Thursday, August 15, 2013

US Tightrope Walk: Arab Autocrats Try to Redefine Terrorism

RSIS presents the following commentary US Tightrope Walk: Arab Autocrats Try to Redefine Terrorism By James M. Dorsey It is also available online at this link. (To print it, click on this link.). Kindly forward any comments or feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentaries, at

No. 148/2013 dated 12 August 2013

US Tightrope Walk: Arab Autocrats Try to Redefine Terrorism

By James M. Dorsey


The United States is walking a tightrope with US Secretary of State John Kerry’s controversial endorsement of the toppling of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi as a “restoration of democracy”. The endorsement is likely to be seen by Islamist and non-Islamist anti-government protesters as backing for conservative Arab autocrats who project their crackdowns on opposition forces as a ‘struggle against terrorism’.


US SECRETARY of State John Kerry sought to position his controversial endorsement of Egypt’s military coup as part of the Obama administration’s support for popular demands for change.  Kerry noted that millions of Egyptians had backed the ousting of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
In doing so, Kerry lent support to the equally controversial notion of Morsi having been deposed by ‘popular impeachment’ - as put forward by Mona Ekram-Obeid, an Egyptian politician with close ties to the Mubarak regime and the military.

Redefining terrorism?

Kerry’s endorsement, willy-nilly, provided cover for the military which has justified its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood - involving the arrest of hundreds of Brothers, legal proceedings against leaders of the Brotherhood, closure of media associated with the group and the targeting of businesses believed to support it – as a fight against violence and terrorism. It is likely to be also exploited by autocrats across the region who justify brutality by security forces and restrictions on freedoms as a ‘struggle against terrorism’.

By defining legitimate, peaceful, democratic opposition to the government as terrorism, Middle Eastern and North African autocrats like Egyptian supreme military commander, deputy prime minister and defence minister General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi; Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa; King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia; and embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have arguably given the battle against political violence and terrorism a new meaning.

The Brotherhood’s mass protest against the coup, continued demonstrations against Bahrain’s minority Sunni rulers despite a brutal crackdown two years ago, and intermittent minority Shiite protests in Saudi Arabia, have all been largely peaceful. The protests against Assad morphed into an insurgency and civil war only after the regime persistently responded brutally with military force.. Yet, the rulers of Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Syria have denounced their own domestic opponents as ‘terrorists’. To be sure, the crackdown on the Brotherhood in Egypt is making it more difficult for the group’s leadership to control its more militant fringe sparking incidents of violence on both sides of the divide as well as a swelling insurgency in the Sinai.

In many ways, the redefinition of terrorism revives the notion of one man’s liberation fighter being another’s terrorist. It is designed to force domestic public opinion and the United States to choose between autocracy or illiberal democracy and the threat of terrorism. It is an echo of the argument used by ousted autocrats including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine El Abedeine Ben Ali and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh to justify their repressive policies.

Cover for crackdown on political dissent

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