America’s missed opportunity in Egypt

There’s no reason to believe that the uprising will bring radical Islamists to power – so why isn’t

Hosni Mubarak's days are numbered as the president of Egypt, and possibly as a living human being. The 80 million people of Egypt are not going anywhere; the struggle for democracy and fight for a better life goes on. After Mubarak is gone, the world will have to deal with the reaction of thousands of protesters who were injured, killed, arrested, tortured on the street while the leaders of the international community were issuing empty, meaningless statements and taking no action except to support this ailing regime in its fight against its own people.

The hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who have taken to the streets since 25 January are not political activists or full-time dissidents. They are also not the Islamists who have long been portrayed by the media as Egypt's largest opposition and the only real threat to the regime. It was thought that any change in Egypt would automatically bring to power radical Islamists whose masterplan is believed to be the application of sharia (Islamic law) and the destruction of Israel. This is why the US government has always given unconditional support to the authoritarian regime of Mubarak and his party.

The protesters who took to the streets to challenge the country's brutal security forces did not risk their lives to apply shariaa or wipe Israel off the map. I should also point out that the protesters also had no interest in stoning adulterers to death. Their demands were for a job with a decent income, an end to the 30-year-long emergency rule, safe roads and public transportation, fair elections and a police force whose role is to protect rather than intimidate them.

Despite an endless number of international human rights reports condemning Egypt and giving the country a very poor ranking in the various global freedom and transparency indices, Joe Biden, the US vice-president, unashamedly refused to describe Mubarak as a dictator and said he should not step down . President Barack Obama himself described the Egyptian dictator as a "friend of the US" and a "force of stability in the region".

The Obama administration, especially Hillary Clinton, keeps using the word "reform" instead of "change" when commenting on the situation in Egypt. What the Americans fail to understand is that Egyptians are willing now to sacrifice their lives for change and don't want reform; they simply want Mubarak to step down and they want his regime to remove itself. Law and order will not be restored until this happens.

The problem is that international and domestic media reports about Egyptian politics have always been coated with a great deal of cynicism. The people of Egypt have for far too long been denied basic democratic rights based on dangerous misconceptions promoted by the regime itself. First, that free and fair elections would lead to a sweeping victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and hence would lead to instability in the region and a new threat to Israel. And that the consequences of democracy in Egypt would also involve the "ethnic cleansing" of the country's Coptic Christian minority and the introduction of stoning and and other barbaric punishments.

But let's take a look at the role of the main "religio-political" groups in the 25 January protest and following protests. Many Salafist groups have denounced the uprising. The Muslim Brotherhood was until the last minute reluctant to participate in the protest movement. Even the Coptic Church urged its followers not to participate in Tuesday's protests.

Nonetheless, it was still the country's biggest protest since the 18 January 1977 upheaval – despite the absence of Egypt's main religious groups and institutes. During the protests, it is worth noting, no one chanted "Death to adulterers" or "Down with Israel". There were no Qurans or crosses on display – instead, protesters were peacefully chanting "Freedom, freedom" and waving the Egyptian flag.

For far too long, people inside and outside of Egypt have turned a blind eye to the regime's human rights violations due to their fear of the country's Islamists and, in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The misconception that Islamists are waiting in line to seize power was based on the Brotherhood winning 88 seats (20 per cent) in the 2005 parliamentary elections. But many observers believe this number was carefully decided by the Mubarak regime itself to send a message to western superpowers about the supposed threat from Islamists – in order to resist the Bush administration's pressure to democratise the country further.

The number was big enough to scare everyone they wanted to scare, but still not big enough for the Brothers to drive any real change in Egyptian politics. Interestingly, the regime "allocated" no seats at all for the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2010 elections, by which time US pressure – under Obama – had reduced.

It's true that Egypt has seen growing conservatism and even extremism during the past three decades, in what has been described as a soft Islamic revolution. However, this growing trend has found a fertile ground to grow in the regime's oppressive environment and systematic policies of impoverishing its people, such as its determined refusal to enforce a fair minimum wage despite a court ruling to that effect.

It seems, however, that the wave of Islamophobia, or in this case "Islamistphobia", that hit the world after the September 11 attacks drove many to turn a blind eye to their ideals of freedom, liberty and human rights, including President Obama, who has always raised the banner of change and liberty but has been a great deal softer with the 82-year-old Egyptian despot than his predecessor.

If Washington continues to support "reform" rather than "change" in Egypt, it gives way to Islamists to present themselves as the only saviour to the Egyptian people, and risks having a confrontational, radical Islamist regime and a populace full of bitterness towards a nation, the United States, that refused to support the struggle for basic human rights, and chose instead to support a dictator who committed countless crimes against his own people.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.