Is Egypt repeating Iraq’s mistakes?

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By John Rodriguez

Much of the blame for the recent crisis in Iraq, with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seizing large swaths of territory, has been laid at the feet of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his sectarian policies. Aaron David Miller, Vice President for New Initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, asserted “the most central actor in the current mess isn’t Barack Obama or even George W. Bush, but Nouri al-Maliki, a diehard Shiite triumphalist whose vision of the new Iraq had little to do with a more broadminded future and everything to do with taking care of business related to the past — settling scores and gaining power.”[1] Fareed Zakaria, a journalist for CNN and the Washington Post, wrote “the Prime Minister and his ruling party have behaved like thugs, excluding the Sunnis from power, using the army, police forces and militias to terrorize their opponents.”[2] The United States initially resisted escalating support to Iraq while Maliki remained in power.[3] Only the possibility of a Kurdish collapse and a massive slaughter of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar spurred the United States to take limited action prior to the formation of a new Iraqi government.[4] However, it was only “with a new Iraqi government in place,” that the President announced “America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this [ISIS] terrorist threat.”[5] With Haider al-Ibadi’s formation of a new Iraqi government, the U.S. now has a replacement for both Maliki himself and ideally his repressive policies and practices. But is another key U.S. partner, Egypt, repeating Iraq’s mistakes?[6]

While Egypt does not have the same sectarian tensions as Iraq, there is danger that by pursing exclusionary policies President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is imitating Maliki’s flawed policies and could strengthen Islamist insurgents by persuading political opponents to use bullets rather than ballots to make their voices heard. Egypt has undergone turmoil since the Arab Spring and the ousting of longtime President Hosni Mubarak on February 11th, 2011.[7] Mubarak was replaced by Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood; a political party previously banned and persecuted by the Egyptian government and military. The Egyptian military under Sisi launched a coup to replace Morsi in July 2013.[8] The military claimed that it replaced Morsi at the request of the Egyptian people because he was beginning to rule undemocratically.[9] However, the conduct of Sisi and the Egyptian military after Morsi’s ouster contradicts the supposedly democratic motives for his removal.

While Maliki is to blame for ordering the human rights abuses and repression that has escalated the sectarianism, Sisi has allowed himself to also fall for a tried and true insurgent tactic to gain popular support.[10]Carlos Marighella, the famous Brazilian urban guerilla theorist, wrote that terrorism can give the government “no alternative but to intensify repression” causing a situation in which “the masses refuse to collaborate with the authorities because they feel the government is unjust and incapable of solving their problems.”[11] Since the government cannot locate the culprits of the violence, they respond in a disproportionate and indiscriminate fashion. However, this approach backfires because when faced with a repressive regime “to be ‘violent’ or a ‘terrorist’ is a quality that ennobles any honorable person, because it is an act worthy of a revolutionary engaged in armed struggle against the shameful military dictatorship and its atrocities.”[12]

While there is no comparison of the levels of violence in Egypt and Iraq, there has been an alarming increase in violence since the military coup that ousted President Morsi.According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, the Egyptian military’s heavy-handed crackdown on political opposition resulted in over 1,300 deaths in the months after the coup.[13] One of the most infamous incidents was the massacre in Rabaa Square occurring just over a year ago. Egypt then declared the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization.[14] The Egyptian courts have followed up on this by dissolving the Freedom and Justice Party, which is the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing in Egypt.[15] The courts have also handed out death sentences to thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members. In March and April of 2014 Egyptian judges dealt mass death sentences of 529 and 683 respectively for killing a single police officer.[16] Predictably these acts of repression, much like Maliki’s attacks on Sunni protest camps, have only escalated tensions.[17] The persecution of the Brotherhood has given rise to fears that “without legitimate channels for it to contest the emergent order, the terrorist designation may become self-fulfilling.”[18] Radical Sunni Salafist militant groups, such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) and Ajnad Misr, have also emerged in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution.[19] Unfortunately, a U.S. counterterrorism official said that “we fear that the Egyptian government’s heavy-handed tactics may be fueling recruitment for ABM or other extremist groups in the region…these groups are going to only get stronger if the response from the Egyptian government isn’t more calculated and more discriminating.”[20]

The United States has been attempting to balance the desire to support Egypt against terrorists like ABM while simultaneously condemning repression of political opponents. To that end, the United States has maintained cooperation with the Egyptian military and not officially labeled the ouster of Morsi a coup. This past week Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed that the United States would deliver ten Apache helicopters to Egypt whose provision had been delayed out of human rights concerns.[21] With the crisis in Iraq, the provision of this military aid has been cloaked in the language of fighting Salafist violent extremism. In late June, Secretary John Kerry said that “those Apaches are focused on the issue of terrorism, and they will be used in a place where Egypt has been working very, very hard in concert with Israel and others, and with us, in order to push back against these terrorist activities.”[22]

However, the lesson from Iraq is that the provision of military hardware cannot solve an intrinsically political problem. President Obama rightly stated of the situation in Iraq “We can’t do it for them. And in the absence of this type of political effort, short-term military action, including any assistance we might provide, won’t succeed.”[23] The situation in Egypt is no different. U.S. military aid, divorced from moves towards political openness and respect for human rights, cannot solve Egypt’s problems. The United States must ensure that any aid to Egypt is used as leverage to ensure that Egypt takes appropriate measures towards respecting the rule of law and human rights. In the absence of such steps, U.S. aid should be cut off in accordance with the Leahy Laws. Otherwise, the United States will find itself not only backing a repressive regime, but also helping it sow the seeds of its own destruction by alienating the people with heavy-handed counterterrorism tactics.

Unfortunately, Sisi does not appear to be offering substantive reforms; he instead seems to be imitating Maliki’s practice of stifling dissent by controlling the media and independent reporting on the situation in Egypt.[24] This has led the White House to decry “the prosecution of journalists for reporting information that does not coincide with the Government of Egypt’s narrative” [25] Yet, Sisi has not altered course and Egypt recently barred members of HRW, who were going to brief officials on the findings of a report on the Rabaa Massacre, from entering the country.[26] Rather than learning and taking constructive actions to address these challenges, the regime is instead trying to suppress the truth and went so far as to declare that the HRW investigation of crimes against humanity “constitute[s] a flagrant violation of state sovereignty under international law…and an attempt to impinge upon the independence and integrity of the Egyptian judiciary.”[27]

The lesson that Sisi should be drawing from Iraq is that harsh crackdowns on political dissents will not solve his problem since killing and arresting peaceful political opponents will only push those groups to take up arms. Popular support is the sine qua non of counterinsurgency. But the more Sisi tightens his grip, the more the people will slip through his fingers. The ouster of Morsi also bears similarities to Algeria where, in 1991, the Algerian Army launched a coup against the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) after it won the election. The result was a brutal civil war waged by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) that caused up to 200,000 deaths.[28] Fortunately for Sisi and Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has not endorsed violence or launched a large-scale insurgency, although violence in the Sinai has grown, extending to bombings in Cairo and is worrying for regional stability.However, given the Sisi regime’s repression and human rights abuses, the absence of a serious insurgent threat to the Egyptian government is probably more luck than skill.

In light of the HRW report showing the massacre at Rabaa was a premeditated crime against humanity, and Sisi’s refusal to change his repressive tactics, the United States must rethink its strategic partnership with Egypt. President Obama said that “the single standard for all who would hold power” is that:

You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.[30]

Egypt today is not a democracy, and we cannot continue to perpetuate brutality in the Middle East in the name of stability. Today, as the Islamic State is described in near apocalyptic terms, it is tempting to believe that the United States should ally and support tyrants.[31] However ,to take such action would be to sacrifice long-term objectives for the region for short term gains. Rather, the United States must cease all military sales and aid to Egypt and request the United Nations hold an international commission of inquiry to investigate the allegations of human rights abuses.[32] Sisi has made some token gestures prior to his attendance at the U.N. General Assembly, such as releasing two imprisoned journalists on bail, but investigations into the human rights abusers must follow these up if we are to trust that Sisi has actually turned a corner.[33] Iraq has shown that blanket repression is not the answer to the threat of extremists, but rather the promotion of inclusive governance and human rights is the best path to reduce support for terrorism. We must not stand idle and abet Sisi as he repeats Iraq’s mistakes.


[1] Aaron David Miller, “Who Lost Iraq?” Foreign Policy, June 16, 2014. Available at:

[2] Fareed Zakaria, “Who Lost Iraq? The Iraqis did, with an assist from George W. Bush.” Washington Post, June 12, 2014. Available at:

[3] Patrick Cockburn, “Iraq crisis exclusive: US rules out military action until Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stands down.” The Independent, June 19, 2014. Available at

[4] Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Statement by the President.” August 7, 2014. Available at

[5] Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Statement by the President on ISIL.” September 10, 2014. Available at

[6] Associated Press, “US urges speedy formation of new Iraq government,” Washington Post, August 12, 2014. Available at:

[7] David D. Kirkpatrick, “Egypt Erupts in Jubilation as Mubarak Steps Down.” New York Times, February 11, 2011. Available at

[8] David D. Kirkpatrick, “Army Ousts Egypt’s President; Morsi Is Taken Into Military Custody.” New York Times, July 3, 2013. Available at:

[9] The Economist, “Egypt’s Coup: The second time around” The Economist, July 6, 2013. Available at; Kirsten Powers, “Egyptians: Stop Calling Our Revolution a Coup” Daily Beast, July 10, 2013. Available at

[10] Joshua Goodman, “Egypt’s Assault on Sinai.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 5, 2014. Available at:

[11] Carlos Marighella, The Terrorist Classic: Manual of the Urban Guerrilla, (Chapel Hill, NC: Documentary Publications, 1985), pp. 93-94.

[12] Ibid, p. 20.

[13][13] Human Rights Watch, “Egypt.” World Report 2014. Available at:

[14] Erin Cunningham, “Egypt’s military-backed government declares Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.” Washington Post, December 25, 2013. Available at:

[15] BBC News Mideast, “Egypt court bans Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing” BBC News, 9 August, 2014. Available at:

[16] Jeremy M. Sharp, “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations.” Congressional Research Service, June 5, 2014, p. 6. Available at:

[17] Tim Arango, “Dozens Killed in Battles Across Iraq as Sunnis Escalate Protests Against Government.” New York Times, April 23, 2013. Available at:

[18] Zachary Laub, “Backgrounders: Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.” Council on Foreign Relations, January 15, 2014. Available at:

[19] Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, “Terrorist Designation of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis” April 9, 2014. Available at: ; David Barnett, “Ajnad Misr, Egypt’s latest jihadist group” Long War Journal, February 2, 2014. Available at:

[20] Ken Dilanian, Paul Richter, and Laura King, “U.S. worries its aid to Egypt may be misdirected” L.A. Times, April 30, 2014. Available at:

[21] Reuters, “U.S. to deliver 10 Apache helicopters to Egypt – Pentagon.” Reuters, September 20, 2014. Available at:

[22] U.S. Department of State, “Remarks With Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry After Their Meeting.” June 22, 2014. Available at:

[23] Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Statement by the President on Iraq.” June 13, 2014. Available at:

[24] Human Rights Watch “Iraq: New Guidelines Silence Media.” Human Rights Watch, July 3, 2014. Available at:

[25]Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Statement by the Press Secretary on the Conviction of Journalists in Egypt.” June 23, 2014. Available at:

[26] Human Rights Watch, “Egypt: Human Rights Watch Delegation Refused Entry,” August 11, 2014. Available at:

[27] David D. Kirkpatrick, “After Human Rights Watch Report, Egypt Says Group Broke Law,” New York Times, August 12, 2014. Available at:

[28] Vivienne Walt, “How Egypt’s Turmoil Echoes Algeria’s Bloody Civil War,” Time, July 8, 2014. Available at: ; Abdel Bari Atwan, After bin Laden: Al Qaeda, the Next Generation. (New York: The New Press, 2012), p. 169.

[29] Middle East Institute, “A History of Terrorism in Egypt’s Sinia.” Available at: ; Reuters, “Update 5-Bomb kills three policemen, including witness against Mursi.” Reuters, September 21, 2014. Available at: ; Keith Johnson, “Egypt’s Sea of Troubles.” Foreign Policy, February 3, 2014. Available at:

[30]Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by the President: On a New Beginning” June 4, 2014. Available at:

[31] Ahmad Samih Khalidi, “To Crush ISIS, Make a Deal With Assad.” New York Times, September 15, 2014. Available at:

[32] Human Rights Watch, “All According to Plan: The Rab’a Massacre and Mass Killings of Protesters in Egypt” Human Rights Watch, August 2014. Available at:

[33] Committee to Protect Journalists, “Journalists released from prison in Egypt, but others remain.” Committee to Protect Journalists, September 17, 2014. Available at:

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