Check-points guarding the entrance to a village or road junction. In January and February, I crossed many of them in the southern regions of Egypt, on the Luxor-Aswan-Abu Simbel axis. The guards do not appear very attentive. Helmets are worn loosely, bullet-proof vests are laid on a mobile shield, coffee mugs lay around, vehicles are under canopies, and there are few mobile barriers. From a turret, the muzzle of a Kalashnikov emerges, but upon closer observation, there is no guard ready to embrace it. The rifle is instead fixed to a firing slit. Maybe they think that this is sufficient and the scene immediately evokes that of scarecrows. The agents guarding the piers along the Nile instead appear more vigilant: their weapons are carried with double magazines fixed with tape.
Images of moments, brief memories that do not claim to have a general value, but that nonetheless represent some indications, given that the measures were enacted to protect (in pre-COVID-19 times) one of Egypt’s most important resources: tourism. Someone could object that this area does not present the same risks it had during the nineties, when terrorism had dealt devastating blows in places like Luxor, where in November 1997, dozens of people were killed by gunfire. However, the violent legacy remains and adds up with the reports that come other regions in a nation that has now surpassed 100 million inhabitants.
Armed struggle never really left Egypt. It underwent different phases, rocking urban centers for many years and now finding its new epicenter in the Sinai Peninsula. The area has never been quiet, never tamed, all too often forgotten by the central authority, with the exception of the southern enclave, reserved to the large hotel complexes. There is a subversive component that is ready to keep pressure alive in the cities, but that often encounters heavy responses – and, compared to the past – demonstrates inferior capacities. In April, a cell planning to attack the Christian Copt community (an often-favored target) was eliminated in East Cairo. The case highlighted the constant threat, always ready to attempt a comeback with a new massacre. For the moment, the data shows that the majority of violent episodes, with the use of improvised explosives, has primarily affected the Sinai: 137 out of 151 attacks. Without forgetting that one of the most serious attacks against civil transportation occurred against a Russian jet that took off from Sharm el Sheikh on October 31, 2014. While the act was claimed by the Islamic State (IS), a lot remains to be clarified about the incident.
So, we return to the “origins” – to Cairo’s strategy to counter the internal enemy. Commentators insist on one point: the generals have given up on eradicating the threat and instead aim at a strategy of containment, accepting a de facto war of attrition, in which men in uniform are almost always forced to give chase. On around July 20, the Islamic State overtook the locality of Rabi’a, almost 30 kilometers from the Suez Canal. The outpost was overrun and around 40 soldiers were killed. The subsequent operation then saw the occupation of 4 villages, a message from the “Caliphate” to demonstrate that it has not only the initiative but also the capacity to maintain it. The presence of the militants was reported in some areas up until at least the end of August. Like in other scenarios, insurgents used explosive vehicles to breach defenses and moved only on motorcycles and in light vehicles. The incursion was then celebrated on the web in subsequent days with the diffusion of images of the clashes. The attack once again posed problems well synthesized by some experts:
- The lack of flexibility of the troops.
- The absence of broad operations (the last one dates back to February 2018).
- The need to establish a central command to coordinate special operations.
- The excessive dependency on the High Command and limited autonomy.
- Limited or insufficient training, even in the simple preparation of a position.
Defense has been entrusted to the usual check points, to the surveillance of streets and of the most important locations. A routine that certainly cannot guarantee large successes, also because often accompanied by indiscriminate repressive measures that increase the distrust of civilians, favor the recruitment on behalf of the jihadists, and complicate everyday life. The imposition of a curfew, the construction of barriers in northern Sinai (with the destruction of houses and land) to protect Sharm El Sheikh are initiatives that do not contribute to winning the hearts and minds of the population.
The “central power” has maneuvered, rediscovering the card of the tribes.  In May an accord with the “elders” was announced: they will favor the return home of members that joined the Islamic State, which will then be followed by verifications and interrogations. The communities of Tarabin, Sawarka and Rumailat also formed units to assist soldiers, while traders and citizens offered money. Their knowledge of the territory, local connections and personal ties are important, as the tribal component can develop its own intelligence network. Towards the end of August, the Ministry of Defense announced that its men had eliminated approximately 70 militants, during a number of mop-up operations. The announcement was accompanied by videos published on social media that sought to counterbalance the propaganda messaging of the jihadists.
The Islamists reacted in ways similar to what occurs in Iraq. Kidnappings, homicides, sniper attacks on officers and tribal elites, who are often considered to be collaborators. Acts accompanied by the systemic elimination of presumed “spies.” Of particular interest is also the declaration of war by IS on the group Jamat Jund al Islam, further proof of how the “Caliphate” does not accept rivals and seeks to establish a role as a hegemon.
President al-Sisi asked and, obviously, obtained a hardening of the anti-terror law. The powers of intervention have been expanded, military advisors have been appointed in every governorate, carte blanche has been given to neutralize anyone who may constitute a real threat to security, but also to those who dissent. The harshening of the law has sparked protests from human rights advocates. Several “exemplary” capital sentences have also been carried out. On March 4, Hesham Alì Ashmawy, a former officer who passed to the ranks of Bait al Maqdis, and to whom many attacks were attributed, was executed. He had fled to Libya where he had been captured two years ago: a trajectory that blends with Cairo’s narrative of the dangers of the spread of the Libyan crisis.
The Western border
The Western border is, after the Sinai, a point to keep an eye on, as what goes on in the neighboring country is at the center of Cairo’s focus. The country supports Haftar’s Cyrenaica, contrasting the influence of Qatar and Turkey, and while it threatens to directly intervene, its own failing in the peninsula has raised doubts among analysts. The second execution was carried out in June against Abdel Rahim Mismari, another member of al Maqdis. Then on August 28 authorities announced the capture of Mahmud Ezzat, the 70-year-old leader in hiding of the Muslim Brotherhood. While rumors circulated about his presumed presence abroad, he was instead found hiding in the capital. According to the official version – which is to be verified – agents found proof of his ties with other figures of the faction. Egyptian media added that investigators believe that Ezzat was involved, as the inspirer, of numerous attacks. The version however, was different among less aligned commentators, according to whom Ezzat instead belonged to the less radical wing of the organization, which is against armed struggle. As usual, a double truth that often accompanies events in countries like Egypt.
Al-Sisi, considered to be a middle-ground between the guardian of Egypt and a guarantor against chaos by Russian, Western and Arab allies, will have to be cautious about the future. The repercussions from the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the unrelenting demographic growth require answers and not pharaonic projects with an uncertain future. In this context, any social fracture, exasperated by the iron fist, may bring about devastating consequences.
 Duc-Quang Nguyen and Luigi Iorio, Terrorism 20 years after the Luxor tragedy, Swissinfo.ch, November 17, 2017.
 Andrew Kutz and Andrew Roth, “Photo released by Islamic State purports to show bomb that downed Russian jet”, The Washington Post, November 18, 2015.
 Brian M. Perkins, “Challenges of Egypt’s Military Strategy in Sinai”, Ocnues.net, July 30, 2020.
 Allison McManus, “ISIS in the Sinai: A Persistent Threat for Egypt”, Center for Global Policy (CGP), June 23, 2020.
 “Tribes become more involved in anti-terrorism operations in Sinai Peninsula”, Al Monitor, June 16, 2020.
 “77 takfiri elements killed, 7 army personnel 'killed or injured' in Sinai raids: Egypt's armed forces”, Ahramonline, August 30, 2020.
 Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Islamic State Sinai Province vs. Jama'at Jund al-Islam: Report from al-Naba'”, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi’s Blog, July 2, 2020.
 The second execution took place in June and hit Abdel Rahim Mismari, a member of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis.
 El-Sayed Gamal El Din, Egypt arrests acting “Supreme Guide of terrorist-designated Brotherhood Mahmoud Ezzat at Cairo hideout”, Ahramonline, August 28, 2020.