The election of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi as president of Egypt will further inflame the jihadist insurgency that took off after the Egyptian military removed Mohamed Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, from power in 2013. If history is any guide, el-Sisi, a former general, will hold tightly to power, justifying it as the only way to protect Egypt's security, thus repeating a common pattern across Africa and the Middle East as elections lead to de facto dictatorships with a few trappings of democracy. Invariably this will further anger and radicalize the Islamist opposition, empowering the extremists who believe that the nation's corrupt elite and politicized military can only be removed by armed action. As a result, terrorism-based insurgency will persist and probably expand.
The influx of hardened fighters returning from other conflicts across the Middle East
will make Egypt's conflict even more deadly
. Egypt has many of the characteristics that give rise to insurgency, including widespread public anger and disillusionment, economic stagnation, experienced radical organizations and fighters driven by a radical revolutionary ideology, large swaths of territory with little government control and the availability of external sanctuary for the insurgents. As a result, the fight will very likely be long and bloody.
However bad Egypt becomes, it is not alone. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Nigeria and Yemen all face terrorism-based jihadist insurgencies. So far extremists have not been able to win control of a country. But they can stoke instability, engineer humanitarian disasters, draw on a bottomless supply of terrorist recruits and even control some territory. In an era of interconnectedness, ideological extremism, the legitimization of violence and government ineptitude, terrorism-based insurgency is not hard to create but wickedly difficult to eradicate
Unfortunately, the United States has not decided on a clear course of action when flawed governments face jihadist insurgency, instead vacillating between half-hearted counterinsurgency support and a forlorn hope that a moderate democratic movement will emerge or that the government will miraculously come to its senses and address the problems that inspired armed opposition in the first place. Washington seems resigned to simply ride out this storm and hope for the best. This courts disaster.
When the United States faced similar problems during the Cold War, deciding whether to support a government facing an insurgency was relatively easy. With a very few exceptions, such as the white minority regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa and the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, the political inclinations of the regime mattered less than the ideology of the insurgency. If the insurgents were communists of one sort or another, and particularly if they had the backing of Moscow, Beijing or Havana, the United States supported the government, sometimes in a small and indirect way, sometimes extensively and directly. There was a clear logic to this: American policymakers believed that a victory by leftist insurgents would represent a win for Moscow and inspire other revolutionaries elsewhere, possibly leading to other insurgent victories. Even though this "domino theory" proved wrong almost everywhere, counterinsurgency support became ingrained in U.S. national security strategy.
Today U.S. support for governments facing jihadist insurgencies is subject to stringent qualification, particularly when the government is authoritarian. There is no coherent, overarching strategy but only a series of sometimes contradictory tactical decisions. But it does not have to be this way: There are at least two strategically coherent approaches that the United States could take when nations face jihadist extremism.
One alternative would set the bar high for U.S. help. The underlying idea is that governments facing serious jihadist insurgencies largely brought it on themselves by corruption, ineptitude or political exclusion. Unconditionally offered American help would make them think that they do not have to address their deep flaws but could, instead, kill their way out of the problem using U.S. technology. Not supporting such regimes would force them to either fix their shortcomings or face defeat. With this stark choice, even a flawed government would make better decisions. It would be a form of strategic "tough love": If the government didn't straighten up, the United States could walk away. Even if the insurgents won, their fragile, new radical regime could be deterred and would not want to provoke the United States, at least while consolidating power.
The other approach would reprise the Cold War's "enemy of my enemy is my friend" thinking. Advocates of this strategy are concerned that extremists always seem to dominate resistance movements in the Islamic world. If the extremists win, they invariably will support terrorist attacks against U.S. targets—including the American homeland—and destabilize other Islamic nations. The "domino theory" lives on in this approach. As during the height of the Cold War, it is based on the idea that American actions should be determined by the nature of the insurgency, not the nature of the regime. The assumption is that even corrupt autocrats are better than extremist victories.
So far the United States has kicked the can down the road rather than committing to a coherent and consistent strategy for jihadist insurgency. Washington has provided modest assistance to the governments of Iraq, Nigeria, Yemen and Egypt while keeping as much political distance as possible. Soon, though, the eroding security situation in Egypt—one of the two or three most important nations in the Islamic world—may force American policymakers to choose whether to base American support on the nature of the regime that needs help or the nature of the insurgents a regime faces.
Ultimately both of these strategies are built on assumptions, most importantly about whether jihadists can be deterred from attacking the United States and whether flawed governments can hold power in the face of extremism. If these assumptions prove false, the strategy based on them will fail. Even so, by refusing to choose, the United States may get the worst of both alternatives but the advantages of neither. Hoping to simply ride out the storm of jihadist violence not only risks strategic disaster but virtually assures it.
Steven Metz is a defense analyst and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy
.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons
, appears every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz