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Saturday, 25 November 2017

To Human Rights First, it’s “Peaceful dissent”!

In light of the Riyadh Arab-Islamic-American Summit, we need to go back and visit an earlier article that appeared as President El-Sisi was about to meet President Trump in a formal visit to Washington in April, 2017

Azza Radwan Sedky , Thursday 1 Jun 2017
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Human Rights First article, “Sisi’s Egypt is a Poor Partner for the United States in the Fight Against Terrorism,” warned President Trump against mending ties with Egypt, concluding that “Hosting Egypt’s repressive president sends the wrong message to the world on how to overcome the scourge of violent extremism and terrorism,” reckoning  El-Sisi and “violent extremism and terrorism” are somehow connected if not synonymous.

So, enough is enough; it is time to take Human Rights to task. The sweeping statements; the arrogant, know-it-all approach; and, more importantly, the incorrigible inaccuracies, call for a rebuttal.

The article starts off saying the Egyptian government has “portrayed El-Sisi as a religious moderate playing a leading role in the fight against violent extremism,” which is, in my books, perfectly true even if “portrayed” implies the opposite.

Indeed, El-Sisi is a moderate Muslim. He doesn’t exemplify the stringently conservative notions but adheres to the Muslim altruistic traits: benevolence, humbleness, and compassion, while fighting violent extremism by, first, promoting religious reform and, second, by confronting terrorism.

At the Summit in Riyadh, President El-Sisi reiterated these principles. His succinct, four-point strategy underscored confronting all terrorist organisations without discrimination; addressing all related facetsincluding funding, arming, and political and ideological support; terminating the terrorist organisations ability to recruit new fighters through ideological and intellectual reform; and tackling the instability in national state institutions in the Arab region, which is a prerequisite for terrorist organisations’ growth.

Let’s go back to Human Rights’ article. “Since taking power by military coup from the elected, Muslim Brotherhood-backed, government of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, Sisi has pursued policies that have fueled the grievances exploited by violent extremists.”

All rhetoric— “military coup” and “the elected … Morsi’—aside, the writer believes that President El-Sisi’s policies create extremists, as though extremism did not exist on New Year’s Eve of 2011 when a bomb in an Alexandria church killed 21 churchgoers or in ’97 when 70 were massacred in a Luxor Temple. The examples, prior to Sisi, are endless.

For a brief period, Egypt had become a malleable pawn in the hands of Islamists, and when Egyptians reversed the course, terrorism escalated further. El Sisi had no other alternative but to go after the culprits.

Besides, terrorism escalated all around the world, too, with affected countries immediately upping security and enhancing surveillance.

After the many explosions in Paris, France declared a three-month state of emergency, struck ISIS targets way inside Syria, and closed borders. It conducted warrantless searches and indiscriminate, intrusive surveillance tactics.

This while Belgium deployed more than 1,800 soldiers, carried several hundred raids, detentions, stops, and searches as Human Rights itself mentioned.

And yet such measures were never considered repressive, suppressive, destructive, dictatorial, counterproductive, brutal, or non pluralistic, as this article suggests Sisi’s rule is. 

In a convoluted and verbose thought, the writer adds, “His repressive policies have denied space to independent mainstream religious voices, who could credibly challenge and rebut extremist ideologues, while co-opting religious leaders to validate his dictatorial rule, thereby undermining their independence and credibility in the fight against extremist ideologies.”

Unless the writer implies the Muslim Brotherhood organisation is a “mainstream religious voice” which would be misleading, “Independent mainstream religious voices” have not been denied space. Quite the contrary, many a time El-Sisi has been critical of Al-Azhar, the real mainstream voice, but he has never instituted change. He left it to Al-Azhar to change from within; it has yet to comply.

The article goes on. “Sisi’s Egypt has received tens of billions of dollars of support from absolute monarchies in the Gulf, anxious to ensure that the popular demands for more representative government and human dignity, heard during the short-lived Arab Spring of 2011, should not take root in the Arab World.”

Yes, Gulf States supported June 30th and the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood president, fearing the Arab Spring consequences inflicted on Syria, Libya, and Yemen. The Gulf States also realised that Egypt is pivotal in the fight against terrorism and must remain strong.

Egypt’s dominant role was visible at the Summit even further. Earlier, President Trump called the Egyptian president to say he was looking forward to meeting him in Riyadh and vowing further “robust strategic relations.” Then President El-Sisi was favoured to launch the new Global Centre for combating extremist ideology together with King Salman and President Trump. 

The article goes further. Sisi’s government “perpetuated anti-Christian sectarianism and intolerance of religious diversity,” is utterly flawed. It also “failed to protect Christians.” If anything such statements fuel rage and provoke uncalled-for reactionary measures, or maybe that is exactly what Human Rights wants to instil.   

Of all Egyptian leaders, El Sisi is the most respectful of other religions and other peoples in general. During his visits to the Coptic Cathedral, El Sisi identifies all Egyptians as one entity with no hyphenation, as in Egyptian-Copt or Egyptian-Muslim. In fact, during Muslim and Christian festivities, as well as crises, the president congratulates and consoles all Egyptians with no reference to Muslims or Christians.  As for being unable to “protect Christians,” I don’t believe that any country is able to fully protect its citizens against terrorism. Egypt tries though; churches are the most guarded of all buildings and institutions in Egypt, intensely barricaded with roadblocks, barbed wire, and heightened security especially during festivities.

Besides, Egypt will continue to protect its Christians by going after violent extremists, and if, according to the writer, this provokes grievances, so be it.

The writer goes on to say, “There can be no credible reform while religious institutions operate within the framework of rigid state restrictions.” I’d rather see Al-Azhar reform its books and doctrines, improve its sermons, and train its sheikhs than have it continue to dwell on issues that are exploited negatively. I’d call these changes improvements not “rigid state restrictions.”

And at the Summit, President El-Sisi reiterated these notions. In his speech, he mentioned his initiative to renew the religious discourse that would lead to a comprehensive cultural revolution and illustrate the true essence of tolerant Islam.

But the most convoluted message of all lies here: “The government suppresses peaceful dissent and stifles pluralism.”

The writer is unaware that what exists in Egypt today is brazen terrorism. Hundreds of army officers and conscripts died; judges, police officers, helpless laypersons, and, of course, Copts were victimized. To consider such behaviour “peaceful dissent” is sheer nonsense.

The writer suggested President Trump challenge El-Sisi otherwise it would fuel resentment of the United States in Egypt and beyond. This is contrary to the truth; by offering strong support to President El-Sisi, President Trump smoothened out the wrinkles and resentments left by President Obama, and remedied the snub that continued for four years.

In fact, much to the chagrin of Human Rights, President Sisi was greeted warmly in Washington. Then, in Riyadh, it was clear that President Trump was fully aware of the role that Egypt has taken upon itself. He singled out Egypt for a forthcoming visit and praised President El-Sisi for focusing on the safety of Egyptians under trying conditions.

The upshot of the Riyadh Summits is proof that Human Rights message is defective and biased, a repetitive broken record.

The writer is an academic, political analyst, and author of Cairo Rewind: the First Two Years of Egypt's Revolution, 2011-2013.

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