Egypt security forces face infiltration and social changes

Egypt security forces face infiltration and social changes

The ousting of Egypt’s former president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 was followed by a series of attacks against Egyptian security forces. One of the last attacks, known as the Farafra massacre, highlights multiple challenges facing Egypt’s security forces, which vary between growingly sophisticated assaults, internal infiltration and social polarization.

The Farafra attack replicated a similar assault that took place in Rafah, Sinai, in the eastern end of the country, in 2012. The checkpoint’s arms warehouse was hit by RPG’s leading to fatal explosions and consequently the death of the entire unit of soldiers and officers. A Sinai-based insurgent group affiliated with Al-Qaida, known as Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis (Partisans / Ansar of Jerusalem), claimed responsibility for the Farafra attack.

Long thought to be isolated in Sinai, the insurgent group seems to have been able to launch a successful attack on the other far edge of Egypt, benefiting from its experience in the peninsula’s desert and mountainous nature. But the preliminary investigations also showed they benefited from the planning skills and experience of a former special-forces officer.


This is not the first time that former security forces personnel have been involved with Islamist insurgents. In 1981, President Anwar El Sadat was assassinated during a military parade by soldiers who were part of a terrorist cell inside the military institution.

In September 2013, a suicide bombing that targeted the country’s Minister of Interior was carried out by an ex-army officer.

But this problem has not been unique to the army; the police have had their share of problems as well. In November 2013, Major Mohamed Mabrouk of the National Security Authority was assassinated in his car under his home, after the attackers were tipped information about his address, car plate’s number and car’s type, by a colleague Major who serves in the Police’s Traffic Administration.

In another case, Adel Habara, a terrorist accused of killing 25 junior police officers in Rafah’s attack, almost escaped detention after a senior officer ordered the soldiers responsible for transferring Habara from the prison to the court not to handcuff the convict. An escape attempt by Habara and his inmates failed but it showed how the police service badly needs internal control measures.

Several officials blame the administration of ousted president Mohamed Morsi, for trying to politicize national authorities, such as the police, by inserting some of the Muslim Brotherhood loyalists into the Ministry of Interior and its various authorities. Meanwhile others blame the economic conditions and insufficient salaries for making personnel of the security forces prone to corruption and treason through assisting terrorist groups.

Other factors have also contributed to the system’s fragility. Egypt’s compulsory military service involves recruiting conscripts for a service between 14 months and three years. Some are sympathizers or members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies and hence opponents of the current regime born primarily thanks to the armed forces’ role in toppling Mohamed Morsi during the revolt against him on June 30, 2013.

When joining the army to conduct their military service, physically fit recruits can join the Special Forces (“Saaqa”) during their service and graduate with high military and tactical skills. In fact, many of those chosen to join the Saaqa are weakly educated individuals who come from a rural background.

Although the army is known for propaganda, some recruits are radicalized after finishing their service and may join the jihadist cause. In the 80s and early 90s, Special Forces officers joined Ayman Al Zawhri’s Al Jihad group and fought against the former USSR in Afghanistan and later joined Al-Qaida. One known example is Saif Al Adel, a former Saaqa officer, who was appointed as an interim leader of Al-Qaida after Bin Laden’s death.

Further challenges

Traditionally, maintaining order in border areas, which are mainly inhabited by tribes and/or clans, made the various security bodies in Egypt establish strong relationships with the leaders of local communities. However, local leaders have lost influence.

Controlling the local tribes’ and clans’ youth is no longer a given, since young men’s attitude towards the traditional mechanisms of power has changed. Furthermore, the youngsters who join Islamist groups tend to be completely out of the leaders’ zone of influence and complicate the tribes’ leaders’ collaboration with security forces. And despite their affiliations, defected youth usually benefit from their communities’ help when they need refuge from the police and find shelter in their clans’ lands and houses, which provokes intra-tribal conflicts.

Last July, Brigadier General Mohamed Selmy, the first citizen from Sinai to graduate from the police academy, was shot dead on his way home. Selmy’s assassination came as a response by a terrorist group to military and police operations that led to the killings of a known insurgent leader.

Surprisingly, the killed insurgent, the assassinated police major as well as his shooters all come from the same tribe. Selmy is a member of one of the families that constitute Sinai’s largest tribe, the Sawarka. The killed insurgent and Selmy’s shooters come from another family of the same tribe. Selmy’s family vowed vengeance and tension disrupted the Sawarka community as well as the peninsula’s lost peace.

Earlier this month, the police underwent a change in leadership. But the change needed by security institutions in general is far beyond a change of faces. In an environment where groups like Ansar Jerusalem prefer to launch a holy war in Egypt rather than in Palestine, the army and the police need improved internal controls as well as post military service follow-up. This is not to mention the need for an improvement of the personnel’s pay, especially in the police sector.

But managing reform in a transforming and challenging environment requires, above all, giving a high priority to human rights issues and avoiding a unique dependence on force.


About Author

Ahmad Taleb

Ahmed is a Business Intelligence Analyst for a multinational financial advisory services company. He received his graduate education in Business & International Commerce in Egypt and France. He obtained a master’s degree in Comparative Politics from the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po Aix) in France.