North Africa, West Asia

EU and the Arab world: 'cooperation' to fight terror is an excuse

Maged Mandour

The EU is following a bizarre logic, where support is given to autocratic regimes who benefit from the rise of extremist groups, instead of seeking reasons for the rise of radicalization among European youth. Why?

Maged Mandour
25 January 2015
Egypt's poor welcome Sisi's presidency, May 2014.

Egypt's poor welcome Sisi's presidency, May 2014. Aishah Schwartz/Demotix. All rights reserved.I recently read an announcement by the EU chief of foreign policy, Federica Mogherini, calling for greater cooperation with the Arab world to combat terrorism. It stated, "We need an alliance. We need to strengthen our way of cooperating together."

This statement appears benign on the surface, even helpful in bridging the east/west divide where moderate forces in the Arab world are encouraged to  cooperate with European democracies in the fight against terrorism.

However, I could not help but notice the similarity between this statement and a rant aired on Fox News, mouthpiece of the American right, which called for the west to arm the so-called Muslim “moderates", signalling out Egypt’s Field Marshal – now President – El Sisi, to combat terrorism on behalf of the United States and its allies.

The channel highlighted Sisi’s recent call for a revolution within Islam, and his outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Seems like a plausible strategy? However, to gain a deeper understanding of this seemingly harmless strategy, we need to dissect it a little further. 

It should be noted that in practise this policy of cooperation means cooperation with Arab autocrats, those who hold power in the Arab world and who will use this “new” policy to cement their hold on power by garnering more legitimacy for their repressive rule. These are the so-called “moderates” from a western perspective.

In other words, men like Field Marshal El Sisi will include the repression of his political rivals, like the Muslim Brotherhood, who are already outlawed, in this international policy of combating terrorism. This will also provide legitimacy for the most brutal regimes in the region, such as Iraq and Syria, who are now potential allies in the fight against the common enemy of Islamist, especially Sunni, extremism. Suddenly men like Assad seem more amenable than Sunni extremist violence, which has now been framed as an attack on European values, and as such, western civilization.   

Naturally, this newfound formal support will not affect the repression that is already in the pipelines. This is the repression of all political opponents of the autocrats; Islamist and non-Islamist alike. However, it will give this campaign of repression a new level of international legitimacy, opening up the way for the rehabilitation of men like Assad, as bulwarks against Sunni extremism. It will also conveniently shield other governments, like the sectarian government of Iraq or the military regime in Egypt, from any international scrutiny. In essence, it is the formal support of the European Union for autocrats in the region who have committed the most heinous atrocities in the modern history of the Arab world.

Ironically, these so-called “moderate” Arab regimes have followed policies that have led to the growth of terrorist organizations within their own borders, which they are now unable or unwilling to stop. Unable, considering the loss of large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq as well as the active insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Unwilling, since these regimes have consistently used the rise of Islamist extremism as a tool for the repression of their opponents, in an attempt to solidify their decaying base of support and to fasten their allies to them, in what has become a struggle for life or death in places like Syria and Iraq.

The EU is following an extremely bizarre logic, where support is given to regimes that are the direct beneficiaries of the rise of extremist groups, and who have actively promoted their proliferation in order to provide a basis for their own legitimacy.

Examples of this abound, in Syria the Assad regime used extreme force as well as sectarian tactics, including tacit cooperation with ISIS, to radicalize and sectarianize what was essentially a peaceful protest movement.

In Egypt, the military committed the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history to polarize the political system and create a dichotomy between what it constructed as "terrorism" and civility, after which terror attacks reached an unprecedented level. In essence, EU policy is supporting the main drivers of radicalism in the region, which could lead to an endless cycle of violence.

In the same meeting, the EU foreign policy chief stated that she would appeal the European court verdict to remove Hamas from the list of terrorist organizations. This statement seems to have come out of context, as Hamas has confined its operation to its armed struggle with Israel, and has never engaged in a struggle against the EU. If anything, Hamas has attempted to moderate its position as much as possible in the hope that it would be considered a legitimate political party and gain international recognition. In essence, the connection seemed bizarre and artificial.

However, coupled with the recent Palestinian move to ask the ICC to investigate possible war crimes in Gaza, and the attempts made by the Israeli Prime Minister to create a connection between the Paris attacks and the right of the “States of the Jews” to defend the Jews, the narrative becomes clearer.

The EU is using the current climate to heap more pressure on the Palestinian unity government, which includes Hamas, by threatening to re-label Hamas as a terrorist organization, knowing very well that a direct reaction to this move would be very difficult to explain to European public opinion. This move would allow the EU once again to apply financial as well as diplomatic pressure on the Palestinian unity government on behalf of Israel, while appeasing European public opinion, which has been whipped into a state of alarm over the fear of Islamic extremism.    

Thus, in essence, the EU is using the Paris attacks to achieve a number of objectives. First, to provide support for Arab autocrats by providing them with an additional measure of international legitimacy. Second, applying direct pressure on the Palestinian unity government to demonstrate the possible costs of using the ICC against Israel.   

Third, the EU is treating the issue as if it were a foreign import, like a virus, with immigrants from those countries infecting the European polity. The EU is treating the causes of radicalism as inherently external, in other words rooted in the war in Syria or Iraq, implicitly exonerating European society, and most importantly, European elites.

This is, to say the least, grossly misleading. Rather than look at the perpetrators of the Paris attack as Frenchmen that happen to be Muslim, they are treated as Muslims who happen to be French.

The issue of the radicalization of young Europeans needs to be examined in a much more objective manner, acknowledging the roles that racism and marginalization play in this process. There is an absolutely necessary process of soul searching that European society needs to go through.

Rather than support autocrats in the Arab world, the EU should attempt to de-securitize its discourse and to understand the reason for this radicalization, treating the issue as first and foremost a societal rather than security problem. The EU has decided to create boogiemen to chase, and monsters to slay. 

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