Bombings and Repression in Egypt Underscore Failures in U.S. Anti-Terrorism Strategy

The devastating bombings which struck the Egyptian city of Sharm al-Sheik on July 24 underscore both the extent of the threat from Islamist terrorists and the failure of the United States and its allies to effectively deal with it.

That the bombers were somehow able to get around the military checkpoints through which traffic on all the major roads leading into the city must pass is a sobering indication of the terrorists’ sophistication and their network of support. The blasts killed 88 people, nearly twice as many as did the more-publicized terrorist bombings in London two weeks earlier. And it could have been far worse: two of the three bombs went off well short of their intended targets.

Terrorist attacks this past October in Taba and Ras a-Satan, other coastal resort cities on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, killed an additional 32 people.

Support for Despotic Regimes

Why has Egypt become the target of such terrorist violence?

While governments which supported the American invasion of Iraq may have become particularly attractive targets for Islamist terrorists, this is not the case with Egypt, which joined virtually all other Arab governments in opposition to the war.

And though the U.S.-led invasion has certainly increased the ranks of Islamist terrorists in the Middle East and beyond, Arab dictators such as Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak have been targeted by al-Qaida and like-minded Islamist extremists long before the ill-fated U.S. conquest of Iraq.

Indeed, support for corrupt and despotic regimes has long been recognized as the single biggest grievance of Islamists against the United States, even more so than U.S. support for Israel and the war against Iraq.

Egypt has been under Mubarak’s autocratic rule for almost a quarter century. Amnesty International and other reputable human rights groups have documented gross and systematic human rights abuses against perceived opponents of the regime, including massive detention without due process, torture on an administrative basis, and extra-judicial killings. Targets of government repression have included not just radical Islamists, but leftists, liberal democrats, feminists, gay men, independent-minded scholars, Coptic Christians, and human rights activists.

Despite promises of incipient democratic reforms, which have been hailed by the Bush White House, Mubarak has thus far refused to allow supporters of any kind of genuine political opposition to organize.

On July 30, plain-clothes Egyptian security forces, wielding truncheons, violently attacked peaceful protestors demonstrating against human rights abuses by the U.S.-backed regime. More than 1,000 uniformed security officers prevented the demonstration from taking place at Tahrir Square, in heart of Cairo, where it had been scheduled. When some demonstrators attempted to reassemble several blocks away, the police assault began. Scores were arrested, including George Ishaq and Amin Eskandar, leaders of Kifaya, the country’s leading pro-democracy group. Among those most seriously wounded were journalist Shaaban Abd al-Rahim al-Daba and trade union activist Kamal Abbas, director of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services in the city of Helwan.

This assault by Egyptian security forces followed a similar attack last spring against a group of women protesting peacefully for greater democracy the day of a government-managed plebiscite supposedly opening up the political process. Though the Bush administration has praised these supposed reforms as evidence of a democratic change in the Middle East, the Mubarak regime has actually strengthened its power to limit the ability of opposition political parties to challenge the government, further restricted these parties’ rights to publish newspapers, and made it virtually impossible for independent candidates to run for president.

It is tragic but not surprising that in a political system where the people are effectively barred from expressing their political grievances legally and nonviolently, some Islamist opponents have responded through terrorism.

U.S. support for the Egyptian regime, therefore, places Americans at risk. Largely as a result of the longstanding bipartisan U.S. effort to prop up the Mubarak dictatorship has led to a bare 2% of Egyptians looking favorably upon the United States, according to a recent public opinion poll. It is important to remember that Muhammed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, was an Egyptian.

Misplaced Priorities

Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world, receiving over $2 billion annually, much of that in weaponry and security assistance. Concerns expressed by pro-democracy groups in Egypt and human rights organizations in the United States that such arms and technology transfers are only making further repression possible has been rejected by Washington.

The Sharm el-Sheik bombers’ decision to target hotels catering to foreign tourists was probably not designed primarily to kill “foreign infidels” per se, but was more likely a strategic calculation designed to cripple the country’s vital tourist industry, which provides the government with needed foreign exchange but—outside of the relatively small numbers of Egyptians who work in service jobs catering to tourists—tends not to trickle down to ordinary people.

Sharm el-Sheik, which is well over 300 miles from the pyramids and most other ancient sites which have attracted Western tourists for centuries, is the country’s leading resort and international conference center. It serves as the Egyptian equivalent of Mexico’s Cancun, isolated from the country’s population centers and displaying a level of opulence few in Egypt could ever experience themselves. While the pride of many Egyptians, it serves for many others as a symbol of the Mubarak regime’s misplaced economic priorities which emphasize prestigious development projects while the country’s poor majority go without basic material needs and employment opportunities.

Egyptian Islamists have long stressed the government’s role in perpetuating the extreme social inequality and economic injustice in this country of 75 million. Unlike the progressive vision put forward by proponents of liberation theology in Latin America, however, the more radical Islamists—such as those believed to have been responsible for the July 24 bombings—have instead taken advantage of people’s legitimate grievances to advance their decidedly reactionary ideology and violent tactics.

Even putting aside the Iraq debacle, the bombings in Sharm al-Sheik—like the London bombings which preceded them—also raise questions regarding the efficacy of counter-terrorism policies by the United States and its allies.

Is high-altitude bombing and related military operations chasing down elusive al-Qaida leaders really the best way to deal with the threat from a decentralized network of underground terrorist cells? Might placing greater emphasis on intelligence-gathering, interdiction, and related measures be a more effective way to combat terrorism?

Rather than pushing for greater democracy primarily in Syria, Iran, and other countries controlled by dictatorships the United States does not like, might it serve our purposes better if we also promoted democracy in countries ruled by dictatorships like Egypt, over which the U.S. government can exert far more influence? Indeed, the overwhelming majority of al-Qaida’s leadership and members come from U.S.-backed dictatorships, not the autocratic anti-American regimes which have become the focus of the Bush administration and Congressional leaders of both parties.

Instead of providing unconditional military aid and economic support to such regimes, might we instead make assistance to foreign governments conditional on their willingness to uphold internationally-recognized standards of human rights?

And, for a fraction of the costs of what the United States has spent on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, might greatly expanded U.S. support for sustainable grassroots economic development in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries constitute a better means to address the root causes of Islamist terrorism?

Unfortunately, not only has the Bush administration refused to reevaluate its counter-terrorism policy, no prominent Congressional Democrat has bothered to raise such questions either. Unless and until prominent voices are willing to stand up to demand a shift away from the Bush administration’s embrace of the Egyptian dictatorship and other autocratic regimes, its over-reliance on military means to fight terrorism, and its failure to support sustainable economic development in Middle Eastern countries, America’s self-destructive policies will likely continue.

The United States and “Regime Change” in Iran

Though the Bush administration has repeatedly emphasized its desire for democratization and regime change in Iran, there are serious questions regarding how it might try to bring this about. There is, however, little question about the goal of toppling the Islamist government, with the Bush administration threatening war, arming ethnic minorities, and funding opposition groups. These efforts come in spite of the 1981 Algiers Accords, which led to the release of American hostages seized from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, in which the United States pledged to never again attempt to overthrow the Iranian government. The failure of the United States to honor this signed bilateral agreement has contributed to the Iranians’ lack of trust in the U.S. government and overall anti-American sentiment in that country. [International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, August 6, 2005; Download PDF & Source Link]


In a country wracked with violence, more than 100,000 Iraqis marched peacefully through the streets of Baghdad on 19 January 2004 demanding direct elections. Shouting ‘No to Saddam!’ and ‘No to America’, the nonviolent throng – many of them linking hands – marched for three miles to the University of al-Mustansariyah where speakers called for direct elections and a constitution based on justice and equality. Many carried portraits of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani and other Iraqi leaders who opposed both the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and the US-led invasion and occupation of their country.

Nonviolent actions have reined in despots and ousted dictators around the globe. But could Iraqis – left to their own devices – have toppled Saddam Hussein?

Quite possibly. Indonesia’s Suharto, who ruled the world’s largest Muslim nation for more than 33 years, had even more blood on his hands than Saddam, yet he was forced from power in a largely nonviolent uprising in 1998. Largely nonviolent insurrections also toppled tyrannical leaders of other Muslim states – Sudan’s Jaafar Nimeiry in 1985, Bangladesh’s Hussain Muhammad Ershad in 1990 and Mali’s Moussa Traoré in 1991. Islam has traditionally emphasized a kind of social contract between the ruler and his subjects that gives people the right – even the obligation – to refuse to co-operate with authorities seen as unjust.

Ironically, in Iraq it has been the US, Britain and other Western nations that may have made the emergence of such nonviolent movements impossible. Most of the world’s successful nonviolent, pro-democracy movements have centered in the urban middle class and industrial working class. However, in Iraq, thanks to the devastation of the 1991 Gulf War, and the debilitating sanctions that followed, the once-burgeoning middle class and the skilled working class were reduced to extreme poverty or forced to emigrate. In their place emerged a new class of black marketeers who had a strong stake in preserving the status quo. The sanctions not only had serious humanitarian consequences – resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from malnutrition and preventable diseases – but actually strengthened Saddam Hussein’s grip on power. By forcing the Iraqi people to become dependent on the regime for food, medicine and other necessities, the Iraqi people became even less likely to challenge it.

Since Saddam was ousted, continuing Western interference – both politically and economically – has created an environment in which nonviolent options have become increasingly difficult. In virtually all cases where a dictatorship was overthrown from within through nonviolence, elections came quickly and popular participation was widespread. By contrast, the Bush Administration strongly opposed holding direct elections during most of the first year of the US occupation. Initially the US supported compliant pro-American exile, Ahmed Chalabi, as leader of Iraq. When that became unacceptable, US officials tried to keep their viceroy, Paul Bremer, in power indefinitely. Neither the Iraqis nor the international community would tolerate that option. So the Bush Administration pushed for a caucus system where appointees of American appointees would choose the new government and write a constitution. That in turn sparked those January 2004 protests demanding a popular vote. Only then did President Bush reluctantly agree to allow direct elections.

Those finally took place in January 2005, nearly a year later. By then the security situation had deteriorated badly and the important Sunni minority was largely unable or unwilling to participate. In most Sunni-dominated parts of the country it was unsafe to go to the polls due to threats by insurgents. In addition, the major Sunni parties – angered at the enormous numbers of civilians killed in US counter-insurgency operations – called for a boycott. The result is an elected government that is not recognized by a key sector of the population – a recipe for continued conflict in Iraq.

Nonviolence confronts the destruction

While it is true that transitions from autocratic to democratic governance are not always easy, none of the countries where regimes have been ousted by nonviolent movements have suffered like Iraq. Since American and British forces occupied the country, tens of thousands of Iraqis – mostly civilians – have been killed. Malnutrition among children has doubled and childhood mortality has tripled. More than a million refugees have fled the country to avoid the car bombs, assassinations, kidnappings, martial law, deadly roadblocks and air strikes from American forces. Lines for fuel can be days long. In short, a lot more people have suffered in the two-and-a-half years since the US invasion than in the two-and-a-half years prior to it.

And there is no end in sight to the violence. By torturing prisoners, using heavy weaponry against crowded urban neighbourhoods and shooting innocents at checkpoints, the US is creating insurgents faster than its Army can kill them.

Yet despite enormous odds some Iraqis are continuing to resist the occupation through nonviolence. Last May the city of Ramadi – with a population of 400,000 – was shut down in a general strike to protest the US siege of the city, assaults on civilian neighbourhoods and the random arrests of thousands of young men by American occupation forces. Adherence to the call for massive nonviolent protest was near total. The streets were deserted, shops and other businesses were shuttered, the bazaars were shut down and schools, universities and government offices were closed.

Economic Violence Inc.

Like many Arab governments, Iraq under Saddam Hussein squandered billions of dollars through corruption and wasteful military spending. Nevertheless, prior to Saddam’s ill-fated invasion of Kuwait and the resulting war and sanctions, Iraq ranked near the top of Third World countries according to the UN Human Development Index (which measures nutrition, healthcare, housing, education and other human needs). The irony is that Iraqis are now poorer than they were during the decade of sanctions that followed the 1991 Gulf War.

Under Coalition Provisional Authority chairman Paul Bremer, radical changes were imposed upon the Iraqi economy, closely mimicking the infamous structural adjustment programmes prescribed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. These include:

• The widespread privatization of public enterprises that allows for up to 100 per cent foreign ownership of Iraqi companies;

• The imposition of a 15 per cent flat tax, which primarily benefits the wealthy and places a disproportionate burden on the poor;

• The virtual elimination of import tariffs, resulting in a flood of foreign goods into the country. Smaller Iraqi companies – weakened by years of sanctions – are unable to compete and hundreds of factories have recently shut down adding to already severe unemployment;

• 100 per cent repatriation of profits, which severely limits reinvestment in the Iraqi economy,

• A lowering of the minimum wage increasing already widespread poverty.

Recent polls show that less than seven per cent of Iraqis support these measures and more than two-thirds want the Government to play a strong role in the economy. The platform of the United Iraqi Alliance – the coalition that won the national elections last January – calls for the state to guarantee a job for every able-bodied Iraqi; to support home construction; to cancel debts and reparations; and to use the nation’s oil wealth for the country’s economic development. Given the conditions imposed by Bremer, the Alliance is unlikely to achieve those goals.

To add insult to economic injury, the US-imposed interim constitution dictates that the economic ‘reforms’ imposed during the formal US occupation cannot be overturned except by super-majorities of the National Assembly and the Presidential Council, which will be almost impossible to achieve. The result will be continued economic hardship for the vast majority of Iraqis. And should the newly elected government find itself unable to fulfil its economic promises because of this externally imposed economic structure, the credibility of Iraq’s democratic experiment could be put in jeopardy.

This systemic attack on Iraq’s economy, combined with serious damage to the country’s infrastructure from years of sanctions and war, has led to widespread resentment against the foreign occupiers. There is now a widespread feeling that the US is after Iraq’s wealth and is putting the profits of well-connected American companies ahead of the livelihoods of ordinary Iraqis. This has fuelled the armed resistance that has rendered attempts at rebuilding the country – by any economic model – virtually impossible. As a result, Washington may have no more success in imposing its free market utopia on the Iraqis than Moscow had in imposing its socialist utopia on the Afghans.

Give peace a chance

In this difficult economic transition, Iraqis are not alone. Even in countries where nonviolence has toppled tyrants and brought more individual freedom, economic freedom remains elusive. Nonviolence has been remarkably successful in bringing about civil and political rights, but much less successful in improving social and economic rights that could help to reinforce popular support for democratic governance and nonviolent change.

In the spring of 1997, seven years after the US/Contra war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista Government, tens of thousands of Nicaraguans engaged in a general strike to protest the austerity programmes of conservative President Arnoldo Alemán. Former Sandinista soldiers and former Contras left their guns at home and worked together to set up roadblocks and engage in street protests where they adhered strictly to a disciplined nonviolence. The Government, in the face of massive resistance, relented and the austerity measures were withdrawn. But only briefly. The IMF, with US pressure, forced the Government to adopt the austerity plan anyway. As Alejandro Badana, a leading Nicaraguan intellectual, asked an American audience a few months later: ‘Will the people of the North allow the people of the South to succeed through nonviolence?’

This presents a challenge to those of us in the industrialized world who recognize the power of nonviolent action. It is not enough to stand by on the sidelines and call on the oppressed to fight dictatorship and promote democracy and human rights. For the roots of much of this violence stem from the decisions of governments and economic institutions in advanced industrialized nations. Where active nonviolence is most badly needed may not be in the developing world, but here in Western democracies.