Argument

The Arab War on Terror

Obama's Middle East allies are signing up for the fight against the Islamic State. But it's not for the reason you think.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP

Arab states have a new defining cause: the war on terror. Almost four years ago, popular uprisings across the region upended an old order and created a new set of aspirations and a new collective meaning. That was the Arab Spring; save in Tunisia, where the spirit survives, it lasted for two years at the most before giving way to chaos and violence, backlash and regret.

What was the new meaning and direction of the Arab world? At the time, no one could be sure. Now, however, it’s become clear. The imperative — the felt imperative, that is — to fight terrorism has relegated the demands for personal dignity and political rights to the quaint preoccupation of youthful malcontents.

I’ve just returned from a long visit to Alexandria (of which I’ll have much to say in a subsequent piece) and it’s clear that the one thing all parties in Egypt agree on, save for the malcontents, is the need to stand united against the terrorist menace. This is not, however, exactly the same menace that Americans worry about.

When Egyptians say, "We’re in a terrorist phase now," they are referring not to the Islamic State (IS) but to Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which has been killing policemen and soldiers in the Sinai; to the Muslim Brotherhood, which they see as the political face of jihadi violence; and to the civil war next door in Libya. Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign minister, recently denied that Cairo has agreed even to join the U.S.-organized military campaign against IS. "The mission of the Egyptian army is to protect the Egyptian people and the country’s borders," he said tartly.

Let’s take a tour of the region: Lebanon is now scared stiff about the Islamic State, which has beheaded two captive Lebanese soldiers, but it’s just as worried about other Islamist groups which have crossed the border from Syria, including al-Nusra Front. The Emiratis fear IS, and are eager to join the American coalition, but they’re so worried about the Islamists in Libya, fighting under the name Libyan Dawn, that, along with Egypt, they have reportedly bombed rebel forces there (to no discernible effect). The Turks fear IS, but not much more than they fear the Kurdish separatists who might take advantage of an anti-jihadist coalition to press their own campaign for independence. The Saudis may have agreed to host training bases for moderate Syrian rebels, but they fear Iran more than anyone. It’s no wonder that Secretary of State John Kerry got such an equivocal response when he toured the Middle East looking for expressions of support.

I recently raised this issue with a senior diplomat from a Gulf country, who said, "Our fears for the region obviously go beyond IS." He’s not sure his American friends share those fears. "Is this a one-off?" he asks, "Or are we going to see a true partnership to go after terrorism?" It’s a fair question: Why should Arab states lend their support to America’s bête noire if the United States won’t reciprocate?

The problem, however, is the way regional states define the swamp which they would like the United States to help them drain. The chief swamp-dweller is the Muslim Brotherhood. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have banned the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. The UAE convicted 69 Brotherhood members of plotting to overthrow the state. In Egypt, it is an article of faith shared by secularists and Salafists alike that the Brotherhood is responsible, directly or indirectly, for terrorist violence and sabotage — despite the lack of evidence tying the organization to Ansar Beit’s murderous campaign. The great organizing principle of the current Egyptian regime is simply this: Crush the Brotherhood.

The Gulf diplomat I spoke to was quite explicit on this score. The Brotherhood and al Qaeda, he said, "are shades of the same thing." The Brotherhood is "a gateway to further extremism." When he asks whether the United States sees Libya as "another domino," as those in the region do, he is asking in part whether Washington understands that the Brotherhood is seeking to knock over regional dominoes, as American policymakers once said about international communism.

The answer is no. Barack Obama offered American support to Mohammed Morsi of the Brotherhood when the Egyptian people elected him president. It seemed, at the time, like an important endorsement of the right of Egyptians to decide for themselves who should lead the country. Administration officials quickly concluded that Morsi was a complete incompetent, but he was obviously no terrorist. In fact, Morsi proved to be a useful and effective interlocutor with Hamas.

Since then, neither he nor the other Brotherhood leaders who have been jailed and now face the death penalty based on absurdly trumped-up charges have called on their followers to take up arms against the state. Despite decades of repression, the Brotherhood has never deviated from a policy of nonviolent change. The organization has been singled out in part because of its own secrecy and parochialism, as well as its endorsement of violence when practiced by allies like Hamas. It is also the object of a paranoia Americans will quickly recognize as a new form of the Red Menace.

The terrorism label increasingly looks like a flimsy rationale for authoritarian control. After the European Union used a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council to call for a "thorough, independent and transparent investigation" of the killing of several thousand protestors by Egyptian security forces since the overthrow of the Brotherhood government in July 2013, Egyptian officials accused the Europeans of adopting a hypocritical "double standard" that called on Cairo to join the fight against terrorism while undermining its efforts to do so. Foreign Minister Shoukry summoned EU ambassadors to personally object to the "negative message" they had conveyed.

Americans are probably in no position to criticize Arab states for overreacting to the terrorist threat by adopting harsh domestic legislation. If the United States whipped through the Patriot Act and gave itself leave to waterboard suspected terrorists in the aftermath of 9/11, how surprised can we be that nations with no tradition of democracy criminalize dissent and prohibit demonstrations, as Egypt is in the process of doing? Nevertheless, it’s deeply disheartening to see the dark mass of the national security state so utterly eclipse the beautiful celebration of freedom that adorned the public spaces of the Arab world only a few years ago. What’s more, the brutal reaction to dissent is surely self-defeating in the long run. Killing unarmed Islamist protestors has proved to be surprisingly popular among Egyptians, but doing so is far likelier to foster terrorism than to deter it. And it undermines the new war on terror by conflating domestic political rivals with a genuine transnational threat.

The Arab world really does face a growing threat of terrorist violence; it really does need to forge a partnership with the West to confront the Islamic State as well as more localized forces. But the West is not about to join a campaign to crush political opponents on the pretext of fighting terrorism. Egypt and its new friends in the Gulf will have to do that on their own.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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