In the wake of two suicide bombings at Egypt churches on Palm Sunday, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi orders formation of Supreme Council to Counter Terrorism and Extremism.
On 31 December 2014, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi made an explicit call to the religious leaders of al-Azhar—the 1000-year-old institution that is today the topmost authority in the world on Sunni Islam—to reform the ‘religious address’. “We need a religious revolution,” he said. Such a ‘revolution’, he explained, meant reforming the interpretation of the 1400-year-old texts of Islamic faith, which made the Muslim World a source of “destruction”, he said, and pitted it against the rest of the world.
“1.6 billion people in the Muslim World,” he questioned, “should kill the entire world of 7 billion?” he said. “That’s impossible; it cannot be … We need a religious revolution.”
It was the first-ever official admission that Islamic texts were directly connected to terrorist thought, and the first-ever official call to change this.
Predictably, President Sisi was criticised by Islamic scholars for his alleged wish to tamper with explicit Allah-given Islamic texts. And he was criticised by liberals inside and outside Egypt for wishing to exploit the State-affiliated religious authority of al-Azhar to ‘his own ends’. All the while, terrorist attacks in the name of Islam continued to augment locally and worldwide in both number and horror.
Al-Azhar did next to nothing regarding religious reform; steps taken in the direction of bringing Islamic text interpretations more in line with modern-day variables have been so minor they’re almost imperceptible.
The result: thousands of terrorism victims
Following the Palm Sunday [9 April 2017] suicide bombings at two churches in Tanta and Alexandria, which claimed close to 50 lives and injured scores of Copts, President Sisi again spoke up, but this time he took action. Presiding over an urgent session of the National Security Council the day following the suicide bombings, Monday 10 April, he declared a three-month state of emergency, and announced the formation of a supreme council to counter terrorism and extremism, pending legal measures required to endow it with the competences needed for it to adequately perform its duties.
Sick and tired of the insane terrorist operations, and absolutely pained by the bloodshed of innocent people as well as police and military men, Egyptians responded with approbation. Islam Beheiri, an enlightened Islamic scholar who was last year imprisoned on charges of blasphemy but later released through a presidential pardon, spoke up on the newly-declared council. In a telephone call with the TV talk show host Amr Adib on ON E channel, Mr Beheiri passionately announced his full approval of the move by President Sisi and the National Security Council. “I have long said that religious authorities will not voluntarily do anything about religious reform,” he said. “Time and again I called upon the State to take matters into its own hands and do something about the issue. Now, finally, this is being done.” He deplored the fact that nothing was done on the path of religious reform since the President’s call on 31 December 2014; “The result,” Beheiri said, “has been that hundreds, if not thousands, have fallen victim to Islamic terrorist operations not only in Egypt, but the world over.”
All-encompassing national strategy
So, what can be expected of the supreme council for counterterrorism and counterextremism? And how will it go into force?
According to presidential spokesman Alaa’ Youssef, the council should be charged with setting up an all-encompassing national strategy to confront terrorism and extremism on all aspects, and to issue the decisions and take the measures necessary to implement that strategy. He said the council would include as members all State ministers and heads of State organisations connected to countering terrorism and extremism, and that it would be aided by perennial committees that include in their membership public figures and experts on all fronts. These should work to analyse and study terrorist movements, and follow up and monitor their activity and the extremist address they promote locally, regionally, and worldwide.
Political analysts and experts on terrorism are all in agreement on the need to set up a long-term national strategy that would put an end to the decades-long terrorist phenomenon in Egypt, the motives and causes of which vary according to local, regional, and international elements.
Opinions diverge, however, on the membership of the council, with many preferring that it should include neither the Speaker of the House of Representatives nor the Prime Minister. They also insist the President should not be pre-required to preside over all the council’s sessions. It is feared that the pre-required presence of leading figures already overburdened with public service may work to drag the activity of the council backwards instead of pushing it forward.
But the real problem with the newly-formed council, according to legal and constitutional experts, is that it lacks constitutional cover. Does this mean it will act as merely a consultative council with no binding decisions?
In its Article 216, Egypt’s Constitution includes what may be used to endow the counterterrorism and counterextremism council with the constitutional cover needed. “The formation of each individual autonomous organisation or regulatory agency shall be enacted by a law defining its competences and regulations, and stipulating guarantees for its independence, the necessary protection for its members, and their employment conditions in a way that ensures their neutrality and independence.
“The President of the Republic shall appoint the heads of such organisations and regulatory agencies, upon the approval of the House of Representatives by a majority of its members, for a one-time renewable term of four years. They shall not be dismissed, except in the cases stated in the law. The same prohibitions applicable to the Ministers shall apply to these heads.”
Apart from the constitutional cover, there is a standing political commitment, fulfilled through a legal commitment, by the State to defend citizens against all crimes committed against them by States or non-States. This places Egypt’s government under the obligation of protecting Egyptians against crime, including terrorist crimes, according to the law and to international standards and treaties.
The key: religious thought
General Muhammad Nour Eddin, former aide to the Interior Minister, applauded the formation of a supreme council to counter terrorism and extremism. He confirmed the need to apply more strict and firm measures to confront terrorism, stressing that this meant confronting extremist thought. Most significant among the council’s competencies, he said, should be that it ought to challenge extremist thought on the religious and media fronts, to speed up judicial procedures of bringing terrorist elements to justice, and to exploit all possible legal means to defend the State and battle terrorism.
“It is important,” General Nour Eddin said, “to apply security procedures and the criminal procedures law to battle terrorists. But far more important is to tackle the religious extremist thought that breeds terrorism. There can be no other way to persuade suicide bombers to refrain from their deeds.”
Another former Interior Minister aide, General Abdel-Latif al-Badini, perfectly agreed with General Nour Eddin. “The new council,” he said, “will be charged with supervisory and coordination tasks that would adequately orchestrate the work of the various bodies concerned with actively battling terrorism. But this will not be the most significant of the council’s work. Rather, it should place a strategy and guidelines to define all possible means to fight terrorism. Primarily, this includes tackling the extremist religious address promoted through religious organisations, political Islamist streams, or the media.”
For his part, MP Hamdy Bekheet stressed that all guarantees should be taken to ensure that decisions of the council for countering terrorism and extremism should be binding. “We need everything possible to make this council successfully achieve what it was created for,” he stressed.
Discovering potential terrorists
“In order for the new council to be a qualitative move in the war against terrorism, all State institutions should work hand in hand on that front. Conflict, such as the variance between the government and al-Azhar,” said writer and analyst Abdel-Azim Hammad, “does not serve the purpose of battling terrorism.” Mr Hammad also cited the widespread arguments and disputes among the various governmental, non-governmental, and religious streams on the media and the social network.
“In Egypt,” Mr Hammad said, “it is unfortunate that no real, comprehensive study that extends over the country’s history exists on the topic of terrorism. Such a study would have been pivotal in defining the roots and causes of terrorism and the production of terrorists, as well as how the terrorist phenomenon has evolved over the ages. This would naturally put the matter in perspective and lead to a better understanding of the perennial causes of terrorism as distinguished from transitory or contemporary causes.”
It is paradoxical, Mr Hammad insisted, that terrorists have been inmates of Egyptian prisons for decades but no one ever made any study on the psychological makeup of these terrorists, their mindsets, the thought they embrace, or their social backdrops … in short, on what made them terrorists. “We went really amiss with that,” he said, “given that Egypt has a competent Centre for Sociological and Criminological Studies, in addition to a number of prestigious university centres that specialise in psychological, social, political, and economic studies.
“Studies should not be restricted to prison inmates,” Mr Hammad explained, “but should extend to various groups such as factory workers, labourers, members of youth centres, police and military men and officers, residents of under-privileged neighbourhoods, mosque- and church-goers, but especially schoolchildren and students of various ages.” Potential terrorism should be spotted and tackled.
26 April 2017