When will Egypt learn?

Tackling terrorism is not easy.  There are a lot of tools, some soft and some hard and some in between.  Relying on any one in particular is unlikely to work.

For the record, I am not soft on terrorism or terrorists.  When our government agencies identify individuals who subscribe to a violent ideology and who are intent on acting on that ideology, the full tool-kit available to those agencies should be leveraged.  By that I mean investigation, disruption, arrest, trial and incarceration where possible.  On some occasions, especially in areas of conflict, killing is warranted – under certain conditions and with the highest possible guarantee that innocent lives will not be taken.  Sometimes, the deadliest force is needed.  I don’t think anyone begrudges the US Special Forces’ killing of AQ leader Osama Bin Laden, for example.

But at times, a softer approach is more appropriate.  When individuals are exploring the violent side but not acting out in a violent way, an intervention/counselling effort is worth trying, if for no other reason than it is much cheaper than harder action.  If the soft sell fails, ratchet up the response.

Whatever approach is adopted, counter-terrorism policy and practice should be Hippocratic in nature: i.e. do no harm.  If a particular action makes the problem worse, then you might want to rethink that action.

Someone might want to tell the Egyptian government this.

Make no mistake: Egypt is faced with a serious terrorist threat originating from an Islamic State-affiliated group in the Sinai Peninsula (click here for an account of the most recent attack).  A menace of this nature requires an immediate – and probably military – response.

But the Sisi government is also doing things that will inevitably cause it bigger problems down the road.  For instance, authorities have outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, jailed thousands and sentenced hundreds to death.  Some are probably being ill treated while in custody.  Think what you want about the Brotherhood, no one deserves to be tortured.  Furthermore, this policy did not work historically and will likely not work now.

It is often said that history repeats itself.  And it appears to be doing so in Egypt today.  More than a half century ago, the government cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood after an alleged assassination attempt against then President Nasser.  It jailed many, including a bookish former teacher, Sayyid Qutb.  Tortured horribly in prison, Qutb went on to write books that still inspire violent extremists, including Al Ma’alim fi Tariq – Milestones in English.

I am no apologist for Qutb, but you cannot deny that the mistreatment he received undoubtedly contributed to his extremism.  So, is Egypt committing the same mistakes 60 years later?  It sure looks like it.   If it continues to torture and kill Brotherhood members, violence will rise on all sides.

Maybe a lesson from Ancient Egypt will help.  One of the riddles asked by the Sphinx to travelers goes as follows:

” There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. Who are the two sisters?”

The original answer was “day and night”.  Unfortunately, “violence” would be an equally appropriate response.  Violence begets violence.  Perhaps Egypt should take notice.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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