The so-called Arab Spring, which ignited so much optimism in early 2011 as regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and most recently Syria faced violent revolts, is quickly descending into an Islamist Winter as Islamist groups, some linked to al Qaeda, are gaining power.
Yesterday, Reuters noted that shadowy Islamists are now operating overtly in the Sinai:
Quietly, barely noticed by outsiders fascinated by upheavals in Cairo and other Arab capitals, they are building a presence in Sinai that might offer a new haven for anti-Western militancy at the strategic junction of the Mediterranean, Africa and Asia.
When finally one of the men broke a silence that hung heavy on the barren plain, it was to explain to a reporter their demands: for the government to release five comrades jailed for bombings of tourist resorts in Sinai more than six years ago.
“We are ready to die under tanks for this,” he said, refusing to give his name and saying little else beyond muttering Islamic mottos as he toured the positions the militants had established to surround the base, inconveniencing dozens of troops from the Multinational Observer Force, a unit set up in 1979 to monitor Egypt’s U.S.-brokered peace treaty with Israel.
Under a rare rainy sky on a Thursday night in March, the men would only speak with the permission of a man they simply referred to as “sheikh”. A wolf’s cry pierced the otherwise tranquil scene outside the remote base that is home to foreign peace observers including Fijians, Americans and Spaniards.
Not a shot was fired in anger, however, and the next day, the group lifted their eight-day siege. It was not because they feared arrest or attack by the authorities. But instead they had secured their demands. The government agreed to free the men accused of being part of a group which carried out the 2004 and 2005 attacks that killed some 125 people at the Red Sea beach resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab and Taba.
Given who has been released, it is very likely that this unnamed group is linked to Ansar al Jihad, the military wing of al Qaeda in the Sinai, which was officially formed in December 2011 and swore allegiance to al Qaeda in January.
Ansar al Jihad and other Islamist factions have been strengthened after the military freed hundreds of convicted terrorists from prisons following the ouster of former President Mubarak and the establishment of a caretaker military government. Meanwhile, Islamists from the radical Muslim Brotherhood and an alliance of Salafist parties, one of which is run by the founder of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the terrorist group that merged with al Qaeda, have dominated the Egyptian parliament and will craft the country’s new constitution. Aboud al Zomor, the head of the Salafist Building and Development Party, has welcomed the return of Ayman al Zawahiri and said he would be given safe haven. Zomor and his brother Tarek were imprisoned for their role in President Anwar Sadat’s assassination but were freed after Egypt’s Arab Spring.
Reuters said that all of this was “a scenario unthinkable a year or so ago.” But the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups were the only real organized opposition to Mubarak’s rule. Who did Reuters expect to fill the void once the military began to pull back from power?
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