Radicalisation remains a problem in Egyptian society since 2011. It is not a new phenomenon, but rather an old one that was never dealt with efficiently. Countering radicalisation in Egypt has always been done through hard security, via various security institutions. However, this reliance on hard security has marginalised the role that a society could play regarding this matter. Egypt has seen different waves of radicalisation since the 1960s and until today, and the role of society in countering this challenge remains in question. Therefore, countering radicalisation needs a new set of orientations that aim to make the process of de-radicalisation more promising and successful.
What we need to explain as sociologists is that society sometimes emerges or springs from the political realm, and at other times, social interactions and responses create their own fields or frameworks of radicalisation within society. Egypt has witnessed such experience on multiple levels over the past few years. The reasons or causes of radicalisation are always similar, but the pattern in which they materialise is always different, depending on many causes that are quite diverse.
Perhaps we can set a platform composed of three variables: religious, political and cultural radicalisation. Religious radicalisation was widespread in the post-Arab Spring period, whether in Egypt or in the rest of the Arab world. The stagnant phase of political participation that lasted for years made the Islamic stream the actor with the highest prospects. This happened in Tunis, Egypt and Libya, where political processes were all overrun by Islamist streams. Political domination created a social reflection in societies. The Islamist experience in Egypt has managed to prove two things: first, political exclusion leads to radicalism, as evidenced when the Muslim Brotherhood decided to become the sole actor within Egyptian politics, which in turn led to the emergence of new entities like the National Salvation Front and the movement of Tamarod. The period in which the Brotherhood was in power was witness to significant political polarisation, which is something that eventually initiates radicalisation. Control over political matters in Egypt after 2011 created political and religious tensions. Politically, the composition of the legislative branch and the presidency was overrun by the Islamist stream — the Muslim Brotherhood specifically.
Religious tension arose on multiple grounds during that phase. The Islamist stream had a political will to establish a religious supremacy within Egyptian society. Tools like the media, social networks and even daily happenings that influence public opinion were all used for that purpose. The point was to establish Islam with its political entities as a collective identity for society, which would in turn marginalise other factions, and even threaten their safety and presence, either on religious or political platforms. This approach constituted a threat to the culture of coexistence between Muslims and Copts in Egypt — a concept instilled by many social mores and several bureaucratic regulations through the years.
In sum, this means that new grounds for radicalisation have been created by political mistakes that had a cumulative effect on Egyptian society. And now the question becomes, can Egyptian society counter these platforms of radicalisation? If so, what are the tools and mechanisms that could be used to such an end? Moreover, if answers can arise from society, how can they be practically implemented, and by which actors?
In fact, societies do have the power to counter radicalisation, but the question is about both the context and the means. The dimension related to context has to do with the political environment within society, and whether it is dominated by factors that push towards radicalisation or factors of diversity that pull away the course of the individual. At the same time, effective means to counter radicalisation depend much on context. There are different means that apply to locales of military conflict, or sites of contentious politics, or locations that have been occupied by territorial terrorism. The patterns of interaction between state and society regarding this matter vary from one place to another. Hence the comparison between Libya and Syria becomes inappropriate within the current period due to the multiple variables involved in both conflicts.
The idea is to resort to a set of pre-perceived ethics that could mobilise societies to counter radicalisation on a community level in a contention dominated scene. So, the question becomes how to create a mechanism that connects politics and society, specifically in Egypt. There are ethics practiced within the public sphere of Egyptian society, but they are not necessarily institutionalised in the Egyptian context. This means that there needs to be a major process of reform within the Egyptian educational sector, in order to develop strategies that take care of current problems regarding the phenomenon of radicalisation.
Subjects like citizenship, de-radicalisation, comparative religions and comprehensive ethics must be added to the institutional educational system in schools. Societal ethics need to be explained to children at an early age in order to create genuine social change. Further social transformations have to do with a tool that connects society with internal actors. Egypt has a lot of options in this regard due the presence of several actors on both sides of the equation. In short, Egypt should adopt a long-term strategy to counter radicalisation and try to put an end to it as a phenomenon, using the soft power of society. There are diverse tools that could be used by the state to counter radicalisation, but most of them require a strong state-society nexus; something that Egypt could accomplish through new approaches and reforms.
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 16 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly