|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
22 - 28 October 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Holding back the rising tide
The tide of Islamist movements which has been on the rise since the mid-'70s poses an enormous challenge to Egypt and to several other Arab states. During the numerous phases of the long fight against the movement, several strategies, using a variety of different tools, have been adopted and discarded. The final target of such strategies was to eradicate entirely the extremist Islamist movement, which had professed violence as a means of overthrowing both the state and Egyptian society. The strategies designed for addressing the violent radical movement are not the same as those adopted for addressing the "political" groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which hold more moderate views. The government's strategy toward the moderates has focused on minimising and defusing their influence as far as possible, without seeking to eliminate them completely.
The strategies adopted by the Egyptian state in combating violent Islamist factions may be divided in general along domestic and international battle lines. While Egypt's efforts to address violent Islamist movements outside its borders began in the '90s, when leaders and members of various groups began to seek havens abroad, throughout Asia, Europe and the Arab world, the confrontation only began in earnest after the failed attempt to assassinate President Mubarak in May 1995, staged by Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya in Addis Ababa.
Islamist groups have not only engaged in direct military action, as the Egyptian government claims, but have also pursued their objectives actively through media and political channels in recent years. With the new phase of increased violence orchestrated by radical Islamist groups, and particularly the Gama'a, in Egypt, the government has accused several Islamist leaders living abroad of master-minding terrorist operations within Egypt. Having established safe havens abroad, many Islamist leaders set up human rights associations and various other political and media channels as platforms to attack the Egyptian regime, which reacted by increasing efforts to combat these leaders abroad. The strategy to combat Islamist leaders abroad has revolved around several axes.
The first of these axes, security, comprises at least three basic forms. Cooperation between Egyptian security bodies and their counterparts in Western countries is manifested in joint committees devoted to "combating terrorism", i.e. combating religious and political groups which advocate specific ideologies residing within or outside Arab countries. This field of cooperation is restricted to the exchange of information. London has been the locus of intense cooperation, a fact frequently alluded to by Egyptian authorities. British sources, and particularly the British Embassy in Egypt, have been more explicit, asserting that security cooperation between the competent authorities in Egypt and Britain in combating terrorism is ongoing, but declining to give further details regarding the nature of such cooperation.
With the exception of a few arrests of Islamist refugees in Europe, this area of cooperation focuses mainly on tracking the movements of leaders since their departure from Egypt. The Egyptian authorities have repeatedly sought to provide authorities in Europe with information on the terrorist activities of Islamists after their departure from Egypt and their arrival in Europe, with the aim of dissuading authorities in the West from granting these activists asylum within their borders.
A second and more sophisticated form of cooperation aims at impeding Islamist activity in Western countries, and using legal means to track down fugitive activists with the minimum of fuss. The third form of security cooperation involves the collaboration of Egyptian and Western security authorities in executing sensitive operations, including the tracing or arrest of Islamists, possibly across international borders, as in the case of Talaat Fouad Qassem.
Cooperation between security bodies in Egypt and other Arab countries follows similar trends. The annual meeting of Arab ministers of the interior is the major forum for such activities, and it is at this meeting that multilateral and bilateral committees on terrorism are set up every year.
Cooperation in security matters also revolves around a political axis. The main players here are the President of the Republic and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Efforts at this level are geared toward placing the problem of the presence of Islamist activists in Western Europe on the agenda of an international dialogue on violence and terrorism. At the level of foreign policy, several paths have been followed. Bilateral talks have been undertaken with authorities in certain Western countries, encouraging the adoption of positive measures to liquidate Islamist groups, or at least reduce their activities to the bare minimum. Multi-level diplomatic negotiations have also been ongoing, and are intended to persuade various Western countries of Egypt's policy on Islamist elements within these countries' borders.
President Mubarak has also called personally for an international conference on combating terrorism, reiterating this suggestion several times. Egyptian diplomatic circles have echoed his initiative on several occasions at international events, presenting the proposal as a radical and potentially decisive solution to international terrorism. The reactions of several European nations and, more recently, the United States to the proposal have been favourable, especially after the bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania by Islamist groups.
Egypt has also presented its political initiatives at international organisations, particularly the United Nations, urging the international community to issue resolutions and legislation capable of curbing terrorism at the global level. Within the context of efforts to draw up a declaration on the fight against terrorism, Egypt has presented institutions working in international law with proposals for deterrence. Egypt's proposals to the Committee on International Law have focused on the issue of political asylum, which the Egyptian authorities consider the keystone of any anti-terrorism initiative. Foreign Ministry sources have emphasised the need to view Egypt's concern as intended to prevent Islamist leaders from abusing the human right to political asylum and using it for their own political ends.
* The writer is managing editor of The State of Religion in Egypt Report, issued by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.