Here is the English version for my Arabic piece published in Al-Hurra
A new spot was added to the Jihadi landscape in Egypt ____ Km 135. Details are still sketchy, but from what we know so far, Wahat Road, 135 km from Giza in Egypt’s western desert, witnessed one of the bloodiest and fiercest clashes between radicals and police forces outside of Sinai. Regardless of which terrorist group is behind this, the incident should re-focus attention on the disfranchised peripheries surrounding Egypt’s Nile valley, where radicals are again creeping into central Egypt.
Over the last five decades, the gap between the urban centre of Egypt and its peripheral regions has deeply widened. Rural societies, ignored by the urban elite, are in a constant daily struggle for livelihood. Thus, there has been a gradual loss of once tolerant traditions; and a new embrace of Islamism as a long-term solution for their chronic problems. For disfranchised communities, coercion has become the answer to all of society’s ills.
In 2011’s parliamentary election, Salafi parties won many seats in rural areas, particularly in Giza and the nearby Fayoum region. Following the ousting of the Brotherhood’s president Morsi, many local Salafi cadres and their supporters have remained loyal to Islamism as an ideology. These communities neither trust the state nor follow government-backed media. Instead, they get their news from Islamist television broadcasts based outside of Egypt, together with various social media pages of prominent Islamist fugitives. These Islamist media sources inject a toxic dose of hatred into youth struggling to fulfil their dreams and aspirations, deliberately blurring the line between violent and non-violent Islamism, and openly encouraging Egyptians to rise against the state.
This new media landscape and vitrol seems to be working. Last July, three gunmen on a motorbike attacked police in the al-Badrasheen area of Giza province, 30 km south of Cairo killing five policemen. Witnesses said attackers blasted the vehicle with automatic rifles and then took equipment and threw petrol bombs inside the car before fleeing. In the same month a week afterwards, unidentified gunmen fired indiscriminately at the last of a motorcade of three police cars driving on a local road in Fayoum governorate, killing one police recruit and injuring three.
They may not be a direct link between that relatively smaller attack, and relatively larger attack on Friday, but the geographical linkage should not be ignored. Geographically, Wahat Road connects Giza to the Western Desert Oases and is 565 km long. Km 135, where the clashes took place, falls under the administrative jurisdiction of the Giza governorate.
This poses some difficult questions: How does one identify if there are supportive communities in that area for such terrorists, and what should be done to reverse the trend and win hearts and minds before it is too late?
First, two maps are needed to answer the first question: a map showing the locations of recent terror attacks, even minor ones; and another map of villages in the same areas, where protests in support of ousting ex-president Morsi took place. In a simple search of YouTube videos of 2013 protests following the ousting of Brotherhood president Morsi, it is easy to spot how many small protests took place in villages and towns in Giza and Fayoum.
The trickiest question is how to prevent terrorism from polluting the minds of residents in these communities? Whatever the answers are, a security crackdown and collective demonization of everyone against the current leadership in Egypt are not the answer. Indulging in conspiracies, and blaming regional players, even if true, are also not the answer.
Those who are behind the attack at KM 135 aim to break the trust between ordinary Egyptians and their security forces, and aims to slowly turn the peripheries of the country into no–go areas. Therefore, in order to reverse their advance, we have to strengthen our marginal communities and reverse the penetration of Islamism.
Islamism may have failed to rule Egypt, but it has succeeded in polluting the entire country with regressive ideas, particularly among disfranchised rural communities. Researcher Mokhtar Awad wrote that no jihad can be won in Egypt without winning the Nile Valley. Thus, last Friday’s episode should focus our attention on preventing terror groups from achieving that goal.
It is necessary to focus on neglected villages like the ones in Giza and Fayoum. We are country that was once blessed by artists, poets, and writers who emerged from modest rural backgrounds. Now, it is necessary to nurture again renaissance of artists, poets, and writers from rural Egypt in order to fight medievalism and regression. The contemporary Jihadi landscape will not shrink by police raids and military helicopters alone. It is tough task, but we must start if we are serious on defeating terrorism in Egypt.