On Friday, Egyptians were startled to hear an announcement from a hitherto unknown terrorist group calling itself “Ansar al-Islam.” The group proudly claimed responsibility for a devastating attack on security forces that took place two weeks ago in the desert west of Cairo. Sixteen policemen were killed.
Although little was known about the group that committed the attack or the actual number of Egyptian lives lost, one detail was clear. The Egyptian government had suffered an embarrassing defeat.
The attack was followed by an equally unprecedented reshuffle at the top of the security forces. Last weekend came the sacking of Mahmoud Hegazy, the armed forces chief of staff. The move was part of a drastic overhaul of the security apparatus leadership that including the firing of 11 people, most notably the heads of the National Security Agency and the Central Security Forces Special Operations unit. These officials were in charge of the Interior Ministry departments whose members had fallen victim to the terrorist attack in the Western Desert.
Just like his predecessors, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has sought to address the symptoms of terrorism rather than its causes. Scorched-earth tactics, such as the creation of buffer zones, the imposition of emergency law and curfews, and human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings and torture have allowed the government to exploit the so-called war on terrorism in the interest of cracking down on dissent. This, in turn, merely fuels extremist violence in the long term.
After the horrific Palm Sunday attacks on two Coptic Churches in Alexandria and Tanta in Egypt in April, Sissi declared a state of emergency throughout the country. The recently renewed emergency law gives the government the ability to take measures against terrorism suspects without permission from a prosecutor and to censor the media in the interest of providing security during times of crisis. Even if one were to accept the government’s argument that such measures are necessary, this strategy has not been effective in fighting terrorism.
Since the state of emergency came into force, terrorism in Egypt has been on the rise. The death toll of security personnel and civilians has reached at least 36 and 32, respectively, in 19 terrorist attacks taking place across the country (excluding North Sinai). In North Sinai alone, where emergency law has been in effect since 2014, the death toll of security personnel and civilians in 2017 thus far has been at least 92 and 25, respectively, in more than 100 terrorist attacks. Egypt’s prisons, where about 60 percent of those jailed are political prisoners, have become an incubator for radicalization.
Meanwhile, the government is silencing any voices that attempt to question it. The current counterterrorism law muzzles the media, criminalizing its ability to report numbers that differ from the state’s and yielding an opacity that allows militants to control the security narrative.
Egypt’s fight against terrorism is floundering even as it receives billions of dollars in security assistance, cooperation and arms deals. The United States continues to provide $1.3 billion in Foreign Military Financing that Egypt is allocated annually. European partners have also bulked up their security support to and cooperation with Egypt since 2014, with the French inking several agreements valued at $2.26 billion in April 2016 that included fighter aircraft, navy vessels and a military satellite communications contract.
However, all this will amount to little in the quest to achieve and maintain security and stability so long as the government continues with its current approach. Most concerning is that this repressive security strategy has had a disproportionate effect on Egypt’s disenchanted youth. Many of them languish in prison, where they risk radicalization, while others are left with fewer and fewer paths to voice opposition, and little hope for a future in a country where youth unemployment continues to hover around 40 percent.
Although the unexpected sacking of top officials following the latest attack may appear on the surface as a step toward security-sector reform and accountability, in reality it is merely cosmetic. Retaliatory counterterrorism operations — such as the one announced by the armed forces a few days later that destroyed three armed vehicles in the Western Desert, killed a “large number” of terrorists and freed a hostage captured during the attacks — are also insufficient so long as they are devoid of real reform, which requires a fundamental review of the overall approach and practices of Egypt’s security sector. The government should follow the rule of law, end human rights violations and open channels for peaceful engagement with Egyptians. Egypt’s path to stability should not exclude all forms of opposition; rather, it is one that requires valuable criticism and reform to unite against terrorism, the common enemy of the overwhelming majority of Egyptians.
Nancy Okail is executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
Amr Kotb is advocacy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.