The War on Terror’s authoritarian template
January 14th, 2014
08:00 AM ET

The War on Terror’s authoritarian template

By Sahar Aziz, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Sahar Aziz is associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law where she teaches national security, civil rights, and Middle East law. She serves as president of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association and is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The views expressed are her own.

Egyptian society, once teeming with calls for freedom, justice and dignity, has been replaced with an atmosphere of vengeance. Instead of calls to preserve fundamental human rights, Egyptians now praise their internal security forces for killing and arresting en mass those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood – the newly declared enemy of the state.

That these are the same people who won Egypt’s first freely contested parliamentary and presidential elections is apparently of no consequence. What is consequential, however, is the transformation of a grassroots revolution into an indefinite War on Terror. Rather than challenge police abuses, Egyptians compete to be the most patriotic in supporting the army and security forces’ violent crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the crackdown's expansion to secular youth groups is met with equal support.

When criticized by the international community for violating international norms, the Egyptian state points to the language of the U.S. government as its exemplar. And, sadly, it is true that the United States’ War on Terror effectively legitimized practices that were once only associated with pariah states.

Prior to the global war on terror, torture, abuse of law to persecute political opponents, and fostering an environment of fear among the populace to justify state-sponsored violence led to nations being stigmatized. Indeed, before 9/11, Egypt’s violent repression of Islamist groups under the auspices of national security in the 1990s was dismissed as a pretext for political oppression and authoritarianism.

Similar accusations could now be leveled against America’s national security practices.

The United States’ open-ended global war on terror initially targeted al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, expanded to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, then to Ba’athists in Iraq, and eventually encompassed anyone deemed a “jihadi” who opposed U.S. foreign policy. Meanwhile, orthodox Muslims in the U.S. critical of America’s national security policies also became targets in this indeterminate conflict – their charities were shut down in the wake of 9/11, assets frozen, and leaders were prosecuted under laws prohibiting material support to terrorism, even if the allegedly illegal acts had no clear connection to Afghanistan, al Qaeda, or the September 11 terrorist attacks.

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As Muslims in Guantanamo were tortured and denied basic due process rights, Muslims in America had government informants infiltrate their mosques, businesses, and social gatherings. Muslims were placed under various forms of electronic surveillance and too often treated as a fifth column by virtue of their religious identity. And when they decried violations of their civil rights and liberties, the government propagated fear-based narratives to persuade Americans that such sacrifices were necessary to protect the nation against those intent on killing Americans. We were frightened into believing that civil liberties and human rights were a luxury that a nation at war simply could not afford.

The War on Terror not only led America to stray from its founding principles, but also legitimized practices once reserved for the most authoritarian states.

Applying the logic of the U.S. playbook, the Egyptian military and security forces are currently using a fear-based narrative to justify mass arrests and prosecutions of the leadership of its political opposition – both the Muslim Brotherhood and secular youth groups. The Muslim Brotherhood has been designated a terrorist group, a move that legalized the freezing of the assets of more than 1,000 charities that provide health care and food to millions of poor Egyptians neglected for decades by the state.  Labeling the political opposition as enemies of the state has also led to the arrest of hundreds of university students, women, and youth activists whose punishment for opposing the government crackdown is a five year jail sentence.

True, the Egyptian government has taken things further than the U.S., with anti-government protests brutally quashed with indiscriminate shootings of hundreds of unarmed civilian protestors. Yet more than a decade after the War on Terror was launched, Americans are just discovering the extent to which the U.S. government has eviscerated civil liberties, not just of Muslims but for all Americans.

The National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs have proven right the critics’ warning that the War on Terror has served as the pretext for government overreach and suppression of dissent. The reality is that mass government surveillance has now become the new normal in a nation founded on individual privacy and distrust of government.

As we approach the third anniversary of Egypt’s historic January 25 revolution, the Egyptian state has masterfully transformed a revolution for freedom and justice into an indefinite War on Terror. And, rather than make America a beacon of freedom, U.S. government practices now serve as a model for authoritarian ones.

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Topics: Egypt • Terrorism • United States

soundoff (200 Responses)
  1. Fubarack

    Obama has sure made a mess of the world.

    January 14, 2014 at 11:20 pm | Reply
    • tarura

      You don't get a Nobel for nothing, or do you?

      January 14, 2014 at 11:52 pm | Reply
      • Nic

        Apparently you can...

        January 15, 2014 at 1:42 am |
    • fatimah23

      He inherited a mess. Thank you George Bush Jr.

      January 15, 2014 at 5:13 am | Reply
      • Trevor

        And no effort to "fix it", in-fact he made it worse...

        January 15, 2014 at 8:01 pm |
    • Miko

      That is not true. What is happening in Egypt, Syria and Libya and the rest of the world was going to happen anyway. I think it is a good thing that it happened in Obama era, If it happened anytime else. US will fighting in 6-7 countries by now.

      January 17, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Reply
    • T.J.

      Not just Obama. All those peeps in government. Dem or Rep

      January 18, 2014 at 8:38 pm | Reply
  2. Mr Everyman

    Because of voter intimidation President Morsi was not really elected in a free secret ballot election. Attacks on minorities by the Muslim Brotherhood were wide spread and not limited to Christians. I agree repression of liberal and secular youth organizations advocating peaceful change is wrong. Egyptians need to stop in their tracks and start helping one another.

    January 15, 2014 at 12:03 am | Reply
    • tarura

      Something like the BIack Panthers in Phila in 2008.

      January 15, 2014 at 12:11 am | Reply
    • fatimah23

      How do you know that? Were you there at the time of voting?

      January 15, 2014 at 5:14 am | Reply
      • Miko

        Fatima, 50% of my family voted for Morsi and after 3 months of him being in power they were hiding their faces from the rest of the family, and all the family went to the streets in June 30th and July 3rd to tell him to leave.

        January 17, 2014 at 3:48 pm |
  3. Willie

    What the Hech are you talking about!!!!

    January 15, 2014 at 12:19 am | Reply
  4. Protinga

    The MB tried to establish a theocracy that would oppress all opponents. So, who cares that they were overthrown by those who did not want such oppression? Very few!

    January 15, 2014 at 12:19 am | Reply
    • fatimah23

      Muslim Brotherhood is a political party like any other. They did not try to force Islamic rules on anyone.

      January 15, 2014 at 5:19 am | Reply
      • Miko

        Brother hood are not a political party. There is no political party called Brotherhood. MB has a secret division that is responsible for multiple assassination. They have their own Militia. They start recruiting individuals from poor to middle class family at the level of middle and high school, military train them and take them into camps to educate them about MB ideology. Please read history and facts. Every one who lived in Egypt knows these facts. Political party do not recruit underage children. Do not train you to fight, and finally do not tell to trust only people from MB. Lastly again their is no political party that is called MB. MB supposed to be a social organization according to their application to the social services Ministry in Egypt. Please Check you facts before you mislead your self and the rest of the world.
        Thank you

        January 17, 2014 at 3:34 pm |
  5. Willie

    I suggest to send you to make a peace bridge between terrorists and governments. Would you like a bulet proof vest in that mission?
    This is the most ridiculous article I ve read in my life. All what I can tell you is.....bounce!!!!

    January 15, 2014 at 12:23 am | Reply
    • fatimah23

      Your reply is the most ridiculous

      January 15, 2014 at 5:19 am | Reply
  6. jewoodbur

    The good professor should go "home." The lady has enjoyed the freedom, security and standard of the living of the "pariah" state too long. Maybe she would like to negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood for a peaceful and human rights oriented Eygpt...good luck with that.

    January 15, 2014 at 12:43 am | Reply
    • mountainlady

      I usually enjoy this gentleman's opinion but he's gone off the deep end with this one. America's faults are many but Egypt is a sovereign nation responsible for itself. I'm a little sick and tired of the blame America for all the world's ills game. A lot of lines got crossed after 9/11 and it's always hard to reign in things that go too far after such a horrendous attack.....such as the Patriot Act. We're working on it but not willing to throw national security under the bus while we're at it. By the all the Obama bashers....getting a little sick of people blaming him for all the world's ills as well. Find another axe to grind. The US needs to clean up its act and review now to make sure it's actions are just and justified and not just "anything goes" to protect national security. It's not going to happen overnight. But our national issues are no excuse for anything happening inside Egypt. I haven't figured out yet how, in spite of sending billions of dollars to prop up these marginal countries, the US still gets blamed for everything that's wrong there.

      January 15, 2014 at 1:29 am | Reply
      • historyspeaks10

        how would you like to be sitting at an outdoor cafe, with your husband and young daughter, enjoying a nice meal on a beautiful afternoon when all of a sudden the car driving by the cafe suddenly explodes from being hit by a drone missile strike made by the USA 'military intelligence' where the flying shrapnel kills your husband and daughter and severely hurts yourself cutting limbs from your body and blinding you in one eye?

        how would you like america now? thats the hatred we've been brewing around the world for the last 12 years constantly, around the clock. we've crreated generations of people that will hate us worse than al qaeda or any other imaginary enemy we can come up with.

        January 15, 2014 at 2:38 am |
      • fatimah23

        The author is female.

        January 15, 2014 at 5:15 am |
    • fatimah23

      The United States is not considered a pariah state.

      January 15, 2014 at 5:13 am | Reply
    • fatimah23

      The US is a pariah state. Perhaps you need a dictionary

      January 15, 2014 at 5:21 am | Reply
  7. jewoodbur

    Perhaps the good professor should move to Egypt for a while and negotiate with the Muslin Brotherhood to achieve the kinds of freedom, security and standard or living from the nation from which which she chooses to criticize. These people make me sick....leave already!

    January 15, 2014 at 12:46 am | Reply
    • fatimah23

      Your suggestions are meaningless

      January 15, 2014 at 5:21 am | Reply
  8. John

    "even if the allegedly illegal acts had no clear connection to Afghanistan, al Qaeda, or the September 11 terrorist attacks."

    So we should turn a blind eye if these so called charities were supporting terrorists in the West Bank or Africa??

    I've gradually grown to feel like our best option is to pull back, shut down our borders and let the rest of the world do as it wishes. And when the rest of the world begins tearing itself apart after a couple of months, libs like Sahar Aziz will do what they do best... Stand up and be accountable. BAHAHAHA! Just kidding, as always, they'll revert to their learned helplessness and blame the US.

    January 15, 2014 at 12:53 am | Reply
    • Name*Ryan

      John, Let's do that. Let's pull back all of our troops, focus on our own internal problems, cut off all aid, and go back to what our founding fathers wanted. Our country (and probably the rest of the world) would be better off.

      January 15, 2014 at 1:52 am | Reply
    • fatimah23

      They suffer because of years of foreign intervention. By the US and other countries as well. Egypt has an extremely rich and beautiful culture, going back centuries. Egyptians did not always exist like this. Thank Israel.

      January 15, 2014 at 5:23 am | Reply
      • Miko

        Fatima, History does not make the facts on the ground. Blaming foreigner for Egypt problem is a big big mistake. It will not solve Egypt problems. I do no think any foreign intervention, told Egyptians, not to respect the law, you see it every where in Egypt. The only Key to success in Egypt is self criticism, which most people in Egypt lacks. So Fatima, my advice to you go and live in Egypt for a while. You will change your ideas

        January 17, 2014 at 3:42 pm |
  9. Nan


    January 15, 2014 at 1:02 am | Reply
  10. Bee Lade

    So many cowardly countries just blame the USA for things it's got nothing to do with. And the stupid USA will give them aid money and Obama will bow down and apologize.

    Sorry Egypt this is all you for have lunatic religious freaks as leaders.

    January 15, 2014 at 1:23 am | Reply
    • fatimah23

      Egypt has crazy government due to a long history of foreign intervention.

      January 15, 2014 at 5:16 am | Reply
  11. manhandler1

    Do we have to blame everything on the U.S? Sure, we ARE responsible for a lot of misery and death, way more than any other Country in the last 50 years. But these people have it well within their power to be responsible for their own freedom, their own free elections, and their own sate of being. And they can do that with or without the U.S. Extreme religion is at the center of the violence in the Middle East and that has been going on for hundreds of years. Nothing the U.S. does or doesn't do is going to change that.

    January 15, 2014 at 1:25 am | Reply
    • fatimah23

      Not with Israel hanging around

      January 15, 2014 at 5:24 am | Reply
    • jangocat

      The USA is responsible for way more deaths then any other country the last 50 years? Wow talk about clueless. So you apparently don't know millions have died in the Congo civil war the last decade? That is only one example of the many many wars that have happened the last 50 years the USA had nothing to do with.

      January 15, 2014 at 10:08 am | Reply
  12. Name*Ryan

    These comments are an embarrassment to free thought. This article has some solid points but what the author forgot to add is that yhe US has and continues to pull military strings in Egypt through aid (1.7 billion just approved going forward). We are so out of touch with our own militarism and so desensitized as humans that we've forgotten to ask ourselves what American interests we're protecting overseas and why we need to be GloboCop when we care to be. This is not a left or right issue, it is common sense. Being a patriotic American is not synonymous with agreeing with our corrupt foreign policy.

    January 15, 2014 at 1:46 am | Reply
    • fatimah23

      Simple. American interests are to protect and support the existence of Israel.

      January 15, 2014 at 5:18 am | Reply
  13. Andy

    Like usual, just blame the "Islamophobia" !

    January 15, 2014 at 2:03 am | Reply
  14. Ricksta

    It's obvious that Natanyahu called his client, the USA, and told them in no uncertain terms that Morsy had to go.

    January 15, 2014 at 2:12 am | Reply
    • fatimah23


      January 15, 2014 at 5:17 am | Reply
  15. JL Taylor

    The US government does not have the power or wealth required to determine the type of governments other countries
    end up with. We must lead by example and improv the live of the average American as much as possible. The religious
    wars which continue to tare much of the world apart can not be resolved by the US or the UN. The leaders of the opposing factions must grow tired of the culture of death and destruction they continue to advance, and; evolve like the
    post civil war United States or post World War II Europe. Only time will tell.

    January 15, 2014 at 2:57 am | Reply
    • fatimah23

      Good thing you are not in charge

      January 15, 2014 at 5:26 am | Reply
  16. samy merchant

    Spot on. It's disgusting how so many Egyptians support a blood thirsty murderer ie Si Si!

    January 15, 2014 at 5:04 am | Reply
  17. John

    Egypt does not have a history of democracy, why do you want to impose one. The Brotherhood was far from allowing free elections, For 5000 years, the Army has been what has kept Egypt functioning, that's just the way it is. I know someone who is a native of Cairo, and he says the the news reports are greatly exaggerated as to the crackdown.

    January 15, 2014 at 8:21 am | Reply
  18. Timekeeper

    Why is everything that goes wrong in the world our fault? Don't these country's have people that can think for themselves?

    January 15, 2014 at 8:51 am | Reply
    • Andrey

      Not if you can help it!

      January 16, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Reply
  19. jangocat

    Please go back to your privileged life as a 1%er in India already Fareed. If you've nothing good to say about the USA you shouldn't have immigrated here. We don't need pompous plagiarizing immigrants like you.

    January 15, 2014 at 9:59 am | Reply
  20. chrissy

    @ jangocat, it is also the only war that the US shouldve been involved with!

    January 15, 2014 at 11:42 am | Reply
  21. Andrey

    Democracy is greatly overrated: thanks to the political caste that feeds off it and "free" mass media moguls that use as a facade for their absolute rule over brainwashed shеерle.

    January 16, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Reply
  22. sneadh

    If you've read "1984" you know what's going on. A minor difference is that Big Brother is a rotating figurehead position.

    January 16, 2014 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  23. BaBaBoey

    I do not understand what is the problem?

    January 16, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Reply
  24. ezo al deen

    sister Fatima is a paid member of the muslim brotherhood

    January 16, 2014 at 9:41 pm | Reply
  25. Shawn Irwin

    What happens in Egypt is Egypt's business, not the business of the USA, and that is the way it should be with every other country. Unfortunately, we have a government that thinks that it is the ruler of world affairs, and that is continuously leading us down the road to more disasters. I will not say "When will they ever learn?" because I know there is no chance in hell they will.

    January 16, 2014 at 10:43 pm | Reply
  26. Rick McDaniel

    The U.S. has become the closest thing to a dictatorship, in our entire history.

    January 19, 2014 at 3:27 pm | Reply
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