Dalia Mogahed Headshot

Winning Egypt's Long War With Extremism

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In what looked more like a scene from "The Dictator" than real life, Egypt's leading general and de-facto head of state Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi addressed cheering crowds in his full military fatigue and Gamal Abdel Nassir sunglasses on Wednesday. He congratulated them for "making their will known" to the world on June 30th (when mass protests began) and July 3rd (the day Morsi was ousted), and declared that "the will of the people" delegitimizes the results of elections. He then called on "all noble Egyptians" to march on Friday in the millions to give him "the popular mandate to fight terrorism."

The Tamarrod campaign enthusiastically endorsed his call on their official Facebook page, encouraging Egyptians to support the army in "the coming war against terrorism" and its "cleansing" of the country, widely understood as references to cracking down on The Muslim Brotherhood.

The head of Egypt's security apparatus does not need a popular mandate to pursue those involved in criminal activity. However, a ruling junta in the Arab world's most populous country concerned with its global image does need the theatrics of "popular will" to use force to wipe out an entire political movement and its supporters, one that by the most conservative estimates comprises no less than a quarter of the Egyptian people. Not only is the general fanning the already white hot flames of anti-Muslim Brotherhood fervor in Egypt, but he is exploiting it to gain political cover for mass repression and violence. In the current climate of ultra nationalism and deep polarization, sadly, many Egyptians are all too willing to provide it.

Far from eradicating terrorism, such an approach would only empower those who call for violence against the state.

Unless Egypt's military junta decisively corrects its current course, and pursues a peaceful, inclusive and reconciliatory approach to putting Egypt back on a democratic path, it will be feeding rather than draining militants' ideological fuel.

This is because Al Qaeda was conceived in the prisons of Egypt, contrary to conventional wisdom, not the caves of Afghanistan. Gamal Abdel Nassir's torture chambers produced Al Qaeda's intellectual foundation, whose original target was not the United States, but corrupt Arab governments the superpower was seen as propping up. Sayed Qutb, whose writings inspired many militant groups, including Al Qaeda, was radicalized and eventually executed in Nassir's jail. Decades later, Ayman El Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's deputy and chief strategist, turned to militancy in these same confines, and went on to advocate for violence as the only way to correct perceived injustice.

The Egyptian people proved him wrong in the spring of 2011. Eighteen days of mass protests accomplished what decades of militancy could not: ridding Egypt of a thirty-year dictator. The January 25th revolt was the single greatest blow to Al Qaedaism since its bastard birth in Nassir's jail. Islamists worked with liberals and leftists to rid their nation of a common enemy. When Iran's supreme leader congratulated Egypt on its "Islamic Revolution", it was the Muslim Brotherhood that corrected him. "This was an Egyptian People's Revolution," the Islamists declared. Former militants formed political parties, not terrorism cells, working within the system rather than seeking to destroy it. According to years of Gallup nationally representative surveys, while the majority of Egyptians (60 percent) said that "oppressed people can improve their situation through peaceful means alone" before the revolution, this number rose to 79 percent after it successfully ousted Hosni Mubarak, and to 85 percent after the first parliamentary elections. The January 25th revolution was a victory for not only "people power" but for peaceful means of change.

The threat to extremist ideology was apparently so acute that Ayman El Zawahri went out of his way in February 2011 to put out a statement responding to the Egyptian uprising, where he denounced democracy as unIslamic. It seemed that Egypt, the birthplace of Al Qaeda, would also be the land of its celebrated death.

After the military's mass arrests and violent crackdown on supporters of the former president in the past weeks however, it might be El Zawahri who is celebrating.

In the early morning on Monday, July 8th, several days after the fall of Morsi, the military opened fire on a pro-Morsi sit in at the Republican guard leaving 51 dead, one soldier and 50 Morsi supporters. A grainy video of the incident shows people running in a panic as soldiers blast the crowd with gunshots. Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as Western media outlets, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Policy Magazine, reported the military used excessive force. Within hours, the military issued a statement saying it acted in self-defense. In response to the incident the armed forces made a number of arrests -- not of officers allegedly responsible for the incident as a nod to accountability and reconciliation -- but of senior Brotherhood leaders, including the Supreme guide Mohammad Badie, on charges that they incited their own massacre.

With few exceptions, Egypt's so-called "liberals" hardly object. Many formally anti-military activists and human rights NGO leaders, who have themselves witnessed violence against protesters at the hands of Egypt's security apparatus, now fiercely defend the military, scorning dissidents in their ranks. With eerie irony, Tamarrod spokesman has stated that, "Nassir's Egypt will not tolerate the continuation of Morsi's Egypt" apparently glorifying a time in the country's history when it was anything but a democracy.

If democracy were established, Egypt could still be Al Qaeda’s ideological death bed. But if the military pursues its current path, the country also has the potential to become the site of the network's philosophical second coming. This risk was made clear in a social media exchange I had with a prominent Egyptian blogger named Ali shortly after the Republican guard shooting.

Ali: "They're pushing us to be extremists, if they kept arresting pres. Morsy & refuse every democratic process”

I responded in four parts:
"1. No one can force us to extremism. We have a choice. We must choose Islamic ethics over self defeating impulse. 1/4"
"2. Nothing would please your enemies more. Perfect pretense for mass repression and political exclusion. Choose wisdom. 2/4"
"3. Turning to extremism dishonors the blood of the martyrs. 3/4"
"4. Remember God said 'don't let a people's hatred of you cause you to be unjust.' God rewards patience. 4/4"

Ali:
"He also said "And if you punish an enemy, punish proportionally to that which you were harmed”[1]"

Me:
"Yes, within what is permitted. Responding in like in this case is wrong and unwise. Results disastrous."

Ali:
"We are dying anyway, u should advise the one who kill not the victim"

Me:
"I have. See my timeline. They wish for nothing more than a pretense for more repression. Don't give it to them."


I might give Egypt’s ruling generals, and their advisors in Washington and Brussels, similar advice: Ayman El Zawahri and those who agree with him wish for nothing more than a pretense for violence. Don’t give it to them.


Dalia Mogahed is Chairman and CEO of Mogahed Consulting. With John L Esposito she co-authored "Who Speaks For Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think"

[1] The same verse goes to say, "But if you are patient - it is better for those who are patient." It is understood to allow and limit Muslims to "proportional retaliation" in war, as opposed to massive or punishing retaliation, while encouraging forgiveness.