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Violent extremism is the symptom, authoritarian repression the disease Open in fullscreen

Omar Ashour

Violent extremism is the symptom, authoritarian repression the disease

Political violence breeds violent extremism (AFP)

Date of publication: 3 March, 2015

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Comment: In a political context in which authoritarian repression, military coups, civil wars and other forms of political violence and social instability are common, violent extremism will be the likely outcome.

If the justice scales are tipped upside down 

honour can only be brought back by blood
when throwing stones no longer works
guns are much more important.

You either roll up your sleeves
and take it
or bend over
and take it.


     You either roll up your sleeves
and take it
or bend over
and take it.

- Ramy Essam

The lyrics of the new song by pro-revolution Egyptian singer Ramy Essam - a well-known activist in the January 2011 uprising – perfectly reflects the level of frustration among youth activists in Egypt, including secular ones.


A brutal crackdown on dissent has caused more than 3,248 fatalities, 18,535 injuries, and 41,163 arrests since the July 2013 military coup (and until January 2014). It has led to a growing perception among many young activists that soft power and civil resistance tactics have their limits and to pursue real change, hard power is necessary. And with more recent bad news, including hundreds of death sentences handed out by kangaroo courts and at least 226 deaths in police custody since 30 June 2013, the environment is violence-engendering.


Historically, brutal repression of dissidents in Egypt and the Arab-majority world has not only sparked waves of political violence and non-state armed actors, but also ideologies that legitimated various forms of political violence, from military coups to urban terrorism. Given the political context, there were no surprises. Arms and religion in most of the post-colonial Middle East were the most effective means to gain and remain in political power, almost like they were in pre-modern times.

From dictatorships to democracies


Votes, constitutions, good governance and socio-economic achievements are secondary means and, in many Middle Eastern countries, relegated to cosmetic matters. In such an environment, violent radicalization and ideological frameworks supportive of armed militancy are more likely to grow, survive and expand.


More problematic for democracies is that the ideological frameworks born in dictatorships can be adjusted to legitimate political violence in a very different context, in which the levels of grievances are incomparable and the means to address parts of the grievances, at least, are available.


Jihadism and Takfirism were both born in Egyptian political prisons in the 1960s where torture ranged from a systematic daily practice in some periods to a selective practice in others. It’s not that different from today’s Egypt. Ultraconservative and extremist ideologies such as Salafism and Wahabbism were also born and developed under authoritarian systems. None of the aforementioned ideologies have come out of a consolidated or a mature democracy. But they were certainly exported there.


The violations of the security sector, and the lack of accountability to address such violations, have been a major contributor to sparking and sustaining armed radicalization. This goes way back, since the Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb significantly altered his ideology after witnessing a massacre in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s prisons in 1957.


“Jihadi John”


But the “repression-radicalization” hypothesis, within an “arms + religion/hypernationalism = political power” context, does not usually apply in democracies. The recent claim that the terrorist dubbed “Jihadi John” has been radicalized by encounters with the British security service is absurd. Whereas any allegations of harassment or abuse should be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly, “Jihadi John” certainly did not witness a massacre of more than 1,000 protestors in less than 10 hours by the British security services. He certainly did not witness sustained electrocution in the genitals (reportedly a regular practice during investigations in various Arab-majority regimes) or the “light” crime of publicly beating an internet activist to death by policemen.


That said, it should also be mentioned that the purpose, scale, scope, duration, intensity and targets of the armed actions differ and matter. Jihadism and Takfirism offered ideological justifications for a significant expansion of civilian targets, mostly based on their religious, sectarian and ideological beliefs. The principal purpose within the two ideologies is to establish a state that applies some of the most controversial interpretations of Islamic law. It is a purpose very far - for example - from the idealistic social justice and liberal system that the Spanish compañeros and their foreign brigades were fighting for in the 1930s, or even from the Libyan and Syrian armed revolutionaries in 2011, before the conflict transformed.


The continuation of repressive autocrats in North Africa heralds bad news for western democracy, especially in geographically close Europe. In the mid-to-long term, these regimes are more likely to engender security threats and humanitarian crises, rather than cooperation and reform. And in a political context in which authoritarian repression, military coups, civil wars and other forms of political violence and social instability are common features, sustained violent extremism will be the likely outcome. This outcome is just a symptom though, not the disease. And this should be remembered when policy is being formulated. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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