Since the ouster of former president Mohammed Morsi in June 2013, Egypt’s stance toward Islamism has drastically changed. The Egyptian government, now under the leadership of President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, has made every effort to eradicate Islamist rhetoric from the very ethos of the Egyptian community. This shift is not limited internally to Egypt. Terrorist threats facing neighboring countries in the region and the looming threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have provided Egypt avenues to cement its posture regionally. The el-Sisi administration is using security developments on several fronts—domestic, regional, and international—to assert itself as a key player in North Africa and tilt the normative discourse there away from the acceptance of Islamism.
Domestically, the Egyptian government has been dedicated to diminishing Islamist influence, which it sees as a legitimate threat to regime security. Since the group’s designation as a terrorist organization in 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood in particular has suffered a severe crackdown against its members. In March, the Egyptian government executed the first Brotherhood supporter and sentenced to death hundreds more, including the organization’s leader, Mohammad Badie. Ongoing hostility resulting from the crackdown has exacerbated Islamist-secularist tensions and pushed the region in the direction of zero-sum politics. Islamist leaders and parties that rose to power through the same elections that brought former President Mohammed Morsi to power are now on the defensive, and not just against the Egyptian state.
The Brotherhood and other Islamist groups are now battling increasingly hostile public opinion. The Brotherhood has never pulled an overwhelming majority in any of its electoral successes. In fact, the Brotherhood’s limited support base and Egyptian voting records depict a split electorate on the Brotherhood’s political role. In the 2012 presidential election, Mohammed Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party won 51.7 percent of the vote, meaning that roughly 48 percent of the electorate opted to vote for Ahmed Shafik, a candidate closely associated with the overwhelmingly unpopular former President, Hosni Mubarak.
Public opinion polls conducted after Morsi’s ouster show that el-Sisi’s anti-Islamist stance has exacerbated an already negative Egyptian attitude toward the Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. By spring 2014, support for the Brotherhood had leveled off at 38 percent, a 25 percent decrease since the previous year. Nearly half of those who do not support the Muslim Brotherhood identified the group as the main obstacle to reconciliation, and more than 60 percent of non-Brotherhood supporters wanted the movement to be banned from Egyptian politics. Yet Egyptians still show a strong support for the role of Islam in governance, and approximately half of Egyptians still agree that laws should strictly follow the teaching of the Quran, although this marks a 10 percent decrease from the previous year.
El-Sisi has used this assimilation of public anti-Islamist attitudes in his response to the security challenges facing Egypt, and he has done so successfully. A dangerous homegrown insurgency faces Egypt. In October 2014, the Sinai Peninsula witnessed the deadliest attack on Egypt’s military in years, with 28 Egyptian soldiers left dead. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdas—a group that later pledged affiliation to ISIS—was deemed responsible. The Egyptian government has also been quick to point to links between the Brotherhood and ISIS, among other extremist groups. In response to these threats, the Egyptian state has engaged in an offensive on extremism, and by extension Islamism—an offensive that has dovetailed with support for the ongoing crackdown against the Brotherhood and other Islamist sympathizers.
The government has not only mobilized security efforts, but has also incorporated the judicial, political, media, and rights arenas, through actions ranging from mass death sentences to the arrests of journalists and the dismissal of members of the judiciary. In November 2014, the Egyptian cabinet approved a draft anti-terrorism law that will give the government the power to ban groups on charges such as “harming national unity” or “disrupting public order.” This draft legislation will help further entrench the Egyptian security state and aid its crackdown on the Brotherhood by permitting authorities to classify groups as “terrorists” according to a long and broad list of offenses.
The consolidation of public opinion and reality of security threats mutually reinforce each other. El-Sisi has achieved the most success in garnering support for his anti-Islamist agenda through the Egyptian media. Those media or affiliates that criticized the el-Sisi administration or its heavy-handed tactics were quickly removed, and tilted coverage of the crackdown itself has regarded these measures as necessary to preserve stability in the wake of a volatile domestic and regional situation. The result of such coverage has been a renewed sense of nationalism equated with anti-Islamism. It is reflected in the local media’s antagonistic attitude toward Qatar for its support of Islamism, which was met with the shutdown of the Al Jazeera station in Egypt. This nationalism also undergirds increasing support for intervention in Libya following the brutal beheading of 21 Coptic Egyptians in February by ISIS.
The security situation—both homegrown threats and also proximity to ISIS—has also negatively impacted a number of industries in the Egyptian economy. The tourism industry has been hit particularly hard by the deteriorated security situation. While Islamist militant groups usually target security forces, blasts have more recently hit civilian targets, including restaurants and stores. More than 14.7 million tourists visited Egypt in 2010, but only 9.8 million visited in 2011. This number has only risen to about 10 million in 2014. During his first few months in office, el-Sisi focused on economic reform, fully aware of its necessity in mobilizing public opinion and in shaping Egypt’s future. El-Sisi has gone after corruption and initiated reforms to gradually reduce subsidies on food and energy. One example is a new smart card system, which increased oversight of bread subsidies.
The el-Sisi administration’s reforms appear to be stabilizing, if not improving the Egyptian economy. The latest figures indicate that unemployment in Egypt has stabilized at 12.9 percent, an improvement that the head of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), Abu Bakr El-Gendy, attributes to the minimal spike in tourism. The unemployment rates among males decreased to 9.2 percent during the later part of 2014, compared to 10 percent during the same period in 2013, while unemployment rates among females decreased to 24.8 percent compared to 25 percent in 2013. Indeed, IMF predictions show a gradual increase in GDP since 2013 and predict a 4.3 percent increase in 2015. In 2014, Transparency International ranked Egypt 94th out of 175 countries, an improvement from the previous year, when Egypt ranked 114th out of 175 countries. The economic conference held in Egypt in March 2015 presented El-Sisi with an opportunity to highlight some of these achievements and attract private investment, a plan that appears to be working. On the margins of the conference, the Egyptian government signed a $12bn energy deal with British Petroleum and announced plans for the construction of a new, modern city. El-Sisi’s domestic economic and security strategies appear to be working, providing him the domestic support he needs to fully cement an anti-Islamist agenda.
The Egyptian state’s offensive to stifle Islamist presence inside the country has been largely successful, as demonstrated by public opinion that is both supportive of the el-Sisi administration and overwhelmingly against a role for the Muslim Brotherhood in politics. It is apparent that el-Sisi has worked hard to garner public support and integrate his administration’s anti-Islamist agenda into a widely accepted distrust of Islamism. He now needs only to sustain this sentiment—a simple task when presented with a citizenry eager for stability and opportunity at home. Perhaps the most recent cabinet re-shuffle in March—the removal of the interior minister who oversaw much of the crackdown against the Brotherhood—is recognition of a need to move beyond the Brotherhood domestically. With control over national sentiment and broad public support, el-Sisi can now turn toward exerting this anti-Islamist agenda abroad with ease, starting with Egypt’s neighbors.
Priya Vithani is a part time Master’s student in the Elliott School of International Affairs Middle East Studies program, concentrating in private sector and democracy development. She is writing this article in her capacity as a student at George Washington University.