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Thursday, 26 April 2018

The challenge of deradicalisation

Egypt needs a comprehensive deradicalisation strategy to counter the spread of extremist ideas

Ziad A Akl , Thursday 15 Mar 2018
Operation Sinai 2018
Egyptian Army during "Operation Sinai 2018' (Photo: Egypt's army spokesperson Facebook page)
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Egypt has been at war against terrorism since 26 July 2013 when then defence minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi asked for popular authorisation to continue this fight. Needless to say, he received authorisation from the population, and he has been engaged in the fight ever since.

However, the fight against terrorism in itself is not new, even if the terrorist challenges the country faces today are largely unprecedented.

The threat of terrorism remains similar to what it was in the 1980s and 1990s in terms of the aims of the terrorists despite the changes in their tactics and operational capacities.

Yet, a crucial point that is sometimes forgotten is the fact that terrorism is a manifestation of a more profound societal problem: radicalisation.

This radicalisation, specifically Islamist radicalisation, has been all too familiar for years, and organised Political Islam in Egypt has long shown a tendency for both radicalisation and violence.

It has worked on the fault lines of Egyptian society, creating an anti-state discourse that is false in its content but influential in its reach.

The result of this discourse has been an Islamist current that breeds discrimination, notable during the year the Muslim Brotherhood spent in office in Egypt when the group placed itself above every other component of society.

The state is now facing threats from terrorist organisations in Sinai.

In order to counter these, the government has launched a “Comprehensive Operation” in the peninsula that brings together for the first time the efforts of all the security institutions for the common purpose of combating terrorism.

The operation has been successful in delivering positive results, but what it cannot do is counter potential rather than actual terrorism.

While terrorism is a clearly manifested security threat, radicalisation is more subtle. As a result, there must be a clear distinction between strategies designed to counter terrorism and those required to counter radicalisation.

Among the incubators of radicalisation are prisons.

Terrorists who are arrested and sentenced to prison terms may try to use the time they spend behind bars to radicalise new victims and to attract new members to their organisations.

Countering radicalisation in prisons and creating a suitable environment for radicalised prisoners to revise their views has been tested successfully in several countries, including in Egypt.

Prison-based deradicalisation programmes have been successfully piloted in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Singapore, Iraq and Pakistan. Egypt also had a very successful experience of what was called the “revision” of radical Islamist prisoners in the 1990s.

Similar deradicalisation programmes need to be developed today, and the Ministry of Interior needs to be more aware of the degree of radicalisation taking place inside prisons.

Prisoners doing time for their involvement in terrorist attacks must be segregated from those doing time for minor offences or for affiliation with terrorist organisations.

Despite the importance of countering radicalisation in prisons, detention centres and jails are not the only places where radicalisation should be countered.

A deradicalisation discourse must be introduced into school curricula as well. Under the heading of “citizenship”, school students need to be introduced at a young age to concepts like diversity, equality, coexistence and nationhood.

If Egypt manages to institutionally instill such a deradicalisation discourse in its school system, then positive outcomes should be tangibly realised.

In the search for appropriate deradicalisation strategies, Egypt must also adopt a more diverse, multi-sectoral approach to security.

While improved security is often enough to counter the threat of terrorism, a human-security approach may be more effective in countering radicalisation.

Security measures, inclusion strategies, and development policies all need to be combined to bring about a cumulative human-security approach to countering radicalisation.

The Muslim Brotherhood in particular has promoted violent radicalisation, either in ideology or in practice. Such ideas need to addressed independently from the criminalisation of the Brotherhood as an organisation.

There is a difference between banning the radical activities of the Brotherhood as an organisation and countering its negative influence on society in terms of radicalisation.

Egypt’s fight against terrorism will not be concluded overnight, and the state’s long-term counter-terrorism strategy must address the root cause of the problem, which is radicalisation.

Comparative experiences have shown that countering radicalisation requires the involvement of, and the coordination between, multiple state institutions.

The present Comprehensive Operation in Sinai is doing just that, but only in a way that involves hard security.

The subtle security challenge that Egypt is facing now is how to design a similar comprehensive operation to counter potential terrorism and stand up against processes of radicalisation.

The writer is a senior researcher at the Egyptian Studies Unit of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly      

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