Caught Between ISIS and the Police State
Today, Cairo's young Islamists believe what ISIS allegedly did in Paris was wrong. Tomorrow, they will be reminded their government considers them to be terrorists, too.
CAIRO — Alia, 19, walked into the café with her backpack in tow, just returned from midterm exams. In her hand was her smartphone, filled with updates from friends. Some were sitting in Egyptian prisons charged on terrorism; others, on the outside, were talking about joining the self-proclaimed Islamic State in response.
“Did ISIS claim responsibility for Paris?” she asked.
Then she learned that the ISIS statement claiming credit had just been released. She bowed her head, covered in a tightly wrapped headscarf, and sighed.
“This is not good for us. This will make things worse,” she said.
And that was before news emerged that an Egyptian national’s passport was found alongside the body of a gunman Saturday at Stade de France, alongside a Syrian passport of a second gunman.
For Alia, an alias she uses in the movement opposing the current regime, the attack in Paris was so un-Islamic. It exposed ISIS’s barbarism to those debating whether to support the group.
But she fears the crackdown on Islamists here will drown out awareness that ISIS’s attack in Paris violated Muslim principles, she said. As long as Egypt continues its indiscriminate crackdown on Islamist opponents, ISIS will hold an appeal to Egyptians.
He friends are conflicted, she said. They are Muslims who hate what ISIS is doing but have no other place to take their rage against their government.
“The incident in Paris could make people rethink going to Syria because what happened is so wrong,” she explained. “Unfortunately, the police here in Egypt are not just oppressors. They are doing barbaric things and it creates pressure in such a way to push us to do anything against them.”
The dynamic she describes in Egypt is much more extreme than the one happening in France, where French-born Muslims are drawn to terror, in part, by disenfranchisement. But they’re not totally dissimilar—especially not in the two countries’ jails. In France, the Muslim population at one time accounted for 12 percent of the state’s population and as much as 70 percent of the prison population. Up to 46,000 prisoners sit in Egyptian prisons, many charged with terrorism simply for their affiliation with a banned political organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s the largest and oldest political organization in Egypt; a social movement that seeks to increase Islam's role in the state.
With each ISIS attack—and each government crackdown in response—the wheel of violence takes another turn, explained Lorenzo Vidino, director of the program on extremism at George Washington University.
“The vicious cycle is what ISIS wants,” Vidino told The Daily Beast. ISIS is “going after targets that bring it home to everyone.”
In a phone call Saturday with his French counterpart, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el Sissi suggested the attacks would strengthen the Egyptian government’s approach.
Sissi “stressed that terrorist attacks, which take part in different locations throughout the world, will not deter countries and people from combating terrorism and extremism,” a government statement on the phone call read.
And some Egyptian state-run media outlets used the Paris attack to justify Cairo’s crackdown, saying France now has experienced what Egypt confronts.
Alia is a onetime supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government labeled a terrorist organization in 2013 after the fall of former Egyptian President (and Brotherhood chief) Mohammed Morsi. Since then, the government has cracked down on anyone affiliated with the group, calling any of the furtive group’s thousands of members terrorists.
Egypt has seen a rising threat from ISIS. Over the last year, there have been regular attacks throughout the country, often in the form of small explosives. In November 2014, the main jihadist group in the restive Sinai announced it had joined the Islamic State. And on Oct. 31, that group, now called Wilayat al Sinai, claimed responsibility for the downing of Russia's Metrojet 9268. All 224 passengers on board were killed when a suspected explosive detonated mid-flight.
Alia's soft, pale face and multi-colored sneakers under her long gown signal suggest that she is still a teenager. But her experiences are that of a longtime fighter. She visits the grave of a 17-year-old classmate, Asmaa el Beltagy, who was slain by Egyptian security forces during the August 2013 massacre in Cairo’s Rabaa district. Ultimately, more than 1,000 people were killed there in one day.
Alia’s sister, brother-on-law, and scores of friends have been arrested. They have since been released and describe a prison system that has been a university for jihadism—and a community to transform rage into action.
Alia gets daily updates on those still inside, including reports of torture and delayed releases of those who she believes committed no crimes.
But the state’s influence stretches far beyond prison walls. In places like the western Cairo district of Nasr City, the streets are littered with plainclothes policemen who stop anyone who looks like a potential Brotherhood supporter and stop them to search their phones for photos, phones, or art that suggests they are against their regime.
Indeed, at the café at the table next to Alia sat a man who kept stirring in his coffee and taking notes as she described her frustration.
“Islam says we do not kill women and children. We don’t want this,” she said. “ISIS does something, and it affects our reputation as Muslims.”
Then Alia opened her phone and ticked off one friend after another among the state’s list of suspects; two women were just released from prison the other day. She read an update about a groom who was snatched by security forces in Alexandria days ago during his wedding. She checked Facebook, and saw an update from another friend who had just visiting her son in a squalid prison cell, his jail cell door blocked with trash.
She constantly looks around, always prepared that she could be next to face government forces.
Alia’s friends, including women, are researching ISIS online and contemplating joining the fight, she said. Alia knows one man who just returned from Syria. Her circle is on a first-name basis with the facilitators who take potential fighters from Cairo to western Egypt and into Libya and then Syria. She and her friends know the man who has since returned from Syria, injured and disgusted by ISIS, but nonetheless frustrated with his fate here.
There is a debate amongst her friends who are thinking about joining ISIS. Their religion teaches them ISIS is wrong but their government treats them as terrorists, Alia said.
“If I were a woman who had been detained and faced all kind of injustice, I would want to retaliate but not join ISIS,” she continued.
One way the government could begin to blunt the terror group's appeal, she noted, is to release some of those imprisoned without evidence against them.
Alia does not fear that Egypt will ramp up its crackdown after Paris. The daily attacks here at home have shaped the government’s strategy. But she is saddened that the Cairo government will not adjust its approach in the wake of the Paris massacre, when ISIS’s appeal to her friends is at its weakest. Today, her friends believe what ISIS did was wrong. Tomorrow, they will be reminded their government considers them to be terrorists.
“The appeal,” she explained, “is more about retaliation than religion.”
-- with additional reporting by Amina Ismail