Backgrounder: Islamist conflicts in Egypt

Egypt has now successfully carried out presidential elections via several rounds of voting over the last few weeks. The electoral process has been tainted by allegations of corruption and maneuvering by the ruling military council (SCAF) to remain in power. Despite these accusations the electoral process was completed and won by Mohammed Mursi; representing the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood – the Freedom and Justice Party. 500 days after Mubarak was forced from power Mursi, supported by approximately 25 % of the electorate could pronounce himself the first post-Mubarak president of Egypt.

The election of a high-ranking member of the Muslim Brotherhood has attracted the attention of the world since Egypt has experienced significant amounts of violence linked to various Islamist groups. The Coptic minority have also expressed grave concerns over Mursi’s candidacy, fearing discrimination and maltreatment with Mursi as President. The background to these concerns is the violence that took place in Egypt during the mid to late nineties and again during 04-05, and lastly in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution.  An understanding of this violence is useful when trying to fully appreciate the delicate situation in Egyptian politics. UCDP has recorded organized violence in Egypt on several occasions and beneath is a small summary of the UCDP’s fact about Egypt’s conflicts.

Egypt’s past years have seen violence between Islamist groups and the Egyptian government as well as violence between Muslims and Christians. The Muslim Brotherhood was an object of persecution during the Mubarak regime and was banned until the fall of Mubarak in early 2011. The sectarian violence that has taken place in Egypt has not, however, included the Muslim Brotherhood directly. Violence in Egypt has spanned a number of categories, including violence directed towards civilians, as well as violence between non-state actors; and carried out by both Islamist groups and the Egyptian government. The Islamist groups recorded in the the UCDP’s records are al-Gamma’a al Islamyya (the Islamic Group), who were active in fighting the government in 1993-98, and Tawhid wal Jihad (Unity and Holy War, or Monotheism and Holy War), who targeted civilians in 2004 and 2005. al-Gamma’a al Islammyya also targeted civilians in 1995-1997.

The al-Gamma’a al Islamyya, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, was bent on replacing the secular regime of Hosni Mubarak and establishing an Islamist caliphate. This was to be achieved through violent means, in contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood’s stance on the issue. al-Gamma’a al Islamyya experienced, as many Islamist groups, an upsurge in its numbers as fighters returned from Afghanistan were they had been fighting alongside the mujahideen against the Soviet Union. This influx of troops and combat experience would be of importance throughout the entire North African and Middle Eastern region.

The first recorded death attributed to al-Gamma’a al Islamyya in UCDP data is in 1981, but it was not until 1993 that they crossed the 25 death threshold for inclusion into the database (the UCDP definition of an ‘armed conflict’). The peak of al-Gamma’a al Islamyya’s activity and the one event that gave them international notoriety was in 1997, when the group massacred 58 western tourists at Luxor. The following year, in 1998, al-Gamma’a al Islamyya split between moderates and extremists and since then they have not been recorded as active in UCDP data. A harsh counterinsurgency campaign against the group also took its toll.

The graph above displays the number of battle-related deaths (Government versus al-Gamma’a al-Islamyya) between 1992 and 2000.

The map above map the locations and estimated number of battle-related deaths in Egypt, between 1993 and 1998; the years the conflict crossed the 25 deaths threshold.

The second group recorded in UCDP one-sided data is Tawhid wal Jihad. This group was more opaque than al-Gamma’a al Islamyya. They are believed to have been inspired by Al-Qaeda and have carried out two high profile bombings in Egypt. Tawhid wal Jihad’s motives have not been clearly defined and some speculated that the group in fact had secessionist ambitions for the Sinai Peninsula. These speculations have not been verified. The recorded violence carried out by Tawhid wal Jihad consist of two major attacks on civilians, all on the Red Sea in the Southern Sinai. Other attacks have also been carried out by Tawhid wal Jihad, but these have however not passed the 25 deaths threshold. One such notable attack was the one in Dahab in 2006.

Graph of one-sided violence perpetrated by both al-Gamma’a al-Islammya and Tawhid wal-Jihad.

Map showing the locations and estimates of deaths of attacks by al-Gamma’a al-Islamyya and Tawhid wal-Jihad,perpetrated in those years that tolls surpassed the 25 deaths threshold. Attacks by TwJ circled in red.

Want to learn more on these conflicts? Visit the UCDP’s Conflict Encyclopedia, specifically the page on Egypt.

Organized violence in relation to the Muslim brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have not, despite being targeted by the Egyptian government, been recorded as an actor in the UCDP Conflict Encyclopedia; much in contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood in e.g. Syria who have been engaged in conflict with the Syrian government (ending in 1982 with the destruction of the Muslim Brotherhood), or Hamas (an MB offshoot) who are engaged in the Israel-Palestine conflict. There are however fears, most notably from the Coptic minority, that the appointment of a highly ranked member of the Muslim Brotherhood will worsen the conditions for the Copts, and with the recent (2011) clashes between Muslims and Copts these fears may have some credence.

The political landscape of Egypt today is extremely uncertain; the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has dissolved the Parliament and declared the newly drafted constitution null and void, leaving the SCAF as the most powerful political body in Egypt. This development has caused widespread demonstrations and accusations of a de facto coup by the Egyptian military. These accusations have been somewhat muted by the fact that Mursi won the bid for the presidency since his competitor was Ahmed Shafiq, an ex-air-force captain and member of the Mubarak regime’s apparatus. Critics still claim that SCAF has deprived the presidency of any real power through their political maneuvering and that Mursi will be no more than a symbolic figure and that SCAF will in fact be in control. The truth of the matter is too early to know. The situation is however precarious as the political turmoil appears to have created a sense of hopelessness amongst the Egyptian population, manifested in the low voter turnout for the presidential election (24 of 50 million actually voted and out of the registered voters 800 000 votes were blank).

//Samuel Taub, Research Assistant, UCDP


Backgrounder: Situation in Mali

The situation in Mali has now become a relatively large issue in the news, especially so with the proclamation of an independent Islamic state called the Islamic Republic of Azawad. What has been going on in Mali can look pretty confusing, especially since earlier news focused mainly on the issue of the Touraeg rebellion. So, here’s a short backgrounder on what’s been going on:

From the UCDP Conflict Encyclopedia:

“In the early 1990s, Touareg and Arab nomads inhabiting the sparsely populated northern part of Mali formed MPA (Mouvement Populaire de l’Azaouad, Azawad People’s Movement) with the aim to achieve autonomy for their home region called Azawad. After a peace agreement in 1991, MPA stopped fighting the government, whilst a break-away faction called FIAA (Front Islamique Arabe de l’Azaouad: Islamic Arab Front of Azawad) did not support the accord and continued the struggle in 1994. However, the following year FIAA accepted to reintegrate itself into the peace process and declared a permanent cease-fire that led to a cessation of hostilities. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a growing dissatisfaction among the former Touareg fighters who had been integrated into the army. Subsequently, in 2007 a new Touareg rebel group emerged and briefly fought the government.”

In short, numerous rebel groups and breakaway factions from within the Touareg people have been fighting the government of Mali since the early 1990s. Like in many conflicts in these parts rebel groups come and go and often integrate into the national army as consequences of not very far-reaching peace agreements (i.e. they don’t very often attempt to resolve the main issue in the conflict.

The main issue is (from the UCDP Conflict Encyclopedia):

“The territorial conflict, fought between a number of Touareg and Arab rebel groups and the Malian government, concerns the status of the Azawad region in northern Mali. With some seeking independence and others fighting for autonomy, the rebels have at times been very successful in fighting the government on their own home turf. Due to the government’s inability to respond effectively to the rebels’ guerrilla warfare, the latter have managed to pursue their on and off armed struggle during the 1990s and the 2000s.[…] The Azawad is an area comprising parts of northern Mali, northern Niger, and part of southern Algeria. In Mali the territory includes portions of the Kidal Region”

So, the conflict stands over the status of this mainly Touareg-inhabited area called Azawad, which spans several countries. Armed conflicts have also taken place in Niger between Touaregs and that government over this territory.

Resentment towards the government from the Touareg side stems from a north-south divide which is prevalent in many countries that were formerly French colonies in the area. The Touaregs feel –with some justice- neglected by the government:

“The Touaregs are a pastoral, nomadic people, scattered among a number of West- and North African states. In Mali, they comprise less than ten percent of the total population, but make up much of the population in the sparsely populated northern regions of the country, deep in the Sahara desert. This area is called Azawad by the Touaregs, a term used in the names of all rebel groups in the armed conflict in the 1990s. Traditionally, the North in general, and the Touaregs in particular, have been both economically and politically neglected. This neglect has been compounded by severe drought and a brutal, southern, military presence. Dissent has been expressed numerous times since independence, but until the 1990s, the government managed to repress it.

In the mid-1970’s and onwards, large numbers of young Touaregs from both Mali and Niger emigrated to Libya and Algeria due to severe droughts. The ones who ended up in Libya received military training, as General Qadhafi incorporated some into his regular military forces and inducted others into a Libyan-sponsored “Islamic Legion”. The latter was subsequently dispatched to Lebanon, Palestine and Afghanistan, where numerous Touaregs acquired considerable combat training. Along with the military training received, the emigrants in Libya were politically active and formed the Mouvement Touareg de Libération de l’Adrar et de l’Azawad, an organisation dedicated to the liberation of the northern areas of Mali and Niger. In 1988, encouraged by Libya, the Malian section of the movement split from the Nigerien one, and formed MPLA (Mouvement Populaire de Libération de l’Azaouad: Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) under the leadership of Iyad ag Ghali. In the late 1980s, most Malian Touaregs were expelled from Algeria and Libya, due to deteriorating economic conditions in the host countries. Newly received military capabilities combined with protracted historic grievances and a lack of alternatives, subsequently led the Touaregs in MPLA to initiate an armed struggle against the Malian government in June 1990.”

Nowadays none of the rebel groups mentioned above are big players or players at all in the conflict. The latest fighting has stood instead between the government of Mali and the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) and Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith); an Islamist outfit. Throughout the first months of this year these two groups took control of some of the major towns in northern Mali, such as Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

The intensification of the conflict in 2012 and the subsequent successes by these two rebel outfits was likely brought on by two different factors: (1) the ousting of Khaddafi in Libya and (2) the coup in Mali. As was mentioned earlier in this post many Touaregs took part in Khaddafi’s armies and when he fell many  streamed back into northern Mali and created the MNLA (the MNLA is a fusion of two previous Touareg movements: the NAM and the MTNM). Also, the ousting of Khaddafi appears to have led to an influx of weapons to Islamist outfits in the region, such as the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine. The coup in Mali then opened up the field for a wide offensive in the north, as chaos reigned in the capital in the south.

After the offensive many were expecting the advent of infighting between Ansar Dine and the MNLA, as Ansar Dine is explicitly Islamist whilst the MNLA has a more nationalist inclination and has never spoken out in favor of sharia law. This didn’t happen, and instead these two groups formed a pact and proclaimed the Islamic Republic of Azawad.

This of course caught the eye of western powers and the western media, as it is a clear expansion of Islamist power in the region. AQIM already has an established presence in Mauretania and Algeria and an Islamist presence in northern Mali may serve to bind together a vast expanse of territory under the control of these organizations.

The reasoning of the MNLA in this regard is unclear. Joining up with an Al-Qaeda affiliated outfit is probably not the most strategic of choices, as I am sure we will soon see.

//Ralph Sundberg