American Power After Afghanistan
How to Rightsize the Country’s Global Role
On June 2, the U.S. State Department released its annual Country Reports on Terrorism. During the announcement of the reports, Justin Siberell, the department’s counterterrorism chief, noted that, once again, Washington and Cairo are drifting further apart in their understanding of violent extremism. Speaking to the drivers of terrorism in Egypt, Siberell noted that “there is quite well understood linkage in some cases between repressive policies of governments, including in its security practices, as a contributing factor in some cases to radicalization.”
His comments stand in stark contrast to documents and remarks by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at a United Nations Security Council meeting in May. Ahead of the UNSC debate, Egypt, which held the 15-member body’s presidency that month, sent a concept paper calling for a discussion on how to counter the threat of “ideologies of religiously inspired terrorist groups,” such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and al Qaeda, which “emanate and derive from the same extremist, takfiri and violent concepts and views that were propagated in the mid-twentieth century... [and that] provide them with intellectual foundation.”
The concept paper did not mention the Muslim Brotherhood, but Shoukry’s remarks made it clear that Cairo views the group as a problem. Specifically, Shoukry’s mention of mid-twentieth century Brotherhood theorist Sayid Qutb, a thought leader from whom many terrorist groups have drawn their ideologies, telegraphed Egypt’s belief that the Brotherhood’s ideology has spurred all violent Islamist groups of the last half-century. Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has explicitly made this point, arguing in March that “the extremism and radicalism which serve as the lifeblood of today’s terrorist groups is based directly on Brotherhood thinkers and ideologues that are still venerated and closely adhered to by the organization, such as Sayid Qutb. To put it simply, the threat of terrorism as we see it today owes its existence to the Muslim Brotherhood.”
For his part, Shoukry spoke of Islamist extremism as emanating from terrorist groups’ “distorted” interpretations of Islam and their “exploitation of technological leaps” to disseminate such distortions. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has repeated that idea. Early last year, Sisi called for a “religious revolution” to help combat extremism, putting the responsibility on the shoulders of imams of Egypt’s al-Azhar. The religious institution has since introduced small changes, such as publicly refuting militants’ radical statements on social media and promising to revise its curricula to deter extremism.
From the U.S. perspective, any efforts that aim to counter violent extremism should take into account the most basic roots of the problem: that is, the social and economic grievances that make populations vulnerable to radical ideology. At the UNSC debate, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power reaffirmed as much, stating that “arresting journalists; sentencing reporters to death; treating media as an enemy of the state—such actions are thoroughly counterproductive.” They “will produce a more alienated, suspicious, and disenfranchised public,” she said, “to the benefit of terrorist groups.”
Egypt and the United States are approaching terrorism and the larger issue of extremism from markedly different perspectives.Siberell’s and Power’s remarks echoed those of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who, in a February address to the Brookings Institution, outlined the Obama administration’s five-point strategy for countering ISIS and violent extremist ideologies more broadly. This strategy includes expanding international partnerships, assisting partner governments, reducing political, social and economic factors that contribute to violent extremism, empowering credible local voices, and strengthening rehabilitation and reintegration policies. Blinken emphasized that “at the heart of our strategy—at the center of each of these five pillars – is a commitment to the principles … of good governance and pluralism. Of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms. Of human rights and human dignity.”
For the U.S. government, therefore, refuting ISIS propaganda that promulgates a perverted interpretation of Islam is only one element of a larger overarching and holistic strategy. And that means that Egypt and the United States are approaching terrorism and the larger issue of extremism from markedly different perspectives. In the short term, this divergence may not have much of an impact on practical counterterrorism cooperation. The two countries constantly reaffirm that they are “partners” on counterterrorism, and the United States continues to offer Egypt military assistance to counter ISIS elements in the Sinai Peninsula and security assistance on the Libyan border.
Still, the divergence has caused some problems, particularly because whereas the United States sees countering violent extremism as a global effort, Egypt views this issue from a narrower, domestic perspective. In September 2014, the United States formed a global coalition to fight ISIS. Egypt agreed to join the coalition, but made clear that its focus would be on fighting terrorism within its own borders. In October 2014, Shoukry told Reuters that “for the Egyptian military the most important thing is its borders and the stability of its country and the protection of its country.” He said Egypt had no plans to provide the United States with direct military assistance in the war against ISIS.
Moreover, Egypt’s disdain for U.S. criticism of its affairs was clearly reflected in Egypt’s reminder following a meeting between Shoukry and Power ahead of the UNSC debate that only Egypt’s people and institutions “have right to comment on domestic affairs.”
In other words, although Egypt has called for a “comprehensive international strategy” to fight extremism, it doesn’t seem that such a strategy is possible with its supposedly strongest counterterror ally, the United States. Egypt firmly believes that it best understands how to solve its own internal problems. And the United States maintains that the fight against extremism will be a long one that involves not just defeating violent extremist groups but also relieving the factors that drive these groups’ recruitment. The two countries must reevaluate their starkly different understandings of extremism to act as true partners against terrorism.