Experience in other contexts shows that highly authoritarian approaches to ‘terror’ threats tend to have significant negative impacts on conflict dynamics for several reasons. First, when constructive channels to push for political change are shut down, this can push dissenters towards violent tactics. Second, dissidents can feel impelled to join violent groups in order to protect themselves from torture, arbitrary arrest and extra-judicial killings. And third, the deep anger generated by repressive responses tend to feed support for armed rebellion where options for pursuing it exist.
While it may seem logical to expect a government to change an authoritarian and abusive CT strategy if it proves counter-productive, in many contexts perverse incentives come into play. ‘Terrorists’ become ‘useful enemies’ – providing a strong pretext for crackdowns on political opponents, deflecting international criticism and securing international support.
In Egypt’s case, as Peter Oborne has argued:
“Western governments, especially Britain’s, have sent a fatal message to the Egyptian people. They will be allowed democracy only if they choose governments of which the West approves. That message is a terrible gift to Islamic State as it seeks to recruit the millions of disillusioned supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood”.
In backing Sisi, international actors are once again playing a dangerous game of short-term expediency. The willingness to put energy interests and profits from arms sales ahead of human rights and justice risks undermining both human and international security – and therefore represents a clear failure of judgment and leadership. While it is true that Western countries need to cooperate with Egypt over Libya, Israel and Palestine, the risk is that Egypt feels incentivised to maintain a bargaining chip in Libya by undermining Western interests rather than playing a constructive role.
In fact, Egypt has much to lose from any cooling in relations with the West (in terms of investment, trade, arms and political legitimacy). The question for Western partners should thus be how to recalibrate the partnership with Egypt to put in place real incentives and support for a changed approach that can address the deep political grievances and polarisation that have arisen from the bitter struggle for the state and abusive CT efforts.
True friends do not take blood money from a country that is in the process of brutalising its citizens towards new levels of instability. If the status quo persists, the situation could easily degenerate into a deeper crisis, with disastrous consequences across an already convulsive MENA region. Elements of the recalibration that is required include:
Providing fewer arms and less military assistance
For the EU, this means adherence to its existing laws. Similarly, the US needs to consider the impacts of its military assistance and training on Egyptian democracy.
Pushing for political inclusion and human rights
It is vital to develop a collective strategy for encouraging Egypt to recognise historic lessons about the important role of political inclusion and human rights in achieving peace and stability.
To make progress, authorities need to end the crackdown on opposition actors, and instead pursue dialogue, trust and reconciliation to enable those who are willing to renounce violent methods to find meaningful channels for constructive engagement with Egypt’s future.
International actors need to be creative, flexible and robust in maintaining at all costs support for free speech, independent reporting, legal representation and other key pillars of political inclusion and accountability in Egypt. This should mean focusing diplomatic attention on the situation in Egypt and pressing for accountability for human rights abuses, both at international level and through assiduous solidarity with civil society and other change agents inside the country.
As part of the push for progress in Egypt, it will also be important for Western actors to persuade other regional players – applying pressure where needed – to end their unconditional support for Egyptian authoritarianism and promote political reconciliation between the regime and the MB, pointing out the dangers for regional stability if the status quo is maintained.
Promote a different security and justice approach
Egyptian authorities also need to recognise the dangers of overly militarised and indiscriminately violent approaches to CT, and consequently pursue a new approach to security and justice provision. Although violent groups pose a genuine threat that does need to be dealt with, in part by the criminal justice system, Egypt urgently needs to tackle human rights abuses within its security and justice apparatus. Priorities for reform should include a clampdown on military tactics that indiscriminately target or harm civilians, especially in North Sinai. By changing tactics, Egypt can expect to see a tangible decline in those joining violent groups and perpetrating attacks because of resentment of state abuses.
64. See: Keen D, Attree L (2015) ‘Dilemmas of counter-terror, stabilisation and state-building’, Saferworld
65. See: Keen D (2012), Useful Enemies, (Yale University Press)