Egypt’s war on terror

“Nor can we al­low our enemies to win by default, which would be the case if we respond in a way not befitting our values and history.”

“We remain fearful, and a society in a state of fear looks for quick fixes to its insecurities. Our leaders need to do better than that — [the] Government is responsible, after all, for displaying leadership, even when it is unpopular.”

[Quotes from reports on UK counter-terrorism strategies written by the author]

It was in 2005 that terrorism from radical Islamist terrorists struck my capital city of London. Fifty-two civilians died that fateful day on 7 July. In the aftermath of those attacks, I must have repeated the above sentiment in dozens of speeches or reports to governments, and civil society groups, as did others. As specialists in counter-terrorism, we took seriously the radical Islamist terror threat. But we viewed it as integral to our eventual victory against terrorism that we not allow fear to encourage us to destroy our own values. That would be a win for the other side.

More than seven years later, I wonder if the same sentiments still apply: not to the UK, but to Egypt. On 5 August, as they broke their fast, 16 military personnel were slaughtered in Sinai , near Egypt’s border. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Egyptian, Israeli and Palestinian authorities have independently stated that radical Islamist terrorists are to blame for the crime, and questions still ensue. The attackers all perished shortly thereafter.

There have been calls from different quarters since Sunday’s massacre to demand accountability from the government. How could such a plot be planned and executed, on Egyptian soil against Egyptian military personnel, if Egypt’s security and intelligence services are doing their jobs? Clearly, they are not: accountability must be sought at all levels up and down the line of command, and, crucially, transparency in terms of how that accountability was practically applied.

It is unquestionably the case that Mr. Morsy’s recent co-ordination with the new guard of the SCAF has led to a healthier, if not yet ideal, relationship between the civil office of the presidency and the military. Egyptians should be grateful that this shift took place, irrespective of their support for or opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr Morsy’s party. Nevertheless, this development should only strengthen the calls for more accountability and transparency in a more democratic Egypt. The positive nature of this move does not relieve Mr Morsy of the responsibility to be transparent about what has taken place. Nor does it relieve civil society of the responsibility to hold him and his office to account for what comes next.

There is something else, though, which seems to have been lost entirely in the events of the past few weeks. The response to the attack, and the response to that response: the strikes on a village in Sinai. The Egyptian public have very little information to go on in terms of what happened in those strikes. The authorities have only said they succeeded in entering the village, including from the air, killed 20 terrorists, and destroyed several armoured cars belonging to them.

As of yet, the public does not know the names of those who were killed, or confirmation that they were actually killed. The public does not know their links to the criminals who slaughtered the 16 Egyptian soldiers on Sunday. The public does not know if these were Egyptians, or if they were foreigners. The public does not know who, if anyone, was involved in the targeting of those who were willed. And perhaps crucially, the public does not know if an attempt at arrest was made, or if it was just a summary execution.

It’s disappointing that the Egyptian authorities have not seen fit to furnish the Egyptian public with this information. This is Sinai — i.e., a part of Egypt. None of the above is “national security sensitive” — the operation was a domestic operation (and thus, more properly, a police operation, even if assisted by the military) against criminals. Egyptians deserve to know — what happened?

But what is more disappointing: it does not seem that anyone is really asking any questions anyway. In the days since the strikes took place, the entire political spectrum seems to be mute on the fact that based on the information provided, it seems the Egyptian state just carried out an extra-judicial killing on Egyptian territory — quite possibly, with collateral damage of non-combatants, and quite possibly, with all of them being Egyptian.

For years, Western militaries, particularly the American military, have been roundly condemned by many in the Arab region for precisely the same thing — killing suspected criminals without due process. It’s a natural outcome of the “war on terror” — when you engage in war on a noun, then you arrogate yourself the right to treat “terrorists” as a group belonging to a state, which you then declare war against. In modern war, if you can’t realistically capture a battalion of another state that you are legally at war with, then you’re not obliged to leave them alone — you take them out by what means you have at your disposal to ensure that they cannot advance to kill you. This is the underlying assumption in the “war on terror” — that terrorists are essentially similar to state actors, and as such, do not warrant the same protections accorded to criminals.  

This reasoning has been often roundly criticized by many across the political spectrum in Egypt — when non-Egyptians were responsible. They were joined in their criticism by many within the West, who saw such operations, and the attacks on civil liberties domestically, as part of a misguided attempt to combat terrorism, beginning prior to, but intensified by, 9-11 and 7-7. Many, including myself, within the West warned, particularly after 7-7, that our response to terrorism had to ensure that we reduced the risk of terrorist acts in the future — and that our societies’ civil fabric did not unnecessarily suffer as a result of our actions. If our civil liberties, for example, were dismantled, then terrorism had already won.  

Welcome to Egypt’s “War on Terror.” In Egypt’s “War on Terror,” it’s not simply that the state carries out a strike of dubious legal legitimacy (considering no official has offered that the suspects were given the opportunity to surrender, we can only assume this was an extra-judicial killing). It is also that no one even asks about its legal legitimacy.

For weeks, I have been waiting to see which part of civil society would raise objections about this, in the absence of information that showed this was in fact legal. Would it be the Islamists? Would it be the liberals? Would it be the leftists? Would it be the socialists? Al-Azhar? The Church? Who would it be? It wasn’t any of them. At least from what I can see, no objection came from anyone. And no clarification was sought on what happened in those strikes — from anyone. Which raises the uncomfortable possibility that, perhaps, they feel these strikes were completely justified. Perhaps they assume that was an attempt to capture — perhaps.

In the UK we learnt this a long time ago: when you have a “war on terror” — while we know wars occur between states, and not on nouns — the normal differences between police action and military action disappear. Due process, the right of every person except in the most extraordinary circumstances, disappears. And extra-judicial action, even killing, can become the norm. Anyone who is willing to vest Mr. Morsy and the current regime with the power to secretly declare an Egyptian as an enemy of the state and order his or her extrajudicial killing needs to consider if that, after all, is a good idea. And if they do, whether they’d be willing to trust his eventual successor with the same.   

Egyptian authorities have the responsibility for Egyptian security — and they need to be held to account for that. Egyptians need to know why those terrorists were able to do what they did last Sunday, and how the Egyptian state was caught completely off guard. They need to know why, not a few days later, the state was able to find terrorists in Sinai, and why they had not been able to find them before — and if they had found them before, why they hadn’t done anything about it. They also need to answer: what happened in those strikes, and was there an opportunity to take those targets alive? Did those targets have the opportunity to surrender? Did Egypt lose on critical intelligence information about other possible attacks by summarily killing them? These are not optional, luxurious questions — these are basic, vital ones that must be answered, now. And the relevant personnel must be held to account.   

Beyond that responsibility of security, Egyptian authorities also have the responsibility to uphold Egyptian honour. That honour rests on its authorities acting in accordance with the best of Egypt’s traditions and values — and not abjure them out of expediency or fear. This is not a pipe dream in today’s post January 25 Egypt — it is a minimum standard that every Egyptian citizen must demand be imposed. That’s the success of the revolution — or its failure.  

Many individual Britons understood that lesson early on — others took time to realize the wrongs of the “War on Terror.” How important it was to respond to terrorism, forcefully, strongly and with no quarter: but to do so ethically and without abjuring our values. We wanted, and we still want, to ensure that terrorism can never push us to destroy ourselves as a people, by giving up on our essential values on the altar of expediency. We insisted, and we still insist, in upholding the highest standards of decency and integrity, for it was those standards that were attacked. This has not always been a popular stance to take, and it still isn’t in many quarters: but many Britons have now learned that it is the right stance to take.  

I hope Egyptians will learn that lesson sooner than Britons did.

Dr. H. A. Hellyer is a geo-strategic expert on the MENA region, and was previously at Gallup, the Brookings Institution, and Warwick University. 

A shorter version of this article was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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