Egyptian president sets up body to counter radicals

April 16, 2017
Under duress. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) observes a minute of silence for the victims of the church attacks with leaders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Supreme Council for Police at the Al-Ittihadiya Presidential Palac

Cairo - The formation of a Supreme National Anti-Terrorism Council is a recognition by the Egyptian leader­ship that state institutions have failed to act to protect minori­ties against terrorism, experts said.

“The new body signals the presi­dent’s desperation with state agen­cies, especially al-Azhar,” said Sayyid al-Qemany, an author and outspoken critic of al-Azhar. “Al- Azhar should have acted a long time ago to protect Christians against radicals.”

Since coming to power three years ago, Egyptian President Ab­del Fattah al-Sisi has been calling on al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most pres­tigious institution, to lead religious reform efforts.

Sisi’s calls came during a high wave of religious extremism that in­cluded attacks against army person­nel and police.

Hundreds of army troops and of­ficers have been killed by extrem­ists from an organisation affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS) and smaller groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Recent attacks have targeted Egypt’s Christian minority, which has staunchly supported Sisi.

Last December, an ISIS militant set off an explosive device in a Cai­ro chapel, killing 26 Christians and wounding scores of others. On April 9, ISIS suicide bombers attacked churches in the northern coastal city of Alexandria and in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, leaving 45 peo­ple dead and 150 others wounded.

ISIS Sinai has repeatedly attacked Christians in the North Sinai city of al-Arish, forcing dozens of families to flee from Sinai.

These attacks and the failure of state institutions to act foment public anger and raise sympathy for the Christians. When ISIS hit at the churches on April 9, Muslims launched blood donation cam­paigns to help the bombings’ vic­tims.

A common trait of many terror­ist attacks in recent years has been that the perpetrators were gradu­ates of the schools and universities of al-Azhar.

“The curricula al-Azhar schools and universities teach to their stu­dents are venomous and encourage the students to hate those following other beliefs,” Qemany said. “Al- Azhar has done nothing to change these curricula despite repeated calls by the president.”

He referred to a book taught to first-grade students at al-Azhar Uni­versity, whose author says fighting those who do not believe in Islam is the duty of every Muslim.

Al-Azhar’s failure to reform reli­gious discourse is said to be causing friction with Sisi.

Sisi was vocal about his despera­tion with al-Azhar in January when he addressed Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb in public, saying: “You made me suffer.”

Tayyeb has resisted calls for branding ISIS a “bunch of apos­tates,” even as he says the actions of the radical group have nothing to do with Islam.

Al-Azhar scholars said attacks against their institution were fuelled by ignorance about the work they did in renewing religious discourse and fighting extremism.

“We have initiated massive cur­ricular change,” said Abbas Shou­man, a senior official of al-Azhar. “The real problem lies with those clerics who appear on TV, although they do not belong to al-Azhar, and spread radical ideas.”

Sisi’s formation of the Supreme National Anti-Terrorism Council was announced only hours after the April 9 bombings. The council, which will include representatives of all ministries, will have the sole mandate of fighting terrorism, pres­idential spokesman Alaa Youssef said.

In a way, experts said, the body would play the role state institu­tions should be playing in the fight against terrorism and the protec­tion of minorities.

Egypt’s parliament has not yet passed legislation to speed up the trials of individuals accused of stag­ing and planning terrorist attacks. Sisi raised the issue in June 2015, following the assassination of Pub­lic Prosecutor Hesham Barakat.

He said the country’s judges were limited by laws that slow the trials of terrorists.

“Lawmakers act as if they live in another country,” said Khaled Montaser, who writes on religious extremism. “How many Egyptians should die before state institutions acted to protect them?”