Home / In Depth / ISIS on ‘Upper’ Egyptian Soil: A Case of Mutual Neglect

ISIS on ‘Upper’ Egyptian Soil: A Case of Mutual Neglect

By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD — Nobody’s interested in what happened in Egypt, internationally, the suicide attacks that targeted the churches in Tanta and Alexandria on Palm Sunday last week.
A foreign academic explained this to me. It wasn’t high on the priorities of international readers. This is tragic, not just for humanitarian reasons, but also as far as the research agenda is concerned.
Something ‘strange’ is going on in Egypt, if you know a thing or two about the nature of Islamist activity there. Here’s something that no one, to my knowledge, has noticed the significance of something about the first suicide bomber identified – Mohamed Hassan Mubarak Abdullah. He worked for an oil company.
The issue here is not how well off he was, the standard way journalists have handled the topic. The idea is that income levels don’t guard against extremist thought. Education and tolerant religious discourse do. Be that as it may, they’re still not getting the point.
So what is the point, precisely?
Power sharing. (The bargains that go into pacifying one group or setting groups against each other). The petroleum sector in Egypt is teeming with members of the Muslim Brotherhood. I used to work in petroleum journalism but, ironically, I found this out from people in the tourist industry, and quite some time ago. They regularly supply catering services to petroleum companies, along with the crews of oil rigs out in the provinces, and repeatedly they find Islamists among the work crews, and they’re always people who come from those provinces and are related to each other. What is more, they’re clean shaven. (My business contacts discovered their political pedigree through conversations with them). They’re not like the Salafists you meet at universities or conferences, graduates of petroleum engineering departments. They’re bearded and quite open about their religious and political leanings, and they often have professors who are Copts. The Brotherhood members out in the field, by contrast, are clearly in hiding.
I don’t mean in the sense of sleeper cells. They’re just people biding their time and trying to share in the spoils of the existing regime, laying low till their time comes. With a fair dosage of nepotism thrown in there too.
This, in turn, means that the terror attacks signal a shift in this traditional power arrangement. Islamists are going for broke. They don’t believe compromise is a viable option anymore. I’d also wager that that’s how Islamic State was able to sink its tendrils deep into the Qena province, which is where all of the terrorists in question came from – the suicide bombers identified and the suspects that have so far been arrested.
The geographical origins of the attackers are problematic enough in themselves. The first wave of contemporary Islamist terrorism in Egypt, in the 1980s, came from Upper Egypt. The conduit for these Islamists into the bosom of the city was, needless to say, rural-urban migration, with all the street hawkers and wage labourers who come from the South. (Their implicit support network, in effect). The economic circumstances in the South and the long history of neglect from the period of the infitah (open door policy) onwards, from 1974 under Sadat, was the prelude to this. Since then, the breeding ground for terrorists has shifted to the Sinai Peninsula, another area of historic neglect. Why the sudden shift back to Upper Egypt, while Sinai is still teeming with terrorists?
Again, something is going on in Egypt. From the continuous news coverage and the endless talk shows interviewing people in Qena, you begin to get a distinct picture. Neglect is seeping in once again, and has been for the past few years, with Islamists making up for the shortfall. You keep getting members of select tribes bemoaning claims that their kids are mixed up with these groups, noting how the ‘nobility’ of their bloodline and how prosperous they were and how all their commercial dealings were with Christians someone how disproves this.
But that’s precisely the problem. Monopoly economics. The whole reason Salafis were able to get any traction in the South is because of the rigid tribal system over there, almost a caste-system, denying jobs and marital opportunities to young men from outside of their own impoverished clans. They shook up the system, but only for a time it seems. As to why young men from the privileged few are signing up, your guess is as good as mine, but I’d wager that it’s a sense of ‘guilt’. In British history, the KGB always targeted landed aristocrats and other elite groups for recruitment – Kim Philby, Burgess and McLain being the classics cases. (David Cameron, in his early days, almost fell afoul of such recruiters).
Closer to home we have Zarkawi, formerly a hoodlum in his youthful days before heading off to Afghanistan, and Usama bin Laden, the spoilt rich kid who had to put with rebukes from his extended family because of his blonde, Syrian mother. Closer to home still, in Qena, you found the nobles interviewed to be very smug and nonchalant about the terror attacks. One went as far as bragging that his businesses made a major contribution to the national economy and, therefore, it was not in the interest of the government to clamp down on him because of the dent these would leave economically.
If you go outside of the political domain altogether and look at the rising tide of suicide rates in the Middle East, you’ll find that its always young people who are bumping themselves off, and in distinctly horrid and public ways. As epidemiologist Mohsen Rezaeian surmises, young Muslim males are particularly prone to violent forms of suicide, such as hanging and self-immolation, in part to “show their protest against the unfair economic situations in their societies.” This is not necessarily because they themselves are poor but because many “youngsters see that some Islamic countries only adopt Islamic law as a shell and they do not apply the core of Islamic values.” This is especially true where widespread poverty exists “despite the enormous wealth that these countries inherited by selling their natural resources such as oil and gas.”
We can add that suicide has a typology like all other psychological ailment. Someone who sets himself on fire originally feels like his skin is burning, from rage at injustices. This is what you’ve forced me to do, you’ve left me no other option but this, the victim is saying in effect. Hence, Bouazizi in Tunisia, the boy who instigated the whole Arab Spring singlehanded; earning him the epithet of Time magazine’s 2011 ‘Man of the Year.’ (There’s also Moshe Silman in Israel). Someone who blows himself up, in a public place, is taking revenge against society, splattering his insides onto others he feels have hurt him in some fashion. Transforming his body into a weapon and instrument of protest at the same time. A form of garrulous poetry.
Poetry, and all forms of art, are actually one tactic society can deploy against these groups. But that’s a subject for another article!

*Emad El-Din Aysha is an Egyptian writer and researcher based in Cairo.

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