Egypt’s war... against whom?

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer
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As Egypt’s “War on Terror” began to take shape a few weeks ago, my thoughts drifted to a young Brazilian man called Jean Charles de Menezes and the choices that were made in the UK a few years ago. But I digress – let’s return to Egypt for now, and revert back to de Menezes shortly.

Those who support the current military-backed interim government’s policies vis-à-vis the pro-Muslim Brotherhood camp do so with a very clear, and familiar, set of basic premises. In that regard, there are three sets of groups on the Egyptian political spectrum at present. The first are those who completely accept the pro-Mursi narrative, which denies that there are criminal elements in the pro-Mursi camp. They don’t necessarily advocate criminality – they simply deny that the criminality that does exist has anything to do with them or their cause.

There are few in Egypt who can now stand on the moral high ground – we ought to encourage the growth of their ranks, rather than encouraging people to fail to stand for the best of what Egypt was, and what it could again be.

H.A. Hellyer

The second group is composed of those who accept that there are criminal elements that use violence to the political end of reinstating Mursi and rolling back the military takeover. They do not excuse, deny or advocate such violence, on the contrary they insist on enforcing the law. If anything, their main critique is that the state itself is failing to enforce the law appropriately in some areas, which has led to violence against unarmed civilians in different parts of the country by pro-Mursi criminal elements. They’re not particularly thrilled with the conduct of the interim government in terms of security, particularly after the Rabaa al-Adawiya massacre, however they do not lay the blame completely on the government’s doorstep, instead describing the pro-Mursi camp as having some criminal elements.

The third group is certainly plentiful in Egypt at present and it does not limit its depiction of the pro-Mursi camp to having just “some” criminal elements. The pro-Mursi camp, in this narrative, is essentially a terrorist organisation – one that is dedicated to engaging in an armed insurgency against the state. As such, the state is at war. These are not criminals the state is fighting, they are treasonous rebels who have supranational, rather than Egyptian, concerns. As such, they ought to be treated as a foreign army on Egyptian soil. In this narrative, the pro-Mursi/anti-government camp is akin to a state within a state and it ought to be treated in the same way Egypt might treat a state with which it is at war.

Is this the norm?

It has to be said, Egypt is not unusual in this regard; the United States, in its own “war on terror” until 2009, had an “enemy combatant” category for those members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban that it captured. There was a distinct legal reason for this; the Geneva Conventions propagate particular criteria to be followed regarding prisoners of war, but none of those captives could be described as such. This is because the U.S. had not been at war with a state per se, hence the “enemy combatant” designation. Later on, that designation was even used for American citizens - Jose Padilla, arrested in Chicago in 2002, was put under civilian arrest in May and then designated an “enemy combatant,” by then-President George W. Bush. There was a specific reason for this: to deny Padilla his entitlement to a trial in a civilian court. He was transferred to a military prison for three and a half years as an “enemy combatant,” and was moved to a civilian court only after pressure from American civil rights groups.

This sort of vocabulary has a direct effect; to nullify the treatment of citizens as citizens and assign them an extraordinary status due to “exceptional circumstances.” Sometimes governments do this on their own , sometimes popular sentiment and populist media assist them. That is certainly the case right now in Egypt, considering the pro-Mursi camp is being described as “non-Egyptian” by swathes of an ultra-nationalist media. The basis for this is the supra-national commitments expressed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist leaders. The “general guide” of the Muslim Brotherhood famously said: “to heck with Egypt.” A few forgave him for that statement, even before the whirlwind of ultra-nationalistic sentiment erupted. Yet, this is hardly enough to deny him, or those who follow him, the right of normal citizenry – otherwise, the Nasserites of Arab nationalism, or the socialists of the “global working class” ought also be questioned over their commitment to the Egyptian nation-state.

Tightening restrictions

As the result of all of this, there are drastic measures being taken, with precious little criticism. Journalists and television channels are being proscribed and the restrictions are being defended in the same way one might defend the proscription of German radio in England during the Second World War. However, it must be noted that some stations and shows do air incitement to violence – an offence that ought to be tackled with the full weight of the law. However, barring incitement, there is precious little reason to argue that news channels ought to be banned. Yet, many are insisting that the “propaganda” of stations like al-Jazeera is a sufficient reason to clamp down on the media at a time when Egypt is “at war.”

If suspected propaganda is a cause for concern, then there may be many channels aired in Egypt that ought to receive special attention. Al-Jazeera is certainly at best a mixed kettle of fish, with its Arabic coverage being rather poor in objectivity. Its English program, nevertheless, has much to be proud of, despite some rotten apples. Were the likes of Rawya Rageh and Sherine Tadros absent from viewers’ television screens when it came to the coverage of Egypt, it would be a great and definite loss. The justification is further complicated by the fact that Egypt is not at war with any state that al-Jazeera represents – unless war recently broke out between Doha and Cairo and no one told the rest of the world. One hopes not.

Making a choice

Egypt does have a choice. It can move in the direction of continued “exceptionalism” in a truly difficult time – that is certainly one option. It’s the same option that led the U.S. to invade Afghanistan and Iraq and develop prejudiced policies within its borders that increased discrimination against its Muslim and Arab citizens. It’s the same option that led to a young Brazilian man, Jean Charles de Menezes, to being killed in London, after he was misidentified as a terrorist suspect.

De Menezes had done nothing to deserve his fate. Yet, as his killing took place only a couple of weeks after the 7th of July bombings in London, one might have thought public opinion would have simply ignored it altogether, chalking it up to a “wrong place, wrong time” incident. There was certainly that opinion voiced – but there was a critical mass of Britons who refused to allow the principles that they believed Britain stood for to be voluntarily destroyed. Otherwise, what moral standing did Britain have in claiming to fight against terrorism? The amount of public pressure that was brought to bear on the government in the UK in the aftermath of this killing was tremendous – and while it could not bring de Menezes back, it did bring restitution for his family and a public apology from the government.

There are many criticisms that can, and ought to, be made vis-à-vis the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. However, they ought never to be used to provide excuses for abuses perpetrated by society at large, or by the state in carrying out its duties to protect every Egyptian – pro-Mursi or otherwise. There are few in Egypt who can now stand on the moral high ground – we ought to encourage the growth of their ranks, rather than encouraging people to fail to stand for the best of what Egypt was, and what it could again be.


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

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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