Nearly three years after Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted his predecessor and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, following a military coup on 3 July 2013, the security situation in the Arab world’s most populous nation remains fragile. While the number of terrorist attacks has generally decreased in the capital Cairo and other major cities, according to Interior Ministry figures and statements made by al-Sisi in April 2016, the security situation is far from stable.
The biggest challenge facing al-Sisi’s regime is the conflict in the Sinai Peninsula, which has been a battleground for several years. The Egyptian army has reached understandings with Israel, allowing it to move in a larger number of troops and weapons than those prescribed by the 1979 Camp David Accords. Since July 2015, and most notably as part of Operation Martyr’s Rights, Egyptian jet fighters and Apache helicopters have been bombing suspected terrorist hideouts on an almost daily basis, including the alleged positions of Wilayet Sinai, the organization that pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) in 2014.
North Sinai has been a largely closed area since 2013, and no independent reporters are allowed to cover events there, leaving the army as the only source of information. In August 2015, al-Sisi introduced a new anti-terrorism law that fines journalists up to $50,000 if they report any information contradicting official statements on terrorism-related incidents. Meanwhile, Sinai residents have complained of arbitrary arrests as part of counter-insurgency operations. Hundreds of homes along the border with Gaza have been demolished without proper compensation. Several civilians have also been killed ‘by mistake’ in exchanges of fire between the army and suspected terrorists.
Despite such ongoing confrontations, suspected terrorists in Sinai continue to target army and police checkpoints and vehicles, commonly using roadside bombs. While the pro-government media frequently claim that Hamas has provided assistance to the Sinai militants, the Islamist Palestinian group has vehemently denied the charge. A Hamas delegation visited Egypt in March 2016 to provide assurances that such cooperation did not exist.
However, the violence is not limited to Sinai. IS claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian plane shortly after it took off from Sharm al-Sheikh airport on 31 October 2015, killing all 224 people on board. The tragic incident led Russia and Britain to suspend all flights to the famous Egyptian seaside resort, dealing a heavy blow to the tourism industry and the loss of thousands of jobs.
A lone Egyptian national also hijacked an EgyptAir plane flying from Cairo to Alexandria on 29 March 2016, forcing its pilot to head to Cyprus after claiming he was wearing an explosive suicide belt. Even though the man appeared to have no violent motive, wanting only to see his ex-wife who lived on the island, the incident added to the woes facing the Egyptian tourism industry.
On 19 May 2016, another EgyptAir flight from Paris to Cairo disappeared and its wreckage was found in the Mediterranean Sea, with no survivors among the 66 passengers and crew. While the flight originated in France, the probability that a terrorist act caused the tragedy has dashed any hope that Egypt’s tourism industry will recover any time soon.
The disappearance of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni on 25 January 2016, and the discovery of his brutally tortured body nine days later was another major embarrassment for Egyptian security officials. Even more so given that Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi was one of the first European officials to endorse al-Sisi as a strategic partner. Most Western nations largely shunned the Egyptian leader, describing the forced removal of Morsi as a “military coup”.
Exacerbating the situation were the conflicting stories security officials provided in an attempt to explain Regini’s disappearance and death. Shortly after his body was found, a security official was quoted as saying he had been hit by a car. Pro-government media highlighted a false testimony by an alleged eyewitness, who claimed he saw Regini having a heated argument with a fellow Italian near the Italian consulate in downtown Cairo. Egyptian prosecutors later threw out the testimony and said they would press charges against the witness.
The Interior Ministry said that the police had managed to identify five suspects who were allegedly behind Regeni’s killing, and that they made up a gang that posed as policemen in order to rob foreigners. All five were killed in an exchange of fire with the police. The Italian government refused to believe the story. After a delegation of Egyptian prosecutors and security officials went to Italy in early April 2016 to present the results of the investigation, the Italian government accused Egyptian counterparts of withholding key information, and recalled its ambassador from Cairo to discuss the case.
Instead of seeking to provide solid explanations for the Italian student’s death, al-Sisi blamed social media and Egyptian opposition activists. In a speech he delivered on 13 April 2016, al-Sisi said that these activists, who claim that Egyptian security officials have been involved in torture and other inhumane practices over the past three years, were the main reason why Italy suspected that the Egyptian security forces were behind Regini’s death. He reminded Egyptians that maintaining security was a higher priority than human rights, considering the disintegration of several nearby Arab nations such as Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen.
Facing growing internal dissent to his unilateral style of decision-making and leadership, al-Sisi opted to arrest opponents and limit freedom of the press. There is no official record of the number of prisoners detained for political reasons, but Human Rights Watch quotes sources that put the figure as high as 40,000 between May 2015 and May 2016. Government sources said it had detained roughly half that number, 22,000, in 2014. “[Al-Sisi] is only making the situation worse,” said Medhat al-Zahed, acting president of the Popular Socialist Alliance Party, in an interview with Fanack. “We all recognize that Egypt faces many dangers, and the regional situation is volatile. But arresting opponents and suppressing basic freedoms will only create more problems, and will not help in improving the security situation.”