Why youths turn from civilian alternatives to violent extremist groups: Social and economic reasons

Posted: 26 مارس 2016 in كتابات مترجمة

book cover egypt2 ENG

 Ayman Abdel Moati

Chapter in a book: Youths and Radical Groups from the Perspective of Youths

Beirut Conference Papers (22-23 December 2015)

The book is co-authored by: Amr ElShobaki- Mavie Maher- Mohamed ElAgati – Omar Samir Khalaf- Habiba Mohsen- Mohamed Sahbi Khalafoui- Sezer OZCAN- Rouba El Helou  – Hazim Fouad- Yassin Bazzaz-  Georges Fahmi- Anna Fleischer- Rabha Allam- Ali AlMamouri- Jana Nakhal- Jerome Drevon- Bilal el Amine- Samiha ALHamdi- Sheirf Mohieldin- Sahar Mandour- Omar Fassatoui- Cristina Casbon- Labib Ismail- Baligh Al Mekhlafi- Fouad Ghorbali-Sara SoujarCasbon- Labib Ismail- Baligh Al Mekhlafi- Fouad Ghorbali-Sara Soujar

Publishers:  Arab Forum for Alternatives and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation

Translated by: Sonia Farid

A number of news websites ran a story about a young man called Amr, who took part in the attack on the Judges Club in the Egyptian city of Arish in the Sinai Peninsula on November 24, 2015 and which killed two judges and four policemen and injured 10. Amr, codenamed Abi Waddah al-Masry, is the son of an army officer and was known for supporting Mohamed El-Baradei and for being a fervent opponent of Islamists[1]. This story, regardless of its accuracy, underlines a substantial change in the mentality of youths and their political choices and that drove them to abandon peaceful revolution for extremist violence. Seeking martyrdom and consequently heaven through individual violent activities is not a manifestation of religion as much as of despair. Several youths who lose hope in effecting change through communal peaceful means would resort to faster solutions through individual violent means regardless of the consequences. This shift is the result of a feeling of estrangement and failure that has become common amongst a large number of revolutionary youths who failed to see their hopes materialize.


First: The beginnings:

In 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was established against the backdrop of a world economic crisis and the failure of the liberal movement to lead the national scene and secure Egypt’s independence from British occupation coupled with the suppression of the communist movement that for the first time linked the national cause with class distinction. The ideas on which the Muslim Brotherhood was founded were not similar to those of previous religious reform movements for it resorted to violence first in 1945 with the assassination of Interior Minister Ahmed Maher than a number of other figures such as Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmi al-Nokrashi and Judge Ahmed al-Khazendar in addition to carrying out several explosions. This signaled the beginning of the use of individual violent actions carried out by a specific group as an alternative to communal change that should be effected by the people.

The Muslim Brotherhood continued gaining supporters as did the liberal and communist movements before. Despite the fact that the 1940s had witnessed a remarkable rise of both the Islamist and communist movements which competed for the support of urban classes in particular, power was seized by a small organization inside the army that did not enjoy previous support amongst the people. This peculiar turn had at the time terminated all other attempts at political reform, especially with the repressive measures that were soon introduced by the state against opposition. For sixty years, the military remained in power with the exception of one year that was followed by the return of power to the military once more. This is not by any means a coincidence, but is rather the result of the strategies followed by all movements that might seem capable of driving people towards change including the left which also abandoned its faith in the role of the people in achieving political transformation.

It is undoubtedly impossible to separate the ideological meaning of politics from its social and economic meanings and it is similarly impossible to deal with religion in a vacuum without linking it to social interests that constitute part of the struggle in Islamist groups. That is why the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood and later radical Islamist groups can be seen as an expression of social interests rather than a product of a jurisprudence debate about the relationship between religion and governance. The Muslim Brotherhood came as an expression of the problems suffered by different segments of the middle class, especially in rural areas, and who because of the dominant culture as well as a complex network of interests cannot subscribe to liberal or communist ideologies. The Muslim Brotherhood also garnered a lot of support among the marginalized, whether the poor in Upper Egypt and impoverished areas or parts of the middle class whose conditions deteriorated as a result of the decline of local economy. Islamist movements took advantage of the grievances of several segments of society at the time to offer a set of religiously inspired slogans that promise the implementation of reform while, in fact, serving their own political agenda that could not be explicitly stated since it was not congruent with the ideologies of a large number of their supporters.

Second: The emergence of militant Islamism:

Most leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood spent long years in jail during Nasser’s rule and even though many of them left for the Gulf region after being released, the seeds of armed struggle had already been sown inside Egypt. This trend was started by thinker and writer Sayed Qutb who was later executed by Nasser’s regime. True, many of the radical organizations established afterwards were from outside the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, yet they all shared a tendency to rely on individual violence at the expense of popular struggle, which implies sidelining the people and their role like what was done by several armed leftist groups in the Southern Hemisphere.

The second wave started on April 18, 1974 when 100 members of the Islamic Liberation Organization stormed the campus of the Technical Military Academy and seized weapons and vehicles under the leadership Saleh Sarreya. The attackers were hoping to assassinate then President Sadat and a number of senior officials who were then meeting at the adjacent Arab Socialist Union building. Operations continued until Sadat was actually assassinated. The regime managed to a great extent to control militant operations in the 1980s, yet they made a powerful comeback in the 1990s. The continuing marginalization of large segments of society drove a large number of disenfranchised youths to join those groups, which contributed to their forceful reemergence that was also helped by the return of Afghan War fighters. This new wave started on October 12, 1990 with the assassination attempt against then Interior Minister Abdel Halim Moussa and which instead killed Parliament Speaker Refaat al-Mahgoub. Those operations reached their peak on November 17, 1997 with the massacring of 58 people, mostly Swiss and German tourists, in the southern city of Luxor.

The economic crisis that took place in the 1970s and the collapse of the Nasserist project that promised development and national independence played a major role in driving a number of impatient and frustrated youths to seek faster alternatives after losing hope in long-term solutions. Their decision to do so was supported by the increasingly minor role played by leftist factions whether owing to their elitist discourse or as a result of repressive state policies against their activities. The state dealt with the crisis in an extremely imprudent manner that was mainly manifested in the open-door policy that flooded local market with imported products, which led to a decline in GDP growth rates from 6% in the 1960s to 3% in the 1970s[2]. Added to this is the collapse of local industry in the face of foreign imports, the rise of unemployment rates from 2.5% in 1960 to 7.7% in 1976, 14.7% in 1986 then down to 8.8% in 1996 and up again to 9.1% in 2002. Mubarak’s regime continued destroying local economy and marginalizing the poor while corruption and nepotism became more rampant than ever and the state became more of an armed gang that represses the people.

Radical groups did not collapse with the arrest of some of their leaders and the liquidation of other. Even after the announcement of ideological revisions that renounced violence in 2002 to pave the way for the release of a number of detainees, the conflict did not stop. Violence was especially escalated following US invasion of Iraq in 2003 which led many youths to join several revolutionary groups, many of which turned to violent extremism and adopted a sectarian discourse.

Egypt is not the only country whose policies triggered the emergence of radical armed groups, for Algeria also played a major role following the cancellation of the 1990 Algerian parliamentary elections in which the Islamic Salvation Front scored a sweeping victory and the subsequent establishment of an armed group that killed thousands of Algerians. Other countries like Jordan witnessed similar operations as a result of repressive state policies even if on a much smaller scale.

Third: ISIS, jihad, and the failure of the revolution

Following the fall of Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003, Iraq started going through a series of conflicts that started with resistance to US occupation and developed into sectarian wars at times under the auspices of occupying forces. In the absence of a clear popular vision that works on eliminating both occupation and sectarianism, it was easy for militant groups to offer a new alternative to managing the conflict even though it was still one that did not address the interests of the people.

On April 9, 2011, that is shortly after the eruption of Arab Spring revolutions, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State in Iraq, the successor of al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, established by Abu Mossab al-Zarqawi in 2003, announced the annexation of Syria to his caliphate project, hence the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). On June 11, 2014, Mosul, the second biggest city in Iraq, fell to ISIS and on August 5, 2012, an armed group attacked an Egyptian military base and killed 16 soldiers and seized two armored vehicles. Since then violence has been escalating until the Sinai Peninsula turned into a target for militant operations. The reaction of security forces was quite brutal especially against average citizens who were constantly accused of harboring terrorists. A series of explosions targeted a number of police and military facilities in other parts of Egypt and led to the assassination of several security officials as well as the prosecutor general. The Sinai Province organization, previously known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, which had earlier pledged allegiance to ISIS, claimed responsibility for the majority of these operations.

The Syrian conflict saw the emergence of a number of armed groups, some of which fighting the regime and others fighting each other in an indication of the fragmentation of the Syrian revolution. This development was mainly the result of the brutality of the Syrian regime together with a lack of vision that led the revolution to turn into a number of conflicts that take their toll on the Syrian people who are killed, starved, and rendered homeless. The situation in Syria expanded on a much larger scale than that in Iraq.

The number of foreign fighters in ISIS in Syria alone is estimated at 12,000 who joined in the past three years. This number is much bigger than the total of those who joined the Afghan War throughout 10 years. Around 25% of those fighters come from Tunisia, the only Arab Spring country that did not witness actual armed conflicts with the exception of Bahrain whose revolution was not completed. ISIS fighters come from around 81 countries. The number of foreign fighters from Western countries is estimated at 3,000[3].

Impoverishment and lack of justice as far as the distribution of wealth is concerned and that result from the huge class gap perpetrated by the capitalist system led a number of youths to look for alternative solutions. Despite a general rise in gross world product from 3,000 billion dollars in 1960 to 92,889 billion in 2012, the number of the poor increased from 400 million in 1970 to the double in 1980 and exceeded 1.2 billion in 2000 in developing countries alone. The 2014 Human Development Report notes that poverty is still a pressing problem on the universal level since the rich, who constitute 1% of the world’s population, own half its wealth. In fact, the wealth of 85 rich people is equivalent to what half the planet’s poor own together. The same report in 2006 noted the widening gap between the poorest 10% and wealthiest 10% and which rose from 2.3 to 31.5 in Tunisia, from 2.7 to 30.6 in Jordan, from 2.8 to 26.8 in Algeria, from 3.7 to 29.5 in Egypt, from 2.6 to 30.9 in Morocco, and from 3 to 25.8 in to Yemen[4]. The number of the unemployed in the Arab world has reached 22 million out of a total labor force of around 120 million and the number increases by 3 million every year[5].

A study conducted by the Center for Arab Unity Studies stated that the failure of economic development plans in the Arab world throughout the past three decades, especially following the 1970s oil boom, the crisis of foreign debt that reached 220 billion dollars in 1995, and the transfer of around 800 billion dollars of Arab capital outside the region are all factors that contributed to the decline of basic rights such as food, education, and healthcare. More than 60 million adults and 9 million children in the Arab world have not received elementary education and more than 10 million do not get enough food[6]. According to the 2009 Arab Human Development Report, around 65 million Arab citizens, which corresponds to 39.9%, live in poverty and in 2005 20.3% of Arab citizens lived in abject poverty according to international standards. According to the 2009 Arab Labor Organization report, the percentage of unemployment in the Arab world reached 14.4% of labor force, compared to 6.3% on the international level[7].

This was the situation before the eruption of Arab Spring revolutions and was, in fact, the situation that led to their eruption. However, the post-revolutionary era witnessed an aggravation of past problems as political stability, economic development, and justice seemed far-fetched. Countries that witnessed those revolutions are either torn by bloody conflicts or ruled by regimes that are not different from their predecessors.

Reports stated that revenues from tourism and industry declined as a result of the drop in economic development rates in the past three years and the country is currently dependent on grants and loans, mainly from the International Monetary Fund. In Egypt, tourism declined by 70% and several investments were withdrawn from the country which is now excessively dependent on aid from Gulf countries. Libya is expected to be suffering from absolute economic paralysis, yet the continuation of oil drilling and available financial reserves protected the country from total collapse. In Yemen, economic losses as of 2011 are estimated at 10.5 billion dollars, which corresponds to one third of GDP and poverty rates have remarkably risen. As for Syria, the economy lost in three years half the GDP, which was estimated at 60 billion before the crisis, and almost half the population were rendered homeless and those who stayed are suffering from deplorable health conditions with 75% of them living in abject poverty. Economic decline in Arab Spring countries in general led to increased dependence on imports and to a price hike by 25% at least[8].


It is obvious from the above that the emergence of religious radical groups in the modern history of the Arab world and their ability to attract indignant youths are a reflection of a state of failure not only on the part of regimes, but also opposition factions. Countries that gained their independence in 1950s were dominated by dictatorships that repressed opposition and in several cases became subordinate to imperial powers as a means of consolidating their power. Meanwhile, civilian options available to indignant youths proved too fragile to effect a change and too bland to attract them. This was the result of many reasons:

– The limited influence of political factions, which rendered them unable to garner popular support and to mobilize the youths that took part in the revolutions and in pre-revolutionary political activities

– The reform programs proposed by political factions do not target the core of policies that have been the cause of people’s suffering, but instead focus on superficial changes

– Lack of realistic political and social alternatives to totalitarian regimes that could find support among the majority of the people

– The way most of those factions scorn popular action and only take advantage of the people as a means of destabilizing the state, negotiating power, and wining electoral votes and such was the case of both liberals and Islamists after the revolutions

Falling prey to illusory polarizations such as secular-religious, which eventually led to all parties losing the struggle to the ruling regime and the counter-revolution


[1] “A Surprise about the Arish Attack [Arabic].” Mofakerat al-Islam, November 26, 2015: http://is.gd/QZDV3C

[2] The World Bank. Egypt: Economic Report: http://is.gd/FwJccQ

[3] Amani Bahgat. “Where Do ISIS Fighters Come from? How Do They Leave their Countries? [Arabic].” Sasa Post, April 11, 2015: http://is.gd/HZOQEX

[4] Karam al-Helw. “On Poverty and Extremism in the Arab World [Arabic].” Al-Hayat, March 1, 2015: http://is.gd/739wE2

[5] “Unemployment in the Arab World [Arabic].” The Union for Arab Banks: http://is.gd/Or2Jjq

[6] Al-Wafi al-Tayeb and Bahloul Latifa. “Unemployment in the Arab Region: Reasons and Challenges [Arabic].” Kenana Online: http://is.gd/F4ghnN

[7] “2009: The End of a Decade: Shifting the Problems of Illiteracy, Poverty, and Unemployment in Arab World to 2010 [Arabic].” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 28, 2009: http://is.gd/ReXin8

[8] Economic report: “The Arab Spring Exacerbates Poverty and Unemployment [Arabic].” Deutsche Welle, October 11, 2014:  http://is.gd/QQuLrF

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