Suddenly, everyone is acting like “terrorism” is new. Western media has made a colossal beast out of “ISIL” (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), and drawn a bleak picture of the horrific danger that lies on the doorstep of Western societies due to it and similar counterparts. Arab media, on the other hand — mostly state-owned or financed by state-associated elites — has managed to develop a new repertoire for countering terrorism, one based on nationalistic sentiments, patriotic emotions and military valour.
Several Arab regimes found a gold mine of political legitimacy in countering terrorism, and consequently ensured that the media reflected that. It is true that the threat posed by organisations like ISIL cannot and should not be ignored. But it is also true that most of the efforts exerted in this regard at the moment are empowered by political manipulation and instantaneous narrow interests.
Egypt, in particular, is an interesting case when it comes to using the task of “countering terrorism” as a political tool. Unfortunately, Egypt is a country that has long experience with terrorism, specifically that committed in the name of Islam. During the 1990s, Egypt witnessed a series of terrorism acts that took the lives of many. The state’s answer to this threat was unprecedented powers given to all security institutions. The security sector was given a ceiling high enough to practice all manner of violations. The influence of the different security institutions expanded, whether in society or within the power centres of the regime. Mubarak and his security sector saw the problem to be one of violent confrontation, which is a part of the problem, no doubt, but not the only one.
Mubarak’s regime succeeded in toning down the wave of terrorism that struck the 90s, but the result was a security-manipulated regime and a heavily infiltrated society.
The Mubarak regime dealt with the symptoms of terrorism but never attempted to cure the original disease. It was only a matter of time before new radical organisations emerged and new acts of terrorism took place. It was extremely obvious that violent confrontation is one dimension of a problem that is undoubtedly multi-dimensional. This is the lesson you learn after reviewing Egypt’s experience in the 1990s in countering terrorism; that no matter how much room you give your security institutions, and how much violations you commit in the name of national security, if you do not deal with the roots of terrorism it will only be an endless circle of violence. For some reason, the El-Sisi administration seems not to have learned this lesson.
Since the summer of 2013, post 30 June, the regime is at war with terrorism. Since that date all necessary measures have been taken so that the security sector is aided in its fight against terrorism. Laws were passed, TV channels were shut down, political parties were dissolved, opposition was muted, jailed or demonised, and collective political organisation was banned in all possible venues. But apparently all this is not sufficient to defeat terrorism, and until today we hear about acts of terrorism taking place in different cities. The army units fighting terrorists in Northern Sinai for a year now are not the answer to terrorism.
The problem is not an organisation like ISIL or “Ansar Beit El-Maqdis.” The problem is one of fanaticism in using an idea. Radicalisation is the core of the problem, and you cannot solve that simply by becoming more radical. The measures taken in the name of national security and for the purposes of countering terrorism will only breed more fanaticism. A tolerant society, one that rejects radicalisation, is not created through media discourse and political charisma, but rather is the product of inclusive institutions that allow public participation without discrimination.
Without an infrastructure of political and social institutions, it will be impossible to counter the threat posed by modern terrorism. It is no use to fight a war against radicalism without first allowing enough room for non-radical action to take place.
If we keep doing what we always did, we will keep getting what we always got. El-Sisi’s administration has to first fight its own radicalism before it can truly counter the various dimensions of terrorism.
The writer is senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.