ISIS in Cairo? Serious challenge for the Egyptian state and its people

In what seems like a mixture of a question, an exclamation, and a feeling of utter disbelief, ‘ISIS in Cairo’ is a phrase that has become part of almost every attempt at understanding the December 11 church bombing that killed 25 Coptic worshippers as well as the December 9 explosion that killed six police officers.

The statement in which ISIS claimed responsibility for the church bombing not only linked the two incidents, but also gave rise to concerns over targeting the capital, which had for a while been a far-fetched possibility with all terrorist attacks being mainly concentrated in the Sinai Peninsula.

Whether or not it is ISIS, the fact remains that Cairo is obviously becoming quite accessible and that a serious challenge is awaiting the state and the people in Egypt if this proves true.

General Ahmed al-Awadi, Member of Parliament and member of the Defense and National Security at the House of Representatives, argued that the shift in terrorist attacks from Sinai to Cairo is an extremely serious move on the part of militant groups. “Casualties in Cairo will definitely be much higher, especially among civilians, and terrorist attacks carried out in the capital are bound to be more shocking on both the local and international levels,” he said.

Change of location

Another reason for this change of location, according to Awadi, is the intensification of army attacks against militant groups in Sinai. “When those groups were besieged in Sinai they started looking for another place,” he explained, adding that moving to Cairo is also linked to an increase in funds received by these groups from foreign parties. “The more money they get, the more capable they will be to carry out operations in the capital,” he said.

Awadi noted that with the attacks now focused on Cairo, terrorists have made it absolutely urgent for security forces to start monitoring them closely: “There has to be enough updated intelligence on their whereabouts and their movements.”

Hamdi Bekhit, Member of Parliament, said that the two attacks are not just directed against police officers or Christian worshippers, but against Cairo in general. “But the problem is expected to expand beyond Cairo, for terrorist groups might take advantage of the fact that security forces are currently preoccupied with Cairo after the two attacks and take their operations to other governorates across Egypt,” he said, adding that this would be specifically the case during Christmas holidays when security is expected to be tightened around churches in Cairo.

Also read: Cairo cathedral blast suspects reveal new info

Salah Eissa, Writer and Secretary General of Supreme Council of the Press, said that militant groups’ decision to take terrorist attacks to the heart of Egypt is linked to their relative failure in Sinai. “They realized that attacks in Sinai, which mainly target police and army officers, are not that effective and their losses there are more than their gains,” he said. “When attacks took place in Sinai, most Egyptians felt this was happening far away from them, but when they take place in Cairo, all Egyptians will feel vulnerable and frightened.”

According to Eissa, instilling fear into the hearts of Egyptians constitutes a success for terrorist groups. “They also doubled this success when they targeted Christians in particular in the second attack because it is in their best interest to prove to Christians that security forces are not capable of protecting them, thus turning them against the regime that they previously supported in toppling the Muslim Brotherhood.”

More effort needed

According to journalist Bashir al-Bakr, this is the first time two major terrorist attacks have taken place in Cairo within 48 hours, which is a very dangerous sign. “This means that ISIS and groups affiliated to it are getting out of control and that the Egyptian regime is not learning from the repercussions of such development in other countries in the region,” he wrote. Bakr said that the state is partially responsible for the attacks on two levels.

“On the level of security, the state has to make more efforts in order to block all the possible sources of terror and terrorists. On the political level, the state has to realize that the security measures it has been adopting cannot alone eliminate terrorism.”

Concerning the latter, Bakr argued that the Egyptian regime does not want to look at the bigger pictureand see the situation from all its dimensions. “The state only takes the parts that suit it out of context so that at the end terrorist attacks are seen to happen because a group of evil people want to kill innocent civilians and spread chaos.”

Also read: The moment when Cairo cathedral bomb went off

Ahmed Ban, an expert in Islamic militant groups, argued that the Egyptian police are partially responsible because of the strategies they have been following in the war on terror. “For decades, the Egyptian police fought terrorism through torture and killing outside the law, thus creating a monstrous virus that mutates in a frightening manner,” he wrote.

“On the other hand, the police do not develop whether in terms of ideology or training and that is why terrorist groups manage to take them by surprise.” Ban said acceptance of such “lousy performance”makes the police an “accomplice” in such attacks.

‘It is a war’

General Mohamed Nour al-Din, security expert and former Deputy Interior Minister, refused to consider terrorists’ ability to reach the heart of Cairo as an indication of failure on the part of security forces. “Terrorism is targeting the entire world and not only Egypt, and terrorists managed to reach capitals that are presumably more secure and where security systems are supposed to be more advanced such as Paris and Brussels,” he said. “Nobody said then that security systems in France and Belgium are incompetent.”

Al Din added that Egypt, like the rest of the world, is facing a terrorist group that managed to destroy entire countries. “Egypt is up against a ferocious enemy and this is shown in the Cairo attacks that took place despite the clampdown on militant groups by Egyptian security forces,” he added. “In the war on terrorism, breaches are always possible and terrorists do score victories at times. This is why it is a war.”

Egypt’s foreign policy: Why is Sisi seeking ties with Portugal, Slovenia?

For the first time in 20 years, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made an official visit to Portugal. Two weeks later, Sisi received the president of Slovenia in Cairo. The two visits were given extensive media coverage in Egypt and were greeted by many as the first steps toward a new foreign policy the current regime is planning to adopt. The choice of countries, however, aroused considerable curiosity and made many wonder if Egypt is drifting away from the leaders of the European Union and forging new alliances that in the long term could be quite beneficial or whether this new approach is a reaction to the uncertainty that shrouds Egypt’s relations with superpowers.

Political analyst Moataz Abdel Fattah believes that interest in Portugal could be related to the similarities between them, particularly between the 1974 Carnation Revolution and the June 30 protests that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. “It was the army that toppled Salazar’s dictatorship and General Spinola became president later on,” he wrote. “The Portuguese people took to the streets to support the ‘coup’ and this turned it into a ‘revolution.”’ For Abdel Fattah, Portugal has gone through “a political and economic cycle” that is very similar to what Egypt is going through at the moment and that explains why the two countries are getting closer. “Through dealing with very similar conditions to ours, Portugal eventually managed to reach the relative stability it is currently enjoying.”

Professor of political science Asharf Singer noted that Nasser’s Egypt had very strong ties with Yugoslavia, of which Slovenia was part, under Josip Tito so current relations are some sort of extension of this historic alliance. “As part of the Yugoslav union, Slovenia was a strategic industrial base and this continued after it gained independence then joined the EU in 2007,” he said. “In addition to economic cooperation, Slovenia is one of the countries that identify with the transitional conditions through which Egypt is going at the moment and Egypt needs this kind of support in the European Union.” Singer also added that Donald Trump’s wife is of Slovenian origins. “Establishing ties between Egypt and Slovenia will, therefore, be beneficial in US-Egyptian relations,” he said. He did not, however, explain how exactly the two issues are linked.

Professor of political science Gehad Ouda argued that Sisi’s visit to Portugal and the Slovenian president’s visit to Cairo reveal a new strategy he is following as far as foreign policy is concerned. “Sisi is replacing countries in the European Union that still have reservations on their relationship with Egypt such as France and Germany,” he said, adding that while France sells weapons to Egypt, there is no real partnership between the two countries. “Egypt has problems related to tourism and investment with several European countries including France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom.” Sisi, explained Ouda, is accessing Europe through “untraditional paths.”

The recent rapprochement with Portugal and Slovenia also revealed other significant changes in Egypt’s foreign policy that are not related to either country. For example, Sisi announced his support for the Syrian army on the Portuguese TV network RTP: “The priority is that we support the national armies to impose control over the territory, deal with the extremists, and impose the necessary stability in Libya, Syria and Iraq,” he said.  According to Tyler Durden, this shift is not only significant in the way it reveals a tendency towards supporting the Russian position on Syria, but also because of the way it alters the entire global perspective on the Syrian conflict: “In the West, the war in Syria has been widely believed to be a conflict between Sunni and Shia forces… Now the largest Arab Sunni state has taken the side of Syria’s government to become a coalition ally with Russia. The sectarian interpretation of the conflict is not valid anymore,” he wrote, adding that such transformation is bound to impact the balance of power in the region: “a regional anti-terrorism entity or even a military block independent from the US might emerge at some point in future.”

Journalist Mohamed Abul Fadl said that the new shift in Egypt’s foreign policy is directly linked to three major lessons that Egyptian diplomacy has learned lately. “First, you cannot bet on one horse since there isn’t one single party that is capable alone of resolving a conflict or ending a crisis. Second, there is no place for political feuds and wars no longer erupt to settle old scores. Third, it is important not to put all the eggs in one basket through being fully allied to one country or group of countries because part of power is always having alternatives,” he wrote.  Journalist Moustafa al-Saeid argues, on the other hand, against Fadl’s theory, which according to him does not work for a long time. For Saeid, Egypt has been shifting between too many parties, which made its foreign policy seem too confused. “No matter how good you are at maneuvering, you can never satisfy all parties or send mixed signals because in real crises, avoiding polarization is extremely difficult,” he wrote. Saeid said that Egypt is not currently in a position to take risks in its foreign policy because it already has too much on its plate domestically. “At this moment, Egypt could simply detach itself regionally and internationally and only get involved when there is a direct threat to its security,” he explained. “Otherwise, Egypt should better focus on education, healthcare, and unemployment.”