Egypt’s biggest threat is inability to accept, apply international standards, laws: Ghoneim

Ahmed Abbas
12 Min Read
Egyptian security advisor Sayed Ghoniem Sayed Ghoniem

Terrorism is the biggest concern that faces the world today, and facing it is not easy. In the past month, several terrorist attacks took place in numerous locations around the globe. Terrorist groups have claimed responsibility for the attacks in Lebanon, and Paris, and the downing of a Russian commercial plane.

Following those recent incidents, the war against “Islamic State” militant group in Syria is expected to head towards a dramatically new direction. French President François Hollande requested “a large coalition” that may combine the US-led coalition with Russia to fight terrorism. The UN Security Council also voted to adopt a new French-drafted counter-terrorism resolution.

Daily News Egypt spoke with Egyptian security advisor Sayed Ghoneim to discuss the recent incidents, and to try and link them in the context of fighting terrorism both regionally and in Egypt.

Ghoneim is a retired Egyptian general, currently working as a Middle East and North Africa security and defence advisor. During his military career, Ghoneim held several positions and duties, including director of operations at a strategic department level.

Internationally, he served as Chief of Staff of the Arms Monitoring Division in UN Mission in Nepal and Senior National Representative of Egypt to the United States Central Command. He also worked as a Senior Information Officer of UN Mission in Western Sahara and participated in the French Mission in Rwanda.

Ghoneim is also a guest speaker on international security at the American University in the Emirates (AUE) and other international universities worldwide.

Let us begin with the Paris attacks; most of the attackers were European citizens, some went to Syria and returned to Europe, some were arrested before and released, and some were not known to police. Do you think French authorities failed to predict what took place?

The way media handled the incidents suggested that there were people everywhere ready to do such acts. This is not true. Let me give a little background. Any criminal act has more than one motive – individual mannerism, mental disorder, political turmoil, feelings of injustice, etc. What took place in Paris might have happened due to one or more of these motives. France is a diverse community that has citizens of different backgrounds, including Arabs. When some of them suffer from life difficulties in Europe, they could be a target of extremism because of their poor conditions in addition to their background. I think that French authorities are aware of this, and they always put extremists under surveillance in order to prevent any terrorist groups from using them.

The obstacle that makes it difficult for traditional police to fight terrorist groups or to predict their plans is that those groups are decentralised and asymmetrical. They have no central leadership, they are militants whose executive operations do not follow a government. They also do not have the same weapons as traditional armies, nor targets you can strike on.

What happened in Paris relied on thorough studying of the institutional French system and then hitting more than one pillar at the same time (synchronised operations). Police forces cannot handle several points at the same time. What those attackers did is not as intelligent as some people may think. They just knew the weak points of the traditional security system. They also know whom to target to recruit.

These types of operations, when handled by media, give the impression that those groups are powerful and can threaten the security of a whole country.

Do you think this is why they targeted restaurants and cafes, as security forces do not secure such places?

Of course. Security failure is the incapability to execute your plan, or lack of plans. No one has plans to secure cafes or restaurants. Another important element here is that they have suicidal tendencies. Traditional police or even armies do not have plans to deal with such an enemy and in the centre of a city.

Does this mean that to fight such an enemy would require investing more into intelligence, rather than arms?

For sure. The only job of internal security agencies like the FBI in the US, Shabak in Israel, or DGSI in France, is to collect data. They do not deal directly with criminals, and this is supposed to be the duty of similar agencies in the Arab world. Knowledge is power. European countries collaborate with each other by sharing information, and this is very important to fight terrorism or to prevent extremists from carrying out any terrorist act.

France decided to react in Syria more seriously. Do you think that this is because of the attacks?

France started striking in Syria even before the attacks. They agreed with Russia in Vienna about everything except for the fate of Al-Assad. So, they will identify targets of IS with several forces to bombard these targets. What France is doing in Syria is bigger than the Paris attacks, it is national security.

Do you think Egypt should participate in this process in Syria?

Egypt’s situation regarding Syria is very complicated. Syria is a key point for Egyptian national security because of several reasons since October 1973. Syria also is an important strategic partner against Israel. So it’s a key part of Egyptian national security to keep special relations with Syria regardless of who is governing it. Politically, Syria is an ally to Iran, which is an opponent of the Gulf countries. Saudi Arabia has been a strong ally to Egypt after 30 June. That is what makes the Egyptian situation in Syria very complicated. The Egyptian role must be to fulfil its strategic needs by any measure. The Russian initiative is very good as it suggests a national unity government, and this will prevent any party from taking over Syria alone. What also matters for Egypt is the integrity of the Syrian army, and also destroying terrorist groups.

Russian experts investigate the A321 plane wreckage in Sinai (Photo Public domain)
Russian experts investigate the A321 plane wreckage in Sinai
(Photo Public domain)

Do you think air strikes alone can achieve results against IS?

If you asked anyone, even non-specialists, they will tell you that special forces must be the weapon to hunt IS members.  Who killed Bin Laden? The air strikes? Of course not. It was the special forces and the intelligence and in a broad way. They also must recruit special forces from inside Syria, as they know the nature of the country more than any other entities.

From your point of view, what are the most challenging security concerns that may threaten Egypt?

The most dangerous threat is terrorism, which is a direct threat, and the largest agglomeration that threatens Egypt is and will be Israel. But the biggest threat facing the Egyptian state is the inability to accept and apply international political, economical, social and security standards and laws, both by the state and the people. If you cannot control this concern you will not be able to control any security concerns. Law enforcement is the backbone to achieving security. I also believe the security system in Egypt needs some sort of restructuring, especially at the lower levels.

Why is it difficult to control security in Sinai?

It is not easy to control terrorism, especially since terrorist groups in Sinai are not armed political movements, they do not have any political aims. They just want to isolate Sinai in order to change the strategy of the state from a national country to an ideological country. Those groups always try to work in locations rich in resources like gas or oil. In Sinai, the security treatment only is not enough; an economic development of the peninsula is a must.

Moving to the Russian plane incident; Russia announced that a bomb brought the plane down, but Egypt is still waiting for the committee to give the final word. How do you view the situation?

I excused UK when they spoke about concerns and probabilities, and they have the right to take a precautionary measure based on that. But Russia spoke about facts. I still do not know why they pre-empted the results of the investigation committee which includes Russians. This, of course, does not mean that mistakes were not made. Yes, I think that the bomb scenario is what most likely occurred. But what Russia did proves that each side is looking for its own benefit. If your state is represented in the committee, you should wait for the final announcement.

The most important thing now is to review all security measures in airports, and increase the level of the security clearance of those who work at airports.

Do you think the international community had double standards when dealing with the Paris attacks and the Russian plane incident?

Let us differentiate between conspiracy and countries that try to achieve their strategic aims by any measure. For example, the US wants to remain a dominant power, Russia wants to be a counterpart, Turkey wants to be huge power, etc. When you become an obstacle in the front of their aims, they try to find a solution. They are not conspiring against you because you are the aim; they just turn you into a tool because you are not powerful enough. We must have strategic plans too. We must also focus on solving our problems rather than thinking about conspiracy.

The world cannot deal with a developed country like France, and a developing country like Egypt or Lebanon. This is a fact and we cannot deny it. France is closer to the large countries due to several factors. It is part of Europe, and the attacks were a shock to all Europeans. On the other hand, they know that the Middle East has been full of conflicts for a very long time. It is not a shock for them.

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Ahmed Abbas is a journalist at DNE’s politics section. He previously worked as Egypt based reporter for, and interned as a broadcast journalist at Deutsche Welle TV in Berlin. Abbas is a fellow of Salzburg Academy of Media and Global Change. He holds a Master’s Degree of Journalism and New Media from Jordan Media Institute. He was awarded by the ICFJ for best public service reporting in 2013, and by the German foreign office for best feature in 2014.
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