By Sarah Eltantawi
ISIS has appeared in Sinai during President Sisi’s rule, but there is no actual evidence that Sisi’s rule is casually related to the rise of ISIS in Sinai. Shadi Hamid, who I disagree with profoundly politically (but whose recent book I found quite useful), published a piece in Foreign Policy entitled, “Sisi’s Regime is a Gift to the Islamic State” (August 6, 2015). In this piece, Hamid argues that the “coup” is a gift to the Islamic State. He justifies this claim in two ways: first by referencing ISIS’s spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani’s speech in which he states that the “coup” “exposed” democratic rule and the Muslim Brotherhood as frauds, (and by referencing ISIS recruitment materials that make this case), and second by arguing that the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) model of “gradualism” had given them them a leg up on their al-Qaida competitors until the group came crashing down in Egypt.
Using ISIS’s propaganda as evidence, as Hamid does, is unconvincing. Propaganda is intended to make a case for one’s point of view without much regard for fact. That’s why we call it propaganda, not scholarship. If Morsi were never deposed and still in office today, one could imagine ISIS’s propaganda looking something like: “Muslim Brotherhood kuffar slow to bring sharia to Islamic land!”; “Muslim Brotherhood kuffar allow Christian and secular representatives in parliament!”; “Muslim Brotherhood kuffar allow the sale of alcohol in Cairo!” and so on. The possibilities are endless.
Next, the notion that when the MB’s tactics of “gradualism” and “democracy” proved unsuccessful, al-Qaida and other groups’ arguments for violence seem more plausible. This argument is interesting in two ways. First, it establishes some sort of familial link between the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida and ISIS – a kind of good cop/bad cop relationship. However, many analysts and political scientists (here* and here for example) are actually loathe to establish any such link. Many have been arguing for decades now that there is no relationship except for the most superficial between these groups. If this is the case, what does the end of MB rule have to do with ISIS? What is this category of “political Islam” and what exactly is the relationship between its members? For what it’s worth, Egyptian supporters of regime change in 2013 often articulate their opposition to the MB precisely by arguing for these familial links that Hamid seems to assume.
This argument also harbors the scent of extortion. There is a cartoon that is often shared that reads, “Egypt: Either we rule it, or we burn it.”
Indeed, the notion that only MB rule could protect Egypt from ISIS is a bit like saying you either take the MB whether you like it or not (and I would argue that Egyptians definitely demonstrated that they did not), or you will be attacked by ISIS — and you probably deserve it. I actually do not understand why Egypt or any other country in the world has to choose between one Islamist regime (the MB) that will smile for the cameras but make closed door deals with unelected supreme leaders or a group of marauding thugs, rapists, and killers for sport, all in the name of “Islam.” (Here I suggest that as a region we have other priorities besides the “coup”). Do we really want the region to descend into a battle of wills between one Islamist regime and another, each gesturing opportunistically to medieval texts? This scenario doesn’t strike me as very democratic.
It must also be said that we actually have no solid proof — only conjecture — that ISIS’s rise in Sinai has anything to do with Sisi. It is true that ISIS’s presence on Egyptian soil is one that presented itself during Sisi’s rule, but it is also true that Egypt has been battling a jihadist insurgency in Sinai well before Sisi or even Morsi took power, and that that insurgency has been growing steadily. Accordingly, ISIS has been expanding in the region generally. Thus there is in fact no direct causality between Sisi’s rule and ISIS’s rise. And to state the counter arguments: one could argue that Egypt’s porous borders during Morsi’s rule made possible an influx of weapons and fighters from Libya and Gaza, escalating the mess in Sinai today. And one could also argue that Sisi is a bulwark against ISIS taking root in a region that has seen stunning ISIS gains in Syrian and Iraqi territory — places that replaced authoritarian rule with power vacuums that seem to magnetically attract jihadists, including and maybe especially ISIS.
Those who oppose the rule of President Sisi have reason for their position, but the notion that his regime directly benefits ISIS does not hold up to scrutiny.
*A quote from this piece: “To categorise the Muslim Brotherhood alongside the Islamic State under a loose definition of Islamists is a grave mistake; indeed to categorise all Islamists under the same umbrella is ludicrous. The Muslim Brotherhood and the IS are radically different. Whilst the former’s principled position is one of democracy, pluralism, reform, and integration, the latter is based on brutality, coercion, annihilation and despotism.”