“Democracy and Security in a time of Extremism” was the title of a three-day international conference hosted by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Cairo. Attended by a distinguished gathering of current and former heads-of-state, political and diplomatic figures and experts, the conference sought to explore the problems societies face in confronting extremism.
In his speech to the conference Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Ismail Serageldin stressed the importance of mobilising cultural institutions in the battle against extremist thought.
Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, who delivered a speech on behalf of the heads-of-state in attendance, explained that the basic idea of the conference was that any discussion of democracy must proceed from the affirmation that humanity always thrives when freedoms are upheld.
Ivanov observed that the world today must struggle to preserve freedoms and democracy in order to live in peace. The challenge of fighting the terrorist Islamic State has become a major dilemma. Governments need to safeguard their citizens’ rights and at the same time protect public safety and security, said Ivanov, adding that “the scope of the fight against terrorism keeps expanding from one moment to the next”.
Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo pointed to “two basic concepts — democracy and security”.
“Everything to do with democracy is intrinsically linked to security… Security in all its senses strengthens the foundations of democracy. If we want democracy to flourish there must be security,” he said, stressing the need to explore lasting solutions to the question of how to preserve freedom and security, the two cornerstones for the even development of societies.
Obasanjo also addressed ways of confronting the phenomena of extremism and terrorism, underscoring the need to address both the symptoms of the problem and the causes that lead to the breakdown of security. He stressed how crucial effective education is to development, adding that while education, alone, will not eradicate terrorism it is a powerful tool.
“The criminal acts that people commit are the product of their ideas. Extremism is formed in the minds of people who do not love peace. We need to fight ideas with ideas,” he said.
Former Serbian president Boris Tadić focused on the problems that surround the central concepts discussed at the conference.
“Religious extremism has always presented a global threat. Therefore, we need to examine the causes that have engendered this phenomenon,” he said.
“What was happening in previous years? What is the role of culture? What is the experience in other societies and cultures? How has democracy played a role in the solution?” asked Tadić. Answering these questions, he continued, will help us channel our thoughts and identify the institutions that need to be called into play in battling extremism.
Ambassador Moushira Khattab, Egypt’s nominee for the post of next director-general of UNESCO, began by addressing the apparent conceptual dichotomy presented by the title of the conference.
“Governments find themselves caught between the challenge of defending democracy and guaranteeing security while battling terrorism. We must bear in mind that democracy and terrorism are interrelated. Democratic security means that decisions relating to ensuring security are made via a democratic process that involves consultation between citizens and their governments. It is important to develop popular support for measures against terrorism and extremism which sometimes seem severe. Likewise, it is important to speak of educational policies and other preventive policies to fight terrorism.”
Former Lebanese president Amine Gemayel also addressed a conceptual question related to the phenomenon of terrorism. The concept of terrorism has evolved considerably since the mid-19th century, he said. On one level terrorism now is heavily dependent on technology and extremist groups are increasingly adept at using high-tech communications technologies. On another level the exercise of terror revolves around the clash of civilisations.
Gemayel lauded the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, for his support of civil and democratic rights and for his pioneering steps to incorporate such rights in the Al-Azhar charter. The former Lebanese president stressed that the fight against terrorism demands a multi-pronged programme that includes comprehensive educational reform, economic development, government accountability and the promotion and explanation of democratic principles through the media.
Amr Moussa, former secretary-general of the Arab League, praised Egypt’s stance on terrorism. Countries around the world are mobilised against terrorism and appreciate the actions Egypt has been taking to confront organised terror, he said. The international community understands the magnitude of the terrorist threat to Egypt. Moussa also stressed the need for a comprehensive approach to fight this threat. To defeat terrorism requires more than using bullets against bullets. It requires ideas, use of the intellect and conscience, and the dissemination of knowledge and education.
Picking up on the theme of the evolution of the concept of terrorism, former Croation presdient Ivo Josipović observed that terrorism in its most recent emanation has precipitated a remarkable change in the world. Modern societies have now begun to work together to fight terrorism using modern technologies. The challenges that societies face today resides in the conflict between laws needed to fight terrorism and the safeguarding of democracy. It is essential to avoid using violence in order to protect societies from the violence of terrorism, he said, underlining the need to use appropriate measures to fight extremism while simultaneously safeguarding human rights.
Former Bulgarian president Petar Stoyanov addressed the need for governments to work together to confront extremism. He stressed the importance of striking a balance between civic freedoms and national security, a goal that demands enormous efforts because it obliges governments to adhere to UN standards on human rights. He pointed out that there is no precise criterion defining terrorism but that, in fighting it, we need to take into consideration civic freedoms, national security as well as “our rights with respect to each other”. He added that it is important to understand how liberty works in favour of societies as we confront the looming dangers of terrorism, especially given that temporary solutions will never solve the problem. Stoyanov concluded by calling on experts to include in their strategies clear plans on how to best protect individual liberties.
As the agenda moved from conceptual frameworks and dilemmas to more concrete questions, participants addressed the causes of terrorism, discussing a range of factors, some socio-cultural, others related to the behaviour and performance of political elites in the Arab and Islamic world.
Former Jordanian prime minister Taher Al-Masri observed that the Arabs have never really built a real nation state and that their societies still adopt the discourse of the tribe. He stressed that democracy is unrealisable under conditions of instability, especially at a time when Arab citizens are downtrodden and caught between two choices, a one-party system or political Islam. As a way out of this dilemma Al-Masry proposed the formulation of a clearly designed programme of renaissance that would sweep the region with force of the Arab Spring.
Picking up on them of the general regional environment, Abdul-Aziz Othman Altwaijri, director general of the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO), stressed how radically the environment has changed in the last few decades. Though there has been some progress, he said, there has also been decline, especially in terms of identity where sectarian, ethnic and other affiliations have come to prevail over nationalisms. Altwaijri echoed the call for a regional renaissance project, but one that should be expanded to include the whole of the Islamic world not just the Arab region.
While he acknowledged that the current phase was characterised by “turbulent conflict,” Abdel-Moneim Said, director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in Cairo, took the opportunity to stress that the Arab Spring had not turned out to be completely bad. Citing his own country as a case in point, he noted how Egypt had overcome a fascist government and produced a better constitution.
Moussa agreed. He observed that all the views that had been expressed with regard to the state of the Arab and Islamic world were very pessimistic. More optimism was needed, he said, and a greater emphasis placed on the potential for improvement however weak it may seem now.
“A current of change has begun in the Arab world. We must learn from what has taken place. The movement has been sweeping and cannot be reduced to the terms ‘revolution’ or ‘uprising’. It is a process of change.”
The conference culminated in a number of recommendations on how to solve the problem of terrorism. Read out by Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Serageldin, they included the need to empower young people, facilitate the dissemination of the values of tolerance and openness to others, promote the use of modern technology and, finally, connect the dots between East and West to better coordinate international efforts to combat extremism. The conference’s recommendations also underlined that democracy is an “an idea that must begin from within and does not exclude anyone”.