Egypt’s ‘War on Terror’ does more harm than good

Egypt’s “War on Terror” has been at the forefront of every diplomatic offensive from Egypt’s new, post-Mursi authorities

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer
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Egypt’s “War on Terror” has been at the forefront of every diplomatic offensive from Egypt’s new, post-Mursi authorities. Criticism from human rights and civil rights organizations within the country, as well as foreign governmental and non-governmental actors, have all been met with the same retort – Egypt is facing a massive security threat. Any evaluation of the country’s current policies must be, according to this narrative, carried out with this in mind – Egypt is in a “special situation.” The question is, however, is Egypt’s “War on Terror” decreasing the security threat? Or does it risk exacerbating it further?

Some of Egypt’s intelligentsia, whether in the public or private sector, have sought to portray criticism of the new government as secretly “aiding and abetting” the Islamist opposition led by the Muslim Brotherhood, who have now been ousted from power. The slight does not work particularly well, however, when it is aimed at civil rights organizations which have been castigated by the Muslim Brotherhood, both during Mursi’s era and afterwards, for being opposed to Islamism. When it comes to the governmental institutions of Western countries, it gets some traction via a renewed ultra-nationalist populism – ironically so, when one considers that these same governments are attacked by the Brotherhood itself for being insufficiently “anti-coup.” Nevertheless, in private, the Egyptian authorities do not really view, particularly Western, governments as actually being pro-Brotherhood. Rather, the more typical appraisal is that such governments are “unaware” or, to be blunt, foolishly naïve.

The approach, therefore, from those authorities is to try to convince their counterparts in foreign governments that, actually, the “War on Terror” is precisely what is necessary, owing to the terrorist threat that is being combatted. Egyptian diplomats regularly express frustration as their foreign colleagues’ “inability” to grasp how serious the situation is – and thus, they need to be “informed,” and convinced of how dangerous things are.

The fatal flaw in the strategy, however, is that these Western governments are not quite so uninformed. On the contrary, there is probably not a single Western governmental establishment that is unaware of the current terrorist threat facing Egypt. The difference between them and their Egyptian counterparts is not that point – rather, the differences lie in their appraisal of who is actually carrying out the terrorist attacks, and whether or not the current security strategy of the Egyptian authorities will lead to a de-escalation of the threat.

The main terror threat in Egypt emanates from groups such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis – i.e. al-Qaeda style groups who simply cannot be negotiated with

H.A. Hellyer

The Egyptian authorities, joined by other allies in the region, are obviously very clear on their appraisal of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization – even while unconfirmed rumors still circulate about back channels between the Brotherhood leadership and certain parts of the government. Western governments, however, despite having little or no sympathy for the Islamist group, are unable to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization akin to al-Qaeda without sufficient proof. Privately, some officials on the European continent would be quite content to receive such evidence – but as of yet, the Egyptian authorities do not appear to have provided it.

Spurring terrorism?

The “War on Terror” in Egypt becomes more problematic for Western countries and others for another reason – not only does it seem, from their perspective, to be oriented in the wrong direction, but it also may be counter-productive. Counter-terrorism’s main goal is to combat not only the actual acts of terrorism – but to ensure that an atmosphere where it is more plausible for such acts to reoccur in the future does not exist. In recent months, the fear is that, to the contrary, the current security strategy is indirectly stimulating such an environment by its improper approach.

The main terror threat in Egypt emanates from groups such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis – i.e. al-Qaeda style groups who simply cannot be negotiated with. When Mursi was removed by the military on July 3, the group existed – it had done for more than two years before that. Nevertheless, the numbers were low – and then, its numbers began to increase as the Egyptian authorities’ crackdown increased and widened. That crackdown is making it easier for the radical extremist narrative to portray Egypt as another possible destination for “jihad.”

The largest sphere for al-Qaeda style activity at the time, obviously, is in another Arab country altogether – Syria. Disturbingly, however, there are increasing numbers of reports that indicate the al-Qaeda sympathetic scene is beginning to consider Egypt as another arena for “jihad.” It is not competition for Syria in that regard – but it does mean that Egyptians who would have gone to Syria to fight in an al-Qaeda style group are coming back to Egypt. The potential for that to increase is worrying. Moreover, there is the possibility that other, non-Egyptian, extremists who wish to travel for “jihad” may indeed begin to identify Egypt as another “jihadist arena” – which only deepens Egypt’s genuine and legitimate security problem.

In Egypt’s interest

None of this is obviously in Egypt’s interest – but it is also not in the interest of any Western country. In the past, radical extremism from the likes of al-Qaeda did not limit themselves to activities and operations within the Muslim world – rather, they took aim at what they considered to be the supporters and backers abroad. Hence, the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., the Madrid and London bombings in 2005 and other attempts. It is, therefore, of little surprise that Western governments are deeply concerned about the possibility of this becoming more of an issue in the future – whether in the next year, or the next decade.

The “War on Terror” strategy, where civil liberties and human rights are given a second or third priority to security concerns has never been implemented without risks and consequences. When those potential problems are raised as serious concerns from human rights organizations or other governments, it is not out of naiveté. Rather, it is, also, out of self-preservation from further problems in the future – and all would be well advised to consider those perils very seriously.


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.

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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