Egypt could become the next co-chair of the Global Counter Terrorism Forum (GCTF), along with the European Union, contributing to define global counter-terrorism strategies and policies for the next two years.

El-Sisi's governement has employed the narrative on counter-terror as one of its main tools of political legitimacy, but the reality of its security policies is about repression, attacks on civilians, and systematic human rights violations.

The GCTF, actors and interests in international security

The Global Counter-Terrorism Forum is an influential international body promoting counter-terrorism cooperation by bringing together countries, security agencies, armed forces, research institutes, community and religious leaders, and civil society organizations from around the world. It carries out research and community empowerment programs for the development of partnerships and best practices in preventing and combating violent extremism. Its activities consist in a broad spectrum of initiatives such as conferences, training and workshops, and through the contribution of working groups which bring together delegations from different countries, public and private bodies.

While the work of the GCTF appears under many points of view oriented to the prevention of extremism and violent conflict through the participation and empowerment of civil society actors and local communities, part of the Forum's agenda is rather directed at countering “illegal” international migration by strengthening international cooperation on border security and control. Frontex is, among other security agencies, a permanent partner of the Forum, and it cooperates with Interpol, Europol, and others, towards the integration of databases and to provide training on combating irregular migration to police forces from several African countries whose territories are crossed by international migration routes.

A further aspect shedding light on the GCTF’s political agenda is its ongoing collaboration with NATO over the design of military interventions in areas affected by violent extremism. A statement on the Forum’s websites which introduces the publication Promoting Effective Civil-Military Cooperation reads: 

"Although the GCTF focuses on strengthening counterterrorism civilian capabilities, national strategies, action plans and training modules, its outputs could have a wide range of applications, including in the military domain."

The publication describes some of the most recent collaborations developed between the GCTF and the Atlantic Alliance and aimed at increasing the effectiveness of military interventions, surveillance operations and identification of individuals involved in terrorist activities:

  • The document Good Practices in the Area of Border Security and Management in the Context of Counterterrorism and Stemming the Flow of Foreign Terrorist Fighters produced by the GCTF, which contains guidelines on border control for countering the cross-border mobility of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), was employed in a NATO strategic session to assess risks and define strategic objectives in relation to the current situation of several member countries. Significantly, the document does not provide any definition of indication as to who may be classified as "foreign terrorist fighters," leaving the definition open to arbitrary interpretation;
  • Between 2018 and 2019, a delegation from the NATO Working Group on Countering Autonomous Air Weapon Systems (C-UAS WG) attended the GCTF Initiative to Counter Unmanned Aerial System Threats, an initiative dedicated to building and sharing knowledge and best practices on the design, coordination, and management of effective interventions to respond to the threat posed by the terrorist use of autonomous aerial weapon systems (UAS or UAVs). The initiative has produced two tools to facilitate the identification and surveillance of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs, identified in the two documents through the example of foreign fighters affiliated with Daesh/ISIS, without any legal framework or standard definition of the phenomenon to provide an unambiguous and objective classification of who, under which circumstances, is to be identified as an FTF): the New York Memorandum on Good Practices for Interdicting Terrorist Travel, and the Berlin Memorandum on Good Practices for Countering Terrorist Use of Unmanned Aerial Systems, which, interestingly, recommends the cooperation between state authorities, armed forces and arms manufacturers in consequence of the "proven relative effectiveness" of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) in countering terrorist threats (see the paragraph Good Practices, no. 14);
  • The Battlefield Evidence Policy, a tool developed by NATO in 2020 for collecting field evidence relevant to the identification of terrorist fighters, drew on the Abuja Recommendations on the Collection, Use and Sharing of Evidence for Purposes of Criminal Prosecution of Terrorist Suspects produced by the GCTF;
  • Furthermore, in January 2020, the then co-chairs of the GCTF, Canada and Morocco, dedicated an introductory session on the range of tools, knowledge and expertise offered by the Forum to the NATO Political Committee.

In conclusion, if the GCTF's role “in the military domain” may raise some legitimate concerns, in consideration of the sadly well-known harmful consequences of traditional, exclusively military and securitarian approaches to combating international terrorism, the scenario of Egypt’s two-year presidency of the Forum is even more preoccupying.

Terror in power: exporting the Egyptian counter-terrorism model?

A member of the GCTF for several years, Egypt already co-chairs, along with the EU, the Working Group for Capacity Building in East Africa. It is currently running for the 2022-2024 presidency of the Forum.

The Council of Europe has approved a joint bid for the EU and Egypt to run for presidency to co-chair the GCTF for the next two-year term on January 11th, 2022, as reported by Middle East Eye.

As stated on the official website of the Forum, each member country can present a joint candidacy together with another member country from a different region (for instance, a Middle Eastern country can run for co-chairing the Forum together with a European country). Co-chairs are elected by other member countries during the last Coordination Meeting before the mandate of the leading countries in office expires. The presidency mandate can be renewed.

In the present case, elections are to be held in March 2022, and the next two-year term will begin in September, when the newly elected members will take over from Canada and Morocco.

The role of the countries co-chairing the GCTF is to provide strategic direction and management for the Forum's activities. Should the EU-Egypt pair be elected, the military regime led by el-Sisi would be in the position to influence security and counter-terrorism policies worldwide for at least the next two years.

What model of counter-terrorism does military-dominated Egypt represent, and what vision of security do its current policies promote?

President el-Sisi, praised by several Western governments as “the strong leader who can guarantee the stability of the Middle East", has built and strengthened domestic and international consensus around his government by leveraging the threat of violent radicalism and proposing in response the hard line represented by martial law and the “war on terror”.

Nearly nine years after Sisi seized power in 2013, however, the impacts of that war on terror look tragic. The media and discursive demonization and the progressive criminalization of the Muslim Brotherhood- from party leaders to ordinary members and their families- has contributed to the polarization of religious-inspired political forces. On the other hand, military operations aimed at neutralizing armed groups in the Sinai Peninsula have indiscriminately targeted thousands of civilians from local communities, triggering a new spiral of violence and retaliation.

The intertwine between the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the brutal, large-scale repression of political dissent provides the regime's violence with the alibi of defending state secularism, as it became evident as early as 2013, when Egyptian special forces repressed the Rabaa Al-Adaweya Square protests in an operation which Human Rights Watch equated to a crime against humanity.

Alongside the repression of civil and nonviolent political dissent operated through a powerful and untransparent judiciary (human rights organizations speak of approximately 60’000 arrests on political charges from 2013 onwards) and an ambiguous terrorism legislation, el-Sisi's war on terror is also an armed conflict.
The so-called "invisible war" in Sinai claimed the lives of more than 7 thousand people (including in the body count civilians, fighters and members of the armed forces and state authorities) between 2013 and 2018. The counter-terrorism campaign, based on a reactive and repressive rather than preventative and de-escalation-oriented approach, has seen massive retaliatory operations against local communities and families of alleged terrorists, including mass arrests, bombing of civilian infrastructure, destruction of households, and the forced displacement of thousands of people.

Over time, this hard-power approach to terrorism resulted in an exponential escalation in the levels of violence by state and non-state actors alike: according to data from the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, attacks conducted by armed groups have increased from a number of 37 during the first semester of 2013 (before Sisi’s rise to power and the Rabaa massacre) to 339 in the second semester of the same year. From the removal of President Morsi (July 2013) to the end of the year 2018, the number of terrorist attacks in Egypt amounted to approximately 2,819, of which more than half occurred in the Sinai Peninsula.

This tragic toll makes it misleading to simply dismiss Egypt’s counter-terror strategy as ineffective: el-Sisi’s war on terror is rather a large-scale campaign of systematic human rights violations which could amount to war crimes.

Should Egypt be elected, along with the European Union, to lead the work of the GCTF for the 2022-2024 term, we could expect the application of that same violent, criminal, and ineffective approach to the international agenda on countering violent extremism.