Egypt evacuates Kabul embassy but has yet to address Taliban takeover

Cairo monitors Afghanistan with concern, fearing country could once more become a haven for extremists

A military aircraft has brought home nearly 50 Egyptian citizens escaping the turmoil in Afghanistan.

A few hours earlier, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi made his first public comments on the unfolding crisis in Kabul.

During a nighttime television talk show, he cited Afghanistan as a cautionary tale for Muslim-majority nations.

The phone-in, broadcast on a pro-government network, amounts to the first public response by Cairo to the Taliban takeover.

The evacuees arrived at a military airbase in eastern Cairo late on Monday night. They included embassy staff and clerics from Al Azhar, Egypt’s centuries-old seat of Islamic learning.

First word of the flight broke after the plane landed in Egypt; the evacuation itself had been conducted in secrecy.

“The issues we need to concern ourselves with are many, but the most important among them is understanding the challenges posed by bringing down states and the danger embedded in targeting states,” Mr El Sisi said.

“Afghanistan was something else 50 years ago. You only have to look at books and movies to see how different it was. Messing with the destiny of nations begins when a state falls.”

Mr El Sisi has long attached paramount significance to the protection of state institutions against political upheaval.

His comments and the evacuation of the Egyptian embassy in Kabul provide little indication of his government’s thinking, but hints of concern for the future of a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan have surfaced in recent official statements.

Mr El Sisi’s media office has said his talks in the past week with CIA director William Burns, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi had touched on “recent developments” in the country.

Egyptian analysts and security officials say Cairo is closely monitoring the situation and waiting to see whether the Taliban remain committed to the radical ideology they espoused when they were in power from 1996 to 2001.

It was a time when Afghanistan became a haven for extremists, including Al Qaeda, from across the Muslim world. Under Taliban patronage, the extremists there attracted recruits, trained fighters and plotted attacks, including 9/11, after which the US-led invasion of the country removed the movement from power.

Egypt’s decades-old fight against Islamist extremists has been most closely associated with events in Afghanistan, which explains Cairo’s concern over the Taliban takeover.

Hundreds of Egyptian militants joined the ranks of the mujahideen in their war against Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s. They continued to fight during the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

Having gained valuable combat experience, many Egyptian extremists left Afghanistan to fight against the Russians in Chechnya or in the Balkan wars in the 1990s. More recently, they have joined other militant Islamist groups fighting government forces in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

Those who sneaked back to Egypt, along with a younger generation of extremists inspired by the Afghanistan veterans, formed the nucleus of terrorist groups that have for years fought Egyptian government forces in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, and previously in southern Egypt.

Mr El Sisi, a career army officer elected to the presidency seven years ago, has shown zero tolerance towards extremists or groups embracing political Islam.

His rise to power began in 2013 when, as the country’s defence minister, he led the military’s removal from power of president Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, amid a wave of street protests against the Islamist’s divisive rule.

“It’s still too early to speculate on the position Egypt will take if it becomes clear that today’s Taliban are the same as the old ones,” said Gehad Auda, a political scientist at Helwan University in Cairo. “But I can tell you now that Egypt will have a harsh response to any sign of destabilisation that can be traced back to Taliban’s Afghanistan.”

In the meantime, security experts say Afghanistan is likely to become bogged down in a power struggle between rival groups before it turns its attention to helping like-minded groups.

“People are hedging their bets and waiting for the dust to settle first,” said Mohamed Anis Salem of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

“What just happened in Afghanistan was quick and the likely reverberations are not clear. But there is already concern over having a new Taliban emirate that offers an extremist version of Sunni Islam.”

Updated: August 24th 2021, 7:16 PM