recent weeks, ISIS in Egypt has killed four soldiers in western Cairo and bombed judges in a hotel often used by foreigners and dignitaries in the northeast Sinai town of Arish. That was in addition to one of its most spectacular claimed attacks: the downing of a Russian civilian plane that killed 224 passengers and crew.

Though attacks in Egypt are down numerically and armed forces say the number of militants killed has increased, the attacks by Sinai Province have become more effective, thanks in large part to the local political knowledge of the ISIS branch and Egyptian security forces’ over-reliance on airstrikes and conventional military means to eradicate the group. The group has badly damaged the country’s economy and the reputation of its security forces. Tourism has plummeted since the downing of the jet. The Egyptian pound is trading at a 25-year low and stock market has drooped. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS recruitment thrives in Egypt’s brutal prisons

Murtaza Hussain reports: While in jail [in Cairo], [Mohamed] Soltan [a 26-year-old citizen of both Egypt and America] says he witnessed the recruitment efforts of Islamic State members. “There were people from across the spectrum of Egyptian society in jail: liberals, Muslim Brotherhood members, leftists, Salafis, and some people who had pledged allegiance to ISIS,” Soltan says. “Everyone felt depressed and betrayed, except for the ISIS guys. They walked around with this victorious air and had this patronizing and condescending attitude towards everyone else.”

Among the facilities in which Soltan was incarcerated was the notorious Tora Prison, where he was kept in an underground dungeon with dozens of other prisoners. Between regular beatings, humiliation, and torture by guards, the prisoners would talk to one another. In this grim environment, ISIS members would attempt to convince others of the justice of their cause. “The ISIS guys would come and tell everyone these nonviolent means don’t work, that Western countries only care about power and the Egyptian regime only understands force,” Soltan says. “They would say that the world didn’t respect you enough to think you deserve democracy, and now the man who killed your friends is shaking hands with international leaders who are all arming and funding his regime.”

While the other political factions represented in Egypt’s jails grappled with a seemingly hopeless situation, Islamic State members were consistently filled with hope and optimism, citing a steady stream of “good news” about their state-building project in Iraq, Syria and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Soltan says.

When the prisoners would discuss their circumstances, even avowed leftists found themselves unable to rebut Islamic State members’ arguments. “They would make very simple arguments telling us that the world doesn’t care about values and only understands violence,” says Soltan. “Because of the gravity of the situation they were all in, by the time the ISIS guys were finished speaking, everyone, the liberals, the Brotherhood people, would be left completely speechless. When you’re in that type of situation and don’t have many options left, for some people these kinds of ideas start to make sense.” [Continue reading…]

The headline for this article in The Intercept reads: “ISIS RECRUITMENT THRIVES IN BRUTAL PRISONS RUN BY U.S.-BACKED EGYPT” — as though the phrase “U.S.-backed” is the only reliable hook for the publication’s readers.

Yes, the fact that the Obama administration continues to provide military aid to the Sisi regime in spite of its appalling human rights record is inexcusable. What this otherwise excellent report neglects to mention, however, is that Sisi’s most generous supporters been Gulf states — driven by their fear of the Muslim Brotherhood.

And while the U.S. has a terrible track record in supporting authoritarian rule across the Middle East, blame for the stifling of representative government needs to be apportioned more widely, including the roles played by Russia, Iran, the UK, and other European powers.

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Paris attacks and other assaults seen as evidence of a strategic shift by ISIS

The New York Times reports: The recent attacks in Paris and Beirut and the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt were the first results of a centrally planned terrorism campaign by a wing of the Islamic State leadership that oversees “external” targets, according to American and European intelligence officials.

The Islamic State’s overseas operations planning cell offers strategic guidance, training and funding for actions aimed at inflicting the maximum possible civilian casualties, but leaves the task of picking the time, place and manner of the attacks largely to trusted operatives on the ground, the officials said.

Carrying out attacks far from the Islamic State’s base in Iraq and Syria represents an evolution of the group’s previous model of exhorting followers to take up arms wherever they live — but without significant help from the group. And it upends the view held by the United States and its allies of the Islamic State as a regional threat, with a new assessment that the group poses a whole new set of risks.

Debris from a Russian airliner downed in Egypt in October, killing all 224 people on board. The downing and the recent attacks in Paris and Beirut were the first results of a terrorism campaign by a wing of the Islamic State, according to American and European intelligence officials. Credit Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
“Once the Islamic State possessed territory that provided them sanctuary and allowed them to act with impunity, they like other jihadist groups inevitably turned to external attacks,” said William Wechsler, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and until last January a top counterterrorism official at the Pentagon.

One possible motivation of the change in strategy by the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, is to seize leadership of the global jihad from Al Qaeda — from which the Islamic State broke away in 2013. The attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali on Friday was probably carried out by two Qaeda-linked groups, suggesting, as one senior European counterterrorism official put it, “The race is on between ISIS and Al Qaeda to see who can attack the West the best.” [Continue reading…]

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ISIS says ‘Schweppes bomb’ used to bring down Russian plane

Reuters reports: Islamic State’s official magazine carried a photo on Wednesday of a Schweppes drink it said was used to make an improvised bomb that brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula last month, killing all 224 people on board.

The photo showed a can of Schweppes Gold soft drink and what appeared to be a detonator and switch on a blue background, three simple components that if genuine are likely to cause concern for airline safety officials worldwide.

“The divided Crusaders of the East and West thought themselves safe in their jets as they cowardly bombarded the Muslims of the Caliphate,” the English language Dabiq magazine said in reference to Russia and the West. “And so revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe in the cockpits.”

Western governments have said the plane was likely brought down by a bomb and Moscow confirmed on Tuesday it had reached the same conclusion, but the Egyptian government says it has still not found evidence of criminal action. [Continue reading…]

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Putin vows payback after confirmation of Egypt plane bomb

Reuters reports: President Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those responsible for blowing up a Russian airliner over Egypt and intensified air strikes against militants in Syria, after the Kremlin concluded a bomb had destroyed the plane last month, killing 224 people.

Putin ordered the Russian navy in the eastern Mediterranean to coordinate its actions on the sea and in the air with the French navy, after the Kremlin used long-range bombers and cruise missiles in Syria and announced it would expand its strike force by 37 planes.

“We will find them anywhere on the planet and punish them,” Putin said of the plane bombers at a somber Kremlin meeting broadcast on Tuesday. The FSB security service swiftly announced a $50 million bounty in a global manhunt for the bombers.

Until Tuesday, Russia had played down assertions from Western countries that the Oct. 31 crash was the work of terrorists, saying it was important to let the official investigation run its course.

But four days after Islamist gunmen and bombers killed at least 129 people in Paris, Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the FSB, said in televised comments that traces of foreign-made explosive had been found on fragments of the downed plane and on passengers’ personal belongings. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt ‘growing more unstable by the day’

Middle East Eye reports: After a series of crises over the past few weeks, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s government has come under deep domestic and international criticism for repression and inadequacy.

As widespread flooding in Alexandria has brought pressure upon Sisi domestically, his government has drawn global condemnation for its repression of journalists, so soon after his visit to the UK.

At the same time, and only a few weeks after a group of eight Mexican tourists were killed in the Egyptian desert, a Russian plane crashed in Sharm el-Sheikh killing all 224 passengers on board. The incident, suspected to be the result of a terrorist act, has raised questions about Egypt’s ability to maintain domestic security and provide the West a dependable regional partner.

This series of calamities has led to speculation among observers about whether President Sisi’s time in power may be slowly coming to an end.

Political analysts and observers have commented on the increasing instability in the country, saying that the crises highlight the government’s inability to deal with a wave of issues.

“Egypt, which was already unstable, is growing more unstable by the day,” said Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “This isn’t surprising.”

“It’s one crisis after another and the Sisi regime has only one response: maximise state power, deny responsibility, and force the media to stay quiet.” [Continue reading…]

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Sinai’s stubborn insurgency: Why Egypt can’t win

Omar Ashour writes: The story of the Sinai insurgency goes back to the Israeli withdrawal from the territory in 1982. Since then, Egypt has mostly treated the area as a threat rather than an opportunity; Sinaians are potential informants, potential terrorists, potential spies, and potential smugglers, rather than full Egyptian citizens. According to a cable published by WikiLeaks, a senior Egyptian police official in Sinai once told a visiting American official delegation that “the only good Bedouin in Sinai was the dead Bedouin.”

Cairo’s official policies were designed to control and disempower Sinaians. They included preventing Sinaians from owning land, subjecting them to invasive scrutiny, and limiting any developmental projects. Such policies were ramped up after the second Palestinian intifada in 2000. Back then, several Egyptian security bureaucracies — principally the State Security Investigations (SSI, now renamed the National Security Apparatus) and the General Intelligence Service — believed that northeast Sinai was sending direct logistic support to Palestinian militant groups in Gaza. Since then, repression and attempted co-optation of selected tribal leaders has ruled the day.

Things escalated further after the simultaneous bombings of Taba and Nuweiba, where Israeli tourists used to spend vacation, in October 2004. The SSI had almost no information about the terrorists responsible and therefore conducted a wide crackdown in northeast Sinai. With the help of the Central Security Forces (CSF), the SSI arrested around 3,000 and held women and children hostage until other suspects surrendered. “They electrocuted us in the genitals for hours before asking any questions,” one of the former detainees told me in 2012. “Then the torture continues during and after the interrogations. Many of the young men swore revenge.” [Continue reading…]

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Suspects in jet bombing expose their ISIS allies in Syria to a backlash from Russia

The New York Times reports from Cairo: Within months of the military takeover here two years ago, a little-known group calling itself Ansar Beit al-Maqdis managed to penetrate rings of checkpoints and heavy security to carry out a string of startling attacks, assassinating a senior police official at his home near here and blowing up a security headquarters here and in Mansoura, Egypt.

They were inside jobs. The Egyptian authorities concluded that the group had received crucial advice from two policemen, Lt. Mohamed Eweis and Col. Sameh el-Azizi, who were among a series of military and security officers the group eventually recruited.

Now the same group, operating as the Sinai Province of the Islamic State, is the prime suspect in yet another inside job: The bombing of the Russian charter jet that exploded last week in midair over the desert north of Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, which killed all 224 people aboard. British and American officials say they believe it increasingly likely that the group planted the bomb before takeoff.

No government has confirmed that the Sinai Province has taken responsibility. But the group has eagerly claimed it and others in the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, have celebrated — positions that reflect drastic changes in both the Islamic State and the Sinai Province since the Egyptian unit first pledged its allegiance one year ago. Attacks by the Sinai Province, previously a mostly Bedouin group that focused mainly on fighting the Egyptian security forces, have quickly grown in sophistication and bloodshed. If its role in bringing down the plane is confirmed, the Sinai Province may have even momentarily surprised and surpassed its vicious parent, and, some analysts said, risked a broad backlash against the Islamic State itself.

If the militants in the Sinai found an inside man who could help bring down a Russia-bound jet, “did the ISIS guys in Syria say, ‘Sure, why not? The more enemies the merrier?’ ” asked William McCants, a researcher at the Brookings Institution and the author of “The ISIS Apocalypse,” a study of the group. “Or are they just celebrating it after the fact, so they don’t look out of the loop on such a major attack?”

The parent group, based in Raqqa, Syria, has much to lose by approving or even embracing the apparent bombing, he argued. Although supporters of the Islamic State are calling the jet’s crash retribution against Russia for its intervention in Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad, Mr. McCants noted that the Russians had mostly attacked Western-backed rebel groups that were foes of the Islamic State.

“Russia has been hitting their enemies for them,” Mr. McCants argued. “I can’t imagine the guys in Raqqa want Russia to go all in against them.” [Continue reading…]

TASS reports: Russian Aerospace Forces have made 137 sorties over last three days and delivered airstrikes at 448 infrastructure facilities of terrorists in Syria, Russian Defense Ministry official spokesman Igor Konashenkov told journalists on Monday.

“Over the last three days, Russian jets made 137 sorties in the Syrian Arab Republic and destroyed 448 facilities of terrorist infrastructure in the provinces of Aleppo, Damascus, Idlib, Latakia, Raqqa, Hama and Homs,” Konashenkov said. [Continue reading…]

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‘High probability’ Russian flight was bombed, says UK foreign secretary

The Guardian reports: There is a “high probability” that a bomb planted by an Islamic State supporter brought down the Russian airliner which crashed over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula just over a week ago, according to Britain’s foreign secretary.

Drawing one of the most explicit links yet between Isis and the incident, Philip Hammond said that this did not necessarily mean that the attack was directed from the group’s headquarters in Syria.

Rather, he said: “It may have been an individual who was inspired by Isis who was self-radicalised by looking at Isis propaganda and was acting in the name of Isis without necessarily being directed.” [Continue reading…]

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Russia says bomb may have caused plane crash in Egypt

The Wall Street Journal reports: Russia’s prime minister said Monday that a bomb may have downed the passenger jet that crashed in Egypt, Moscow’s strongest acknowledgment yet that it may have been a terrorist attack.

Russia’s shift in tone followed assertions by British and American officials that terrorism was the likely cause of the Oct. 31 crash of a Russian-operated Airbus A321 in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. All 224 people on board died.

“The probability of a terrorist act, of course, is held as a cause of what happened,” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in an excerpt of a forthcoming interview with Rossiiskaya Gazeta, according to state news agency TASS.

The Kremlin’s spokesman added that the U.K. shared some intelligence with Russia regarding the crash, but didn’t comment on the nature of that information. [Continue reading…]

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