There are three schools utilised by the state facing strategic Political Violence, also known as terrorism: 1) The Justice System model, where the police and the judiciary pursue such acts as civilian criminal offenses (the most effective model and takes place in civilised democratic countries; but to be fair, it usually takes a really long time to end the problem), 2) The Expanded Justice system, where special legislation and courts are created to further empower the police and judiciary (US ‘ Patriot act, Mubarak’s Egypt) and 3) The War on Terrorism model, where the military is usually in charge and concerns for rights and liberties get overridden in favour of security and “Victory” (Israel). The last model is usually the least favourable one for a multitude of reasons, chief of which is that it perpetuates the conflict instead of resolving it; however, it seems to be the one currently employed in Egypt, or at least that is what the media tells us. Since this is the case, it is important for us- the citizens- to observe and understand exactly what our government strategy for handling this problem is, which so far seems to be applying Strategic Coercion.
In its most basic form, strategy can be understood as the series of moves initiated by an actor (the current government) aimed at influencing the choice of an opposing actor (The Islamists), in a manner favourable to itself. Strategic coercion is a strategy that aims to apply the full gamut of national power instruments—military, diplomatic, economic, political, etc , to either dissuade an opponent from taking an undesirable course of action, or to stop and undo an undesirable course of action already taken, by making the costs of said actions exceed the benefits of pursuing them. In case you haven’t noticed, this is exactly what our current government is doing.
It may come as a disappointment to the “Let’s kill all the Islamists” crowd to find out that the intention of strategic coercion is not to accomplish its objective by bludgeoning the targeted opponent to the point of utter destruction. Such a strategy is generally referred to as the application of brute force, and in today‘s age, is both difficult to achieve and—in most instances—politically unviable for democracies. Rather, Strategic Coercion is about applying just enough force to persuade the targeted political adversary to choose not to engage in, or continue, the undesired hostilities. It is far preferable in our case from “brute force” because the amount of force required to completely eliminate the Islamists’ ability for organised resistance is tremendous in the modern age, and the financial cost of doing so is simply one our budget and economy cannot take; most importantly, the amount of human rights abuse it requires is on such a massive scale- that even if were a OK with them, which we are not- that new grievances will be born, which will continue to fuel the fight and prolong the current state of instability for a very long time.
It is important to remember that the current fight involves two actively opposed sides—the authorities and the Islamists—as well as a third group, a large population subject to coercion and manipulation from both sides. To win this third group and isolate it from supporting the Islamists, it is imperative to redress prominent grievances while preventing the emergence of new ones; this is why the high death toll from dispersing the Rabaa protest was so heavily criticised, especially because it was fuelled by the Interim government’s desire to demonstrate its ability to legitimately govern and provide law and order. Such government over-reactions can lead to an increase in the support for the Islamists, who, much like a Judo player, will use a stronger opponent‘s own strength and momentum to unbalance and overthrow him; hence Rabaa protesters and protests. You see, it is necessary to eliminate the negative feelings on which support for the Islamists is based for that specific reason, and the use of force and violence runs the risk of increasing these same negative feelings.
One should not forget that the Islamists – chiefly the MB – are combating the government’s strategy by utilising their own strategy of counter-coercion. To do so, they seek to raise the security enforcement costs of the current government (by increasing the number of violent incidents all over the country), while clearly warning them of painful reprisals to come (Beltagy’s comments regarding violence in Sinai), and insisting that anything that the current government demands is non-negotiable until their demands are met (returning Morsi to power). By doing so, they will seek to deny the interim government’s (or even the next one) preferred path to victory, while eroding public support for maintaining the campaign of strategic coercion.
You see, in order for strategic coercion to be successful, three key objectives must be pursued in parallel by the current government: 1) isolation of external support for Islamists; 2) denial of future attacks or acts of violence by them; and 3) isolation of popular or local support. So far, the interim government is actively pursuing objective two, while depending on the media and the average Egyptian’s support for the military for objective three, and completely ignoring objective one. Big mistake on their parts, but luckily, given that both objectives one and three are concerned with the isolation of support, they can be remedied by formulating a case for their support; what is referred to as “the single narrative”.
The single narrative is a simple, unifying, easily expressed explanation that organises people‘s experiences and provides a framework for understanding events; the current one, where anyone who opposes the current government’s actions or tactics is a terrorist, terrorist enabler or a 5th columnist, is very draconian and silly, therefore insufficient. In order to win the fight against Islamists, who enjoy at least some degree of mass support in some areas, the current government needs to wage simultaneously both a security campaign to contain and reduce violence, and a political and informational campaign to secure popular support and sustain it. In case you haven’t noticed, the government is not doing the latter, neither locally nor internationally, and the media’s obviously less-than-professional performance is not doing them any favours.
Even if we make the strategic mistake of ignoring international opinion, it is of the utmost importance to convince the population that the government is not the villain the Islamists wish to portray it as, and therefore, it should be their priority to address the root causes that could drive the population away from it. This involves redressing social, political and economic grievances that stimulate rage and distress within the population, compelling many to either actively or passively support the Islamists. It also means preventing new grievances from emerging that may serve their purposes, such as enacting political oppression or engaging in crimes used to rally people to their causes (Again, Rabaa).
Without significant gains in isolation of popular support, the interim government is unlikely to enjoy anything more than a stalemate against the Islamists, where violence continues indefinitely, albeit at reduced levels between both sides in absence of any meaningful political resolution. The reason is that in the absence of such successful isolation, the will, drive and support for the Islamists will remain fuelled by an angry population bent on seeing a political change in the status quo enacted by what they may consider to be the only effective recourse available: violence. Needless to say, for our and the country’s sake, that should not be allowed to happen. The only way to end this conflict and squarely defeat the MB and the Islamists once and for all is to create a state of liberty, with rights and accountability that they couldn’t create. Only that can kill their idea forever.
*This Article heavily borrows from Michael Andrew Berger’s work on Strategic Coercion.