Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme (on leave until June 2017)
The suspicion that a bomb caused a Russian passenger plane to crash over Sinai casts an international spotlight on the security problems that Egyptians have already been facing – and the limitations of the highly militarized state’s security approach.
Egyptian army soldiers stand guard next to the luggage of passengers of the A321 Russian airliner at the site of the crash in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on 1 November 2015. Photo by Getty Images.Egyptian army soldiers stand guard next to the luggage of passengers of the A321 Russian airliner at the site of the crash in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on 1 November 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

Whether or not it is confirmed that a bomb was responsible for the destruction of the Russian airliner flying from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt’s need for security-sector reform has been repeatedly highlighted amid the country’s political turbulence of the past five years, as power struggles have impeded steps to make the security services more efficient or accountable.

Egypt’s 2011 uprising started not with calls for democratization, but with a protest against police brutality: the date of 25 January was chosen because it was National Police Day. As protests escalated, more people called for the president himself to go, but while mass protests provided the momentum, the final push came from the military: the vice president announced power was being transferred to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Next to the police, the military were seen as the ‘good cop’. Demoralized, low-paid police lost much of their authority. Some went on strike, or left their posts.

The impact of the loss of police authority was particularly acute in the Sinai peninsula, where the social and economic exclusion of the Bedouin community had left much of the population profoundly alienated from the state. Meanwhile, the (literally) underground economy of smuggling through tunnels to Gaza created opportunities for weapons and militants to move. Before 2011, the police and state security had implemented a harsh security regime, with frequent reports of police demanding bribes. After the uprising many of the police – who were usually not recruited from the local community – simply fled, leaving a resentful vacuum.

There was talk of security sector reform, but little more. The hated state security service was reconstituted under the new name of ‘national security’. After their election, the Muslim Brotherhood replaced senior military and security figures, but they trod cautiously in the hope they could keep the security services onside. It was the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi who appointed Abel Fattah el-Sisi as defence minister.

Repression and radicalization

Since the army overthrew Morsi in 2013, Sisi has consolidated the power of the military and has expanded the role of military intelligence, which traditionally focused on ensuring the army's loyalty but has taken on a more central role. There are some indications of power struggles within the security services. And there remain serious morale problems within the police – in August strikes and protests by policemen over low, late pay ended with protesting policemen teargassed by riot police. Low pay for the frontline security officials could open up possibilities of corruption; it certainly does in other sectors, including education.

Repression has become more heavy-handed than in the 2000s, linked to escalating violence: in June the public prosecutor was assassinated in Cairo, while in August, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed a car bomb at the Italian consulate. In Sinai since 2013, authorities say militants have killed several hundred police, while they have killed some 200 jihadis. But there is little transparency about this. In September, the military accidentally killed 12 tourists, some of them from Mexico, in airstrikes in the Sinai. The Mexican government said they received the news from a private tour operator, not from the Egyptian authorities. A military official told the New York Times that anything involving tourists was the business of the interior ministry, and advised the reporter not to ask more questions.

The repression may feed radicalization. Sisi argues his approach is necessary given the security threats Egypt faces. But the authorities have defined terrorism so widely that it includes the previous party of government, the Muslim Brotherhood, while the liberal youth activists who led the 2011 uprising are typically now incarcerated or in exile. Over a thousand people were shot in the streets in 2013. Since then the judiciary has sentenced hundreds more to death, including Morsi. There are tens of thousands of political prisoners, as well as reports of disappearances and deaths in custody. Former political prisoners say the whole spectrum of the Egyptian opposition is represented in prison, and that morale is highest among the jihadis, who hear of victories outside, while the liberals are dejected, largely forgotten by the Western governments who briefly championed their cause and then moved on.

Closing down avenues for peaceful politics risks strengthening the proponents of violence. This argument has to be handled carefully: the earlier massacre of British tourists by an ISIS affiliate in Tunisia − which is going through a democratic transition and includes Islamists in the governing coalition − indicates there is no simple correlation between repression and radicalization. Egyptian society is polarized over who is most responsible for the violence. But defining the terrorist threat as widely as Egypt’s government now does − to include a movement that won a majority of the popular vote in the 2013 elections − makes it harder to fight.

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