Countering radicalisation in Egypt

Ziad A Akl
Wednesday 20 Nov 2019

There are important differences between terrorism and radicalisation, as a recent study has revealed, writes Ziad Akl

Recently, we at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies finished a project about using the concepts of human security to counter radicalisation and violent extremism in Egyptian society. 

The project took three years of work and reached results on multiple levels. Since the final report is now out, a brief summary of three years of work by a team of researchers is perhaps necessary. Many studies have been done on terrorism in the Arab region, specifically on countries that have witnessed political tensions in recent years, like Syria, Libya, Iraq and Egypt. But what needs to be noticed is that there is a major difference between terrorism and radicalisation, and both should be handled with appropriate attention by research. 

At the start of the project, a differentiation between terrorism and radicalisation was supposed to be made, taking into consideration the Egyptian context. Sometimes, there is confusion between the two terms, and at other times they are described in the abstract without looking at the overall context of the case being studied with its various dimensions. One of the primary purposes of the project was to draw a distinction between these concepts in the Egyptian context. 

Terrorism can be described as the sum of actions and operations that aim to create public fear, inflict collective harm to the state and society, and create a feeling among citizens that there is not sufficient security to secure their daily lives. In today’s fourth-generation warfare, these are the main objectives of terrorism. Despite the fact that territorial terrorism, in which a group of terrorists takes control of a geographical area, has become widespread in the Arab world recently, Egypt has experienced the operational pattern of terrorism rather than the geographical one. A geographical pattern evolved in Sinai, but it was never able to materialise on the ground in the same manner that has happened in both Syria and Libya. 

Radicalisation is something quite different because it involves a multitude of factors within its internal context. It is difficult to come up with a definition of radicalisation, but it is easy to make a comparison between radicalisation and terrorism. Radicalisation is a multi-platform process in which different variables come together to create a tendency towards violence, both psychologically and operationally. The creation of this condition later on breeds terrorism, but the reasons and causes differ between the processes. Radicalisation is a process that works on changing a mentality towards more violent forms of action, but terrorism is a matter of logistical and organisational capacities. 

Attention was also directed towards those who had returned from involvement with the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, Libya or Iraq. A major question was posed about the reaction of the Egyptian state towards such returnees. The mere fact that such individuals are present on Egyptian soil, with their organisational experiences in IS and their operational background, could lead to a new wave of radicalisation. 

Hence, strategies need to be developed by the state in order to absorb those who return from IS experiences. The different divisions of IS across the region saw many Egyptians who could stir up a new pattern of violent extremism in case of their return. Here, and for the purpose of countering this potential danger, we need to consider the two dimensions of hard security and human security. 

Hard security is the best tool to counter territorial terrorism. The situation in Sinai, for example, is being faced by hard security as a main tool in countering it, due to the pattern of terrorism which has proved to be dominant there. Human security, on the other hand, needs to be applied to different parts of Egyptian society and implemented by diverse tools. 

Infrastructure investment, citizenship rights, political openness to the institutional system and elaborate programmes for the rehabilitation of returnees are crucial factors for countering violent extremism. No one can deny that hard security is required in times of political tension, but if a merger does not develop with other means of human security, the results will likely be sub-optimal.

The state has adopted various attempts to counter radicalisation, with the youth forums and the insistence on the demand for the renewal of religious discourse being among the most important of these. But concerns have been raised about the ability of the youth forums to induce change, as well as the insufficiency of the tools to renew religious discourse. Tools of human security are being introduced into the overall context, but they still lack the proper means of implementation. 

The project concluded that terrorist activities over the past three years have declined, but while the numbers are in favour of the course of action that has been adopted the strategies are not. Egypt is in need of a comprehensive counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation strategy. While there is a lot that is being done, better coordination between the different actions and policies is required. 

Countering terrorism and radicalisation is something that requires a diverse platform of actors from various sections of society and the state. At the moment, this platform is largely absent in Egypt’s confrontation with radicalisation and terrorism. 

*The writer is director of the Programme for the Mediterranean and North Africa Studies at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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