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Dissent and criticism in Egypt’s ‘War on Terror’

In Egypt, a “war on terror” means that dissent at large is problematic

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

It’s not the first time scores of Egyptians have died, but what differentiates Friday’s Sinai massacre from the rest isn’t the numbers – not by far – but the targets and the perpetrators. And with that, the response from the state, which is in all likelihood probably going to be harsh, intense and, one fears, counter-productive.

One can say “in all likelihood” with great trepidation because they fact is very few people really know what is actually happening in Sinai. The peninsula, in terms of media coverage, is both full and empty. It’s full of mentions within all types of media, owing to the on-going insurgency, but it is also nearly empty in terms of proper media presence. There were scores of reporters in Gaza during the Israeli bombardment, for example, which gave the world a birds-eye view as to what was happening on the ground and various dynamics. With Sinai, however, press restrictions are intense and few reporters manage to make it there, limiting the amount of reports that can be cross-referenced and compared. What do we know about the military’s moves in Sinai or the relationships between the tribes in Sinai and the authorities? What wider discontent exists? Does any? Is there a growing pool of recruits for the likes of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis? If so, why? What is happening in the peninsula?

Lack of transparency

That lack of transparency leads many, then, to ask questions about what happened in Sinai. You have the conspiracy theorists that ought to be put to one side, including various elements within the pro-Mursi coalition that indicated, rather incredulously, that the more than 30 soldiers could have been killed by the state itself for disobeying orders. Another, equally bizarre notion, was the accusation that these soldiers weren’t killed in Sinai at all, but in Libya as they fought against Islamists there. Considering that for months many within the Islamist coalition denied that Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis even existed except as a false flag operation, it’s not surprising such nonsense might permeate.

Waging a “war on terror” seldom assists in minimizing militancy from radical extremists

H.A. Hellyer

But beyond the conspiracy theorists, there are genuine questions that need to be asked. Not simply about this past Friday, but about the more than two years that the insurgency in Sinai has intensified. While many suggest the insurgency began as a reaction to the military’s removal of Mohammed Mursi in 2013, even recent history reminds us that the Sinai has been suffering from security problems since the beginning of February 2011. More than a dozen soldiers lost their lives in August 2012, for example – and transparency over what happened was never forthcoming.

But this is Egypt in a “war on terror.” In a war on terror, asking questions of the state is inadvisable. Asking questions means, perhaps, doubting its efficacy and worse, looking for ways to weaken it. At least that is the message that 17 different private and public media outlets gave yesterday, when they declared they would stop publishing “statements undermining state institutions” in the aftermath of the attacks in Sinai. It is also the message given to even staunch supporters of the Egyptian authorities in the media, such as Mahmoud Saad and Wael al-Ibrashy, who might offer criticisms of different state institutions, and have their shows reportedly suspended, albeit temporarily, as a result.

Where does that leave Egyptians in the midst of this militant insurgency in Sinai and a vocal minority expressing different types of dissent in the rest of the country? That’s yet to be seen. At the moment, popular support for the country’s authorities, in general, is high. Some 70 percent of the population expressed confidence in the prime minister’s government in the last reliable polling figures. The remainder is split between proponents of a return of a Mursi presidency and non-Islamist dissenters. With that kind of support, the “war on terror” narrative can go far beyond addressing genuine security considerations and turn all types of dissent into part of a broader attack on the integrity of the state.

Harsh sentence

Indeed, two days after the tragic killing in Sinai, a completely unrelated case reached its conclusion in Cairo. Twenty three young, peaceful campaigners against the controversial protest law, which has been criticized by a slew of political forces and human rights groups in Egypt and beyond, were sentenced to three years in jail for protesting against the protest law. One can only imagine the thinking behind such a harsh sentence – but indeed, why not?

In an Egypt where a “war on terror” means that dissent at large is so problematic that even the heads of prominent media outlets will withhold criticism of the state and its symbols, why shouldn’t protesters against a particular law expect to be served such ill-deserved desserts? Even when it is clear that among them are human rights campaigners that have stood for the human rights of all, regardless of political orientation?

Is there no consideration of the cost that Egypt bears when its young people, in trials such as these but also of many others, go through such ordeals? Does no-one seem to recognize that this country’s population is mostly young, and one day, indeed, they will inherit the reins of authority in this country? Are these the experiences that will mould good leaders – or simply bitter ones?

No one should call upon Egypt to not take seriously the threats it faces from such forces – they are real, and they must be combated. The deaths of the soldiers are a tragedy, and the perpetrators of the killings ought to be brought to justice as should any unjust taking of life that has transpired. But as noted so many times before, in different countries at different times in recent history – waging a “war on terror” seldom assists in minimizing militancy from radical extremists. Indeed, more often than not, it tends to be wholly counterproductive, and leaves yet more problems for succeeding generations to deal with.

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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.