ISIS growing beyond Sinai and into southern Egypt

Sunday 11/06/2017
On alert. A policeman stands guard near the Cathedral Road in Minya, on May 26. (AP)

Cairo- The killing of 28 Christian pilgrims on a desert road in the central province of Minya raised fears about the growth of the Islamic State (ISIS) beyond the Sinai Pen­insula and into southern Egypt.

Buoyed by ISIS’s survival and its ability to attack across the country, ISIS’s extremist ideology is finding additional adherents, particularly in southern Egypt.

“ISIS has succeeded in creat­ing its own cells in the southern provinces,” said Khaled Okasha, an Egyptian security expert. “This means that security agencies need to open their eyes and intensify their presence in these provinces.”

An ISIS presence in the southern provinces would increase difficul­ties for security strategists in Cairo as Egypt’s security and military agencies are already confronting the group in the Sinai Peninsula and neighbouring Libya.

Radical Islamist groups have been present in southern Egypt before but ISIS represents a dis­tinct threat. Divided into Islam­ist power centres, Egypt’s ultra-orthodox Salafists have a strong historical presence in the north­ern coastal city of Alexandria and among Egypt’s Bedouin in the Western Desert.

The outlawed Muslim Brother­hood has traditionally enjoyed strong support in the Nile Delta and Cairo.

The Islamist group Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya historically oper­ated in the central and southern provinces of Minya, Asyut, Qena and Sohag. The group renounced terrorism and formed a political party after the 2011 revolution but offshoots announced an alliance with al-Qaeda in 2006.

“According to their religious and social makeup, Egyptians in the south are more inclined to follow a strict interpretation of the Islamic religion,” Okasha said. “This is why these provinces can be fertile ground for the growth of radical Islamist organisations.”

The May 26 attack against the two buses carrying the Christian pilgrims was not the first in cen­tral Egypt. In July 2014, gunmen attacked a checkpoint manned by border guards in the south-west­ern New Valley province and killed more than 20 officers and con­scripts. Security experts said the attack fit ISIS’s modus operandi.

In January 2017, an army officer and seven conscripts were killed and four others injured when gun­men attacked another checkpoint in the province.

The suicide bombers who car­ried out attacks on churches in Al­exandria and the Nile Delta city of Tanta in April also originated from Egypt’s southern provinces.

This, analysts said, should have led to Egyptian security forces tak­ing a closer look at what was hap­pening in southern Egypt.

“It is necessary for the authori­ties to now start addressing the reasons why Egyptians in the south are falling prey to such extrem­ist views,” said Ahmed Abdullah Zayed, a sociology professor at Cai­ro University. “Poverty is rampant, unemployment is high and state in­stitutions are totally absent in these southern provinces.”

Most economic development has been concentrated in Cairo and the coastal cities for decades, a trend President Abdel Fattah al- Sisi is trying to reverse.

Sisi has designated a large por­tion of the state budget to projects in southern Egypt. Egypt’s new investment law offers incentives to investors who want to start in­dustrial projects in the southern provinces.

However, until the govern­ment’s projects bear fruit and im­prove living conditions for those in the south, Egypt must deal with the ramifications of its previous neglect of the southern provinces.

“The lack of development in these provinces for a long time in the past has affected the qual­ity of life there,” said Farag Abdel Fattah, an economics professor at Cairo University. “This has turned these provinces into a magnet for radical thinking and radical groups.”