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Mahmoud Salem

Mahmoud Salem

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.

About the author

Mahmoud Salem

Mahmoud Salem

Mahmoud Salem is a political activist, writer, and social media consultant. His writings could be found at www.sandmonkey.org and follow him @sandmonkey on Twitter

  • Ahmed Bata

    Islamists want to take away our inalienable rights. Such a stance people cannot tolerate. Islamists are treasonous non patriots. Such a stance the State cannot tolerate. Islamists want to invite foreign jihadists with smuggled weapons to use as allies. Such a tactic takes away the luxury of time in answering the Islamist threat. Islamists are corrupting Islam. Such a stance, God isn’t likely to tolerate.

    The goverment is courting the masses by throwing arab donations at subsidies. Recent surveys indicate about 60% of Egypt’s population expects next year to be better or much better than this year.

    The current goverment is a technocratic one. They hopefully know how to fix things, but they are lousy at communication and public relations.

    • chris heath

      Most people agree terrorism is evil. (Killing innocent people.) If there is a God, and he sees this, and does nothing – either He can’t, in which case He’s not omnipotent; or He can, but is unwilling, in which case, He is not merciful, (and agrees with evil), or He is omnipotent, and willing, in which case, why is there evil? Answers on a postcard, please. ( Any ideas what Satan thinks?)

  • Ahmed Bata

    I love thsi bit you wrote Mr. Salem:
    You see, wars on concepts or ideas definitely do not end with bullets, they end with a counter idea that exposes or defeats the idea. What is your counter idea to Islamism/MB ideology? Whoever does not agree with you is a traitor and should be killed? Yeah, not a very good one, especially against Islamists, who are generally ok with dying for their beliefs.

  • abdul .a. shaiky

    HI Mahmoud Salem,

    your article is very interesting and reflecting the world of todays label of terrorist.!!
    “There are three schools utilised by the state facing strategic Political Violence, also known as terrorism: 1″ and other two types are also a terror for one party but struggle to save or to have their fundamental values and rights.
    such as all Palestanians are terrorist for Israelis but strugglers for them.
    Same as Northern Pakistanies and Afghans are terrorist for America but they are struggling to save their culture and values.
    In a way we all are terrorist,do we have a right to impose our values on other.!! if some one is on Islam and practicing Islam in her/his life , They are islamist terrorist.See in France and Qubec(Canada) laws against Islamic dress of women.!!MIGHT IS RIGHT.!! You can label any one terrorist and you do not need any reasons. Same democrates , freedom of choice and human rights elements want to impose their values on majority of Muslims in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and in Egypt. In these countries majority are muslims 80 to 95 % BUT THEY WANT TO IMPOSE
    WESTERN VALUES BY FORCE.!! But under the banner of democry,freedom of choice and label of terrorist.

    • CRBG

      Your comment is full of false comparisons: You are comparing the “terrorism” of killing unarmed civilians with the “terrorism” of the French or Quebec governments for banning religious symbols on all religions? Terrorists kill unarmed people. Imposing secular values in public spheres does not kill people nor does it deny their freedom of belief. Please….stop with the “we Muslims are always victims” narrative. It’s gettting old and boring.

      • abdul .a. shaiky


  • Reda Sobky

    Well thought out analysis, thank you. I would expand the definition of terrorist to “any organized violence against civilian noncombatants” no exceptions. Yes, your contention that social justice has to be an essential ingredient to winning people over is paramount and that is also why the new document is so important, it could be said that upon seeing the finished document the chances of success for the Third Republic would become much more apparent. I hope it is wise, measured and dynamic and those chosen are clearly qualified to deliver.

  • DAMNtoMilitaryrule

    “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” Egypt has already miss that opportunity which should come only under transparency election. Unfortunately the loss of patience and the wrong eager to see Egypt today into democracy like France or UK you have sold a “chimpanzee and gone to by a dog” (I have been told both animals are not eaten by Muslim).Egypt has long way to go to recreate this enthusiast a savour toward Democracy that had been after Mubarak is gone in first revolution. Those who are in power now will use any means to stay in power because they have everything: Force, Money and Information and they will create everyday the fabrication things to seed and strength animosity between some fringe of population and MB.. And as months and years are passing Egyptians will only be interested only to fuel their belly than fight for Democracy. That why we were so critical about that brutal and mob and military coup of removal of Morsi( some at that have seen label us MB sympathiser or islamist) By doing so you have brought in power a dumb and death people on power and retrieve population power to control their governor. if you think the crackdown will limite only to Islamists and MB go to lie yourself it will extend to anybody who will challenge this military rule because at moment your military government is bear in mind what has happened to make Mubarak to fall so they will let anybody to border them even it is right critical.

    Egyptians have not to desespere. MB will come back in another form of society and new young people and back into power. Mb is only organisation which can transform so quickly and adapt to any situation they can face.But so called leftist or liberal in Egypt will be absorbed by Mubarak old guard and military and everything will become for them to maintain their economy position if they where rich or to get money if they were poor and Democracy will be secondary idea for them. MB idea will never be killed because they are part of Egypt society but you can only influence them to change some of their principal. You like it or not that this the reality.

  • CRBG

    Thanks for this article. I’m deeply concerned with the interim government’s failures to communicate about the dangers of the MB ideology as well as clearly and coherently articulate the steps the gov. is taking to ensure human rights are being respected. Such strategic communication is necessary both at home and abroad. This is particularly important especially when the new president announces an extension of the curfew (emergency law measure) for another two months. We need reassurances that we’re moving in the right direction. How can we communicate to our interim gov. about the need for them to communicate professionally?

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