Analysis

Like Israel, Turkey and Egypt Trapped in Domestic Terror Quagmire

All three nations understand that the violence that works with ISIS won’t necessarily end local terror. Yet at the same time, any attempt to negotiate with terrorists is considered treasonous.

Turkish special force police officers patrol after a car bomb exploded near the stadium of football club Besiktas in Istanbul, Turkey, December 10, 2016.
Yasin Akgul, AFP

Two massive terror attacks over the past two days – the first in Istanbul on Saturday and the second in Cairo on Sunday – are a tragic reminder of the old, familiar terror that stems not from ISIS, but from local political hatreds.

TAK, a faction of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or PKK), has already claimed responsibility for the Istanbul attack that left 38 dead and 155 wounded. The Egyptian government, meanwhile, is blaming the attack that killed at least 25 people at a Cairo cathedral on Hasam, a group it says is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Both organizations are defined as terrorist groups but their agendas are strictly local, not global like those of ISIS or Al-Qaida. As a result, they are a domestic security issue for their respective countries, rather than being part of the battle both countries are waging against what is known as “global jihad.”

Turkey has been fighting a bloody battle against the PKK since the 1980s, a battle that has so far claimed more than 45,000 victims. Egypt launched a war of annihilation against the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, after the army ousted Egypt’s Brotherhood-affiliated president, Mohammed Morsi.

Both TAK and Hasam espouse national rather than religious goals. The PKK and its affiliates, including TAK, are secular groups that seek national and cultural autonomy for the Kurds and derive their principles from Marxist theory.

A young Muslim girl standing in front of Cairo's Coptic Cathedral after an explosion inside the church, December 11, 2016.
Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

Hasam, despite its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, claims that its primary goal is to implement the democratic principles of the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Its platform calls, among other things, for getting the army out of politics and guaranteeing the right to demonstrate, and it urges all segments of Egyptian society to join it – in sharp distinction to classic jihadist movements like Wilayat Sinai, an affiliate of ISIS.

Both Egypt and Turkey are well versed in mass-casualty attacks. Nevertheless, each of the latest attacks has some unique characteristics.

The Cairo attack was aimed at the soft underbelly of the regime, which has been trying to prove that it cares equally about the security of all its citizens, whether Christian or Muslim. The government recently passed a law to improve the situation of Coptic Christians, who number about nine to 10 million people; one of its clauses enables them to build churches more easily. And last year, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi became the country's president to attend Christmas services at a Coptic church.

But the Copts still feel insecure, especially given the law enforcement agencies’ foot-dragging while investigating attacks on Copts by Muslims. And a bombing at a church during Sunday mass shatters al-Sissi’s efforts to allay that insecurity, which are also meant to appease world opinion. Moreover, it could ignite a new wave of Muslim-Christian clashes, which would be far more dangerous for al-Sissi than the fight against “ordinary” terror.

The location of the Istanbul attack was also no accident. The Vodafone Arena, which is the Besiktas soccer team’s home stadium, has a direct connection to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who dedicated it in April. But unlike the fans of crosstown rival Fenerbahce, who come from the economic elite and support Erdogan, Besiktas’ fans come from the lower-middle and working classes, and its most passionate fans (“ultras”) participated in demonstrations against Erdogan’s plan to demolish Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park in 2013. Many were even arrested and beaten by the police. So, an attack near the stadium was meant to inflame Erdogan’s opponents – both secular liberals and the city’s poorer classes, who have generally supported reconciliation with the Kurds.

Both attacks, in Egypt and Turkey, were therefore aimed at rousing public opinion against the government and placing domestic conflicts at the top of the public’s agenda. They were also meant to portray both governments’ battles against their political rivals as ineffective.

People leaving carnations and roses on a police car outside the Besiktas soccer club stadium in Istanbul, December 11, 2016.
Emrah Gurel/AP

Despite Erdogan’s violent tactics against the Turkish Kurds – which have included demolishing homes, prolonged curfews, arrests and killing civilians – he has proven unable to prevent attacks that embarrass the government and make a mockery of his iron-fisted approach. And despite al-Sissi’s all-out war against the Muslim Brotherhood, he has not only proven incapable of eliminating his enemies, but has even been shown to be endangering the country’s civilians by his heavy-handed policies and refusal to reconcile with the Brotherhood.

In contrast to terror attacks by ISIS or Al-Qaida, both governments have an alternative to violence when it comes to dealing with domestic terror. The Turkish Kurds, including the PKK, want to resume negotiations with the government over their ethnic and cultural demands – negotiations that Erdogan broke off in the summer of 2015 after a terror attack in the southeastern city of Suruc. Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood has been trying for three years to negotiate with the regime, which has adamantly rejected these efforts.

Turkey and Egypt are trapped in the same quagmire, like Israel is in its war against Palestinian terror. All three countries understand that physical fighting won’t necessarily end terror. Yet at the same time, any attempt to negotiate with the terrorist organizations is considered treasonous and defeatist.