CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – Who is blowing up Egypt? Thursday’s car bombing in Cairo, which destroyed a national security force building and injured dozens, will be just a blip on the international headlines. But the bombing, along with a string of similar attacks, matters existentially in Egypt, where it’s the latest episode in a mounting campaign since the army deposed elected president Mohammed Morsi in a coup d’etat two years ago.
The answer, so far at least, isn’t what you might expect — or what Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government would have you believe. There’s little evidence that the attacks are coming from the Muslim Brotherhood, the now-outlawed party of the former president. Instead they seem mostly to be coming from far more radical jihadi forces based in the Sinai desert, who have recently been identifying themselves with Islamic State. Indeed, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the latest attack.
The Egyptian state is, on the surface, an unlikely target for the group. Organized Islamic State movements have so far focused on places plagued by power vacuums, from Syria and western Iraq, the organization’s heartland, to would-be affiliates in Libya and Afghanistan.
In contrast, Egypt boasts a history of stability, notwithstanding its recent brief recent experience with regime change and democracy. There’s no power vacuum in Egypt. If anything, al-Sisi is emerging as the barely updated version of an old-school Arab dictator, passing new measures to enhance his authority and repress civil liberties.
So what’s Islamic State’s strategy in Egypt, assuming one exists? Is this just copycat jihadis waving the banner without any real connection to the movement? Or is something more subtle — and more dangerous to Egypt’s stability — going on?
The best answer is that the Egypt attacks are very likely part of a conscious strategy to exploit the volatile situation created by Al-Sisi’s coup, and the subsequent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood and show trials of its leaders and rank and file.
Under Morsi’s short-lived government, jihadi elements in Sinai launched attacks on Israel (generally thwarted) and on Egyptian forces in the desert (somewhat more successful). They didn’t engage in a coordinated bombing campaign against state security in urban areas.
What’s changed is the background threat that the Muslim Brotherhood might choose to respond to al-Sisi’s coup and purge with a sustained terror campaign of its own. The worrisome model in everyone’s mind is Algeria in the 1990s, when Islamic democrats loosely aligned with the Brotherhood won elections that a military dictatorship then reversed. The Algerian Islamist response to repression was, eventually, violence, and Algeria was cast into a decade-long civil war that killed perhaps 100,000 people.
It’s not a perfect parallel. Unlike Egypt, Algeria had a history of revolutionary violence. And the Egyptian Brotherhood has more than half a century of relative nonviolence in its past, although members did try to assassinate Gamal Abdel Nasser before that. Violently inclined Egyptian Islamists weren’t generally inclined to join the Brotherhood, which was seen as pursuing the gradual path of gaining political power by electoral means.
What’s more, since the coup against Morsi, the Brotherhood’s leadership has assiduously resisted calling for violence. Its leadership, despite being imprisoned, seems to understand that a campaign of violence would discredit the movement and rob it of the residual legitimacy it still possesses from being the only democratically elected Egyptian leadership in modern history.
Yet Egyptians, from the al-Sisi regime to the Islamic State elements in the Sinai to the older, established Brothers, all know that this could change. Everyone has a limit, and younger, angrier Brotherhood members could choose violence as it becomes clearer that the system under al-Sisi will never allow them the chance to participate in even semi-democratic politics.
Islamic State affiliates in Sinai are surely gambling that they can help tip the scales and drive Egypt into the civil war it has so far managed to avoid. Their urban targets are chosen to look like the kinds of targets that the Brotherhood might also choose, such as the nondescript offices of the state security forces.
The Egyptian jihadis also know that their attacks will be used by al-Sisi to justify further repression of the Brotherhood. That’s just fine with them. They have no sympathy with the Brotherhood’s embrace of democracy, which they condemn as un-Islamic. They’d like to see the Brotherhood further repressed — in the hopes that its members will be driven to violent jihad, and hence an alignment, if not an alliance, with Islamic State.
Egypt’s revolution could have unfolded differently. In nearby Tunisia, Islamic democrats elected to office weren’t purged. They were just defeated in the next democratic election, and now participate in government as a normal political party.
Yet the democratic Tunisian regime is also the target of Islamic State or al-Qaida-style terrorist attacks, mostly on tourists, aimed at harming the economy and undermining the government. The Islamist terrorists are aiming to sow instability where stability has been the norm.
The risk of major instability is even greater in Egypt than in Tunisia. Al-Sisi should be very careful about attempting to associate Islamic State terror with the Brotherhood: He may find himself saddled with exactly the threat he’s claiming already exists — but on a scale he won’t be able to handle without disastrous long-term consequences for Egypt.
Noah Feldman, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University.