Book review: Counterterrorism Strategies in Egypt: Permanent Exceptions in the War on Terror

by Ahmed M. Abozaid, Routledge, 2022, pp. 176. ISBN: 0367714639

Abozaid starts his book “Counterterrorism strategies in Egypt; permanent exceptions in the War on Terror” with a personal encounter with security forces. This opening is a powerful reminder for security scholars how counter-terrorism policies, post-colonial legacies and legal protection are not merely conceptual lenses but part of our everyday lives and encounters with the state. The book aims to unpack counter-terrorism discourses and practices as modes of control and domination. The book provides an empirical rich and thorough analysis of “the history of terrorist and opposition groups in Egypt, and the methods and techniques that Egyptian authorities have employed to combat these groups” ( Abozaid, 2022: 124). While the empirics of the book are grounded in Egypt, Abozaid makes three important contributions that are of interest to a broader community of scholars in (critical) security studies and terrorism studies.

The book provides an empirical rich and thorough analysis of “the history of terrorist and opposition groups in Egypt

First, the book illustrates the importance of decentering Europe and the US as dominant places of (counter)terrorism knowledge and practice. The second chapter of the book is a genealogy of the Egypt’s legislative, judicial and police institutions, starting from the colonial period (1882-1956) and the post-colonial era (1956-2017). This genealogical approach shows how colonial laws in 1914 are foundational in the current counter-terrorism discourse and practices. British colonialism enforced its own rules to control both the Egyptian population and the country’s resources. As such, it took it upon itself to propose the legal understanding of “terrorism” as any act that would challenge its authority. Using legislation to denounce political resistance as ‘terrorism’ the British authorities adopted a series of laws to oppress Egyptians and to allow for excessive use of force against potential revolutionaries.

Contrary to common scholarly argument that bound Egypt’s state of emergency the post-colonial era and the reformations of 1956, Abozaid powerfully proposes that this state of emergency was first set in 1914 by British colonial powers. This historical analysis decenters the US’ and European narrative on the timing and relevance of counterterrorism measures. I propose that future research in security studies can benefit from a comparative focus on post-colonial societies, as the case of Egypt is not unique.  Other post-colonial scholars have described similar practices in other countries including British colonial rules in India (Parashar, 2020) and France’s violent counter-terrorism measures in Algeria (Evans, 2012). In all these contexts, colonial imaginaries of “terrorism” were mobilized to pass laws that ultimately function to police and surveil populations, to govern them in a way that makes political contestation impossible, and to allow for exceptional means to inflict violence. Abozaid here draws on post-colonial theorists to explain how these colonial practices are then continued by post-colonial rulers, essentially perpetuating the discourse of “exceptional threats” to legitimize contemporary counterterrorism practices. The book draws on Fanon’s work that explains how “the colonized always dream of taking the colonist’s place”. In other words, the elites in post-colonial locales that take over control after independence often reproduce colonial forms of domination and capital (see also Salem, 2020). These novel elites or bourgeoisies, continue to be trapped in a global capitalist system where former colonies exist in a dependent relationship with the imperial metropole. As a result, the bourgeoisie does not only continue to serve the capitalist interest of the metropole, but they “tend to rely on violence and tyranny as a system and a method of governance” (Abozaid, 2022: 51). This historical approach offers a refreshing take on counter-terrorism policies, not taking 9/11 or other Western-centric moments as the starting point of inquiry but showing the long colonial origins of current counterterrorism laws.

This historical approach offers a refreshing take on counter-terrorism policies, not taking 9/11 or other Western-centric moments as the starting point of inquiry but showing the long colonial origins of current counterterrorism laws.

Second, through the conclusion that counter-terrorism legislations are inherently coercive and deployed for domination, Abozaid argues that we need to shift our attention to an actor that has been overlooked in traditional terrorism studies: the state. In critical security studies, scholars have previously paid attention to questions of state violence, in particular studying the ways in which Western states engage in racist practices of surveillance, policing and prosecuting (for example Abu Bakare, 2022; Barkawi & Laffey, 2006). What the examples in the book show, however, is how state counter-terrorism discourse is inherently violent and coercive. This is a fundamentally different analytical take on counter-terrorism practices, where violence by the state is not an (unintended) consequence of otherwise reasonable security measures. Quite the opposite, the examples in the book illustrate an origin of these laws in violent politics that order social and political life. The implications of this take on counterterrorism measures is that superficial calls for respecting human rights are meaningless. It requires a fundamental different assessment of what counterterrorism intends to do, which in authoritarian states can be a tool of control and oppression of particularly civil society organizations and independent journalism. As such, these accounts challenge the Eurocentric assumption that the state is the target of terrorist attacks and evil insurgents and shifts our attention to the ways in which states can be the perpetuator and inflictor of severe violence. This violence is not a side-effect of countering terrorism, but the core purpose.

Third, by shifting the attention to the state as a violent actor, Abozaid empirically challenges the security-stability nexus. This is an argument frequently deployed by states to legitimize exceptional measures that infringe on human rights. The nexus is based on the premise that a secure society can be achieved by political stability. Based on this nexus, violent and coercive measures that oppress political contestations are legitimized as leading to more security on the long term. The book, however, empirically illustrates that non-coercive methods such as dialogue and allowing groups to pursue their political goals through legitimate means historically worked better in reducing violence by non-state actors compared to violent and coercive methods in the name of counterterrorism. As such, the book deepens our understanding of the various governmental approaches to counterterrorism and illustrates empirically that Egypt’s ‘soft’ responses were successful. As such, the book really contributes with empirical evidence that stricter counter-terrorism measures are not only ineffective, or unnecessarily violent, but they are even counter-productive.  

While the book’s argument and empirical data are compelling and rich, the international element is surprisingly absent. Counterterrorism measures are not only domestic regulations, but states are often obliged by international law to adopt counterterrorism practices and regulations. The UN provides technical assistance to states to formulate counterterrorism strategies. International organizations such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) monitor and evaluate countries on their compliance with counterterrorism financing regulations. As such, the domestic practices of states to counter terrorism can better be understood as obligatory transnational practices, and the international dimension of counterterrorism laws is essential, yet understudied in the current analysis. A future analysis could investigate this transnational element of countering terrorism, particularly as Egypt is the future co-chair of the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum. Yet, we know very little about how countries in the Global South are pushed or drawn into these transnational counterterrorism regulations and institutions, and how they in turn shape this field of law and practice.

Similar to how Abozaid starts each chapter with a personal reflection on encounters with counterterrorism policies by the state, I propose to finish with a recent reflection by the UN special rapporteur for Human Rights in Counter-terrorism: the special rapporteur flags the misuse of counterterrorism discourse by two countries in the Middle-East: Saudi Arabia and Israel. The article discusses how counterterrorism misuse is linked to consolidation of authoritarianism and oppression of human rights globally. Yet, the lessons from Abozaid’s book can deepen this analysis, by attuning to the post-colonial aspects of both the Israeli occupation and Saudi’s role in the region, and centering state violence as an objective rather than a consequence of counterterrorism laws.


Abozaid AM (2022) Counterterrorism Strategies in Egypt: Permanent Exceptions in the War on Terror. Routledge.

Abu-Bakare A (2022) Seeing Islamophobia in Black: Contesting Imperial Logics in the Anti-Racist Moment. International Political Sociology.

Barkawi T and Laffey M (2006) The postcolonial moment in security studiesReview of International Studies 32(2): 329-352.

Evans M (2012) Algeria: France’s undeclared war. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Parashar S (2018) Terrorism and the postcolonial ‘state’. In: Rutazibwa OU and Shilliam R  (Eds.) Routledge handbook of postcolonial politics. Routledge, 110-125

Salem S (2020) Anticolonial afterlives in Egypt: The politics of hegemony. Cambridge University Press.

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