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Wrong Way to Fight Terrorism

Brutal repression is no answer for Egypt or Algeria

September 19, 1997

Egypt's five-year-long struggle against Muslim militants clearly isn't over, despite recent government claims that the rebellion that has taken more than a thousand lives has been largely suppressed. Thursday's attack on a tour bus in Cairo came, surely by no coincidence, just three days after a court convicted 72 militants of subversion, with four of them being sentenced to death. Attacking foreigners has been a feature of the effort to undercut President Hosni Mubarak's government. Scaring away tourists deprives Egypt of needed revenues. Cairo's response has been to wield a heavy and not always discriminating hand.

Bad as it is, the situation in Egypt doesn't approach the butchery that for years has rocked Algeria, 600 miles to the west. There an estimated 60,000 have died; many of them were villagers, living virtually within sight of the capital, whose throats were slit in the night. The rebellions in both Egypt and Algeria aim to replace secular governments with regimes based on rigid Islamic orthodoxy. Algeria's army has fought a number of large-scale battles against the rebels. But it has been astonishingly laggard in defending or coming to the aid of communities threatened by any of several militant groups. Egypt is in danger of losing its tourist trade. The Algiers government is in mounting danger of losing whatever credibility it still has with its people.

The natural response to terrorism, especially in countries like Algeria and Egypt where respect for civil liberties is only shallowly rooted, is to increase the power and sweep of the security services. A political movement that sets out to kill and maim the innocent as a way of discrediting the government is intolerable wherever it occurs and must be vigorously fought. But to let terrorism justify indiscriminate and brutal repression in response is no less tolerable. A government that falls into that trap plays the terrorists' game and contributes to its own subversion.

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