In August, a gruesome photograph purportedly of the body of Croatian Tomislav Salopek was released on Twitter. Salopek had been working for a French geophysics company when he was kidnapped in broad daylight on the outskirts of Cairo by a militant group affiliated with the terrorist group known as ISIS, Daesh or, though I do not consider this term accurate or appropriate, the Islamic State. While the world has seen Europeans and Americans beheaded by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, this was the first time such an act was witnessed in Egypt. The terror group has expanded into a country where hundreds of thousands of Westerners holiday and do business each year.
This is just one of a litany of terrorist threats that have emerged recently in Egypt. ISIS also claimed responsibility for an August bombing in the heart of Cairo, part of a campaign against Egypt’s security services and infrastructure. Since June, militants have been active in numerous other ways; they have assassinated Egypt’s general prosecutor, tried to occupy a town in the Sinai and even fired a missile at an Egyptian naval vessel. Now ISIS claims to have downed a Russian passenger jet shortly after takeoff from Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai; while the cause of the crash is still unknown, British and U.S. officials have said that their intelligence suggests a bomb was detonated on board, and Western carriers have suspended flights to the resort city because of obvious concerns about breaks in the security system.
It should trouble the world that Egypt is becoming a front line in the war against ISIS. After the 2013 military coup led by Abdel Fatah al-Sissi that ousted Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, the West rallied around the new regime. The theory was that the democratic aspirations of Egypt could be temporarily put on hold; without a “stable” Egypt, led by a secular strongman, a vital anchor in the Middle East would be lost to the encroaching swarm of extremism from Syria and Iraq. In recent months, those hopes have been dashed.
What has gone wrong? Despite multibillion-dollar arms deals and diplomatic support from his Western partners, Sissi has overseen a dramatic deterioration in security. And this deterioration has followed increasingly brutal reprisals and death sentences not just against alleged insurgents but anyone who can be cast as opposing the regime, including peaceful protesters, civil society and journalists.
The two-year anniversary last summer of the massacre at Rabaa square in Cairo was a reminder of this. More than 1,000 unarmed protesters were murdered in what Human Rights Watch called a premeditated crime against humanity. Match this with the bulldozing of entire communities in the Sinai — another potential international crime — and more than 40,000 political prisoners languishing in jail, including many who are aligned with mainstream Islamism, as well as liberals and leftists, and the character of the autocratic state being molded under Sissi becomes clear. New legislation threatens journalists with reprisals for simply reporting on terrorism and related matters, including state-led operations such as the one that produced the horrors of Rabaa. All this has been reflected in the extremely low turnout in the latest parliamentary elections, particularly among youths. The loss of hope in a democratic and peaceful reform could, unfortunately, lead more young people to adopt a more violent approach to change.
A quick glance at the history of the region shows the degree to which Sissi, and his supporters in the West, are playing with fire. In Iraq, then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki turned counterterrorism laws against opposition Sunnis, imprisoning peaceful protesters as security forces and unruly militias brutalized the Sunni population. There can be little doubt that this program of repression turned a portion of that community away from the new Iraq and toward ISIS.
Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has perfectly encapsulated Sissi’s counterproductive mission: “The Egyptian government fails the first test of counter-terrorism, which requires correctly identifying who the actual terrorists are.”
The thought of ISIS sweeping into the Arab world’s most populous nation should cause grave concern in the international community. If Egypt is to step back from the brink, it surely must start by allowing millions of opposition supporters to come out of the shadows. The Islamists’ historic connection with swaths of Egyptian society cannot be simply erased. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party lost the most recent election and stepped aside peacefully. Despite the repeated terrorist atrocities that Tunisia has suffered, the West maintains its unwavering support for the Tunisians’ imperfect democratic project. What is so different about Egypt?
The United States needs to reconsider its consistently shortsighted policy toward Egypt. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Western leaders have repeated a mantra that apparently runs to the core of the liberal democracy they so espoused during the Arab Spring: that the path to countering terror and extremism lies not in matching them with repression but rather through extolling the virtues of justice, fairness and democracy. But in Egypt, that philosophy has been completely disregarded.
And what a tragic deception it has been. The rapid deterioration in Egypt’s security has far-reaching international implications. But the cost to ordinary Egyptians is far greater.
Amr Darrag was planning and international cooperation minister in the cabinet of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. He serves as the head of the political bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party while living in exile in Turkey.