Why Egypt’s Nationalist Hasm Movement Could Gain Greater Traction

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 8

Investigators at scene of Hasm's December 2016 checkpoint attack in Cairo (Source: al-Jazeera)

Egypt’s government, led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is battling multiple insurgent groups, and while the Islamic State (IS) affiliate Wilayat Sinai is by far the most formidable, it is the nationalist Hasm Movement that may pose the more durable threat to the country.

The Egyptian government has waged an intense and well-resourced war against IS in the Sinai but has failed to defeat or even significantly impede the group’s ability to launch attacks in and outside of that region. This was evidenced by IS’ April 9 bombing of Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria, attacks which combined killed 45 people (al-Ahram, April 9). The attacks on Coptic churches, not the first by IS, are part of the group’s strategy of heightening sectarian tensions among Egypt’s estimated 10 million Coptic Christians and its majority Muslim population. While stoking sectarian tensions has worked well for IS in Syria and Iraq, such a strategy is likely to fail in Egypt where there is a strong Egyptian identity that transcends religious affiliation.

IS’ extreme views and its callous disregard for civilian life limit its appeal among the vast majority of Egyptians. IS will not be able to build the broad base of support that would allow it to expand in mainland Egypt. In Sinai, IS has benefited from what are, so far, conditions unique to the Sinai — it draws on a deeply alienated indigenous population and benefits from the government’s scorched earth approach to counter-insurgency.

In contrast with IS, Egypt’s Hasm Movement has the potential to gain traction in mainland Egypt, most particularly in its dense urban environments. The Hasm Movement (Hasm can be translated as the settling of an argument, termination or decisiveness) announced itself in July 2016 when it claimed credit for an attack on a police officer in Fayoum (Daily News Egypt, July 18, 2016). Since then, Hasm has targeted a number of high profile government officials, including a failed attempt in August 2016 to assassinate the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa (Aswat Masriya, August 5, 2016).

In September 2016, Hasm attempted to assassinate Assistant Attorney General Zakaria Abdel Aziz (Egypt Independent, November 6, 2016). On November 2, 2016, Hasm targeted Judge Ahmed Aboul Fotouh, one of three judges involved in the trial of former Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi (The New Arab, November 4, 2016). The group has also claimed responsibility for a number of attacks on low-ranking police officers, including a December 2016 attack on a checkpoint in which six officers were killed (al-Jazeera, December 9, 2016).

Thus far Hasm’s attacks have been narrowly focused on members and representatives of the Egyptian government, its police and security services. In its “military communiqués,” Hasm presents itself as a group aiming to install social justice and fighting to overthrow what it describes as a “military occupation” by the Sisi government. Several of the communiqués make reference to “defending the defenseless” and seeking to right the wrongs of the regime.

Tapping into Discontent

The Hasm Movement’s use of rhetoric aimed at pointing out what it sees as abuses by a government that it views as illegitimate is an important indicator of how the group wants to position itself. This and its efforts to target only government officials may indicate that the Hasm Movement is trying to set itself up as being opposed to the current regime but with no ambitions outside of Egypt. The group has also emphasized that it will not target or endanger civilians. The Hasm Movement claimed that they called off the failed attack on the former Grand Mufti due to the risks posed to civilians. This may or may not be true, but it does, along with the other attacks, point to a conscious effort to avoid killing civilians. The Hasm Movement has also condemned a December 2016 IS-led attack on a Coptic church and has distanced itself from the most recent church bombings. [1]

The leadership of what is, for now, undoubtedly a small organization clearly recognizes that the kind of mass casualty attacks perpetrated by IS will undercut its ability to broaden a base of support within Egypt. By positioning itself as a nationalist organization dedicated to combating what it views as an abusive regime and “defending the defenseless,” the Hasm Movement may well be able to tap into significant levels of popular dissatisfaction with the Sisi government.

It is notable that many of Hasm’s attacks are on the Egyptian police, who have been the subject of popular scorn since before the 2011 revolution that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak.

Following Morsi’s ouster by General Sisi, the police and security services were emboldened and launched a crackdown not only on Muslim Brotherhood members, but on anyone who opposed the Sisi-led government (al-Jazeera, March 28, 2016). This heavy-handed approach continues, with many of Egypt’s police stations commonly referred to as “homes for the living dead.”

Abuses by the police and security services combined with Sisi’s failure to deliver on economic reforms is fueling discontent in Egypt. The country’s moribund economy and startlingly high youth unemployment mean that insurgent groups, particularly those with less extreme views, will have little trouble recruiting young people to their cause.

Ties with the Muslim Brotherhood?

The Sisi government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of its ouster of former President Morsi has undoubtedly radicalized some members of the Brotherhood. So far, the older generation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership in prison and in exile has eschewed calls for violence. However, that does not mean that some members and former members have not taken up arms.

The Hasm Movement’s relatively moderate religious views, national focus, and its attacks on individuals that are emblematic of the state, may well indicate that its membership includes former members of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, there is no proof of this and as yet. Neither the Hasm Movement nor any other insurgent group has openly identified with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Regardless of whether the Hasm Movement has ties with the Muslim Brotherhood or not, the group’s leadership seems intent on positioning it as a moderate Islamist organization that will fight to “defend” those who it deems cannot defend themselves against the government. The space that the Hasm Movement is trying to occupy offers an abundance of opportunities in terms of securing the support of those who have been oppressed by the government security services and police.

Increasing Capabilities

The Hasm Movement’s targeting of individual officials indicates a degree of sophistication. Relatively high-profile officials, such as the assistant attorney general, enjoy well-trained security details and are subject to independent monitoring by Egypt’s security services. While Egypt’s approach to physical security for soft and hard targets is often lacking, its human intelligence network is deep, multi-layered, low-tech and highly effective.  Evading this formidable human intelligence network requires a high-level of expertise.

Surveillance images of future targets released by the Hasm Movement show that its operatives are able to get and remain close to its targets. [2] The group has also released an exceedingly well-produced video that shows its operatives undergoing firearms and explosives training, as well as the targeting and assassination of government officials and police officers. [3]

While the Hasm Movement’s operations are incomparable with those of Wilayat Sinai, they do demonstrate a clear ability to carry out surveillance and to plan and execute attacks in a challenging environment. If the group continues to grow, it will undoubtedly be able to attract recruits with the expertise to carry out ever more sophisticated attacks. Many of these recruits with specialized training could be drawn from the hundreds (likely thousands) of members of the Egyptian army and security services that were purged for suspected ties to the Muslim Brotherhood following the overthrow of President Morsi. [4]


Egypt’s security services may well successfully disrupt and destroy the Hasm Movement. The group is small, has few resources and has had insufficient time to become “self-healing” in the manner of Wilayat Sinai. However, the Hasm Movement’s rhetoric and tactics make it worthy of particular attention. The leadership has identified, and is trying to exploit, a rising tide of dissatisfaction with a government that is viewed by many as ineffective, corrupt and increasingly dependent on violence to enforce its will.

The Hasm Movement — or a group like it that is moderate in its religious views and disciplined and discriminate in its use of violence — may well have the ability to become a formidable foe for Sisi’s government. In contrast with IS, such a group will likely find it can recruit from a much broader pool and build a genuine (albeit limited) support-base in Egypt’s urban areas.



[1] Read the group’s condemnation of the church attack here.

[2] The images, released on the group’s website, have since been removed.

[3] See the video here.

[4] See the Militant Leadership Monitor profile of Mohamed Ashour Dashisha here.