Arab Summit Highlighted Stark Differences Between the US and Its Main Arab Allies in the Fight Against Extremism

On March 28-29, Egypt hosted a two-day Arab Summit, with Arab cooperation in the fight against terrorism high on the agenda. The Egyptian regime used the occasion to further solidify its alignment with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States to advance a counterterrorism strategy designed to bring stability through the imposition of order.  In short: These U.S. allies seek stability through authoritarianism.

In a widely circulated interview in the Wall Street Journal, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made clear that he values “security and order” above all else, suggesting that “democracy and freedom” could wait until the atmosphere is suitable and until Egypt is enjoying prosperity. 

His words sounded familiar. Egyptian military-backed dictators have been promising more democracy and greater freedom at some unspecified future date for decades.  The right atmosphere for implementing such reforms never seemed to materialize, with the result that the country exploded in mass protests in 2011 and has been plunged into four years of turmoil and uncertainty that has devastated the economy and exacerbated social and political divisions.

The idea that political stability can be secured by denial of universal rights and freedoms has repeatedly been proven wrong In Egypt and elsewhere.  Since Sisi and the military seized power in July 2013, the regime has engaged in a crackdown on even non-violent dissent by jailing dissidents, restricting freedom of expression, harassing independent human rights organizations and shooting peaceful protesters dead in the street. Incidents of political violence in Egypt, by the state and violent opposition groups, have escalated sharply in recent months, and social peace and stability in Egypt seem as distant as ever.

In contrast to the approach promoted by key U.S. allies at the Arab Summit, during his speech at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism at the State Department in February, President Barack Obama rightly emphasized protecting human rights as an essential part of the fight against terrorism and violent extremism highlighting the “undeniable” link between oppression and feeding violent extremism including ISIL. 

Yet President Sisi and his Gulf Arab allies continue to implement policies that play an active role in fostering, propagating, and legitimizing its extremist Ideology.  U.S. ally Saudi Arabia beheads “apostates” and labels advocates of religious tolerance as blasphemers and lashes them in public.

 “Countering violent extremism begins with political, civic and religious leaders rejecting sectarian strife,” said President Obama.  Prominent Saudi cleric Mohammed al-Arefe, banned from the UK for encouraging extremism, is one of dozens of preachers of sectarian hatred and violence who find a comfortable home in Saudi Arabia, and whose views circulate widely in Egypt.

President Sisi has been receiving plaudits in the western press for calling for reform in Islam, but there is little evidence to support  the idea that he can lead such a reform process.  There is no doubt that Sisi -- like his backers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- are virulent opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood; but it is the Brotherhood’s pursuit of political power through electoral politics that troubles Sisi and Gulf monarchies, not its sometimes extreme and intolerant social and political agenda.  Sisi exhibits no such animus against the even more extreme Salafi Nour party, which has supported him politically.

These American allies do little to quash the anti-Western narrative that is pervasive in the region. President Obama has pointed out that Muslim scholars and clerics “have a responsibility to push back on the lie... that America and the West are somehow at war with Islam or seek to suppress Muslims.”  He called such characterizations an “ugly lie.” 

However on March 3, the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, in Cairo,  Ahmed al-Tayeb, said that “Islamic State militants are backed by western agencies seeking to divide the Middle East and the Islamic World,” in a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Minister of Islamic Affairs, Tawfiq al-Sudairi.  Official statements and state controlled media in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are full of such anti-western and anti-American conspiracy theories.

There is little sign that America’s key allies in this fight are paying attention to all of the elements of President Obama’s multifaceted approach to countering violent extremism. The president’s approach  goes beyond security and military solutions and emphasizes that real security requires respect for human rights, and political and religious leaders pushing back against extreme ideologies that seek to impose religious orthodoxy by force and fuel sectarianism. 

The Arab Summit further exposed these differences in approach.  Differences that can only undermine the effectiveness of multilateral cooperation against ISIL and other extremist threats in the region.

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