Three years ago, in late 2010 and early 2011, the remarkable changes across the middle east started with the sudden fall of the Zine el Abidine Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt after the even more tumultuous protests there. The sudden collapse of the two autocracies was welcomed by many citizens in Europe and north America, though governments were far more cautious (see "The Arab rebellion: perspectives of power", 24 February 2011). After all, both regimes had kept firm control of their populations and were easy to work with; thus they caused few of the problems that can arise when western governments are dealing with messy democracies. This was particularly important in the case of Egypt, the major Arab country and a strategically vital one for the United States and its allies.
If such governments were nervous about the “Arab spring”, this was in a sense even more true of al-Qaida. The radical and violent Islamist movement favoured revolutionary destruction of the infidel powers that ruled across the Arab-Islamic world - its so-called “near enemy”. For al-Qaida theoreticians, any possibility that non-violent social change might create more representative and democratic governance was fearful - worse even than a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Meanwhile, it scorned the choice by other Islamist movements such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood of an electoral rather than a violent route to change.
At the same time, Al-Qaida was evolving from a movement into more of an idea - and an idea that has spread and taken root in Yemen, Somalia, along the Swahili coast, in Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Libya, Iraq and Syria. Indeed, there are even more areas of influence (see “Al-Qaida’s idea, three years on”, 2 January 2014). Now, in the wake of clear setbacks in the effort to achieve non-violent social progress in the region, a core concern for security and intelligence agencies across the western world is whether this turn of events will give this idea even greater life.
The region does contain some examples of improvement in governance as a result of the "awakening". Morocco has seen a rather faster rate of social reform than would otherwise have been the case, and the initial unrest in Oman, though partly suppressed, was also followed by some concession. Tunisia's recent political developments have been more positive, even if the number of young men going to fight with jihadists in Syria may have increased.
In parallel, though, are less favourable developments: a rapid increase in the activities of jihadist paramilitarism in Iraq and especially Syria. Beyond these two states, Egypt itself is becoming a strong focus of concern. There, the military coup in July 2013 that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government led by Mohamed Morsi was privately welcomed by most western governments, though this initial reaction has now given way to uncertainty.
The situation in Egypt is hugely complicated. Morsi's government faced major internal difficulties in a country where the military elite was very much the power behind the scenes. In this environment, the Brotherhood sought to take control of what levers of power it could; in the process it alienated more secular elements by offering them little or no inclusion, even at local administrative levels.
A deteriorating security situation in 2013, against a background of endemic economic problems and grotesque marginalisation, sucked support from Morsi's government. Amid great instability, the military felt able to intervene. Its crackdown was fierce: hundreds of Brotherhood supporters have been killed and thousands are in detention.
Yet the interim government has much backing, not least from those many Egyptians who want above all even a small measure of stability. One effect is that the recently promoted Field-Marshal Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi is likely to fight and win the forthcoming election, which in turn would likely mean a continuing suppression of dissent, not least from the Brotherhood.
In reaction to this situation and prospect, a resurgence of more radical Islamist groups is already evident. Their violent activities include a car-bomb attack at the gates of the security headquarters in Cairo, the assassination of a senior interior-ministry official, and the shooting down of a military helicopter in Sinai (see David Kirkpatrick & Eric Schmitt, “Jihadist threat stalks Egypt”, New York Times, 5 February 2014).
The last incident may be particularly significant. The missile used to destroy the helicopter was initially believed to be a basic weapon, many of which such originate in Libya; but it is now iidentified as a more sophisticated Russian SA-16 Gimlet with a combined IR/UV homing system. This SA-16 missile is more likely to have originated from jihadist cells in Syria rather than Libya, suggesting a link between radical groups in Sinai and their co-believers to the north. The context is a reported increase in the numbers of Egyptians fighting with the more radical Islamist groups in Syria.
Egypt’s rulers respond to such operations with ruthless force. The danger is that this approach stimulates more discontent and radicalises small but growing contingents of Egyptians, some members of which have international connections and even combat experience in Syria. In turn the al-Sisi government continues to label the Brotherhood the underground partner and supporter of jihadist violence, and - however distorted this message may be - in the process retains a lot of internal support.
In this context, it is not surprising that what is left of "al-Qaida central" in Pakistan, under the command of Ayman al-Zawahiri, highlight Egypt as the potential centre of the movement's further revival. In its view, an al-Sisi government determined to suppress opposition is a valuable aid in this process. If al-Qaida’s analysis proves correct, and Egypt - a country of 80 million people at the heart of the region - does become the focus for a new expression of al-Qaida’s vision, the implications are immense (see "Arab prospects, Al-Qaida hopes", 22 August 2013).
In Britain, it is reported that a UK citizen had carried out a suicide-attack in Aleppo, the first reported such case. A natural effect of this revelation is to reinforce fears in London of a “blowback” from Syria. A far greater and more immediate concern should be what is happening in Egypt itself.
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