Egypt and France forged a clearer vision on how to set aside narrow foreign policy calculations in the interest of pursuing a firm and unwavering fight against extremism and terrorism that have afflicted both countries fiercely in recent years. During President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to Paris last week, he and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron fleshed out an approach that focuses on the Muslim Brotherhood, the original and ongoing breeder of Islamist extremist thought and groups. The meeting marked the first face-to-face convergence of views between leaders from the East and West on the need to work together to confront the mother organisation of all other Islamist terrorist organisations that have arisen during the past 50 years.
In an interview with Le Figaro during his visit, President Al-Sisi said: “It was not for nothing that the Muslim Brotherhood was designated a terrorist organisation in Egypt and in many other countries in the region.” He explained that the Muslim Brotherhood’s infiltration into social work networks, the way their charity operations interwove with the terrorist groups they controlled, and the way they sought to undermine political and governmental circles and institutions posed an existential threat to the state wherever they may be. “They hide behind religion to justify their totalitarian outlooks,” Al-Sisi told the French newspaper, adding: “Egypt, like France, has paid an extremely heavy toll due to terrorism. Countless civilians, both Muslim and Copt, members of the Armed Forces and the police, and members of the judiciary have fallen victim to brutal acts of terrorism… We have cautioned unceasingly against this lethal ideology that knows no boundaries and we have continually called for international coordination in the fight against terrorism.”
Egypt has expressed its understanding and support for the measures France has taken against extremist groups. The country is currently considering landmark legislation known as the “Anti-Islamist Separatism” bill to lay the legal foundations for a comprehensive campaign to root out the threats that religious fundamentalism poses to freedom. The bill seeks to tighten control on a range of activities, from home schooling to foreign funding for houses of worship and the operations of religious organisations and associations. If passed, it will also clamp down on extremist discourse and hate speech over the Internet and on social networking sites and protect women and girls from certain practices inimical to their rights and freedoms under French law.
Such actions are consistent with Egyptian policy that broadened its clampdown on fundamentalist and radical groups and organisations after the disastrous year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, which exposed as never before that organisation’s designs to monopolise the government and alter the identity of Egyptian society and the state. That experience galvanised millions of Egyptians to march against the organisation in 2013. Following its fall from power, the Muslim Brotherhood began to espouse violence overtly and incite other groups to attack the military and police. Before long, the terrorist wave it instigated targeted innocent civilians as well. The battle against the Muslim Brotherhood and its subsidiaries continues, in large measure because of the support they receive from a certain regional power that utilises religion and Islamist groups to attain its aims at home and abroad.
The Egyptian-French collaboration should serve as an excellent starting point for broader cooperation between Arab and Western societies, which is needed in order to unmask Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and compel certain governments to cease their sponsorship for such organisations and their plans to use democratic processes to come to power and then hijack the government to impose theocratic rule.
Some Western governments continue to offer refuge to Muslim Brotherhood operatives despite ample proof of the dangers this organisation poses by encouraging Muslim communities to separate themselves from their larger social environment and compelling them to conform to laws that conflict with democratic and liberal values. The lead France is taking in its legislation should have a positive impact on the way that other societies in the West approach what Al-Sisi aptly termed “lethal ideologies”.
The Franco-Egyptian meeting of minds on this matter is an unequivocal denial of the notion of a “clash” between Islam and the West. Indeed, it is proof of shared values, expressed here by their recognition of a common enemy that threatens the spirit of coexistence, mutual tolerance and other humanitarian values by inciting hatred, spreading fanaticism and promoting clashes between Islam and other faiths and cultures. Egypt has long advocated this outlook in the course of its drive to work with countries in the West to curtail extremist groups and safeguard the civil state from its enemies, whether in the Arab world or elsewhere.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly