by Rana Allam
Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, met with Egypt’s foreign affairs minister on October 4 to discuss “shared efforts in defeating” the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), according to the US embassy in Cairo’s Twitter account. No more details were provided to the press.
It is unclear what “efforts” Egypt is making toward “defeating” IS. After four years of rule by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his promise to “rid the country of terrorism,” not much has been accomplished. lndeed, there has been a rise in violent extremism with more than 2,800 terrorist attacks occurring in these four years. Even though North Sinai has been in a state of emergency for 33 months, 58% of these attacks happened there. The Egyptian military flaunts the number of “terrorists” it killed in the counter-attacks, but many of those killed are innocent civilians, and at least five new terrorist groups have appeared on the scene.
In his efforts to stop the attacks against the Egyptian army in North Sinai, Sisi sponsored negotiations between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas. But the talks went nowhere because Hamas refused the disarmament condition that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as the PA wanted. It was indeed interesting to see Sisi meeting with Ismail Haniyeh, one of Hamas’ top officials, after Cairo declared Hamas, both its military and political wings, a terrorist organization in 2015. It was doubly interesting because the talks took place after Sisi’s first public and very amicable appearance with Netanyahu. After four years of demonizing Hamas, blockading Gaza, and boosting relations with Israel to their “highest level in history,” it is highly doubtful that Sisi can negotiate “peace” with Hamas. Moreover, violent extremism in Sinai is not necessarily imported from Gaza. Sisi’s military actions are radicalizing his own people or, at the very least, creating an environment where recruitment by terrorist groups has become easier.
Sisi’s war on terror is both unsuccessful and, by targeting all opposition, counter-productive. Anti-military sentiment is on the rise, especially in the Sinai where the crackdown is unprecedented and news is scarce. Egypt has blocked more than 400 websites (including that of Human Rights Watch), shut down human rights organizations, and effectively banned civil society work through draconian NGO laws. The government has now rounded up more than 60,000 political detainees, and security forces have systematically tortured them. Pre-trial detentions can last for years. Enforced disappearances are the norm, and those who speak about it are also detained. Mass trials are delivering hundreds of death sentences. Even the LGBT community is facing the largest crackdown since 2001, with pro-regime media—the only press that still exists in the country—fueling sentiment against the community. Accusations from security sources that “some of the accused in the case received funds from foreign bodies and rights organizations” can land them in jail for years.
But Sisi is constantly looking for more ways to crush his people. On September 20, Egypt’s Cabinet approved amendments to the Nationality Law that would effectively enable the regime to withdraw citizenship from its opponents. The law, which the regime-controlled parliament will undoubtedly ratify, states that individuals can lose their nationality if a court verdict is issued establishing that the individual belongs to “a group, association, front, organization, gang, or entity—whatever its natural, legal, or actual form and whether it is based inside or outside of the country—that aims to undermine the public order of the state or to undermine its social, economic, or political order by force or by any unlawful means.” Given that the regime has already purged the judiciary of any opposition, such a verdict will be easy to come by.
The US and the EU understandably support Egypt’s counter-terrorism efforts, but Egypt’s approach has been more like collective punishment that will create an environment conducive to violent extremism not preventive of it. Alienating groups of people and demonizing segments of the population while torturing, killing, and jailing thousands is never the answer. It remains unclear why the US and the EU still support Sisi, even when his measures are likely to breed terrorism and export it to the world. Extremist groups will use the grievances of all those in prisons and all those whose family members or friends have been tortured and killed to recruit and radicalize even more people.
It’s hard to know whether US presidential special envoy Brett McGurk condemns or approves of Sisi’s measures. The US, after all, has favored divisive counter-terrorism policies of its own of late, such as banning Muslims, demonizing “the other,” supporting extremist groups like white supremacists, and criticizing peaceful protestors who took a knee at sports events. So, perhaps the meeting between McGurk and his Egyptian counterpart involved sharing the counter-productive efforts of both countries.
Experience and studies have time and again proved that security measures are not enough to prevent violent extremism. Civil society organizations working on the frontlines have another story to tell, that peace, social cohesion, rights and plurality are the answers while brutality and crackdown on basic rights are factors contributing to radicalization. Dictators like Sisi should not be counted on to end terrorism in a highly volatile region, only to increase the number of violent extremists.