Potential for militancy, protest activity heightened during March 26-28 elections; major instability as seen in past years unlikely – Egypt Analysis

Current Situation

On March 26-28, Egypt will hold Presidential elections. Current President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi will be running for reelection against El-Ghad Party leader Moussa Mostafa Moussa.

Moussa has stated that he supports al-Sisi for president, despite his own candidacy. Numerous political opposition leaders declared a boycott of the elections, in protest of the current administration’s detention and alleged pressure on previous candidates to withdraw.

The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood political organization and other anti-government groups have yet to release official calls for protests during the elections. In recent weeks, authorities announced arrests of Muslim Brotherhood elements “seeking to interrupt the elections and endanger public safety.” On less frequent occasions in past weeks, security forces apprehended militants belonging to the Hasam Movement, a militant group comprised of pro-Muslim Brotherhood elements, who were “planning to carry out attacks during the elections”.

The Islamic State (IS)-affiliated Wilayat Sinai released media on February 11 in which it threatens to attack polling stations across the country during the elections, and warned “the Muslim public” to avoid voting sites and other locales associated with the elections in view of attack operations. The Sunni jihadist group stated the Presidential elections are “the greatest form of polytheism.”

In IS’s official literature on February 15, the group encouraged attacks by its militants and supporters, stating that “attacks will show al-Sisi’s allies that he is incapable of controlling security in the main areas under his rule, let alone distant regions like Sinai, the Western Desert, and areas in Aswan and Upper Egypt.”

Assessments & Forecast

Al-Sisi likely to be reelected

Considering al-Sisi’s current competition in the election, the result is likely predetermined, and al-Sisi will be reelected for another term. Moussa’s candidacy is likely meant to provide the elections with an appearance of being democratic and to lend credibility to al-Sisi’s mandate as head of state upon his reelection. The successful removal of all serious candidates is indicative of the support al-Sisi maintains among Egypt’s military and security elites, who trust that he will protect their interests, especially their financial stakes and Egypt’s overall stability. The detention of two former high-ranking figures of the armed forces demonstrated this, namely former Prime Minister and Egyptian Air Force (EAF) Commander in Chief Ahmed Shafiq, and former Chief of Staff of Egyptian Armed Forces (EAAF) Sami Hafez Anan, who both subsequently left the Presidential race. Al-Sisi could not have placed these long-serving, well-connected military rivals into custody if he did not have the backing of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the heads of Egypt’s intelligence service. In light of this, al-Sisi will likely retain this support in the coming years, rendering a change in the country’s leadership improbable.

Protests likely in lead-up, during elections, but government likely to effectively contain

Though calls for holding anti-government protests during the elections have yet to be issued, they will likely be released in the coming days, given widely held sentiments against the current leadership, and a view of the elections as undemocratic prevailing among the public. Muslim Brotherhood activists release calls for nationwide protests on a weekly basis, and the theme of their anti-government protest activity in the coming week is liable to focus on denouncing the al-Sisi Presidency and elections as illegitimate. Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups will likely stage protests in conjunction with the elections.

FORECAST: The rate of protest activity will likely rise over this period relative to recent months. Some of these will be planned, and others will occur on a sporadic, spontaneous basis, likely near polling stations. The protests may devolve into civil unrest, featuring scuffles and localized clashes between participants and security personnel. This would stem from the anti-government nature of the demonstrations and heightened sensitivity over the elections. Events of this volatile nature would likely be forcibly scattered by security forces, including through the firing of tear gas and rubber bullets.

However, this period is unlikely to witness the type of destabilizing unrest seen during Egypt’s revolution and subsequent political upheaval of 2011-2013. In more recent years, the rate of anti-government protest activity and unrest has declined significantly. This is due to various government measures, including the arrests of thousands of anti-government activists and their leaders. This has left such groups without much of its capable leadership who organized political operations and demonstrations, and deprived of a large share of their membership. Citizens’ political will to engage in major protest campaigns has also likely markedly diminished, given protesters’ general lack of success in achieving their goals, and the human toll taken over the course of their pursuits.

Moreover, in advance of recent sensitive political dates and events, authorities have also closed off symbolic places previously used as protest sites, including Cairo’s Tahrir Square, as well as main thoroughfares. This has prevented protests from materializing, thus averting large-scale violent incidents as seen in 2001-2013, and stopping protest movements from gaining traction and momentum overall. Authorities will once again implement this security strategy from May 26-28, which will likely be effective overall in containing and preventing anti-government demonstrations.

Militancy threats from jihadist, disenfranchised Muslim Brotherhood groups heightened during election period

The rate of militancy-related events in mainland Egypt, including attacks and arrests of militants, has declined in recent years, and more so over past months. However, the potential for militant attacks on March 26-28 will be relatively heightened, as militant groups seek to damage al-Sisi’s reputation for tackling militancy, presenting him as unable to secure the country. A successful attack during the period of the Presidential elections would attract wide media attention for the militant group responsible, given the public and symbolic nature of this period. This would bolster the militant group’s profile, including by its members and supporters, possibly motivating further attacks and drawing recruits to its ranks. This is underscored by an IED attack targeting Alexandria’s chief of police on March 24 which authorities have stated was carried out by the Hasam Movement. A further example of such an event is the most recent attack in mainland Egypt claimed by IS, namely the operation targeting a Coptic Church in Helwan during the holiday season, on December 29, 2017.

As to the statements released by IS and its Sinai-affiliate threatening and calling for attacking polling stations and associated installations, these were likely aimed to deter Egyptians from voting, thus lowering the participation rate in the elections. This would further undermine al-Sisi’s mandate in the view of the Egyptian public, and diminish the reputation of the country’s authorities. This corresponds to IS’s overall strategy in Egypt, which is to weaken Egypt’s leadership, damage the State, in turn replacing it with an Islamic State in the future. Another Sunni jihadist group posing potential dangers during the election period, is the relatively new Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, which was responsible for the large-scale October 20, 2017 Bahariya Oasis attack. According to reports, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam has gained dozens of new members in recent months, including Islamist former members of the security forces, and an attack during the elections would greatly publicize the group’s existence and present it as especially capable.

The Hasam Movement, and similar militant groups consisting of pro-Muslim Brotherhood elements such as Liwaa al-Thawra, likely see the election period as a particularly attractive time to launch attacks. This is in response to the Muslim Brotherhood political organization’s continued banned status and removal from the sanctioned political landscape, and in response to authorities’ ongoing crackdown on the group’s members. These groups target security personnel, government officials, and those aligned with authorities. That said, bystanders face a threat of collateral damage in the event of the attacks. Overall, these groups have not been especially active of late, and the last claimed attack claimed was for an IED detonation at the Myanmar Embassy in Cairo on September 30, 2017, which Hasam claimed to have executed. However, the groups remain in operation, as indicated by periodically recorded arrests of their members over past months, and thus, they pose a persisting threat, especially during the symbolic election period.

FORECAST: Over the coming days, authorities will implement bolstered security protocols around the country, including posting additional security personnel, especially near polling stations and potential protest sites on May 26-28. Security forces will likely carry out raids targeting both militant elements and anti-government activists, to mitigate the potential for militant activity and larger-scale civil unrest to unfold. However, comparatively large gatherings of security personnel present attractive targets for militant groups, which may draw the attention of such elements during the elections. Citizens may view additional security personnel at protest sites as oppressive, exacerbating tensions between the sides, and fomenting localized unrest.

Recommendations

On March 26-28 avoid nonessential travel to the vicinity of polling stations, given the heightened threat of militancy and protests posed to these locations during this time period.

Allot for disruptions and plan alternative routes for travel due to the likely closures of main roads and thoroughfares concurrent with the elections.

Travel to Cairo and Alexandria may continue while adhering to all security precautions regarding militancy and civil unrest. Consult with us for itinerary-based travel recommendations.

Avoid all travel to the North Sinai Governorate and border areas with Libya, Sudan, and Israel due to the persistent risk for militant attacks, kidnappings, and general lawlessness.

Avoid nonessential travel to the Southern Sinai Peninsula, while maintaining heightened vigilance in the Suez Canal Zone, the Upper Nile area, and the Nile Delta region due to an increased risk of unrest and the heightened risk of militant attacks. Before traveling to Sharm al-Sheikh, confirm that flight operations are continuing and have not been impacted by recent militant threats.

In Cairo, maintain heightened vigilance and continue to allot extra time for travel due to possible delays emanating from increased security deployments, checkpoints, and closures throughout the capital.

Remain vigilant in areas surrounding and avoid the immediate vicinity of government installations, police stations, and religious centers, particularly churches, as these locations remain under elevated threat of militant attacks. When traveling in central squares, or in areas with persistent police deployments, avoid the immediate vicinity of security forces, particularly fixed traffic booths, as such personnel and facilities have increasingly come under attack by militant elements.