Egypt hopes for stability in 2017 but challenges remain

Sunday 08/01/2017
A masked member of security forces in Tahrir Square in Cairo, last November. (Reuters)

Cairo - The Egyptian government’s success in weakening the Muslim Brotherhood, de­fanging militants in the Sinai and improving poor­ly performing state institutions should help stabilise the country in 2017, analysts said.
However, analysts also pointed out that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi faces challenges in dealing with the many small mili­tant groups that formed after the 2013 ouster of Islamist president Muhammad Morsi, securing the border with Libya and bringing ties with the country’s most important Arab ally — Saudi Arabia — back on track as well as dealing with crises in Syria, Yemen and Libya.
“Saudi Arabia will by far be the toughest foreign policy challenge in 2017,” said Mohamed Hussein, an international relations professor from Cairo University. “There are efforts to bring the two states back together but whether they will suc­ceed is uncertain.”
The rebel groups, many of which are backed by Saudi Arabia, Syrian President Bashar Assad says he is fighting in his country tend to be the same groups or variances of them that Sisi is fighting in Egypt.
Sisi also has been unwilling to send troops to Yemen, where the Saudis are leading a military cam­paign aimed at containing the coun­try’s Shia Houthis and preventing the formation of a Shia enclave in their borders.
“The Saudis view much of this as a betrayal to Sisi’s initial pledge to go to all lengths to defend them,” Hussein said.
Having substantially weakened the Muslim Brotherhood in 2016, Sisi now must deal with post-Broth­erhood violence, mainly carried out by small groups capable of inflicting heavy damage on Egypt’s security.
“These are little-known groups that keep appearing with new names every now and then,” se­curity expert Khaled Okasha said. “Security agencies will have a real difficulty tracking them down.”
One of the groups assassinated an army lieutenant-general outside his home in Cairo in October and an­other claimed responsibility for the killing of six policemen on Decem­ber 10th after planting two bombs near a checkpoint in Giza. Security agencies say a suicide bomber who attacked a downtown Cairo church on December 11th, was a Brother­hood member.
In 2016, the army had some suc­cess battling a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other militants in the Sinai, killing hundreds of militants and driving others out of north Sinai cities. Eradicating mili­tancy in the vast deserts of Sinai re­mains a tough mission for the army, military experts say.
Securing the 1,200km border with Libya will also be a tough chal­lenge for Egypt in 2017, as it has been since the toppling of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
“As the war rages in Libya and the Libyans fail to form a unified government, Egypt will continue to make extra effort to prevent mili­tants from sneaking into it through the border,” said retired army gen­eral Hossam Suweilam. “Libya is expected to descend into even more violence in 2017.”
Egypt says arms shipments to Sinai militants come from Libya where rival armies, parliaments and governments jostle for control.
Political developments in the United States, where Donald Trump will be the US president as of January 20th, and in Europe, where right-wing, anti-immigrant sentiments are on the rise, will also affect Egypt, political experts said.
Trump has said he admired Sisi’s “courage” in fighting terrorism. He has also vowed to cooperate with Moscow in bringing the war in Syria to an end and seems less interested in pushing human rights and po­litical freedoms outside US borders than US President Barack Obama has been.
“This will give Sisi the chance to further stabilise his country with­out having to worry about inter­national criticism of human rights conditions in Egypt,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor from Cairo University. “The com­ing of right-wing governments in a number of European countries will further embolden the Egyptian leader into going ahead with his stabilisation plan without worries.”