Egypt has a huge security problem. But its attitude to that problem is even a bigger problem. It may even constitute a major hurdle to dealing with a level of terrorism it has not encountered before.
A complex set of political and cultural taboos – reluctance to admit errors publicly and holding those responsible to account are just two examples – is doing a lot of real damage to the country, its standing and its potential.
We have yet to hear or see an army or police general sacked or even disciplined for any of the failures that lead to the killing of scores of policemen, soldiers and judges. Blaming all the failures on foreign conspiracies is downright stupid, betrays insecurity and spectacular vulnerability. Only those who are willing to admit making mistakes can inspire confidence. Anything else than that undermines the very authority of the state the conspiracy spin doctors think they are protecting.
November 24th saw another terrorist outrage in Sinai. According to army statements and preliminary reports, it followed a well-known pattern, which should be a cause for concern for those in charge of security in Egypt.
It was a classic Al-Qaeda style multipronged assault : an expendable suicide bomber who distracts the main line of defence, while others launch their attacks on the real target of the offensive : the hotel where the judges supervising the second phase of the parliamentary election in northern Sinai were staying. Initial reports say in all seven were killed , including two judges, the rest were army soldiers or police. Many more were injured. The death toll could rise further.
This comes 24 days after the crash of the Russian plane in the Sinai desert, which nearly the whole world now believe it was brought down by a bomb – but Egypt remains reluctant not just to accept that, but even to acknowledge it as possibility. Both the Russians and Western governments believe someone at Sharm Al-Sheikh airport smuggled the bomb on board the plane.
As long as Egypt remains in denial of what may have brought down the Russian airplane over Sinai, it will never ask itself the real and difficult questions about its repeated security failures and the price it pays in human life as well as lost revenue from the tourism industry.
Not a week passes by without the terrorists managing to penetrate beyond its many security barriers and check points in Sinai to kill one or two police or army soldiers. The latest terrorist outrage is yet another painful reminder of the failure to learn from past mistakes.
There is no doubt that fighting terrorists determined to die and on a terrain like that of Sinai is very difficult. Apart from the purely security strategy (which we do not know much about apart from what we see – road closures, police check points, stationary and mobile patrols across the country ) , one of the main obstacle to winning that battle, or at least minimising your losses at this stage, is, in my opinion, cultural attitudes to the whole idea of risk in Egypt.
In a religious society like Egypt the vast majority are fatalistic: only that which is predetermined by god will happen to you, no matter what you do. Those who dispute or question that frame of mind are frowned upon or viewed as blasphemous.
With an entrenched belief like this, you can never mount an effective security system. It is runs counter to the rational perception of risk and the systematic application of a set of rules to minimise or eliminate the risk .
Anyone who has been to Egypt will have noticed the metal detectors outside hotels, shopping malls, government buildings manned by staff who seem bored, uninterested or totally oblivious of the serious risks at hand, often ushering people through despite the alarm going off.
Equally dispiriting and terrifying is the sight of conscripts manning the many check points up and down the country. Again, like their civilian colleagues, they are poor and seem poorly trained too. And they are up against rutheless, battle-hardened, cowardly and motivated terrorists.
No less devastating than blind faith in fate and what is pre-ordained, is that security guards tend to judge people by their looks. Since nearly all the foot soldiers in the security systems come from poor background they don’t feel empowered or confident enough to stop and search those who are apparently rich or from higher social class — the rich or Westerners are rarely if ever searched. Only the poor or dark-skinned are subjected to the routine. All Egyptians know that. It is a fundamental – and in this particular context disasterous — feature of the class system in Egypt : only the poor and powerless bear the full brunt of the law.
Searching foreign visitors is particularly difficult for the poor conscripts or security guards. That may be due in part to the colonial legacy, where white Westerners still receive better treatment by government officials than the average Egyptian. But there is something more to it than that. The white visitors are not only “wealthy” or “socially superior”, they are also guests. And it runs against the grain of the traditional Egyptian culture of hospitality to assume that your guest could be a suspect. Under that traditional value system, searching tourists would be viewed as rude and extremely offensive.
Unless these deeply engrained cultural attitudes are picked up, analysed and recognised as impediments to the development of a proper and professional security system , I fear that the Islamic terrorists or their supporters will continue to slip through. Egypt and the innocent will pay the price.