The demonstrations in Tahrir Square after the ousting of Mohammad Morsi have evolved into the creation of numerous terrorist organizations. These groups seek to destabilize the government, decrease public confidence in the government’s ability to protect the nation’s vital interests and safety and to heighten their own levels of power and influence.
The result has been the development of a complex and rapidly evolving threat environment in Egypt. These groups are utilizing asymmetric tactics as a tool to destabilize the Egyptian government and attain power. Their tactics and targets are diverse. However, despite engaging in asymmetric warfare on various levels, a core target is the Suez Canal due to its importance in the global transportation of energy and other international commerce, as well as its significance to Egypt’s economic security. If successful, the results of such tactics can have a widespread detrimental impact far exceeding any actual physical damage caused.
Egypt’s threat landscape
Since the ousting of Mohammad Morsi, opponents of the takeover have been aggressively attempting to destabilize Egypt. This was made evident by some of the statements of members of the Muslim Brotherhood during the protests. For example, one protestor stated, “we are here to inform liberals that if Morsi does not get back his legitimacy, there will be bloodshed and explosive remote control cars. Things that you liberals will not be able to handle, because you are weaker than you know”. Not surprisingly the country has been experiencing a rapidly evolving threat landscape since the protests. Islamic extremists have emerged and are using terrorism to challenge the authority of the government.
Currently, there are several terrorist groups in Egypt, each contributing to the steady rise in terrorism across the country. Terrorists are employing asymmetric tactics to achieve a tactical advantage over the Egyptian government and to undermine the nation’s security and economy. Their tactics include targeting police, soldiers, government officials, members of the Christian minority and tourists, as well as suicide bombings, security checkpoint ambushes, car bombings and attacking the Suez Canal. There have been more than 180 incidents of terrorism reported through February 5. Moreover, at least “281 Egyptians are estimated to have been killed in terrorist attacks between July 3 and January 31, including 224 police officers and soldiers and 57 civilians”. As noted earlier, their targets and tactics are diverse. However, their end goal is to create an unstable environment in which the public loses confidence in their government.
Their strategy includes a desire to not only inflict widespread fear and instability across the country, but to also inflict economic damage. Given the geostrategic importance of the Suez Canal, as well as its importance to international trade and Egypt’s economic vitality, it is a highly attractive target for terrorists. The Suez Canal is a maritime chokepoint that serves as the shortest link between the East and West connecting the Mediterranean and Red Seas. It provides a shortcut between Europe and Asia eliminating the long journey around Africa. The alternative to the Suez Canal would be to navigate around Africa or to carry goods via surface transportation. This would result in significant financial costs and delays. As such, its disruption is an operational target for extremist group in the region. The government’s legitimacy and public support is largely based on the stability it provides, which includes protecting this vital waterway. A successful attack on the Suez Canal would decrease public confidence in the government’s ability to protect the people and the country’s interests.
Attacks on the Suez Canal
The security of the Suez Canal was threatened on July 29, 2013 and August 31, 2013, when militants attacked ships in the waterway with rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). In both instances there was only slight damage to the vessels. The Furqan Brigades, a terrorist group sharing al-Qaeda’s ideology, claimed credit for the attacks. This group has promised further retaliations on maritime traffic, saying that “after becoming fed up with criminal practices such as sieges of mosques, killing and displacement of Muslims, detentions of Muslim scholars and the vicious attack by Egypt’s crusaders on Islam and its people and mosques, the Furqan Brigades declare their responsibility for targeting the international waterway of the Suez Canal, which is the artery of the commerce of nations of disbelief and tyranny. By the graces of God, it was carried out by two RPG rounds on August 31 amid their weak guards”. Based on previous attacks, explicit threats made by the Furqan Brigades and the complex nature of the threat environment in Egypt, the Suez Canal is a high-risk area.
The threat of terrorist attacks and the growing unrest in the country have heightened concerns about the security of the Suez Canal. The threat of serious attacks that could sink a major vessel and thus block the Canal is a real one. Possible methods for disrupting the canal may include sinking a large vessel and blocking it for a period of time, by using RPGs or IEDs, as well as hijacking a ship and using it as a weapon. The disruption and chaos that would result from disabling a large commercial vessel crossing the Suez Canal would be a strategic victory for terrorists. As such, the Egyptian government has significantly enhanced security measures along the Canal and has deployed military and police forces along the waterway. They have also “…tightened inspection procedures over the roads next to it, as well as on the cars going to and from Suez via Sinai or Cairo, to prevent the smuggling arms and capture any terrorists or outlawed elements”. Thus far, heightened security measures have thwarted new attacks on the Suez Canal. However, the complex and rapidly evolving threat landscape poses a significant challenge to the Egyptian people, their government and the interests of their country.
Since the pro-Morsi supporters protested in the streets of Egypt after his removal, the threat landscape in the country has become increasingly complex, volatile and fluid. This evolutionary process has included the creation of several terrorist organizations aimed at destabilizing the government and garnering power and influence. Given the nature of Egypt’s threat environment, it is essential to continue to comprehensively examine the country’s terror organizations, as well as develop an adaptive multi-layered and multi-pronged approach to successfully thwart terrorism and control the effects of asymmetric tactics.
Master of Arts in International Relations at Boston University
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