Egypt is facing a new Islamist insurgency

Suicide bombings in Sinai and an assassination attempt on the interior minister are a sign that Egypt is facing a growing threat from Islamic extremists, and the violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood can only make things worse.

Yesterday six soldiers were killed in a double suicide bomb attack in Sinai and ten soldiers and seven civilians were killed in Rafah, near the Israel border, by bomb blasts. Less than a week earlier, on 5 September, Egypt’s interior minister, Mohammed Ibrahim, survived a bomb attack on his convoy in Cairo. A Sinai-based al-Qaeda inspired group later claimed responsibility for the assassination attempt.

If there’s anything unexpected about this increase in violence against government targets, it’s that it has taken so little time for militant groups to strike beyond their Sinai-stronghold and organise attacks in the capital. When the Egyptian military began its heavy-handed and short-sighted crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood last month, it could only expect a violent response from the extremist wings of Egypt’s Islamist movements. It’s worth remembering that the Salafists initially welcomed the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood in power, it was the army’s brutality that changed their attitude.

The Egyptian government should also expect that a new generation of Islamists will be radicalised and turn to violent confrontation, because the message the military has sent to the Muslim Brotherhood, its supporters and other Islamists is very clear: there’s no place for you in government and your vote doesn’t, and won’t ever, count.

I don’t say this because I support the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s ousted, and now jailed, Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi showed alarmingly authoritarian tendencies. I understand why liberals, women and Christian minorities worried for their future under an Islamic government, and why many early supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood grew disillusioned. But by killing over 600 protesters on 14th August, arresting thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and shutting down Muslim Brotherhood newspapers and TV stations, Egypt’s interim government has shown little patience for peaceful dialogue, and a concerning disregard for democratic norms.

Violence often breeds violence, and now Egypt faces the prospect of a return to the 1990s, when the military government faced a low-level Islamic insurgency focussed in Sinai. The difference is that Islamist insurgents will now benefit from greater instability in the region, and a ready supply of arms from neighbouring Libya. The present leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was a member of the Brotherhood who became involved in international jihad as a response to state repression in the 50s and 60s. Egypt should beware its disenfranchised and disillusioned Islamist youth.

The remains of a missile following an army offensive against Islamist insurgents in Sinai. Photo: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.