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Is Egypt's counter-terrorist operation fuelling terrorism?

The latest terrorist attack in Egypt left one policeman dead after he was shot by a Daesh affiliated gunman in Al-Arish, northern Sinai, on Sunday evening. The threat of terrorism is not only costing lives, but has taken a toll on what was once a thriving tourism industry. The country's economy, security and civil society are currently suffering as Egypt heads towards turmoil.

Authorities may not have been passive in dealing with the rise of terrorism, but their counter-terrorist measures have been counterproductive and at the expense of basic human rights. By the end of November 2014, a new counter-terrorism bill limited basic freedoms in the name of national security. Terms were loosely defined, giving the government and intelligence services leeway to persecute on a whim.

The bill defines a terrorist entity as "any group which disrupts public order or threatens the safety, security or interests of society, or harms or frightens individuals or threatens their lives, freedoms, rights or security or harms national unity." The bill gave the Egyptian authorities rights to dissolve any group that may be perceived as a national security threat, even if they show no signs of violent dissent. Supporters of the bill noted that it protected freedom of speech in Article 65, though we have now seen that, in practice, it allowed for the criminalisation of political opponents and treating them as a national security threat.

The media is also on lockdown. Editors of public newspapers must be authorised by the government and news is monitored with a degree of paranoia. A study by the Committee to Protect Journalists showed that in 2015, Egypt was the country with the second highest amount of journalists imprisoned, making it amongst the most dangerous countries for media persons in the world.

Not only is the government attacking the liberties of the media, it is also limiting people's rights to privacy. Last year it was discovered that the Egyptian government has purchased fake digital certificates from Mideast Communication Systems in order to hack into activists' social media accounts and bypass encryptions.

Despite these laws, terrorism is still very much prevalent and these campaigns have done little to stop it. The main targets however, are people in civil society. Journalists, activists, academics and people who voice their opinions against the coup government are targeted.

Terrorism in Egypt is mainly concentrated in the Sinai region. For decades, the Bedouin population of this area has been left out from economic development plans. Central and northern Sinai have suffered significant levels of neglect as a result of Hosni Mubarak's disregard for the welfare of their inhabitants after Egyptians gained control over the peninsula in 1981.

For decades, the peninsula was alienated from the rest of the country socially, politically and economically, which started a low level insurgency in retaliation for the conditions that were imposed on them. Rather than taking measures to alleviate dissent in Sinai, the government then proceeded to launch a military offensive, displace civilians and perpetuate the rift between Sinai and Cairo. The local population then became subject to radicalisation, which made it easier for already existing terrorist groups to recruit local Bedouins. To counteract the growth in terrorism, the military operation in Sinai simply became more violent, creating a cycle of violence, mistrust and retaliation. There is no incentive by the coup government to understand the reason behind radicalisation, for now, the government are following a policy of killing the people, hoping the ideology will somehow die in the process.

In urban areas, the counter-terrorism project in Egypt is targeting civil society, attacking freedom of speech and religion and has reached to a level in which the policies are influenced by such paranoia they mentally suffocate average citizens for digressing from "acceptable" opinions. In the peninsula itself, the root of the growth of Daesh is not being tackled, rather the military operation there is allowing for Daesh to grow further.

To counteract the terrorist threat coherently, the Egyptian government must admit to both past and present mistakes that allowed for terrorism to harbour in the first place. The current relationship between society and the military government is purely iron-fist authoritarianism that pro-Sisi officials and media dress up as a government that embodies paternalistic sentiments in its rule. The military offensive in Sinai is not working and neither is the attack on civil liberties. Bridges must be built. This can only be done through a democratic national dialogue. Only then can society unite and address the threat of terrorism coherently.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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