EGYPT'S NECESSARY WAR ON TERROR
By asserting that an obsessive vendetta against the Muslim Brotherhood animates all of the Egyptian government’s domestic and foreign policies, Steven Cook (“Egypt’s Nightmare,” November/December 2016) tries to force several square pegs into the same round hole. Such a simplistic approach overlooks key elements of the political and economic situation in Egypt and the region at large, as well as the history and true nature of the Brotherhood.
Cook argues that the Egyptian government’s animosity toward the Muslim Brotherhood has wreaked terrible damage, but many of his claims are based on flimsy evidence. For instance, he asserts that Egyptian security forces have “‘disappeared’ hundreds.” But a recent report by Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights revealed that of 267 reported disappearances, 238 involved defendants who were either awaiting trial or had already been released. Cook asserts that the government has “arrested more than 40,000 people,” citing a figure that continues to circulate even though no one has provided a list of the names of these individuals. Those echoing this claim have repeated the lie so often that it has been accepted as a fact.
Cook criticizes the government’s economic policies and their results, ignoring Egypt’s endemic structural problems, the turbulence of the last six years, and the progress the government has made. He neglects to mention that the government has laid out an ambitious economic plan, “Egypt Vision 2030,” and made massive investments in infrastructure, adding more than 4,000 miles of roads and 200 tunnels to facilitate commerce and investing roughly $22 billion to rectify the electricity deficit. In the last two years, unemployment has declined from 13.5 percent to 12.5 percent. As for public health, the government is addressing an outbreak of hepatitis C, having cured 800,000 Egyptians for free since January 2016. What’s more, in August, Egypt reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund to push through economic reforms in exchange for a $12 billion loan, and it has since taken steps toward floating the currency and paring back subsidies.
Throughout his article, Cook portrays Egypt as the primary destabilizing factor in the Middle East. He insists that the Egyptian government’s “obsession” with the Muslim Brotherhood—a group that Cook claims offers “a vision of authenticity, nationalism, and religious reform”—has become the guiding principle of Egypt’s foreign policy.
But Cook overlooks the fact that Egypt is combating not a group but a scourge. The Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization that espouses an extremist ideology. The founder of the Brotherhood, Hasan al-Banna, condoned and practiced violence; its most important ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, introduced the extremist doctrine of takfirism, which brands all those who do not conform to Islamist doctrine as apostates and legitimate targets for acts of violence. In his recent book, Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days, Eric Trager points out that Qutb inspired contemporary terrorists such as the al Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki and the current leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Egypt’s fight is therefore not against the Brotherhood in particular but against extremism and terrorism in general.
Cook ignores this threat. He would have Egypt show more leniency toward extremists, arms smugglers, and lawless militias. He would have Egypt give the Brotherhood a second chance, despite the explicit rejection by the Egyptian people of the Brothers’ tyrannical rule. Meanwhile, when it comes to foreign policy, Cook castigates Egypt for attempting to “suffocate” the people of Gaza by imposing a unilateral blockade and destroying underground tunnels that connect Egypt to Gaza, and he blames Egypt for exacerbating the humanitarian tragedies in Libya and Syria.
Egypt’s fight is not against the Brotherhood in particular but against extremism and terrorism in general.
But the destruction of the underground tunnels was a national security necessity. Egypt faces a ruthless terrorist campaign in northern Sinai. The tunnels are illegal and concealed, and terrorists use them to smuggle weapons, as Cook concedes. Cook brushes aside decades of Egyptian efforts advocating Palestinian rights to criticize one necessary national security measure.
Far from accelerating Libya’s fragmentation, Egypt has prioritized that country’s stability and territorial integrity. Egypt’s stance toward Libya builds on the Skhirat agreement that Libya’s factions signed in December 2015, which lays out a framework for forming a government of national unity. Egypt recognizes the importance of forming such a government, but along with the rest of the international community, it also acknowledges the importance of parliamentary approval by the legitimate legislature. And Egypt supports the Libyan National Army in its war against lawless militias.
Cook similarly mischaracterizes Egyptian policy toward Syria. Portraying the Egyptian government as a supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he insists that Egypt’s sole aim is preventing the Brotherhood from gaining a foothold in Syria. He concedes, however, that Egypt has “not sent Assad any money, weapons, or soldiers,” while neglecting to mention the fact that Cairo has hosted meetings of moderate Syrian opposition groups. So how exactly has Egypt supported Assad? Egypt’s stance on Syria has been clear from the beginning of the conflict: it has called for a political solution that involves all parties, alleviates humanitarian suffering, combats terrorism, and preserves Syria’s territorial integrity. These elements also constitute the essence of the Geneva conferences, the framework for the international community’s peace process.
Egypt is combating not a group but a scourge.
In blaming Egypt for the Middle East’s problems, Cook’s article raises a pertinent question: How did the current debacle in the region arise? The plight of the people of Gaza is a culmination of decades of double standards and inaction by the international community. The chaos engulfing Libya emerged after an international military campaign that achieved little more than the demolition of the country’s state structures and that left Libya at the mercy of terrorists and mercenaries. As for the conflict in Syria, it has spiraled into a cycle of self-perpetuating violence, in large part due to shortsighted actions that have failed to advance dialogue. And the policy of appeasing and integrating extremists, supported by Cook and many others in the West, has accelerated the rise of terrorism and chaos in the region.
I would like to thank Ahmed Abu Zeid for his response. His comments only underscore the point I made throughout my article that the Egyptian government, in its single-minded pursuit of the Muslim Brotherhood, has wasted precious resources and distorted its domestic politics, with profoundly negative consequences for Egypt’s neighbors.
I would also like to note one factual error in Abu Zeid’s response. Nowhere in my article do I claim that Egypt is “the primary destabilizing factor in the Middle East.”