When U.S. President Barack Obama pledged on August 18 “to pursue a long-term strategy to turn the tide” against jihadi terrorists in Iraq, “working with key partners in the region and beyond,” Egypt was probably one partner he had in mind. On the very same day, U.S. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf cited counterterrorism as an “overlapping strategic interest” between the United States and Egypt. Asked if the United States still views Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as leading a democratic transition despite human rights abuses (such as those identified in a recent Human Rights Watch report), Harf replied, “He is, he is.”

On the face of it, counterterrorism and human rights abuses might appear to be unrelated subjects. U.S. officials certainly treat them that way; they expect Sisi to be a useful ally in fighting terrorism, while occasionally bemoaning his repression and human rights abuses. But on closer examination there is a critical connection: widespread human rights abuses threaten to push alienated Egyptians into the arms of extremist groups, as well as create a broader swath of society unwilling to help the army or police defeat them. And U.S. endorsement of Sisi as a democratic leader—Egyptian media immediately picked up Harf’s comments—encourages him to continue abuses and creates complicity potentially dangerous to Americans.

Michele Dunne
Michele Dunne is a nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on political and economic change in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, as well as U.S. policy in the Middle East.
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Among the various factors that are alienating many Egyptians and making them more susceptible to radicalization, several stand out: abuses related to the massive detentions since the summer 2013 coup against then president Mohamed Morsi, lack of accountability for killings, exclusion of most Islamists from politics and public life, and brutal methods used in the marginalized Sinai region. U.S. officials should pay close attention to these problems because Egypt may well be fueling terrorism at a faster pace than fighting it.

Criminal Injustice System

The government’s massive campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and other dissidents since the 2013 coup has led to an unprecedented swell in political detentions with a host of associated problems—overcrowding and harsh conditions, torture, mass trials without even a veneer of justice, and lengthy detentions without any due process. All these developments have the potential to radicalize the often young detainees.

The scale of the problem is enormous: Wiki Thawra, an initiative of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights that has attempted to compile comprehensive statistics on human rights abuses since the January 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak, estimates that 36,478 Egyptians were detained or indicted for participating in political events (such as protests) between July 3, 2013, and May 15, 2014. Another 1,714 were detained or indicted for terrorism. Human rights groups have been unable to determine how many of these detainees remain behind bars. An unknown number of Egyptians are detained without charge; prominent cases that have come to light include former Morsi adviser Khaled al-Qazzaz and photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid.

Torture, a long-term problem in Egypt that persisted even after the 2011 uprising, currently appears to be rampant. According to a joint statement by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, “Mounting reports of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees harken back to the most abusive periods under Hosni Mubarak.” In one notable example, Amnesty International and the Guardian have documented reports of as many as 400 Egyptians who have been disappeared and brutally tortured by the security forces in a single military-run facility. Across the country, at least 80 prisoners have died in police custody since July 2013, with the bodies often showing signs of torture.

Prisons, meanwhile, are dangerously overcrowded, and prisoners are not supplied with even the most basic of amenities or healthcare. Harsh conditions have led detainees to riot and go on hunger strikes, which the security forces have violently repressed.

To handle the number of detainees, the court system has created special circuits and held mass trials. This underlines the extent to which the judiciary has been a willing participant in the repression of the past year.

In addition to the international-headline-making provisional death sentences for 683 defendants in April 2014 and 529 in March issued in just two cases, there have been many other trials in which dozens or hundreds of defendants were convicted of crimes such as demonstrating without a permit, rioting, or belonging to a banned organization like the Muslim Brotherhood. A sampling of recent sentences handed down by Egyptian judges includes 54 Morsi supporters that were given life in prison, and 25 secular activists, including Alaa Abdel Fattah, that were sentenced in absentia to fifteen years in prison. Death sentences were upheld for 183 Morsi supporters, and a court convicted 238 Brotherhood supporters to sentences ranging from one year to life in prison. Other mass trials are ongoing, including the trial of 494 Morsi supporters for August 2013 clashes near al-Fateh Mosque.

Egypt has experienced similarly harsh policies in the past, with severe consequences. In the 1950s and 1960s, tens of thousands were detained and tortured in Nasser’s brutal prisons, including much of the Muslim Brotherhood. The experience radicalized some of the imprisoned Islamists, contributing to the development of the jihadi ideology that underpins al-Qaeda and a split in the Brotherhood between those opposing and advocating for the use of violence. There is ample reason to fear the same now.

Absence of Accountability

In addition to the mass trials and abuses taking place in prisons, harsh tactics employed by security forces also threaten to radicalize more of the population. More than 2,500 Egyptians have been killed in demonstrations and clashes since mid-2013. Most of these deaths occurred in the summer and fall after Morsi’s overthrow, but today—despite shrinking protests due to repression—demonstrators continue to be killed regularly by the security forces.

Yet, there has been no transitional justice or other mechanism to hold police and army officers accountable for their actions. Not a single member of the security forces has been called to account for the violence that followed Morsi’s ouster, including the August 2013 Rabaa massacre. In a separate incident, four police officers were convicted initially for an incident in which 37 prisoners died after being tear-gassed inside a police vehicle, but the officers’ convictions were overturned on appeal.

This lack of accountability threatens to fuel further violence. Anecdotal evidence suggests that revenge for deaths and other abuses at the hands of the security forces has contributed to radicalization and motivated specific attacks since the coup. Without a genuine process of transitional justice, these grievances will continue to fester.

But such a process seems unlikely to materialize. Currently, a fact-finding commission formed by interim president Adly Mansour in December 2013 to investigate post-Morsi violence is still working, but it already missed its original deadline after citing a lack of cooperation by the security forces. Similar efforts since the 2011 removal of Mubarak, including during the Morsi presidency, also did not produce meaningful results.

Excluding Islamists and Other Critics From Public Life

Since the July 2013 coup, the Muslim Brotherhood and most other Islamist groups have been increasingly excluded from public life, including politics, media, civil society, and commerce. Nearly all avenues for peaceful expression have been closed to them, and increasingly to non-Islamist critics of the government as well.

As part of the crackdown, an Egyptian court banned the Brotherhood and then took the further step of declaring it a terrorist organization in December (although without producing evidence of its involvement in terrorist operations). The group’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP)—which won a near majority in 2012 parliamentary elections—has also been dissolved and will not be able to participate in parliamentary elections planned for late 2014. Immediately after last year’s coup, Islamist television channels were taken off air, and the FJP’s newspaper was later banned.

Prominent non-Brotherhood Islamists who opposed the coup were also targeted for arrest, including Aboul Ela Madi and Essam Sultan of the moderate Wasat Party, Assem Abdel Maged and Tarek al-Zomor of the Salafi Building and Development Party, and Hazem Abu Ismail, a Salafi and former presidential candidate. Harassment of the remaining Islamist leadership has since expanded. Recently, security forces arrested leaders from the Building and Development Party, the Independence Party, and the Wasat Party who had been active in the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, an umbrella group protesting Morsi’s removal.

The government has drafted new laws to restrict political activity and the expression of dissent. On November 24, 2013, the interim government issued a law that effectively banned opposition protests, requiring demonstrators to receive prior permission from the police and applying heavy penalties, including jail time, for participation in unauthorized protests. The government has also prepared a series of amendments related to terrorism provisions in the penal code, though they have not yet been enacted into law. The amendments expand the definition of terrorism to include peaceful political activities, consistent with the government’s attempts to define Islamist opposition of all stripes as terrorism.

The attempt to exclude Brotherhood figures has also gone beyond the political realm to include social welfare organizations, professional associations, and commercial companies. The government has taken over associations affiliated with the Brotherhood—including those providing medical, educational, and charity services. The committee charged with overseeing the process claimed to have taken custody of 1,075 associations linked to the group by March 2014. More recently, in June 2014, the committee ordered the seizure of two large supermarket chains owned by Brotherhood leaders.

While Islamists have been the major target, well-known secular activists who have dared to criticize the military coup, call for accountability for human rights abuses, or protest against repressive new laws have also found themselves imprisoned, outlawed, or accused of various serious offenses such as espionage.

Mishandling the Sinai

The Sinai Peninsula—a lightly controlled area whose indigenous inhabitants have never been fully incorporated into Egyptian political and economic life—continues to be a hotbed of instability. The grievances of the Sinai’s population are rooted in decades of mismanagement, repression, and neglect by the state, but tensions have spiked recently. Following the coup against Morsi and the August 2013 dispersal of a large pro-Morsi sit-in, a violent insurgency led by the jihadist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis that had been simmering for several years (including during Morsi’s presidency) exploded in North Sinai.

Reliable information on the insurgency is difficult to obtain because of the military’s efforts to limit communications throughout the peninsula and to restrict reporters from covering events in the area. But Wiki Thawra estimates that between July 3, 2013, and January 31, 2014, terrorists killed at least 131 policemen and soldiers and 37 civilians in the governorate. Casualties from terrorist attacks dipped in early 2014, but began to increase again in the summer. At least fourteen were killed in the Sinai by terrorist attacks in May and June, and in July, at least five members of the security forces and fifteen civilians—in addition to many militants—were killed.

Reporting that has made it out of the Sinai over the past year suggests that the Egyptian security forces have responded to the insurgency with a campaign that makes little distinction between civilians and militants. According to an investigation conducted by the news organization Middle East Eye, the military’s operations had killed up to 300 people, most of whom were civilians, by the end of April 2014. Apache helicopters and tanks have been used to destroy dozens of homes and reportedly even entire villages, in addition to targeting militants.

Sisi’s administration shows no signs of shifting away from its security-heavy approach and toward a policy that would foster cooperation between the government and local residents against terrorists. Rather, Egyptian forces continue to play cat-and-mouse with extremists groups, while practicing collective punishment against civilians. As long as these policies continue, the Sinai Peninsula will likely remain a source of antistate violence and extremism that threatens to spill over into both the Egyptian mainland and Israel.

Implications for U.S. Policy

The United States and other allies of Egypt understandably want to help Sisi’s government fight a worrisome domestic terrorism problem. But it is extremely important that they press Egyptian authorities to change course rather than endorsing an approach that has sparked and exacerbated the problem. Repression, human rights abuses, and political exclusion are alienating a significant share of Egypt’s restive population and threaten to create a pool of recruits to extremism and reservoirs of support for extremism. One year after the coup and crackdown, there is no sign that Sisi is adopting more enlightened policies to foster national healing.

Because of the decades-long security relationship between the United States and Egypt, as well as the latter’s critical location neighboring Israel and Gaza, the U.S. government undoubtedly will continue some forms of counterterrorism and other security cooperation with the Egyptian government despite the military’s role in ending a nascent democratic transition and cracking down on all opposition.

But U.S. officials would be wise to widen the aperture through which they view the terrorism problem in Egypt. Not only are current Egyptian policies threatening to push many toward extremism, but as the United States learned in its efforts against al-Qaeda in Iraq, conventional forces need the cooperation of the population in order to isolate and defeat even small numbers of determined extremists. Repressing and alienating a significant part of Egypt’s population is a strategy that promises to backfire on both counts, a matter U.S. officials should take every bit as seriously as kinetic efforts to defeat terrorists in the Sinai and elsewhere.

Any U.S. counterterrorism strategy for Egypt should include robust efforts to persuade Sisi to cease abuses, institute meaningful transitional justice, and allow free expression and political activity by Islamist as well as secular members of the opposition, civil society, and media. If Sisi continues policies that will encourage rather than combat radicalization, the United States should withhold military or other assistance to his government, although it might still seek ways to show support for the Egyptian people. U.S. officials should take care in public and private to make clear that the United States seeks to promote freedom and prosperity for all Egyptians. Above all, they should avoid appearing to endorse Egypt’s current repression and exclusionary politics as the inevitable ups and downs of a democratic transition. That not only sends the wrong message to Sisi but also increases the likelihood of violence against Americans.

Scott Williamson, previously a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, will begin graduate studies in political science at Stanford University in September.