The US-hosted Conference on Countering Violent Extremism that brought together the representatives of 60 nations in Washington last week did not go as Egypt’s representatives had expected.
Fresh from waging air strikes in Libya to punish Islamic State (IS) forces for slaughtering 20 Egyptian Copts, the country had been hoping for an international alliance to act on Libya. At the very least, they expected that the international coalition operating in Syria and Iraq would include Libya on its agenda, but this was not announced at the conference.
The conference did not give birth to a global strategy on terror and served instead to underline differences between various points of view, especially those of Cairo and Washington.
According to Alaa Ezzeddin, director of the Strategic Studies Centre, an affiliate of the Egyptian military, Egypt has made it clear to other nations that it will strike at reservoirs of terrorism whether these are inside or outside the country.
Speaking at the last week’s conference, US Secretary of State John Kerry told participants that the West “is not in a war against Islam” and that terrorist groups do not act in the name of the world’s one billion Muslims.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that Muslims are more often than not the victims of extremism. The Jordanian foreign minister told the conference that the current confrontation with terrorist groups should be viewed as “World War Three.”
Saudi Arabia called for drying up the sources of terror through concerted global action. The UAE called for partnership with the US to confront the IS propaganda war.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said that the terrorism seen today has its roots in the Islamist radicalism of the 1920s, a possible reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was formed in this period.
Egypt’s ambassador to Washington, Mohamed Tawfik explained Egypt’s point of view and voiced the hope that the international coalition against IS would pay more attention to the situation in Libya.
Gamal Abdel-Gawad, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo who followed the conference, sees a clear divergence in views between Egypt and the US.
“The US still sees political Islam as a present and legitimate player, not a synonym for extremism,” Abdel-Gawad said. “The US administration also differentiates between extremist Islamists and moderate Islamists and believes that the moderates can be effectively integrated in politics as part of an acceptable political system.”
According to Abdel-Gawad, “US officials believe that the integration of political Islam currents, including those suspected of extremism, in political life would be beneficial.”
Egypt, whose government has labelled the Muslim Brotherhood a terror group, disagrees.
Countries in Europe are starting to appreciate the Egyptian point of view, Abdel-Gawad said. Even in the US, differences exist over the best way to deal with terror.
In a speech to the nation on Sunday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi reiterated the importance of Egyptian-US strategic ties. But the future of these ties depends on US perceptions of how the Egyptian government is acting on domestic issues, Abdel-Gawad said.
If Egypt can maintain stability and produce a political system of an inclusive nature, the Americans may come round to Cairo’s point of view.
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood is doing all it can to destabilise the country, in order to boost its argument that its exclusion from power is the reason for the instability.
Kamal Al-Helbawi, a former leader of the Brotherhood’s international organisation, believes the Americans are hedging their bets. Speaking to the Weekly, Al-Helbawi said the US position, stated in the national security document released a few weeks ago, calls for continued talks with both the government and opposition in Egypt.
“Washington is dealing with the government and the opposition at the same time, according to a strategy of keeping options open and seeking to manipulate the contradictions in the region,” Al-Helbawi said.
“The moderate Islamism Washington is talking about is the one it wishes to create, not the one it ascribes to the Brotherhood or other so-called moderates. This at the end of the day could lead to further turbulence in the region,” he added.
For now, Egypt’s best option is to turn to its Arab partners for help. Its diplomats will try either to dust off the Arab Joint Defence Agreement, or form a coalition with other nations such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Jordan, Ezzeddin said.
Abdel-Khaleq Al-Abdallah, a political adviser to the Abu Dhabi heir apparent, believes that Egypt will put together an Arab alliance to deal with terrorism. “After all, this issue is of more concern to the Arabs than any other people,” he said.
Along with the military response Egypt has shown itself capable of, Cairo is also pursuing diplomatic efforts. It is talking to Russian diplomats in Syria about a possible political deal, and engaging Libyan civil currents in talks to explore a possible end to the turmoil across its western borders.
With or without help from the West, Cairo has a strategy on terror, various regional allies and a multi-faceted plan of action.
*This article wa first published in Ahram Weekly