Selling arms to Arab rulers won’t improve security in the Middle East

By Stephanie Dornschneider | (Informed Comment) | – –

As a child, Najeh Ibrahim, who founded one of the most violent groups in recent Egyptian history, loved his president. “We all loved Nasser,” he recalls. However, Ibrahim’s positive attitude toward the leader of his country changed. Observing waves of arrests in which Muslim Brothers and other political opponents “came out of prison with marks of torture,” he began to resent the state. When he was 17, he founded a small opposition group, called al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya. The group grew quickly and spread across Egypt, soon posing a serious threat to the state. In 1981, it changed the history of the country: It participated in the assassination of President Sadat.

Ibrahim was among those individuals who decided to kill the President. He says that the decision was made in response to state repression, particularly a military round-up in September 1981. “Sadat arrested thousands of us. This was exactly what the government did in 1954. We saw the similarity,” Ibrahim says. “We believed that the repression would never stop. We thought that this was an eternal state. It was at this point that we decided to kill him.” Had the state not engaged in repression, Ibrahim believes “Sadat would not have been dead.”

Today, Egypt remains a very repressive state, which is involved in mass killings of protestors,[1] large numbers of enforced disappearances[2], systematic torture[3] and systematic persecution of political opponents[4]. However, numerous states, including the US, the UK, France or Germany, are supplying Egypt with weapons. The US recently approved 1.3 billion dollars in military aid to Egypt,[5] while licenses for military equipment totaling 6.77 billion dollars were authorized in European states in 2014.[6]

The main argument justifying these sales is security policy. In the words of President Obama “the U.S.-Egyptian relationship has been an important cornerstone of our security policy and our policy in the Middle East for a very long time.”[7] In the words of David Cameron: “Egypt is a vital partner for us both in terms of our economic and our security ties. … We will continue our close security cooperation, including on tackling the scourge of violent Islamist extremism.”[8]

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Stephanie Dornschneider is author of Whether to Kill: Cognitive Maps of Violent and Nonviolent Individuals

Can supporting repressive rulers with weapons help defeat “violent Islamist extremism”? My research in Egypt suggests that the opposite is true.[9] Based on dozens of interviews with individuals who engaged in violence between the 1970s and 1990s, I find that the primary motivation for their behavior is state repression – not an Islamist ideology. Like Najeh Ibrahim, each individual I met had a story of state repression – some were brutally tortured, others lost a family member through state violence; some were incarcerated for long periods of time, others received threats that their children would be killed; a few individuals said they heard about others’ experiences of being tortured, killed or incarcerated.

These findings suggest that as long as state repression in the Middle East continues, new individuals are likely to pick up arms against their rulers. These individuals could join local ISIS-related groups, such as the Egyptian version, which has claimed various attacks, including the killing of numerous policemen and soldiers, or the bombing of a passenger jet in Sinai. They could also form new violent networks that, in time, could become much more powerful actors than ISIS or al-Qaeda have ever been.

Many in the West argue that ISIS poses a major security threat, while the threat of more people picking up arms can be contained by military support for Middle Eastern rulers that are known to use violence against their citizens. This could be a gross underestimation of an emerging security threat, as happened in the case of bin Laden in the early 1990s.[10] It also ignores the security threat that violent rulers pose to the large number of peaceful people living in the Middle East. In Egypt, about 1,000 people were murdered or tortured by the security forces,[11] while hundreds were made disappear in 2015,[12] and 41,000 were detained, charged or sentenced between July 2013 – May 2014.[13] In Syria, the government killed 12,044 civilians in 2015,[14] continuing a war that started when peaceful protestors called for reforms[15] of a state that had been repressing its citizens for many years.[16] And Saudi Arabia, a state known for “cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment” as well as mass executions,[17] is leading a coalition that killed 2,000 civilians in Yemen between March 2015 and July 2016.[18] Including numerous other Arab states and decades of state repression, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Arab civilians have died through the hands of violent rulers.

How many people have called these killings a major security threat? How many would have called them a major security threat, had the victims been American or European? How many would have picked up arms themselves, had they lived in a repressive Middle Eastern state, and personally been tortured or threatened with the death of their children?

Responding to security threats in the Middle East requires more than defeating ISIS. It requires stopping support for violent rulers.


[1] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/05/eu-halt-arms-transfers-to-egypt-to-stop-fuelling-killings-and-torture/

[2] https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde12/4368/2016/en/

[3] http://www.alnadeem.org/en/content/torture-archive-1st-100-days-sisis-rule

[4] https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2016/egypt

[5] http://time.com/3766224/united-states-weapons-ban-lifted-egypt/

[6] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/05/eu-halt-arms-transfers-to-egypt-to-stop-fuelling-killings-and-torture/

[7] http://www.egyptembassy.net/egypt-us-relations/

[8] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/joint-press-conference-david-cameron-and-president-sisi

[9] http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15415.html

[10] http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/17/world/asia/state-dept-says-it-warned-about-bin-laden-in-1996.html

[11] https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2-QqOchi4gFN004cXBxUjBQSnc/view

[12] http://www.icmp.int/news/enforced-disappearances-in-egypt/

[13] https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/06/08/egypt-year-abuses-under-al-sisi

[14] http://www.iamsyria.org/death-tolls.html

[15] https://www.lse.ac.uk/IDEAS/publications/reports/pdf/SR011/FINAL_LSE_IDEAS__SyriasBloodyArabSpring_Phillips.pdf

[16] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2011-05-03/structure-syrias-repression

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/jul/16/syria-decade-repression-bashar-al-assad

[17] https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/middle-east-and-north-africa/saudi-arabia/report-saudi-arabia/

[18] https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/07/10/bombing-businesses/saudi-coalition-airstrikes-yemens-civilian-economic-structures

Stephanie Dornschneider is Assistant Professor at University College Dublin
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She is author of Whether to Kill: Cognitive Maps of Violent and Nonviolent Individuals