Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Confronting the radicals

To fight radicalism, you must look at it in all its forms, not only those related to terror. Iman Ragab and Youssef Wardani discuss Egypt’s policy options

Al-Ahram Weekly

Faced with the threat of various terror groups, including Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM) operating in Sinai, Egypt has given attention to both the question of radicalisation and the fight against terrorism. The two, radicalisation and terror, are often connected in the minds of policymakers and the public.

But unless we look deeper, into the causes and nature of radicalisation, we may not be able to understand the full significance and implications of this phenomenon. As such, we may find ourselves wasting our time in shortcuts that may not work.

It is therefore important to look into the way Egypt has handled both problems, and to suggest new methods of action based on the nature of both threats: terrorism and the mindset of radicalisation that allows it to go on.

International interest in extremism is not confined to Egypt. Since the beginning of this year several high-level gatherings were held to address its consequences. One was the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, organised in Washington, 17-19 February.

Another was the anti-terrorism conference hosted by the UK Foreign Office on 25 March. On 23 April, the UN Security Council held a debate on the role of young people in fighting extremism and promoting peace.

Egypt sent experts and diplomats to all of these meetings, and reiterated its views on how best to counter extremism in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Much of the international discussion about radicalisation stems from the meteoric rise of the Islamic State (IS) group, its reliance on social media and its success in recruiting thousands of combatants from Western nations a clear threat to Western societies as well as a sign that the failure to discourage radicalisation is not confined to Arab and Muslim countries alone.

IS continues to rely on social media networks to recruit extremists, especially among Muslim communities in Europe. Governments are working extra hard, but with less than complete success, to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq. Awareness of the perils of

In the Arab world, concern has been voiced over the increased popularity of Europe’s far right and its possible repercussions for Arab and Muslim communities in the West.

But to this day, Egypt a country with a great stake in the fight against terror and extremism has not come up with an effective strategy for discouraging radicalisation.

GLOBAL ACTION: In its official statements, Egypt recognises the fact that terrorism is a global phenomenon, one that transcends national borders and is not confined to Arabs and Muslims alone. There is a growing realisation, in Egypt and elsewhere, that Western countries are just as responsible for the spread of radicalisation as Arabs and Muslims are.

It has been the custom, since the 9/11 attacks, to view Arab and Muslim countries as incubators for terror. Their lack of democracy, their poverty and various inequities, were blamed for the increased radicalisation among the young.

Then IS came onto the scene and suddenly standard wisdom was dealt a heavy blow. The enthusiasm with which Western-based youths greeted IS atrocities, and the rate at which this terror group was recruiting in Western societies, was an eye-opener.

Europe is more democratic than Arab and Muslim countries no one would argue that point. But it has failed just as miserably to stem the rise of radicalisation among its own expatriate communities.

According to the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), foreign fighters made up 20 per cent of IS’s total number of combatants in December 2014. Islamophobia is on the rise, and one can only wonder if it is the result or the cause of radicalisation among Europe’s Muslim communities.

During a visit to Spain in April 2015, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said, “The world needs today, more than any time before, the active cooperation of all nations and cultures in fighting the tide of extremism and hatred that offer a fertile soil for terror and pose a threat to the foundations of human civilisation.”

This was, in a practical sense, a call for multilateral action by countries interested in reversing the perils of radicalisation. And yet Egypt’s position on the Muslim Brotherhood, a group whose extremist ideology is a matter of public record, is still challenged by several of its potential allies in the fight against radicalisation.

CYBER-RADICALISM: In large part, radicalisation takes place on social media and in cyberspace, which has turned out to be a low-cost vehicle for spreading extremism ideas and planning terror operations.

Efforts were made by a number of countries to monitor radical activities on social media, but blocking Internet applications is not without consequences and it is difficult to bring all radical exchanges in the digital realm to a halt.

A 2012 study by Google points out that one out in four Egyptians own mobile phones, and one in eight use their phones to access social media. According to a report by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), the number of Internet users in Egypt was 42.3 million people in 2014.

Not long ago, President Al-Sisi called on the UN to shut down jihadist websites. Such calls are likely to continue in the future, but when it comes to cyberspace the game has just started.

VALUES OF CITIZENRY: Discussing the ways to combat terror, President Al-Sisi recently said that the values of “citizenry and the rule of the law” combined with “comprehensive development” are the best defence against “extremism and terror.”

To this one could add that Egypt will also need the right kind of institutional framework. So far, the country’s focus on radicalisation has been temporary and eclectic. Officials discuss radicalisation almost exclusively in connection with terror, overlooking the fact that radicalisation takes place in a much wider context, both socially and politically.

In fact, the best way to analyse and address radicalisation is to examine it independently from terror. To do that we have to begin by considering radicalisation as the source of many evils, of which terror is only one.

The official view about extremism was formulated long before the 2011 Revolution. Former president Hosni Mubarak repeatedly warned that if the Palestinian problem remained unresolved, extremism would engulf the region.

In Egypt and across the region, officials cautioned that discrimination against Muslims in Western Europe could fan the flames of fanaticism, there as well as in the Muslim world.

The Mubarak government, however, never developed a plan of action to confront radicalisation. And to this day, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry still relies on its anti-terror

This is one area where we need to change tack, for “radicalisation” deserves a wider perspective, and a more specialised manner of response than “terror”.

BROADER PARTNERSHIP: Egypt’s official position is that extremism is not linked to Islam alone, but is a phenomenon of worldwide reach. This is the message that President Al-Sisi expressed in foreign forums and that Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry elaborated at a recent meeting of the UN Security Council.

But the official message doesn’t seem to tally with our policies. So far, domestic government policies seem to treat religious extremism as the one form of extremism worth addressing.

But if have any hope of defeating extremism, or the radicalisation it generates among youth, we must confront not only religious extremism, but all other forms of the phenomenon: political extremism, social extremism and academic extremism must all receive our full attention.

Unfortunately, the government is not taking this wide-spectrum approach. It is not even considering the question that radicalisation is capable of adapting to its environment, only surfacing when given the chance and engaging in politics and warfare when the opportunity presents itself.

A point over which Egypt and other European countries have locked horns is that of Cairo’s official position on the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that feeds on radicalisation and employs it for political ends.

After the 2011 Revolution in Egypt, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their associates in Salafist groups relocated from Germany and other parts of Europe to Egypt. Their aim was to create an Islamic state, a quest that led to the upheavals of 2012 and 2013.

In Europe, Islamist extremists did their best to stay under the radar and avoid direct clashes with the authorities, while in Egypt they dropped all pretensions, practicing the full gamut of fanaticism of which this region is becoming painfully accustomed.

To confront the re-emergence of the religious far right, the Egyptian government’s default position is to rely on Al-Azhar, a powerful institution with much moral influence. But Al-Azhar, for all its soft power, cannot possibly address the issue of radicalisation in all its aspects.

In particular, this venerable religious institution cannot possibly tackle the political and social aspects of radicalisation, and is unlikely to develop the social media skills of its critics. It is also questionable whether Al-Azhar is the best agency to address things such as citizenry, equality and human rights.

Although the police and the clergy cannot be excluded from the multifaceted approach needed to confront radicalisation, the fight against extremism cannot be led by security experts or Al-Azhar scholars alone.

If we are going to defeat extremism we must develop ways to promote coexistence, to persuade members of the public to show respect for people with different opinions, or people who are just different. This is much easier said than done, but unless we keep our mainstream solidly on the tolerant side, the radicals may win it over.

We must also keep in mind that as we fight extremism, in all its forms, we cannot possibly hope to eradicate it totally. Our task is endless and our commitment to keep radicalisation to a minimum mustn’t waver.

To form a solid front against radicalisation, we will need a formula for partnership between think tanks, civil society groups, and the security services. Such a partnership would allow Egypt to play a larger role in international forums and offer regional example and insight.

While doing so, Egypt must also forge close ties with institutions working in the same field abroad, including the London-based ICSR, the Malta-based International Institute for Justice and Rule of the Law, and the Abu Dhabi-based Hedayah.

INTERNATIONAL FORUMS: So far, Egypt has not played the leading role one would have expected it to take in international discussions, academic or policy-oriented, on radicalisation. One reason for this is that most Egyptian academics and think tank experts are not giving enough thought to extremism as a phenomenon independent from terror, and much broader in its consequences.

Over the past five years or so, only one detailed study was published in Egypt about the spread of radical ideas among Egyptian youth. This study, written by a co-author of the current article, appeared in the January 2015 edition of Al-Badail, a publication produced by the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

The only public opinion poll worth noting in this regard was conducted by Baseera in March 2015 to assess the impact of religious extremism on Egypt.

According to the 2014 Think Tank Index, compiled by the University of Pennsylvania, Egypt has a total of 57 think tanks. Of these, none seems to be interested in discussing radicalisation unless in the context of political violence. And even then, the discussion usually focuses on the renewal of political discourse and excludes other forms of radicalism and prejudice.

Between 1979 and 2014, two dozen master’s and doctoral theses were written about the psychological and social impact of extremism and the economic and social conditions that boost fanaticism. But any valuable ideas produced by the research didn’t make it to the usual channels of the media or the corridors of officialdom.

The point, therefore, is that a new approach is needed, one that is more inclusive and yet broader in prospect, more policy-oriented and yet capable of integrating fresh perspectives.

When Egyptian officials talk to their counterparts abroad they must point out their reasons for arresting members of the Muslim Brotherhood. One incident that is well documented is that when Mohamed Al-Beltagi, a key Muslim Brotherhood figure currently in prison, said in a television interview on 8 July 2013 that Sinai terror operations would end the day Mohamed Morsi was returned to power. It would also be a useful to mention that three judges were assassinated in Egypt the day Muslim Brotherhood leaders received death sentences.

Egypt will have to assert its presence in international forums, and to do so it cannot rely on Al-Azhar alone to provide it with arguments against radicalisation. A more comprehensive approach is needed if Egypt is to hold its own in the worldwide campaign against radicalisation.

Over the past few years, Jordan and Turkey have emerged as potential pioneers for fighting extremism in the region. Turkey, using its unique NATO and Islamic credentials, has been organising conferences and workshops on the fight against extremism. Jordan is also endeavouring to present itself as the regional master in handling extremism among the young. To find its voice, Egypt will have to come up with a national policy against radicalisation, an effort that should be done in coordination with think tanks and civil society, as well as the conventional powerhouses of Al-Azhar and the security services.

We need to merge our academic, governmental and social expertise to regain the initiative in the fight against extremism, religious and otherwise. Only then we will be able to formulate better policy, explain it better, implement it better and offer the leadership this region needs.

Iman Ragab is editor of Al-Badael, a journal published by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

Youssef Wardani, a researcher in youth studies, is a PhD candidate at Cairo University.

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