How can Egypt avoid the point of no return?

Earlier this month, the United States formally gave the order to release the remainder of military aid that was being held back from the Egyptian authorities. It had been delayed since 2013, in response to the aftermath of the military-led ouster of then President Mohammad Mursi. There will be many discussions about the decision to do so - but there will be one factor that will keep coming back to haunt any reasonable engagement on the issue. Egypt’s ‘War on Terror’ – and where right-minded people ought to stand on it.

There is something of a naiveté when it comes to this issue - but it’s not the typical one. In many standard arguments on this issue, there is the common theme of trying to avoid an outbreak of terrorism in Egypt by considering a variety of different policies. The usual argument is that if Egypt does not consider these policies seriously, it will reach a point of ‘no return’ with regards to the seriousness of the relevant threats.

There is just one problem with that argument: Egypt has already passed the ‘point of no return.’ But Egypt can also make the repercussions of that easier - or harder - and shorter - or longer.

In November 2012, the then President Mursi issued his now infamous ‘constitutional decree’ that placed his decisions beyond judicial review. After the decree had achieved what was required, Mursi then ended the decree. The decision to implement that decree, however, was never countermanded - and the damaging effect it had on widening and deepening the gulf among political actors was never repaired.

‘Point of no return’

At the time, it seemed that Mursi would have to do something rather extraordinary in order to counter the effect of that decree. It seemed rather unlikely he would even try - but it also required a fair degree of imagination to picture what such a grand gesture might effectively be. If one, indeed, was even possible.

The ‘point of no return’ in the post Mursi period is not coming - it was reached. Despite what many may suspect, it was not in the ending of the Mursi presidency on July 3, 2013 - without reinstalling Mursi as president, there were ways to come back from the precipice. Rather, the real ‘point of no return’ took place six weeks later, in the forced dispersal of the pro-Mursi camp at Raba’a. Human rights organizations and civil rights group all attest to hundreds of mostly unarmed people being killed by the security forces. The then Prime Minister, Hazem Beblawi, spoke of up to a thousand people dying that day in August.

Egypt has already passed the ‘point of no return.’ But Egypt can also make the repercussions of that easier - or harder - and shorter - or longer

There was political violence and militancy by non-state actors in Egypt prior to August 14, 2013 - and it was likely to be as such after it as well. But what August 14 meant was that there would be nothing Egypt could do to avoid passing the point of no return – Egypt’s authorities had made that a reality. Egypt entered a new phase as a result of that day. The question was - and still is - how to make that next phase as short as it can be - and as least damaging as possible.

Or to put it another way - how can Egypt make that phase of political violence end as quickly and smoothly as possible?

There has to be a realization that the phase is upon Egypt already - and it is likely to get worse. There’s no point in being alarmist for the sake of it - but there’s also no point in being naïve. Security analysts are rather unanimous on this issue. For a variety of reasons, Egyptians have to expect that attacks in the Sinai are going to continue; that militant episodes like targeting Media City earlier this week will persist; that radical non-state actors will continue to leave bombs; and that other types of political violence is going to be a fact of life for some time to come.

Holistic security solutions

The question isn’t about avoiding that eventuality - it’s too late for that - it’s about ensuring the end of that comes about sooner, rather than later, and with a minimum of damage. Therein, unfortunately, lies the truth.

There is no secret formula in Egypt when it comes to minimizing security threats. It happens all around the world. Holistic security solutions are exactly those - measures that will relate to all factors providing relief or resilience to political violence. An integral part of that is certainly the security solution. Armed force remains necessary: that involves police action in civilian areas, or other types of military force (preferably not military forces used for foreign engagements) when it comes to counter-insurgency activities.

The most effective security solution, nevertheless, is one that is complemented by, and has embedded within it a ‘human security’ paradigm. That means ensuring that the basic needs of citizens are provided for in a fashion that makes their recruitment into radical groups less likely, or virtually impossible. Within counter-insurgency, that means ensuring the local population is onside with the state’s operations against radicals - reports coming from the Sinai indicate, far too often, this is not the case. The Egyptian state’s tactics in the Sinai must not only target Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis operatives, but ensure that it is not acting so heavy handed that there is a further enlistment pool for Ansar recruiters.

Within normal and regular civilian areas, the situation is even more structural. For years, rights groups have been consistently demanding and insisting on the need for security sector reform and judicial reform. No one has taken those demands seriously - whether under Mubarak, Tantawi, Mursi, Mansour or Sisi. They are not altruistic demands that can afford to wait: rather, they must be recognized as desperately needed components of any holistic security strategy. If they are not, then there is no ‘draining of the swamp,’ and there will continue to be elements of the population that will feel such an alienation from the state, they will be easy targets for recruitment from radical elements that seek to wage war against that state. Literally.

There will be elements in Egypt in 2015 and beyond that will never join up to or recognize in any shape or form the new political dispensation. That is simply a fact.

But in order to ensure political violence is not a reality for not only 2015, but for many years to come, there remain policy directions the Egyptian state can pursue. If it will not pursue reforms to bring about a more just state apparatus for just moral rectification and edification, it can do so for another reason: a sustainable security solution. After two years of trying along the current fashion - and not succeeding - the Egyptian state could do far worse.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:44 - GMT 06:44
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