Far from being dead, or even on the defense, groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) are proliferating. Radical Islamists now control more territory than since the first decades of the religion. While Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Iran, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan dominate international headlines, the rise of radical Islamism in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula might be the most threatening to immediate U.S. interests.
In 2006, I attended the national convention in Cairo of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP). There were a number of sessions over the course of a few days. I hoped to attend a panel on Egypt and nuclear energy but when I returned to the conference center, the previous panel regarding water and infrastructure was running late. It was a heated affair. The delegates from Sinai—even more so than their counterparts from Upper Egypt and the Western Desert—were especially rowdy; they complained that Cairo systematically discriminated against them in terms of housing, water, and electricity. They slammed the government repeatedly to the point that chairing officials would cut off power to microphones and threaten to use security guards to return order to the room.
Now, such heated arguments might not seem out of place in South Korea, Taiwan, or even Israel, but Egypt was at the time effectively a one-party state, a dictatorship, and the chaos was within not parliament but inside the convention of the ruling party. Even under President Hosni Mubarak, the Sinai was a hornet’s nest.
The reason for the Sinai’s restiveness is multi-fold. Successive Egyptian governments have long ignored the region, hence their anger at the NDP convention. Then, Egyptians have always seen themselves as a civilization apart; they did not even see themselves as Arabs until the 1920 or 1930s. The Sinai, however, is largely Bedouin, and these are looked down upon if not discriminated against by the Egyptian state. Geography also plays a part. Whereas satellites now provide the chief platform for Arabic television, for decades, broadcasting was more terrestrial. Many of the Sinai Bedouins live closer to Saudi Arabia than to Cairo, and so had their world shaped more by Saudi religious programming than by Egyptian soap operas. Long story short, radicalism has long found fertile ground in the Sinai.
Immediately following Mubarak’s fall, Sinai-based radicals formed Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi at best turned a blind eye toward such radicalism and at worst encouraged it. In November 2014, the group swore allegiance to the Islamic State. Its reign of terror has been considerable. It has conducted economic warfare, repeatedly blowing up the gas pipeline sending Egyptian gas to Israel and Jordan, and also attacking Israeli border posts. Most of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis’s opprobrium has been reserved for Egypt. The group attacked the interior minister’s motorcade in Cairo and, in late January, killed more than 30 Egyptian security force members in the Sinai. In recent days, the Egyptians have fought back hard, but it is no secret that if the Egyptian military should fail, security could be at risk for Suez Canal shipping, Jordan, and more broadly Egypt itself.
Where does the United States stand? The State Department designated the group a terror entity in April 2014, but hasn’t done much since. Indeed, we have more hampered Egyptian counterterrorism than advanced it, especially as the Senate slow-balled until recently Egypt’s request for helicopters to help take on the group. Israel, for its part, has been more helpful, allowing a de facto revision to the Camp David Accords to enable Egypt to send the equivalent of a mechanized division into the Sinai. Still, the White House has at best been ambivalent to Gen. Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, and the State Department has openly sought to undermine him.
This is counterproductive not only in terms of security, but also strategically as well. Russian President Vladimir Putin is not as reticent as Obama in defending and asserting national interest, and Putin isn’t going to miss the chance to advance Russian interests in Egypt. He’s in Egypt today and tomorrow to woo Sisi. If the United States is going to turn its back on Sisi—a man who seeks to defeat terrorism and promote reform in Islam—then Putin is going to fill the gap.
Does the United States have concerns with regard to human rights in Egypt? Yes. It is ironic, however, to use those as an excuse to sink relations. Working against Sisi rather than with him will simply throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Muslim Brotherhood’s human-rights record is worse. It supported terrorist groups in Gaza and elsewhere. And its own internal pronouncements made clear its embrace of democracy was more rhetorical than real. Nor would Egypt under Russian influence solve any of the problems American officials cite as an excuse for their cool, counterproductive approach to Cairo.
When it comes to strategic suicide, there is no team better than Obama and Kerry. But when it comes to the real world, and America’s economic and security interests, as well as Washington’s desire to promote human rights and reform, there really only is one choice: Full-throated support for Sisi, his security operations in the Sinai, and a real Egyptian-American partnership.