Sunday, July 31, 2005

We Must Not Take The Bait

Rami G. Khouri is editor at large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper.

By Rami G. Khouri

Following the two consecutive transit system attacks in London earlier this month, the deadly bombings in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, on Saturday represent a particularly dangerous turn in what has become a global terror scourge. They must spark a qualitatively different, and more effective, political and police response than the ne that has prevailed to date in recent years.

It would be irresponsible, incompetent and morally vacuous leadership, verging on criminal negligence, for Egyptian, British, American or any other national leaders simply to say that security will be ensured, the terrorists will be beaten, we will go on with our lives and we will preserve our values.

Someone should tell the emperors that they are collectively wearing no clothes, and that continuing their policies will only perpetuate and exacerbate the global terror problem, rather than defeat it.

The Sharm el-Sheik bombings are particularly troubling, and politically significant, for several reasons. The most important one is that they affirm the depth, resiliency and determination of those terrorists who practice such savagery in the face of a very powerful and even more fierce and determined Arab state. The political iconography here is profound.

The Egyptian state has fought a ferocious battle against Islamist militants and terrorists since the early 1990s, and by the late 1990s had largely defeated them—but at a very high price. Thousands of suspects have been put in jail and remain there, and the fragile security achieved has brought with it the militarization of the state and its institutions. The almost absolute control of state and society has required the banning, neutralization or humiliating marginalization of all other possible civil political forces that could peacefully politically contest the ruling power of the combine of the armed forces and President Husni Mubarak's eternally incumbent National Democratic Party.

So now the ruling Egyptian elite is challenged by two home-grown forces at once. It is challenged peacefully by its own civil society and political opposition that have launched a growing campaign to retire Mubarak after his 24 years of rule. It is also challenged violently by a brazen, self-assertive new generation of Egyptian terrorists allied to Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, who now attack the symbols of the Egyptian state head-on. This is in-your-face terrorism, by small groups of men who are not afraid of one of the mightiest Arab states that has been unable to respond to the challenge through any means other than police force—which only generates more angry, humiliated young men who become terrorists.

Sharm el-Sheik is not just a sparkling Red Sea tourist resort. It is the icon of everything Egypt wants to be in the region and the world. Sharm el-Sheik is where Egypt routinely hosts Arab-Arab and Arab-Israeli summits, global anti-terror summits with American presidents and other Western leaders, and other emergency gatherings of very important people. It is the showcase of Egyptian modernity, foreign investment, tourism expansion, foreign currency earnings, sound planning, and, above all, strict security ensured by the state and its hundreds of thousands of armed soldiers and police.

The Taba bombings some months ago in the northern part of the same Sinai Peninsula triggered a significant increase in security in all Sinai, along with the jailing of hundreds of suspects. Yet the terrorists Saturday still challenged the Egyptian state in its crown jewel, and bombed it almost at will. Someone should please tell the great leaders of the mighty Arabs and the Free World that the moral depravity and criminality of this terror deed is fully matched by its political audacity and symbolism; to condemn the crime without grasping its political implications, and underlying causes, would be the height of amateurism by any political leader.

But this is what Blair, Bush, Mubarak and most other leaders seem to be doing, stressing motives of religious extremism, distorted education, social alienation, poverty, historical yearnings, psychological traumas, mystical impulses and cultural angst as the primary causal detonators of suicide ombers. The leaders do not sufficiently acknowledge the complex, cumulative political processes and legacies that drive ordinary young men to become suicidal terrorists. The path from common citizen to criminal bomber is paved primarily with the consequences of the policies of many Arab, Western, Israeli and other governments, and not primarily the frailties or inclinations of individual human beings.

The combination of the London and Sharm el-Sheik bombings in such close proximity to one another also highlights the dangerous new trend of terror groups and movements decentralizing and localizing all over the world, while simultaneously using more lethal techniques and materials. Harder to track down and eliminate, these neighborhood killers also are not afraid to directly challenge the great and powerful states that are their nemeses, such as the United States, England and Egypt, among others.

Sharm el-Sheik highlights all this in a frightening way.Gravely, we have probably now passed the tipping point in the business of producing or deterring terrorists: the policies of the United States, Britain and most Arab governments now are promoting and fostering more terrorists than they are killing, capturing or deterring. The American- and British-led global war on terror, with its purported fulcrum in Iraq, may have started to produce a new generation of skilled, wily and localized killers operating throughout the world. Including Saturday in Sharm el-Sheik.

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