Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)
Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Terrorism and democracy redefined

How can the gap between those who analyse terrorism and those who have to live with it be bridged, asks Amina Khairy

According to the 2017 Global Terrorism Index produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace in New York, the costs of terrorist acts reached a grim $84 billion in 2016. Countries embroiled in conflict suffer the highest economic impact of terrorism, the index says, not to mention the loss of lives. The majority of these countries are situated in the Middle East and North Africa, along with Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. 

The index lists the 10 countries most impacted by terrorism as being Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, India, Turkey and Libya. Nine of these also featured in last year’s list. The only change is the inclusion of Turkey and the exclusion of Egypt. 

This is good news for Egypt, but good news does not build nations or develop countries, let alone guarantee diminishing the dangers of terrorism itself. And while combating terrorism should not be limited to military confrontations, intelligence tactics and law enforcement only, it should also not be confined to what “x” has to say about the terrorism faced and suffered by “y”.

This is because what “x” knows about terrorism is derived from what its military, intelligence and media outlets have said is the case. It is also based on what books of political science and historical narratives have said about the definition of terror. When “x” is lying down on his sofa watching scenes from war-torn countries and terrorism-infected cities, or sitting at his computer finishing a theoretical paper, essay or article on “how to fight terrorism and influence the world in ten days,” “y” is being directly subjected to terrorism. 

One man’s (and of course one woman’s) act of terror may also be another’s act of resistance or one that stands up against oppression or fights for democracy. Bringing greater democracy to the Middle East has been an ongoing dilemma for decades, where authoritarian regimes pretend to be democratic, people pretend to dream of democracy, and the developed world playacts the role of calling for democracy. However, with the long-awaited materialisation of democracy in the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 and the years that followed came conflict, instability, civil war and terrorism. 

This article is neither a defence of authoritarianism, nor a rationalisation of the famous statement made by the late head of Egypt’s General Intelligence, Omar Suleiman, in 2011 to the effect that “the people are not ready for democracy”. Instead, it is an attempt to bridge the gap between how “x” over there views terrorism and how “y” over here lives with it. Such gaps were obvious during the recent Hammamet Conference Series held by the British Council in Tunis as a platform for dialogue and progress in relations between the countries of North Africa and the UK.  

“I just can’t understand you folks in Egypt. You were longing for democracy for decades. In 2011, you had a revolution and got rid of [former president Hosni Mubarak] because he was not democratic. But when democracy brought you someone you did not like, you rejected democracy. The majority of Egyptians I encounter nowadays defend their refusal of democracy, which is very strange.” 

The words, spoken by one of the British participants at the Hammamet Conference, have been echoed in the parts of the world where “y” has lived for many years. No matter what “x” says regarding what happened when “democracy” was applied, and what resulted when the “majority” (a key word in the definition of democracy) revolted against the theocratic rule of the Islamist groups, and how it is possible to get rid of the rule of a single party, a regime, or a ruler through elections, but that it is practically impossible to get rid of a religious group ruling in the name of God, democracy for “y” remains a rigid definition in his book of political science. 

Likewise, the ways of combating terrorism and the list of recommendations supplied by “y” remain rigid and in need of common understanding. The direct relationship between the Arab Spring and the rise of terrorism is obvious. However, this has been interpreted by “Y” as a result of the Egyptians’ getting rid of Muslim Brotherhood rule, which “y” calls “a military coup against the democratically elected civilian president”. 

The fact that the president in question, Mohamed Morsi, was not a “civilian president”, but a representative of a religio-political organisation giving precedence to one sect of a specific religion rather than to the sovereignty of states characterised by diversity is overlooked. 



ONFLICT AND INSTABILITY: According to the Global Terrorism Index, the influence of conflict and instability on terrorism can be seen when considering the impact of the Arab Spring. 

“Of the 20 countries impacted by the Arab Spring, 14 experienced protests or minor protests, two witnessed more expansive protests that led to regime change, and three descended into civil war. The countries that experienced the greatest upheavals as part of the Arab Spring also had the largest increases in the impact of terrorism. The greatest increase in the number of deaths from terrorism occurred in countries experiencing civil war. A smaller but still significant increase was seen in Tunisia and Egypt, both of which experienced regime change,” it says.

Does this say anything about democracy and the will of people to see change and a peaceful transition from authoritarianism? Does the fall of countries undergoing the Arab Spring into the abyss of civil war and terrorism shed some light on what lies beneath the Islamist groups’ claiming landslide victories in “democratic” elections? Are there any explanations offered here other than that the “Egyptians refused democracy when they got rid of the Muslim Brothers?” 

The index points out, in line with what “y” has to say about Egypt, that “in Egypt the increase in terrorism has been directly linked to the coup against president Mohamed Morsi and the subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. In the two years preceding the Arab Spring, there was only a single death from terrorism in Egypt. In the years immediately after the 2011 protests, terrorist activity remained low with a total of 47 deaths recorded in 2011 and 2012. However, by 2015 the number of deaths had jumped to 663, of which 224 resulted from the bombing of a passenger jet.” 

“In 2016, there were 293 terrorism deaths. Notably, the recent surge in terrorism in Egypt is dissimilar to the spike in terrorism in the 1990s when a series of high-profile attacks by [the armed Islamist groups] Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad targeted tourists. Police are now the most frequently targeted in terrorist attacks in Egypt, with 120 attacks in 2016, which account for nearly half of all attacks,” the index says.

Does this bring back memories of what secretary-general of the now outlawed Freedom and Justice Party (the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) Mohamed Al-Beltagi said in front of the TV cameras in July 2013 when he promised that the “violence in [Northern] Sinai will come to an end the minute Mohamed Morsi returns to power”? Could the facts recounted in the Global Terrorism Index be linked to the Salafi and jihadi “sheikhs” promising the establishment of a jihadi emirate in Northern Sinai to fight the Egyptian army and police while waving the flag of the Islamic State (IS) group in 2013? 

Defining terrorism and the reasons that ignite terrorism cannot be a one-way street. This has proven to be a failure, not only in the countries actually facing terrorism, but also in the West. Trying to explain the attraction of young people to IS and other organisations by referring to a lack of education, or poverty, has proven to be a failure. The numbers of Western-born IS fighters in Syria and Iraq indicate that this route has been catastrophic. 

Another catastrophe, still in its pre-eruption stage, is that some of the Islamist organisations are based in Europe. These claim that they are engaged in research and charitable activities, but not all that glitters is gold, and not everything that does research is a research centre. Not every group that raises money directs that money to charity or works to build understanding. Some of these organisations are fronts for extremist Islamist groups, the best-known being the Muslim Brotherhood. The face these put on for “y’s” benefit is very different from the one we see and suffer from in “x”-controlled zones.

Among the few words of wisdom that I have come across on Political Islam appeared in the UK magazine the Economist under the title “Can Political Islam make it in the Modern World” in August 2017. “Democracy was not one of [the Prophet] Mohamed’s prescriptions, so [Hassan] Banna [the founder of the Muslim Brothers] rejected it as a foreign import, along with political parties and even the modern Arab state. But he also saw progress towards the Islamic state happening in stages, each requiring different tactics. So Islamists might play down their divine objective early on, and even participate in elections, if it improved their position in the long term,” the magazine said.

 In other words, democracy for the Islamists is not an end, but a means to reach power and establish their rule. In much the same way, terrorism in Egypt and in the other countries of the Arab Spring is not necessarily a reaction by the oppressed, poor, or inadequately educated. It is a mixture of elements whose definitions are not necessarily listed in Western books of political science and whose development does not necessarily take a linear route.

The writer is a journalist at the newspaper Al-Hayat. 

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