Key Egyptian legislator says poverty more dangerous than terrorism

Sunday 26/02/2017
Kamal Amer, the head of the Defence and National Security Committee in Egypt’s parliament, speaking to The Arab Weekly at his office at the parliament building in Cairo.

Cairo - Egypt’s war on terrorism has turned parliament’s Defence and National Security Committee into one of the country’s most important bodies.

Kamal Amer, a former service­man, and his colleagues at the com­mittee are responsible for putting Egypt’s war on terrorism in a legal context and creating legislation to protect Egypt’s national security.

“Threats to national security are too many these days,” Amer said. “This makes it necessary for my committee to work hard because Egypt is a state and when it acts to protect its national security, it must act like a state, not like a gang.”

This is why the first priority for police and troops fighting mili­tants was to arrest — not kill — the militants and bring them before the courts, he said.

Nonetheless, that policy is loathed by a public that expects security services to exact revenge for the blood on militants’ hands.

Amer said Egyptian institutions act within the law, which is why their fight against terrorism must be carried out within a legal frame­work, a principle that makes his committee more important.

Since being elected head of the National Security Committee in January 2016, Amer has widened the scope of national security as a concept, adding issues previously not part of that mandate.

Although his background is mili­tary, he said national security was not only about threats that can be faced with the force of arms.

“Poverty is a threat to national security and so are unemployment, disease and the failure of the state to offer quality health care and education to its citizens,” Amer said. “All these problems can even be more devastating to national security than terrorism.”

He said he considered rampant poverty, the need for the economy to grow at a pace sufficient to feed the people and create jobs and population growth to be Egypt’s toughest challenges. Failure to deal with these issues leaves the coun­try’s security at risk, Amer said.

In this, many of the nation’s security experts agree. Khaled Okasha, a retired police lieutenant-general and terrorism expert, said a country’s national security was inseparable from its ability to feed its people.

“In attracting recruits, terrorist groups focus on the poor whose need for money can make them carry arms against the state,” Oka­sha said. “Poverty always opens the door wide for unrest induced by the desire of the hungry for better living conditions.”

Egypt’s poverty rate — 27.8% of the population — is rising while unemployment is at 12.4% and the population increases by 1.2 million people every year. These are direct threats to Egypt’s national security, Amer said.

Economic planners, he said, and workers were the first line of defence for national security.

“These are the people whose work contributes to making this country’s welfare,” Amer said. “In pushing Egypt’s economic growth up, they prevent the next generation of terrorists from being created.”

Most of the legislation drafted by Amer and his colleagues on the committee, apart from one regulat­ing Egypt’s war against militants in Sinai and other parts of Egypt, had to do with enabling poor Egyptians to get the subsidies they deserved, receive health care and free educa­tion.

He said those suffering hunger can turn into the state’s most avowed enemies. That explains why Amer and his fellow commit­tee members become angry over commodity shortages or when the authorities fail to solve the prob­lems of citizens.

“Commodity shortages and un­solved problems cause public anger to pile up,” said Ahmed Ismail, another member of Amer’s com­mittee. “This anger increases the likelihood of terrorist actions.”

When sugar was scarce at super­markets, Amer and others on the committee appealed to the govern­ment.

Now, with medicines disap­pearing from pharmacies, the committee has approached the Health Ministry, met with medicine manufacturers and addressed the Pharmacology Association.

“Terrorism is easy to address because it is a case where you know your exact enemy and know what he wants to do,” Amer said, “but in the case of poverty or the failure of state institutions to address citi­zens’ needs, you never know what the repercussions can be.”