Egypt and political violence

In Opinion Articles by CIHRS

Across Egypt’s varied governments in the last 40 years, one characteristic unites them all: a common failure to respond to the root causes of political violence, writes Bahieddin Hassan


‘The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall’
— Che Guevara

June 1967 witnessed two historical developments: the military defeat of Egypt and its still operating political regime, and the end of the state’s monopoly on violence. Egypt came to experience the modern wave of religious violence at the beginning of the 1970s. A few years later, militant Islamic groups launched their first terroristic attacks.

Post-25 January 2011 witnessed discontinuous waves of light political violence by some small political youth groups. Political/religious/social violence is born to stay in Egypt, as long as the state fails to address its roots. Through more than 40 years Egypt has experienced different forms of government, but all share in common a failure to respond to the root causes of violence.

Many observers think that Egypt’s fight against terrorism during the 1980s and 1990s was a success story. This is a false assumption. Egypt succeeded only in freezing terroristic operations for a few years through the implementation of a state of emergency for decades, practicing extrajudicial killing and brutal torture against suspected perpetrators and collaborators, and referring them to fast and unfair military trials. These courts notched up unprecedented scores in issuing death penalty rulings.

At the same time, the government has continued to feed and irrigate the root causes of political and religious violence, through its unjust social policies and authoritarian and repressive politics. Consecutive governments have continued to tolerate the dissemination of an Islamic militant discourse that justifies violence and terror against any “other” as a mean to accomplish political and religious goals. This discourse has been developed systematically for decades through the government’s media, educational curricula and Al-Azhar University.

Since the 25 January Revolution, it has become more clear how much the relatively enlightened grand imam of Al-Azhar is terribly isolated among an overwhelming majority of extremist scholars, clergy, professors and students.

In responding to the escalating violence, the government has not limited its oppressive actions to the actors, but extended it to their local societies. This resulted in the alienation of those societies, pushing them towards indirect or direct support of political violence. The most terrible alienation of a society took place in Sinai, where the traditional and conservative Bedouin community has been subjected since the first terroristic attack in Sinai in 2004 to severe oppressive and intrusive security measures. This has resulted in transforming Sinai into a haven for some of the most extreme armed Islamic groups, including affiliates of Al-Qaeda and terroristic cells and individuals who struck a temporary ceasefire with the government 1998, and then moved later activities to Sinai.

Because nothing had been done to address the root causes of violence, terror groups reclaimed the initiative in Sinai. They have been empowered enough to attack in recent weeks several headquarters of the police and military intelligence in Sinai, without a response, and to kill almost every day several soldiers and officers. This year, they came back to strike in Cairo several times, as well as in several cities.

In fact, Sinai has become increasingly an uncontrolled region. Therefore, it is hard to consider that the struggle for an “Independent Islamic Emirate” in Sinai is unrealistic, and in particular in light of ongoing post-3 July politics.

Even it is highly expected that, against its illusions, the politics of the 3 July military-security junta will result in an escalation of all forms of violence. The bloody dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s sit-ins and continued bloody repression of their demonstrations will result in convincing more members and supporters of this grassroots organisation to believe that there is no room for peaceful change, and that armed rebellion is the only way left.

Having some armed people among the protesters does not justify this blood bath. What makes it even worse is the solid reality that there is no way to secure justice for those victims, or all victims of police or military repression, during or after the 18 days of the January 2011 Revolution.

On 19 November, the 3 July junta launched its first repressive attacks on liberal and leftist youth demonstrators. Later it arrested dozens of the same, including the most famous of its symbols, along with sexually harassing some of the female demonstrators. This is an additional indication that a larger crackdown is looming on course to reconstructing the police state.

The hegemony of the security concept in post-3 July policies, laws and actions is another face of the same coin of consistent failure to respond to the root causes of violence. Even it drives the causes deeper.

The writer is director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

Article published in Al-Ahram Weekly