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