Egypt’s ‘classic authoritarian bargain’ proves to be the worst ever counterterrorism strategy


When it comes to the Middle East these days, the buzzword in the international community is “stabilization,” as opposed to “transition,” notes Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. No one is betting on democracy any more, he writes for the Washington Post:

But has the equation that [then Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton set out back in 2011, that dictatorships are inherently unstable, changed? Not really. Monarchies or repressive regimes are ultimately bound to produce instability. The gap between the people and the governments is still wide. Region’s despots are still not providing good governance. Societies are still deeply divided and unequal.

Not least in Egypt, where last weekend’s terrorist attack shows that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s anti-terrorism strategy isn’t working, observers suggest. Politically, Sisi’s regime has become increasingly autocratic, analyst Robin Wright writes for the New Yorker:

Last year, Adel Abdel Ghafar warned in a Brookings Institution report that, “in a classic authoritarian bargain,” Sisi came to power “promising security, stability, and economic prosperity in exchange for near-total political control. Now, that bargain is in the process of breaking down, since he’s failed to deliver on all three fronts.” Unemployment among Egyptian youth, who have been the jihadi foot soldiers, is above thirty per cent—“a ticking time bomb,” Ghafar said.

Under Sisi’s rule, thousands of suspected Islamists and dissidents have been detained and the space for civil society has been squeezed, reports suggest.

“The Egyptian regime needs to get the support of more of its citizens in fighting terrorism,” says Michele Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. “The current level of human rights abuses and political repression leaves far too many Egyptians susceptible to radicalization or at least unwilling to help the government against extremists,” she tells Cipher Brief.

“[Sisi’s coup] gave credence to the narrative of the already-extremists, the jihadis, that there is no hope in normal politics,” says Khaled Elgindy, a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Sinai residents complain of feeling isolated, even culturally distant, from the Nile Valley where the vast majority of Egyptians live, the New York Times reports:

The Bedouin tribes who live there, often portrayed as outlaws in Egyptian popular culture, say they feel greater kinship with the tribes in Gaza — a connection that has bred longstanding suspicion among officials in Cairo, especially since the Israeli occupation. South Sinai, around Sharm el Sheikh, and Mount Sinai developed into a tourist destination. But the North remained loosely governed and some of the tribes who lived there considered smuggling a birthright, and resented Cairo’s attempts to restrict it.

“The Egyptians have failed to acknowledge that ISIS is not just a terrorism threat,” said Andrew Miller, a former Egypt specialist at the National Security Council, now at the Project on Middle East Democracy [see above – a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy]. “Killing terrorists is not sufficient. They need to deprive ISIS of local support, which is rooted in Cairo’s historical neglect of the Sinai.”

“Many Egyptians west of the Suez don’t consider the Bedouin to be fully Egyptian,” POMED’s Miller said. “They have poorer educational and employment opportunities, and they are largely shut out of government jobs and the security services.”

Extremism is not an intrinsically Muslim problem, and it ought not to be considered as such, argues Dr HA Hellyer, a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and London’s Royal United Services Institute and author of A Revolution Undone. But there is an extremist ideology that exists, and its manifestations are not simply to be found in the outrageous barbarism that befell Egypt last Friday, he writes for the Guardian:

If we are to tackle extremism in general, it isn’t a “reformation of Islam” that anyone ought to be looking for. Indeed, in a sense, that took place already, and one result of that was the extremist rejection of orthodox Sufism by many, who then claimed to be more orthodox than anyone else. Any holistic response to the challenge of extremism will need to address precisely that fallacy.

The subsequent mass incarceration of thousands of peaceful activists and opposition supporters alongside the most hardcore terrorists is arguably the worst counterterrorism strategy ever invented, former assistant secretary of state Tom Malinowski told a recent forum at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“We’ve given Egypt $70 billion over the years, and last I checked there are no Egyptian F-16s helping us fight ISIS over Raqqa or Mosul,” he said. “All we get from the Egyptians is political repression that radicalizes its youth and gives terrorist groups new life.” “We learned a long time ago that promoting human rights and preventing terrorism are not competing interests,” Malinowski (right) added.

“Prosecutions, travel bans and asset freezes against human rights defenders, in addition to repressive new legislation, threaten to effectively eradicate independent civil society,” Human Rights Watch reports. “The government denies workers the right to organize independent unions and prosecutes those who participate in strikes,” the group added.

The result of the crackdown has also meant that the regime has fewer options to pursue an end to the insurgency, adds Omar H. Rahman, an associate editor at World Politics Review:

By closing the door to a political solution with the Muslim Brotherhood, Sissi has had to turn to ever-more repressive measures to quell the growing violence—not just bombing Sinai, but banning protests, dismantling the political opposition and imprisoning dissenters in Cairo and across the country. But such an approach is bound to stoke more discontent, especially when it fails to succeed at its nominal aim of ending the insurgency. By declaring war on political Islam, Sissi’s regime plunged Egypt into a zero-sum conflict for control of the state.

“It is time the government understands that it cannot rely on a security solution alone and should resort to different civil society groups,” argues Mohamed Adam, a nonresident Fellow at the Tahrir Institute on Middle East Policy. “ It should grant access to journalists and human rights researchers in Sinai, who can be used as another tool to gain better insight on the situation. It should build strong ties with civil society, rather than use the ‘war on terror’ as a pretext to crackdown on the opposition or to block news websites and prevent journalists from doing their work,” he tells Cipher Brief.

Egypt: Human Rights Seven Years After the Revolution

Please join the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for a hearing on the current human rights situation in Egypt. Witnesses include: Amy Hawthorne, Deputy Director for Research, Project on Middle East Democracy and Michele Dunne, Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Wednesday, December 6, 2017 – 2:30pm. Venue: 2255 Rayburn House Office Building, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC. RSVP

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