Egypt’s 4th-generation warfare

Due to excessive propaganda and use of an irrelevant and non-objective nationalist rhetoric, we have lost focus of the original causes of the struggle against “terrorism” and have been often led to inaccurate and clearly mistaken interpretations of the problem. Egypt’s war against “terrorism” has become an important political card for the military, allowing it to do what it wants without much questioning or any thought of being held accountable. The media has managed to turn this struggle into a matter of national pride and dignity instead of asking practical questions about the essence of the problem.

I am using the term “terrorism” here to refer to all acts of organized, pre-meditated and politically motivated violence. This “terrorism” is practiced by radical individuals representing either themselves or institutions (including the state). Therefore, state security forces and political organizations from all backgrounds could be involved in practicing this kind of terrorism. Violence that suddenly breaks out during demonstrations is not to be confused with “terrorism” as long as it is not pre-conceived. But threats that cause a public state of fear and panic do within this definition of terrorism. It is important to note that “terrorism” does not necessarily mean violence against the state; it rather means the reckless, lawless and unjustified use of violence for a political cause.  

What I intend to do here is to distance this fight from all of its nationalistic and feigned patriotic frameworks. The struggle against terrorism cannot be understood unless it is treated as a mere socio-political phenomenon with crucial strategic components. This article tries to de-politicize Egypt’s war on terrorism in order to explain the genuine nature of the struggle. The term “fourth-generation warfare” has been frequently used in Egypt those past couple of months in reference to combatting terrorism. I will argue that what we’re experiencing at the moment resembles very much the concepts of fourth-generation warfare, but let us first briefly lay out the sequential progress of warfare.

The first generation of war depended on manpower, physical strength and numbers. An army’s strength was measured by its size, the rationale being that an army of 10,000 is likely to defeat an army of 2,000, et eetera. Second-generation warfare came about when gunpowder was invented and became popular. An army’s equipment and the quality of its armaments became the main determinants of victory. An army with guns was more likely to defeat one with swords. (A fine example was when the French came to Egypt at the end of the 18th century, during the Napoleonic conquests.) The third generation started when war became an operational confrontation based on tactics, strategies and the best use of available weapons, instead of a direct one-on-one battle.

The battle against modern terrorism, or so-called fourth-generation warfare, however, is not merely a military battle. Military confrontation is one aspect, but it rarely occurs. Various political, social, economic, tactical and technological dimensions define fourth-generation warfare and are as important as the military dimension, if not more important. Victory in this kind of war depends on the quality of coordination between these different elements. Terrorists are not after territorial victories, but aim to create enough chaos to lead to a state of political paralysis, which eventually influences decision making.

So in other words, what we have stepped into here in Egypt is a very unconventional battle. If you lose the propaganda and try to answer the objective questions, you realize how unconventional it really is. For example, who exactly are we fighting against, who are those terrorists? Are they the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamists at large, members of Hamas, all illegal foreigners, those who protested at Rabea al-Adaweya, or those who want former President Mohamed Morsi to come back to power? Do we really know who we delegated the army to fight against? Certain answers to those questions easily open the way for discrimination, injustice, inequality and civil strife.

The other practical and objective question is, what should we do about it? Ban the Brotherhood, stop Islamic political organization, reserve the right to subject civilians to military trials, renew emergency laws, declare Sinai a military zone? How these questions are answered determine whether “the war against terrorism” will be used as a pretext for authoritarianism, oppression and political monopoly.

The Egyptian government has found an easy way out of this, of course. It has resorted to blind generalization. You find an enemy or create one, you glorify the hero who fights that enemy and you manipulate perceptions of victory and defeat to serve changing political needs and realities. Think about Bush’s administration in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and you will understand the model I refer to.

We can easily decide that the Muslim Brotherhood is the enemy. We can find thousands of reasons to base these accusations on (and some of those reasons will be real) and also evidence that links some Brotherhood members or leaders to acts of terrorism. It’s easy afterward to let go of all rights and accept all violations in the name of the national duty being served by those protecting this country. Pretty soon, discrimination against Brotherhood members or sympathizers or Islamists at large will be practiced on a national level. We will slowly turn into a society driven by mass perceptions and organized conformity. At that stage, this “reinvented” enemy will turn into real danger that we will encounter every day.

“Military boots,” or the coercive rule of security institutions, will not conclude Egypt’s war against terrorism. The type of battle we are fighting requires tools that are not even in the military’s hands (at least theoretically). Military operations are needed to face some of the threats posed by terrorism, but measures that guarantee political tolerance, equal access, freedom of expression, and freedom of organization and association are equally needed. In this battle, the individual’s role is no different than the role of the organization or institution. Our pursuit of the truth and our awareness of our individual and public rights are essential components in the battle. Individual political participation and social responsibility are means to hold those responsible accountable for their actions. 

The most serious danger in our battle against terrorism is that we can easily find ourselves in the middle of a battle to which we do not belong, against an enemy that we do not truly detest.     


You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism