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What should be at the core of Egypt’s counter-terror strategy?

Italians ought to remember all too well that when an ultra-nationalist discourse gets mainstreamed, it’s bad news all around

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

Last week, the UK marked the 10th anniversary of the July 7 bombings in London. In a few more weeks, the U.S. will mark the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The attack that saw the “War on Terror” begin. Earlier this week, Cairo saw a massive explosion in the center of Egypt’s capital, directed at the Italian consulate, and claimed by ISIS afterwards. It won’t start a new “War on Terror” because Cairo’s establishment declared that in 2013. It seems some lessons are never learned.

I was at that same consulate some months back. The same complex houses an old Italian restaurant, where a lovely couple I knew were offering farewells to friends and colleagues as they set off on a new adventure on other shores. That’s a common occurrence in Cairo, nowadays – the days where Cairo was the exciting and attractive destination for foreign analysts and journalists are gone, at least for now.

In the aftermath of the calamitous attack in northern Sinai earlier this month, many public figures in the country were openly clamoring for a deepening of the “War on Terror” narrative

H.A. Hellyer

The day of the bombing itself reminded me precisely why that is the case. Of course, the security quotient that means a bomb of that magnitude can go off in downtown Cairo is hardly an appealing one for foreigners who want to visit and live in this historic city. Although, thankfully, the loss of life and limb was minimal – yes, we’ve sadly come to the point where we widely think one dead and around a dozen injured is supposedly “minimal” because, frankly, anyone who really analyses Egyptian affairs on a regular basis knows that it could have been far, far worse.

Dark comedic response

But beyond that security threat, which impacts upon all residents of Egypt, native and visitor alike, was exemplified by the dark comedic response that took place right after the attack. A number of foreign journalists descended to the scene, as journalists do, in order to investigate, cover and report – i.e., to do their jobs. Four of them were detained, and state TV reported them as having been detained as “suspects.” They were released some time later – but the very fact they were detained, and that a national television station would report them being detained as “suspects” is part and parcel of why so many foreign journalists feel they’re unwelcome in Cairo nowadays.

Certainly, the Egyptian state isn’t giving them many reasons to feel otherwise and there are new signs that foreign journalists are coming under even closer scrutiny. A Spanish journalist, for example, reported he’d received information from his country’s security services that he ought not to remain in Cairo, that he was at risk of being arrested. An Egyptian newspaper reported earlier this week that the government’s State Information Service recently created a new outfit called “Fact Check Egypt,” designed to check up on foreign journalists when they report, at least according to the SIS, inaccurate information.

Considering the large amounts of inaccuracy that is regularly reported from local and national media, one hopes that will be the bulk of the reportage this new group focuses on – but that seems a bit dubious. Of course, if the exodus of foreign reporters to other capitals in the region continues, “Fact Check Egypt” may be rather bored. As I think back to the farewell party I attended in the Italian restaurant on the consulate grounds those few moons ago, I wonder – how many more are going to happen in the weeks and months ahead in Cairo?

Not unique

Egypt isn’t unique in this regard, it ought to be noted. I was in England during the July 7 bombings, and I’ve worked in the U.S. with an establishment that was reacting to the 9/11 attacks. I’d like to think in the UK, we responded with more calm and composure than what happened in the U.S. But ten years later, in both countries, civil rights groups and human rights defenders seem convinced that the response to this type of militant and violent extremism could have been better and that there are lasting repercussions to our societies as a result.

After the July 7 bombings, I wrote in a letter to the Times that the successful upholding of fundamental rights would be a victory against those who sought to terrorize us into changing our way of life – and that to do otherwise would be to grant them a victory. In Egypt, many would argue that such a Rubicon has long been passed. A new raft of counter-terrorism legislation is in the works at the cabinet level in Cairo – but even without it, Egypt’s “War on Terror” has already tremendously changed the nature of life in the country. In the aftermath of the calamitous attack in northern Sinai earlier this month, many public figures in the country were openly clamoring for a deepening of the “War on Terror” narrative – rather than revert to a narrative where the Egyptian authorities fight militant extremism but safeguard all fundamental rights simultaneously.

Despite the international condemnation, and the denunciation of many rights organizations in the country of the state of Egypt’s judicial processes, these figures wanted reforms that would speed up the conclusion of trials, rather than reforms that would ensure and shore up their integrity. That’s not a recipe for a successful counter-terrorism strategy – it’s only a recipe for diminishing respect for the Egyptian judiciary, and breaking it utterly in the long-term.

The Italian foreign minister is in Cairo today. His prime minister has already said he stands with the Egyptian administration in its self-declared fight against terrorism. One hopes that Cairo’s allies recognize that any counter-terrorism strategy cannot treat fundamental rights as a nuisance but rather that it is a core part of any successful strategy. Italians ought to remember all too well that when an ultra-nationalist discourse gets mainstreamed, it’s bad news all around.

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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.