Extremism and terrorism in Egypt: Is Poverty the Only Catalyst? By Mona Bedeir & Waleed Zayed

Extremism and terrorism in Egypt: Is poverty the only catalyst?

Mona Bedeir & Waleed Zayed*

Translated from Arabic by the Center for Arab Progress

  • An objective treatment of the currently increasing phenomenon of extremism in Egypt; requires taking into consideration the difference between the stimulating factors, and the incubators where these factors become active.


  • In addition to the general negative consequences resulting from the economic and social gaps, there are other factors that may explain extremism; taking into consideration that such consequences are not the worse, compared with other developing countries. Nevertheless, the ambition gap between the youth’s reality and their expectations has created a fertile ground for social disobedience, especially after the January 25th


  • Incubators of extremism are associated with an extremist religious discourse. Nevertheless, the official religious institutions have failed to handle such discourse, as they have been regarded by many people as tools in the hands of authority, which uses them for mobilization and to impose its own version of religion.


  • After the toppling of Morsi and dissolution of Muslim Brotherhood, political Islam in Egypt has been disintegrated. The borderlines between political Islam movements that have played a role in the politics of the country, and extremist Jihadist movements have come to an end. This participated in transforming the social disobedience movements into violent movements with religious ideology.


  • The regional order is witnessing the emergence of Israel, Turkey and Iran as players who are going through conflict of interests, and competing against each other to gain more power. This has become manifested by the end of Obama’s administration, as there was a gradual withdrawal from the region in order to focus on American internal problems. The current American administration adopts the same approach. However, the conflict over regional control has created instability in the region, and has become a source of threat to the Arab national security.


  • Changes have occurred to the American National Security Strategy as regards the Middle East. The previous American administrations’ distinction between moderate and extremist Islamic movements is no more practiced by the current administration. This will change the regional order in the next few years, in alliance with Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Egypt and Jordan.




Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks. These words express a multi-dimensional vision for the roots of extremism. However, it is not a coincidence, as these words are quoted from The New York Times’ article that was authored by the American president George W. Bush, on the first anniversary of 9/11 [1]. It’s no secret that this vision represented Bush’s main justification to invade Iraq.


In fact, any long-term efficient treatment of a phenomenon such as extremism requires taking into consideration several dimensions, most importantly: extremism’s supporting conditions and incubators, as well as its controlling and containing factors. Although the economic conditions have an important impact on such phenomenon, but they seem to play the role of a catalyst when finding it’s stimulating and incubating social and political environment. Generally speaking, extremism in the Arab region is a multi-rooted complex phenomenon, where such roots overlap with many local, regional and international factors and variable conditions. However, observers of the paths and dynamics of the current situation of extremism in Egypt would notice another manifestation of the phenomenon. It is represented in the protests and socio-political disobedience, as well as an extremist religious discourse that resulted from the following: First: The developments that the country has witnessed after January 25 Revolution, and the retrogressions that have followed, leading to successive frustrations on the political and economic levels. Second: The disintegration of the political Islam’s situation after the displacement of Morsi, and the increasing waves of violence that came after that. These critical events and its socio-political consequences largely show the following: We cannot explain the current phenomenon of extremism, based on limited variable conditions that reduce the whole phenomena and view it separate from its general context.



The roots of extremism: Stimulating factors and incubators


In the World Bank’s report: “Social and economic justice to prevent extremism”, prepared by the “Middle East and North Africa Economic Monitor”, a unique database was included. It covers ISIS recruits who belong to various nationalities. Through the report, we can track some important outputs that may help analyze and realize the reasons leading to extremism in Egypt, in its current form. [2]


One of the most important outputs of the report is that poverty is not the main factor urging those militants to join ISIS, as they are not among the poor or less educated citizens in their countries. Amid countries with Muslim majority; Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Turkey are the first five countries to export recruits to ISIS. If we have a brief look at the human development indexes of these countries, we would find them consistent with the previous assumption. Economic factors are not the only motive leading to extremism. The “Arab Human Development Report 2016” has classified the human development indicators of Saudi Arabia and Tunisia as very high, while Morocco and Egypt were classified as medium.


Source: “Arab Human Development Report 2016”


As for the individual characteristics of these militants, the report shows that while their average age has reached 27.4 years, 96% of them had High School education, or less. While those who have dropped out of education before secondary school do not exceed 15%, illiteracy percentage is less than 2%. This output is very challenging as regards the demographic nature of the Arab region’s population structure. It especially applies to Egypt, where the youth under 25 years constitute half of its population, making it a source for recruiting young people. The report covers the status of more than 3000 ISIS militants from all nationalities outside Egypt. However, it helps in having a better understanding, on the moral level, of the impacts of other political, social and demographic factors. Such impacts participate in the increasing phenomenon of terrorism in Egypt and the Arab World.


Besides the outputs of that report, there are many analyses that cover the situation in Sinai, which is described as one of the most neglected and marginalized regions in the country. These analyses highlight that extremism in that region in specific, is due to socio-political disobedience. The absence of a real development strategy that is capable of achieving social and economic inclusion in the region was accompanied by the peoples’ feelings of being marginalized and ignored on the social and political levels. This empowered radical movements and made them capable of “investing” in the region, especially that the civil society there is not strong, and is based on tribal networking. This was previously observed in other regions, such as North West Pakistan and Al-Anbar in Iraq. The same applies to the tribal alliances in Syrian regions, Somalia and Yemen. [3]


Within an article that aimed at studying extremism in Sinai, an interview was made with one of the inhabitants of Sheikh Zuweid city. He had his own vision regarding the motives that have led various people to join “Wilayat Sinai Organization”. He has classified those militants into different groups: The first are those who have joined the organization to take revenge, after their houses were bombed and their families were killed within the army operations. Another group was represented in those with low economic and social status inside the tribal system in North Sinai. They have found in joining an extremist armed group a way to have a higher social position. Moreover, there were those who have gained financial benefits from arms trafficking across the borders. [4]


If we assume that these phrases describe accurately the reasons that lead militants to join terrorist organizations in Sinai; there would be many other questions: To which extent is the extremist religious ideology capable of mobilizing and recruiting individuals to join radical movements? Would such effect retrogress in favor of other social factors and revenge motives? Is the increasing effect of such ideologies a reflection of the social and economic inclusion crisis in the region?

Any attempt to answer the previous questions will require analyzing two factors:  The social and economic gaps, and the role of the official religious institutions.





  • Socio-economic gaps and a young society

There are many evidences that Egyptian youth are currently facing the threat of social and economic exclusion, more than any other time in history. This is represented in inflation and unemployment, as well as an expanding inequality gap, with regard to income and opportunities. We have already mentioned that the human development index of Egypt is not the worst, compared with other countries, as it has shown some improvement in education and health. Nevertheless, it doesn’t reflect the overall situation in Egypt, especially with regard to income, and its distribution. The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics’ data, based on income and expenditures researches 2015, show that poverty rates have reached about 27.8%, with an increase of 1.5% compared with 2013. This means that there are more than 30 million people with an income less than 482 LE (National poverty line). The data showed that 85% of Egyptian families live with less than 4.170 LE per month. [5]


Moreover, variation in the standards of living between different regions forms one of the continuous characteristics of poverty in Egypt. Upper Egypt was, and still is one of the poorest regions, as it contains 38% of the country’s population, where 67% of them are poor. Variation in basic services also occurs between rural areas and cities. The previous report indicates that the vast majority of families in rural areas don’t have drainage networks; as such networks only cover 30% of families in rural areas, and 89.8% of families in the cities. Also 97.3% of families in the city are linked to public water networks, while only 89.2% of families in rural areas enjoy that. As for unemployment rates, the situation doesn’t seem any better. It has increased to reach 12%, and 32% among university graduates. The highest unemployment rate was for the age group: 20-24 years, as it has reached 40%.


However, the Egyptian economy is passing through a relatively stable status. Some of its main macroeconomic indicators have improved, such as growth rate and budget deficit reduction. This is a reflection of the governmental policies that have targeted reduction of spending and increasing the net cash reserves. This definitely aims at improving the economic status before the international lenders, for the purpose of receiving more loans or increasing the foreign investment. Nevertheless, this governmental strategy largely overlooks the negative social dimensions resulting from the decrease of other indicators. This includes unemployment rate, as well as the inflation rate that has set a record by the end of 2017, as it has reached 33% due to the implementation of the exchange rates free float procedures. Another increase is likely to happen if the government keeps following such policy, which aims at reducing support and public spending rates.


All these previously mentioned indicators would only lead to more economic barriers that would deepen the youth’s feelings of being “enslaved”. Moreover, it would lead to more of their suffering from having fewer opportunities, although they represent more than half of the population. This raises the following question: are these indexes enough for explaining the current growth of this phenomenon? The previously mentioned World Bank’s report outputs show that poverty can barely explain the reasons driving youth to join ISIS. Based on these outputs, we can reconcile between two points of view that might seem contradicting, as regards the impact of economic gaps and their social consequences. Such reconciliation can be made as follows: We cannot separate between socio-economic conditions and extremism in Egypt. However, these conditions get activated and become more intense when there is a protective environment, especially in case of young people. The base of this environment is what can be called “ambitions and expectations gap”, which reflects the increasing gap between young peoples’ ideas about what they deserve, and what they actually get. In the abstract, the human development indexes in Egypt don’t seem the worse ever, compared with the rest of developing countries. On the other hand, these indexes don’t satisfy the expectations and ambitions of Egyptian citizens, who belong to the most ancient and significant country in the region. They regard such indicators as unsatisfactory and provocative.


Decline in the life satisfaction levels among Egyptian youth has become noticeable. The World values surveys made in Egypt confirm such outputs, even compared with other Arab countries. The following illustration shows the gap between life satisfaction levels, according to the World values survey, which covers various age groups. Generally speaking, it is obvious that life satisfaction levels are in their lowest levels in Egypt, compared with the rest of the Arab World, especially within the age group 30-44.


Life satisfaction levels, classified by age group (2010-2014)

Source: Arab Human Development Report 2016

This decrease in satisfaction levels can create religious and social fanaticism, especially when linked to institutions and policies that are incapable of empowering the youth, and integrating them within a real developmental process. This also applies to their incapability of increasing the social, political and economic opportunities that are available for such youth.


2- The official religious discourse’s efficiency in confronting extremism, and the dilemma of religious institutions’ independence

The close connection between the socio-economic disobedience movements and the extremist religious discourse in Egypt is related to certain issues. One is the independence of the official religious institutions, mainly Al-Azhar, with its various sub-institutions; another is the renewal of the religious discourse. The latter is still a controversial issue inside the Azhar and within the official state’s discourse, as well as the efficient prominent circles of the society.


In this regard, we must indicate that one of the most important and dangerous results that has occurred due to the events that followed the toppling of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, was the disintegration of the political Islam in Egypt. This has occurred in such a manner that the borderlines between the Jihadist and extremists, and those who reject violence in the movement were mixed together. The latter have regarded the organized political work as a tool that creates a reasonable space to work through. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has been leading such trend for a long time. Moreover, it has suffered, in the past and present, from division and dispersal, as well as loss of control over its followers, especially young people. This situation has created a platform for mobilization and violence against the regime, which they have started to regard as an unbeliever regime that fights Islam and Muslims. This situation led to the expansion of Islamic disobedience. It started to include other Islamists, as well as some MB members who present themselves as resisters and rebels, and not only jihadists who are affiliated to various Islamic organizations. They aim at taking revenge from the illegitimate authority, topple Al-Sissy, and bring Morsi back to rule. They also use the consequences of the economic crisis, such as the price increases and unemployment, to rationalize their disobedience and hostility towards the authority. [6]


The official religious institutions still seem to play a limited role in in disengaging and containing such conflict. The independence of such institutions and their credibility within the current situation, which is full of violence and political polarization, seems to be an inevitable dilemma.


In fact, the official religious institutions in the Arab World in general, and Al-Azhar in specific, are facing a sophisticated challenge. The current regime uses them as a tool to protect its power and increase its legitimacy, through seeking their support to promote its policies. The regime also uses Al-Azhar’s support to prevent its opponents from using religion to mobilize against the regime. Thus, many Islamic youth who are annoyed from the current authority that they find illegitimate have started to regard these institutions as a tool in the hands of such authority. The discourse of such institutions has lost its ability to have an impact on the minds and ideas of those Islamists.


The renewal of the religious discourse represents a crisis and dilemma that is also challenging the official religious institution in Egypt. Within the current situation in the country; Al-Azhar leaders and its institutions were called upon by many international and local voices to lead the process of religious reform. Within such calls, Al-Azhar has been accused of being indirectly responsible for the increasing extremist trend among its own circles, as well as its incapability to control its affiliated extremists. Such accusation was also extended to Al-Azhar’s failure to develop a moderate religious discourse that can reach the youth’s circles.


The foreign interventions and the attempts to inflame terrorism


The regional regime in the Middle East is witnessing the emergence of a number of players on the regional and international levels. However, each player defines terrorism from its own perspective, using a definition that serves its national security, in addition to its long and short-term national interests. They also determine their goals, as well as their means to achieve them, which might be legal or illegal tools. The clearest example is represented in the relationships between the regional players in conflict areas and terrorist powers, e.g. Iran in its relationship with violent Sunni powers like Al-Qaeda and Taliban, also Turkey’s relationship with Al-Nosra, Al-Ahrar and other extremist Jihadist Salafi Militia. This also applies to Gulf countries.


If we review the Middle East part of the “American National Security Strategy” published on Dec 18, 2017” , we find that Trump administration regards George W. Bush’s attempts to make democratic changes in the region as unbeneficial to the USA. Trump’s administration also finds that Obama administration’s attempts to have fewer ties with Middle East problems are something harmful to the USA national security. They think that such attempts of both administrations have led to increasing Iran’s power in the Arabia Gulf and Levant regions. Thus, the Jihadist groups have increased in the region, due to the previous American administrations’ policies.


Trump Administration is seriously seeking to lead the world, through a dominative approach that is different from the cooperative international relationships style that has weakened the American sovereignty, from their perspective. The current American administration doesn’t agree with the international vision, which assumes that the moderate Islamic groups will confront Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Trump’s administration adopts a new strategy, as it deals with all Islamic movements as extremists who are ideologically hostile to the Western civilization. Thus, they think they should eliminate political Islam from the region, support the ruling regimes to achieve their stability, and make the region as close as possible to secularism. [7]


Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Middle East has suffered from two phenomena. The first is the existence of failed states that are incapable of maintaining their sovereignty and full control over their lands. The second is represented in some political regimes’ loss of legitimacy, which has driven some of their citizens to demonstrate, in order to overthrow them. Thus, these states have become a main source of exporting terrorism into Arab and foreign states, especially Egypt. This has occurred because these countries have become weak, suffering from the existence of armed militia that are trying to apply intercontinental agendas in their lands, while being supported by other countries. This clearly applies to Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya.


Egypt is facing extremist terrorist groups. It works on drying out the sources of terrorism and cutting off its financial and supply sources. Several Gulf countries suffer from the same issue, especially Saudi Arabia and Emirates. Other foreign countries also suffer from that, mainly USA in the Trumpian era. They face various ideologies, such as Iran’s attempts to export its revolution, and Turkey’s attempts to promote the Neo-Ottomanism. They also face Qatar’s attempts to be a player through supporting the extremist and moderate Islamic movements, in order to gain power and rule the area.


As for Qatar, it is very clear that it is siding with MB and Islamists in Egypt, Syria and Libya. The terror lists prepared by Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt revealed that there were 26 Egyptians among 59 terrorists who reside in Qatar. They have been given shelter after escaping from Egypt, as a result of June 30 and the announcement of the roadmap on July 3, 2013. The media and electronic platforms they use to promote their ideologies show that they have been granted a significant media and financial support by Qatar. [8]


On the other hand, Turkey plays the same role. After MB has reached power in Egypt, cooperative relationships between Turkey and the ruling group have showed a significant increase. This occurred within the Turkish attempts to play an increasing regional role, under what is known as: Neo-Ottomanism. Turkey works on increasing its influence in the region through supporting Islamic groups. That’s why it doesn’t recognize the ruling authorities since the roadmap, on July 3, 2013. However, it supports the MB fugitives with shelter and media platforms that are broadcasted from there.


As for the relationships with Iran, diplomatic ties are completely cut since the time of Mubarak. The relationship improved to a certain extent after MB has reached power, yet it has never been normal. Although Iran tries to compete with Egypt and have a dominant influence over the Gulf, but Egypt is confronting the Iranian dominance in the Arab region. Egypt also stands by Saudi Arabia to undermine the Iranian role, especially in Yemen. This puts Egypt in the center of the conflict with Iran, and Iran’s affiliated groups.


These regional interventions share a clear common factor, which is represented in financing and supporting armed groups that are characterized by being difficult to control, because of their unlimited goals. These groups actually have a self-image that is based on religion; therefore they cannot be classified as mercenaries. Hence, we clearly find that these groups largely exist in the Maghreb countries, especially Tunisia and Morocco. We also find them in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia, and even outside the Middle East, as they have accomplished several operations in Europe. The longer it is, the more complicated and uncontrollable the situation turns to be. This is clearly shown in the return of foreign militants, as Egypt and many European countries face the risk of Militants’ return. These are militants who fought with the terrorist organizations in Syria, Iraq and Libya. They have been very well trained to manufacture explosions, and avoid security measures. Thus, they constitute big threat to Egyptian and regional security, just like what has previously happened by the late 20th century, when militants came back from Afghanistan.





[1]Bush.W.G (2002, Sep 11). Securing Freedom’s Triumph. https://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/11/opinion/securing-freedom-s-triumph.html.

[2] لمزيد من التفاصيل و النتائج انظر التقرير  http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/ar/582871475669923685/pdf/108525-REVISED-ARABIC-PUBLIC.pdf

[3] Farasin.F, Battaloglu.C, Bensaid.A.(2017) What Causing Radicalism in MENA. Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.

[4] Mohyeldeen.S.(2016),Youth Radicalization in Egypt and the Complicated Relationship to Violence. Arab Reform Initiative.

[5] CAPMAS.(2015).Household Income, Expenditure and Consumption Survey.

[6] عوض.مختار، هاشم،مصطفى(2015).تصاعد التمرد الأسلامي في مصر.مركز كارينغي الشرق الأوسط.                 https://carnegie-mec.org/2015/10/21/ar-pub-61778

[7]  د. إيراهيم عوض، قراءة فى استراتيجية الأمن القومى للرئيس ترامب، جريدة الشروق، http://www.shorouknews.com/columns/view.aspx?cdate=30122017&id=85f1f6e9-5c45-4251-aaf5-0bc57e01a73e

[8]  د.شادى عبدالوهاب، ارتدادات خلفية: حدود الارتباط بين تصاعد الإرهاب في مصر وأزمات الإقليم، مركز المستقبل، على الرابط التالى: https://futureuae.com/ar-AE/Mainpage/Item/3054/%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AA%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%AE%D9%84%D9%81%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%AD%D8%AF%D9%88%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AA%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B7-%D8%A8%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%AA%D8%B5%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D8%B1%D9%87%D8%A7%D8%A8-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D9%85%D8%B5%D8%B1-%D9%88%D8%A3%D8%B2%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D9%82%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%85




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