Egypt's new anti-terrorism council to reform religious discourse and target political Islam: Sisi

Gamal Essam El-Din , Saturday 29 Jul 2017

El-Sisi at Youth Conference
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi during the fourth national youth conference held in Alexandria (Photo Courtesy of Presidency)

Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi issued a decree on 26 July officially establishing the National Council for Combating Terrorism and Extremism (NCCTE) as part of a long-term plan to combat radical Islamism.

El-Sisi's decree comes just one day after the Fourth National Youth Conference, which was held in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria on 24 and 25 July, focused on fighting terrorism and reinforcing the country's national security.

The idea of the council was first introduced in the aftermath of the 9 April suicide bomb attacks on churches in the two cities of Tanta and Alexandria, which left 45 dead and more than 100 injured.

In an interview with the editors-in-chief of three national newspapers, El-Sisi said that the "new council will be created to take charge of reforming religious discourse and fighting extremist ideas in a systematic way, as well as drying up the sources of the terrorists' funding."

El-Sisi said the war against terrorism must include an intellectual and cultural dimension to help correct distorted interpretations of Islam.

Presidential spokesman Alaa Youssef also told reporters last May that El-Sisi's decision to form the new council was motivated by more than just the 9 April bomb attacks.

"Since he came to office three years ago, President El-Sisi has been calling on the leading moderate Sunni Islam institution of Al-Azhar to play a cardinal role in reforming religious discourse," said Youssef.

However, political analysts have suggested that El-Sisi's decision to form the NCCTE came after he lost hope that Al-Azhar alone would be able to lead the necessary reforms of religious discourse.

Independent MP Mohamed Abu Hamed told Ahram Online that "when President El-Sisi called for a religious and cultural revolution two years ago, he thought Al-Azhar would be able to take the lead. Two years later, it is clear Al-Azhar alone cannot shoulder this responsibility."

Nabil Abdel-Fattah, a political and religious analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS), wrote in an article in Al-Ahram last May that he agrees that al-Azhar has not done enough to reform religious discourse.

Abdel-Fattah argued that "the deep-seated religious conservatism of Azharite clerics leaves them unable to reform religious discourse."

Abdel-Fattah also believes a major task facing the National Council for Combating Terrorism and Extremism should be to overhaul the religious curricula of Al-Azhar University, its associated institutes and schools.

"The existing curricula explain why the institution became prey to domination by the Muslim Brotherhood for a long time, not to mention that most of the violent attacks that have hit Egypt since 30 June 2013 – when the Muslim Brotherhood regime was removed from power – have been perpetrated by graduates of Al-Azhar University," said Abdel-Fattah.

Abu Hamed said he finished drafting a law to reform Al-Azhar earlier this year, but he has so far not been able to gain wide support among MPs for this legislation.

Kamal Amer, head of parliament's National Security and Defence Committee, told Ahram Online that the new council should primarily target political Islam movements – particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Political Islam movements are no different from radical or militant Islamist movements, and all should be ferociously fought," said Amer, arguing that "the Muslim Brotherhood is the movement that re-invented radical jihadist ideology and is responsible for the spread of this venomous ideology around the world."

Amer added that there had been hope that the council would be established by legislation in parliament rather than by presidential decree.

"But parliament still can translate this council's measures into binding legislation," said Amer.

Osama El-Azhari, the president's advisor on religious affairs and deputy head of parliament's religious affairs committee, told Al-Ahram newspaper on 28 July that "not only should the council develop an effective strategy against political Islam movements, but also lead a campaign in the West to warn against the spread of such movements."

"All should know that political Islam movements represent the first step towards radical and militant Islam," said Al-Azhari.

Abu Hamed said that "most of the leaders of terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda, the Islamic Jihad, Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, and Daesh were leading members of the world's leading political Islam movement; the Muslim Brotherhood."

Hafez Abu Saeda, head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), told Al-Ahram that the formation of the council comes at a very crucial moment.

"Some in the West believe that political Islam is a moderate force that does not have armed militias and which aims to challenge the autocracy of rulers in the Middle East," said Abu Saeda.

"The council should correct this belief, especially after Muslim Brotherhood regimes that reached power in Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey proved that they are highly autocratic and that this movement has underground armed militias such as Hasm in Egypt," Abu Saeda added.

Informed sources say the new council will be composed of different sub-committees, each entrusted with implementing a specific task.

"There will be a sub-committee charged with analysing political and radical Islamist ideology, another to gather information on Islamist terrorist organisations, one to protect minorities, and a fourth to develop security and cultural strategies to combat extremist ideas," a source said.

According to the presidential decree, issued on 26 July, the council will be chaired by the president and will include the parliament speaker, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the Coptic Orthodox pope, as well as a number of ministers, including the ministers of defence, military production, religious endowments, justice, interior, youth, social solidarity, telecommunications, education and higher education.

The council will also include the head of the general intelligence and the head of the administrative watchdog agency.

As many as 13 public figures will also be on the council, including former grand mufti Ali Gomaa, poet and writer Farouq Guweida, political analyst Abdel-Moneim Said, security expert Khaled Okasha, head of the State Information Service and Al-Ahram political analyst Diaa Rashwan, and actor Mohamed Sobhi.

The decree gives El-Sisi the right to name additional figures as members of the council.

El-Sisi said last May that the council will work in coordination with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and Al-Azhar.

"The three will coordinate together to defeat radicalism on all fronts, especially on the cultural level," said El-Sisi.

The council also seeks to coordinate Arab positions on terrorism-related issues, and to establish a regional inter-Arab entity to this end. 

"[The council] will also take necessary legal measures against nations that support terrorism against the Egyptian state," the decree says. 

The council will also suggest security plans and legal strategies and follow up on their implementation, and will hold a meeting every two months or whenever necessary, according to the decree. 

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