Egypt: do you really want to counter terrorism?

May 26, 2017 – Relatives of the victims of the bus attack taking sand mixed with blood on the way back from the funeral service, at Ava Samuel desert monastery in Minya, Egypt. Masked gunmen attacked a bus carrying Christians, many of them children, on their way to the same monastery. NurPhoto/SIPA USA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.What semblance of a debate on whether Egypt’s policies combating terrorism may
be effective died on 24 November 2017 when Egypt witnessed one of its deadliest
ever terrorist attacks.

Over 300 people were killed and several hundreds injured by
a gang of militants inside the Rawda
mosque in Bir-Al-Abed in northern Sinai.

A month prior, 54 security forces members were ambushed 135
km south west of Cairo, a clear sign of a failing
counter insurgency policy.

Based on the quality of policies in place, numerous analysts
had predicted
the deterioration in the security situation in Egypt early on. Few attempted to
give Egypt the benefit of the doubt, writing off earlier failures as poor
execution. The debate is now over.

There is no doubt that Egypt’s policies have failed. Sisi’s vow
to use ‘brute
force’ to end extremist activity in Sinai indicates that no amount of
policy advice will sway current leadership from its trajectory.

Yet even as the outlook is bleak, a few other questions
currently surround the latest terror incident and have not been as conclusively

Repression vs ideology 

One of the more enduring questions in Egypt
(and indeed other Middle Eastern countries) centers around whether extremism is
a result of repressive measures undertaken routinely by the state or whether
the violence is inherently and unavoidably present within the fabric of the ideology
of Islam.

Following the Rawda Mosque attack and many
previous others, some placed all the blame purely on ideology, claiming that these violent actions come from
violent ideas that are derived from violent verses.

The claim is that violence is a consequence of
ideology and Islam in particular, irrespective of repression. Others claimed it is repression that radicalizes
people and causes the extreme violent reaction.

While the debate focuses on whether to blame
the state or Islamist ideology, simplifying either side would not be accurate.

Blaming repression for the rise of extremism
can be countered by the quality of the violence that is produced. Many around
the world have been repressed but have not reacted with indiscriminate violence
and rhetoric that accompanies extremists who associate themselves with Islam.

The violence is too righteous and extreme to
simply be a reaction to repression. To blame Islamist ideology alone does not
fully explain it because the majority of Muslims are peaceful and numerous Muslim
countries have not devolved into producing such extremist groups.

The reality is that ideology never develops in
a vacuum. It largely depends on the context surrounding it.

In order to grow in numbers whatever movement
that subscribes to an ideology must be fed with new supporters. Repression is
the simplest way to radicalize.

Egypt's problem is sectarianism, intolerance, violence, uncritical support of authority, injustice and brutality.

In Egypt, the extreme conservative Wahabi
ideology is rampant enough to absorb new recruits looking to live out their

To simplify, Egypt's
problem isn't just repression or violent ideology, it's sectarianism,
intolerance, violence, uncritical support of authority, injustice and

While the extremists
can be blamed for their violent actions and the murder of innocents, we cannot
blame them for being provided the perfect breeding ground for new recruits.

That can almost
certainly all be blamed on the state along with a culture of violence and the shutting
down of real debate as a modus-operandi.

State responsibility

Another question
that arises as a direct result of the Rawda massacre is whether the state is
responsible for this incident in particular.

After all, how can
the state protect people praying in a mosque on a Friday with so many mosques
all over the country and limited security personnel in comparison.

This is an argument
also made earlier when a bus full of Coptic Christians heading
towards a monastery was stopped and many of its passengers executed in May 2017.

With all the roads
in Egypt, how is it possible to protect all of them? Besides, we cannot always
blame the state for everything. Many have made that claim including a leading human rights figure.

This argument raises
the question, when do we accept the failed policies of a state and start
holding the state accountable? Can we really isolate the incident of the mosque
shooting from the general context in northern Sinai for which the state is

Add to the mix the
fact that ISIS has issued threats to the inhabitants
of the town of Rawda for practicing Sufism, and no additional protection was
provided to the town.

How can one then not
blame the State?

The state’s policies offer a perfect breeding ground for radicals and vendetta.

Days earlier the
security apparatus was busy cracking down on activists
in Luxor and the owner of a satirical twitter account.

These resources should have been dedicated to identifying
extremists and thwarting their plans instead of cracking down on civil and
peaceful opposition.

The debate persists.
The state’s policies fail to counter extremism. They offer a perfect breeding
ground for radicals and vendetta.

What appears to be a
long standing policy of not investing in the development of north Sinai has
also limited people’s opportunities and resources. Numerous Sinai inhabitants
have been subjected to indiscriminate attacks by the state as well as forced evictions.

At the same time, the
nature of the attack is highly difficult to control because of physical and
geographical challenges. But is it possible to divorce the state’s
responsibility from physical security challenges? Is it possible to view the
terror incidents in isolation of the context created by state policies and

Incompetent or intentional?

Is the failure intentional or a result of general
incompetence that is ever present in Egypt’s institutions? This question is
also up for discussion and not easily resolvable. While policies are far from
perfect, it is unlikely that they are carried out efficiently.

The present practices are demonstrably doing more harm than
good. Is it possible that the Egyptians are unaware of this? Or is it simply,
when all you have is a hammer all your problems look like a nail?

The argument for incompetence is a strong one since Egyptian
security forces are poorly trained and the top brass often resort to rhetoric
revolving around conspiracy theories, such as fourth-generation warfare, as a
scapegoat for their failures.

It is also widely known that incompetence permeates all segments
of the Egyptian government, and the military and police are not immune.

However, the intentionality of maintaining a state of crisis
when it comes to terrorism is not without merits.

Sisi’s mandate came from fighting terrorism rather than
elections. At a time where extremism is a threat to the entire world with the
rise of the Islamic State, world leaders have been happy to turn a blind eye
towards any rights abuses in exchange for a proxy to help them fight

the continued threat of terror is the raison d’etre for Sisi’s rule.

With poor political and economic performance, the continued
threat of terror becomes the raison d’etre for Sisi’s rule.

Indeed, before rising to power, Sisi
displayed an accurate understanding that violent policies such as those
adopted by his regime can only lead to increased violence and alienation of the
north Sinai population. He understood that forced evictions and indiscriminate
targeting of north Sinai residents would create violence.

Islamic State prisoners find ample opportunity within Egyptian
prisons to recruit. Enforced disappearances are common in north Sinai.

When speaking to Nabil
Elboustany following his release after being forcibly disappeared by the
army in 2015, he recounted his experience in the Azouli prison in Ismaileya. He
described how hundreds or maybe even thousands of north Sinai residents were
being forcibly
disappeared by the army, mistreated and then released.

Elboustany’s testimony was recently echoed by Ibrahim Halawa
an Irish citizens who spent four years in jail before being acquitted. Halawa
witnessed the radicalization inside prisons and the strong growth of the
Islamic State within its walls.

The questions surrounding the climate of extremism and
violence in Egypt are important to understand what may need to be done if a
more competent and less obstinate administration were to tackle the problems of
extremism and terrorism.

Until then, more will suffer the consequences of the current
context and many will be caught between the proponents of brute force.

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