"Blessed are the Peacemakers"
In February 2018, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi ordered the Egyptian military to defeat the militant group Wilayat Sinai, a local affiliate of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The military subsequently announced the launch of wide-ranging counterterrorism measures in the Sinai Peninsula and parts of the Nile Delta and Western Desert. Operations have included the demolition of homes, commercial buildings, and farms, resulting in the displacement of thousands. The military stated in February 2019 that it has killed more than five hundred and fifty militants since operations began in 2018.
After orchestrating the arrests of his primary challenger and dozens of critics, Sisi was re-elected for a second term in March 2018. Sisi has since pushed through new laws to combat extremism, including one in August 2018 that increased government control over the internet, and has consistently extended Egypt’s state of emergency, which was first declared in April 2017 following terrorist attacks on Coptic churches. In February 2019, a proposal to extend Sisi’s presidency and expand his power was put before Egypt’s parliament; despite allegations of bribery, the proposal was approved in a referendum later that month, allowing Sisi to extend his term and run again in 2024.
Wilayat Sinai (formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis) emerged as a terrorist organization in the Sinai Peninsula following the popular uprising and subsequent overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Mubarak’s successor, the democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi, was also ousted from power by the military in July 2013 following widespread anti-Muslim Brotherhood protests. After a year-long interim government, former Defense Minister Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was elected president in May 2014 and vowed to continue crackdowns against the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters.
In November 2014, Wilayat Sinai declared its allegiance to the Islamic State. The group has since claimed responsibility for numerous attacks, including the November 2017 attack on a mosque that killed more than three hundred people, the April 2017 attack on Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria that killed at least forty-four people, the December 2016 attack on at a Coptic chapel in Cairo that killed at least twenty-five people, and the October 2015 downing of a Russian airplane that killed all 224 people aboard. Wilayat Sinai has also carried out attacks on Egyptian military and government sites near Egypt’s border with Gaza and Israel, prompting security cooperation between Egypt and Israel.
Egypt also faces a burgeoning terrorist threat in its western desert where al-Qaeda affiliate, Ansar al-Islam, has begun operating. The group orchestrated an attack on Egyptian security forces in October 2017 and has since operated along Egypt’s border with Libya.
Since assuming office in 2014, Sisi has enacted economic reforms to improve the flagging economy, and counterterrorism laws to combat the threat of insurgency. Critics of Sisi have warned that his government has marginalized poor communities, repressed free speech, and infringed on human rights.
The United States remains concerned that Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Western Desert could become sanctuaries for the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Terrorist groups could also contribute to political instability in Egypt, which remains a key regional ally for the U.S. military, further destabilize Libya, and threaten Israel.