The Sinai, terror, and the US response to Egypt

Is it wise to let concern about terrorism trump all?

Ahmed Gomaa/AP/File
Egyptian border guards patrol near the border with Israel in Rafah, Egypt, Aug. 6, 2012.

Wayne White, a former senior intelligence analyst for the US State Department focused on the Middle East, writes of the dangers of putting short term security concerns in Egypt ahead of human rights, and the possible long-term damage the US could do to its interests by "actively taking sides in a conflict pitting a repressive regime against armed opposition."

Mr. White's piece focuses on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and President Obama's recent decision to deliver Apache attack helicopters to the generals now running the country, who said they needed them to fight Al Qaeda-style terrorism in the area, which borders both the Gaza Strip and Israel. He acknowledges that Egypt has a real problem, but worries about the damage that could be done by reverting to the longstanding pattern of US policy when it comes to Egypt.

Jihadist activity in and emanating from Sinai soared following the military’s overthrow of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi last year. Three groups stand out: Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), Ansar al-Sharia of Egypt, and, since early this year, Ajnad Misr (AM).  Although there have been attacks against the Israeli border and foreigners, the vast bulk of them since Morsi’s overthrow have targeted Egyptian military and police personnel...

An ominous pattern of US regional policy choices appears to be taking shape that, effectively, sweeps aside very real concerns about widespread repression and abuse in order to help regimes friendly to the US crackdown on Muslim extremists.

To place this in perspective, despite what many believe, extremists do not typically place a high priority on attacking Americans, the US and other foreigners. Most are highly localized franchises, seeking mainly to overthrow local regimes. And even when they do target foreigners, attacks almost always involve only those inside countries where the violence is taking place.

He connects the terrorism-first thinking on Egypt to the Obama administration's mishandling of Iraq. There, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has systematically purged Sunni Arabs from government, using trumped up terrorism charges to arrest or kill members of the minority sect. While the US has been aware of the dangers of an increasingly authoritarian and chauvinistic government in Baghdad, it hasn't had much leverage to get Maliki or those around him to change his course.

When the predictable happened – a resurgence of support for Al Qaeda in Sunni Arab communities – the Obama administration effectively rewarded Maliki for his dangerous policies of exclusion with the delivery of advanced weapons to fight an insurgency his policies had helped breath back to life. US Hellfire missiles have since rained down on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS - formerly Al Qaeda in Iraq) and the Sunni Arab communities that have supported them. 

What's the problem with this? White writes: "The US risks becoming a far more important target of extremist groups on the receiving end of regime repression than is the case now."

Sinai extremists along with ISIL in Syria and Iraq, especially in their bitterness if and when they are defeated, could shift from a narrow focus on Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi government targets toward Americans and the US. Yet, whether Iraq (where Maliki never retook Fallujah), Syria (where ISIL’s woes stem mainly from regime forces and rebel rivals), and Egypt (where US military aid probably will not determine the outcome in Sinai), the US could loom far larger as an enemy and scapegoat.

In 2009, President Obama delivered a speech in Cairo that was meant to signal a major shift in US policy toward the region and the Muslim world more generally. He said then:

Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.

At the moment, Obama is charting a much different course.

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