Last Thursday, the Trump administration publicized its new national strategy for counterterrorism, which emphasizes the need to go beyond military and law-enforcement measures to defeat jihadism. Indeed, writes Elliott Abrams appreciatively, the “view that terrorists have an ideology, and that we need to combat it, rightly permeates the document.” Abrams in particular praises a statement on the role civil society can play as a bulwark against radical Islam, but worries that the White House might be unwilling to follow through on its implications:
[S]ome of our putative allies in the struggle against terror view civil society not as a partner but as an enemy. They simply seek to crush it, in ways that can only assist people trying to sell terrorist ideology. The best (or, rather, worst) example is Egypt. The regime there has under way a broad effort to destroy civil society. This began in 2011 with the closing of several American nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House. Their offices and personnel were accused of receiving foreign money—and in fact, because Egypt is a very poor country, most NGOs depend on foreign money. Those now-infamous “NGO trials” continue to this day.
While U.S. officials often refer to Egypt as a close ally, the United States government has not yet succeeded in getting the government of Egypt to drop charges even against the American citizens who were working for those semi-official U.S. NGOs.
The repression of civil society goes much further. President Trump himself intervened in 2017 to get Egypt to release Aya Hegazy, an Egyptian-American who with her husband ran an NGO dedicated to helping street children. Most recently, Egypt jailed a woman who complained about sexual harassment in Egypt, for the crime of “spreading false news.” . . .
One more example: in Egypt today there are between 40,000 and 60,000 political prisoners. They languish in overcrowded prisons where they have years to contemplate the injustices done to them while jihadists offer ideologies that purport to explain why this happened and try to recruit them. Egypt’s prisons are jihadist factories. How does this fit with anyone’s counterterrorism strategy?