Is Egypt’s President Creating More Terrorists Than He’s Stopping?

As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.”

A protest against the detention of Ahmed Ramadan, a photojournalist with an Egyptian newspaper in Cairo (Amr Dalsh / Reuters)

There are very few people nowadays ignoring the growing repression in Egypt. Most recently, a new “counterterrorism” law was imposed this week—but it snuffs out free speech more than terror. Even the State Department denounced the law: “We are concerned that some measures in Egypt’s new antiterrorism law could have a significant detrimental impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms,” its spokesman said. The new law punishes as a crime the publication of information that differs with the official version of facts about terrorism, which means you agree with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi or you go to jail.

But Sisi maintains a reputation as a man fighting terrorism, whom the U.S. should be backing despite his flaws and errors. The problem with this analysis—perhaps better described as a sentiment—is that Sisi’s approach may be incubating terror, not stopping it. Or it may be doing both things.

The link between repression and terror is not a new idea. A 2003 review of terrorism globally by Alan Krueger of Princeton and Jitka Maleckova of Charles University in Prague found that:

Apart from population—larger countries tend to have more terrorists—the only variable that was consistently associated with the number of terrorists was the Freedom House index of political rights and civil liberties. Countries with more freedom were less likely to be the birthplace of international terrorists. Poverty and literacy were unrelated to the number of terrorists from a country. ... Instead of viewing terrorism as a response—either direct or indirect—to poverty or ignorance, we suggest that it is more accurately viewed as a response to political conditions and longstanding feelings of indignity and frustration that have little to do with economic circumstances.

There is a new interview with Ahmed Maher that reminds us of these points. Maher was a protest leader in Egypt’s rebellion against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak—but not a radical and not part of the Muslim Brotherhood. He founded the April 6 Youth Movement, which The Democracy Report advocated democracy in Egypt. He has now been in prison for 20 months, most of the time in solitary confinement. Maher notes that there are thousands of young Egyptians serving time for political crimes in prison, mixing Brotherhood activists, jihadists, and peaceful protesters who are being radicalized. As has so frequently happened in Egypt, the prisons are an incubator of radicalism and terror. Here are some excerpts from his remarks:

The current regime, structured as it is around the military and security apparatus, is cutting all ties with youth and treating them with hostility. The current regime is under the control of a number of Mubarak’s cronies who want revenge against young people and especially anyone who had a prominent role in the 25 January 2011 revolution—even though most of these youth also rose up against Mohammed Morsi in 30 June 2013, and I was among them.

Of course there are things that maybe I would decide to do differently if I knew the outcome. For example, I think that trusting the military and the Muslim Brotherhood was naïve, because each of them have a plan and their own interests. They each tricked us and broke all their promises. Each of them are authoritarian and think that they have the absolute truth.

Despite the extreme isolation imposed on me, sometimes I am able to speak with some members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In general, they refuse to recognize that they made any mistakes while in power. They are saying that the protests of 30 June 2013 were not due to popular outrage but to a Western Crusader conspiracy against Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood. They are still in denial about what happened. On the whole, I don’t think that there is serious reflection or any flexibility among the Brotherhood. This means that the solution is still far off. How can there be a solution without serious reflection—not just about their practices while in power, but also a reconsideration of the theory itself? This is what they refuse to do. They claim that they did not make mistakes but rather that the world conspired against them.

Prison has really become a breeding ground for extremists. It has become a school for crime and terrorism, since there are hundreds of young men piled on top of each other in narrow confines, jihadists next to Muslim Brotherhood members next to revolutionaries next to sympathizers. There are also a large number of young people who were also arrested by mistake and who don’t belong to any school of thought.

Everyone is suffering oppression and punishment inside the prisons. Everyone is accused of being either a terrorist or a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is turning the people arrested by mistake who don’t belong to any movement into jihadists. Moreover, Muslim Brotherhood members are gradually becoming radicalized, since they suffer from inhumane treatment in the prisons. The authorities treat the prisoners like slaves, and this inspires a thirst for revenge, not to mention the undignified treatment that the families face when they visit.

ISIS has exploited the situation. The Arab uprisings are not the cause, but rather the bloody authoritarian regimes that resisted change and resisted democracy, true justice, and concepts of tolerance, co-existence and freedom. This is what gave rise to ISIS and continues to drive it.

ISIS found fertile ground because of Bashar al-Assad’s brutality in Syria, Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarianism in Iraq, Iran’s ambitions in the region, and the oppression and authoritarianism that people are suffering from. So long as authoritarianism and sectarianism exist, you will find extremism as a response.

Extremism found a foothold in Egypt because of Sisi’s brutality and authoritarianism. The more the oppression and authoritarianism increased and the more freedom and democracy vanished, the more justifications ISIS and al-Qaeda have. ISIS is saying that your regimes are corrupt, unjust failures and we’re the alternative. This is a disaster, because injustice generates extremism. For this reason, neither the coalition’s strikes nor Sisi’s raids will stop ISIS. Defeating ISIS requires freedom, democracy, justice, and a culture of tolerance, co-existence, and acceptance of the other.

Maher offers a reminder about past U.S. policy: “U.S. support for Mubarak over 30 years did not stop the spread of radicalism or lead to stability.” Of course, that remark is a reminder of the famous statement President George W. Bush made in his 2003 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy: “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe—because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.”

Maher’s suggested alternative to support for Sisi: “Support for civil, democratic values is the solution. Support for democratic transformation is what will stop the spread of radicalism and jihadism and not the reverse. If authoritarianism and tyranny continue, it will lead to the spread of ISIS’s ideology as an alternative or a reaction.” Repression by Sisi, like repression by Mubarak, is not the antidote to radicalism, jihadists, and terror.

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