Mara Revkin is a student at Yale Law School and a former assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She is on Twitter: @MaraRevkin.
During a visit to the Egyptian governorate of North Sinai on Aug. 10, I watched as scores of pickup trucks, packed with hard-line Islamists waving the black flags associated with al-Qaeda, poured onto a major road. They were heading to the funeral of five militants who had been killed the day before in a drone strike — allegedly Israeli — as they prepared to launch a rocket into Israel from the border city of Rafah. Those in the procession waved signs calling for jihad against the Egyptian military and Israel, whose cooperation on counterterrorism operations has been condemned by Sinai-based jihadist groups. The procession passed a seemingly abandoned police station, and no security personnel were visible, although some of the Islamists carried weapons and many others were loudly calling for an armed insurgency against Egypt’s interim government.
In the turbulent weeks since Egypt’s military removed President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government from power, this cyclical narrative of martyrdom and revenge has become a recruitment tool for hard-line Islamists. It is also contributing to the radicalization of a new generation of extremists in the already volatile Sinai Peninsula.
Since the military assumed power July 3, armed attacks by militants with increasingly sophisticated weaponry, stolen from police stations or smuggled from Libya and Sudan, have killed at least 70 security personnel just in North Sinai. Increasingly, Sinai-based militants justify their violent tactics as legitimate retribution for state-perpetrated crimes that the official justice system cannot be trusted to prosecute.
For months leading up to the protests that ultimately brought down his government, Morsi was justifiably criticized for his exclusionary policymaking and a series of power grabs — notably his declaration last year immunizing his own decisions from judicial review — that appeared to consolidate the Brotherhood’s monopolistic control over the Egyptian state and society at the expense of non-Islamists, women and religious minorities. From the Brotherhood’s perspective, the appropriate remedy would have been to hold Morsi accountable at the ballot box. Instead, the military intervened illegally and then violently to reverse the democratic process: first suspending the constitution and then conducting a scorched-earth campaign of mass arrests and disproportionate force against pro-Morsi protesters that appears aimed at eradicating the Muslim Brotherhood from political life.
Islamists initially tried to capitalize on the dubious legality of the coup by promoting the Muslim Brotherhood as the defender of democracy and the rule of law. But with the Brotherhood incapacitated by arrests, asset freezes and the possible revocation of its legal status, Islamists see little incentive to reenter a political process in which they will not be permitted to participate freely. Increasingly, they view street mobilization — and, with it, the implicit threat of force — as the only remaining mechanism with which to promote their agenda. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups will exploit the humiliating reversal of the Brotherhood’s short-lived electoral victory to argue that ideological moderation is a losing strategy.