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U.S. Leans On Egypt For Support In Fighting Islamic State Militants


U.S. officials believe Egypt will be important in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State or ISIS because of Egypt's historic role in the Arab world. And the government in Cairo says it will pitch in. But as NPR's Leila Fadel reports from Cairo, it's also turning the crisis to its own advantage.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Egyptian leaders say they've already been fighting extremism for years on their own turf.


BADR ABDELATTY: Egypt, as you know, is a victim of terrorism. So we are in the forefront in the current war against terrorism. We always warn the international community that it's a global phenomenon.

FADEL: That's Badr Abdelatty, the spokesman for Egypt's Foreign Ministry. Secretary of State John Kerry calls Egypt a cultural capital of the Muslim world. And it will be critical in renouncing ISIS ideology. Abdelatty says that will come from the country's influential Al Azhar University, a center for Islamic scholarship in the Middle East.

ABDELATTY: Spreading out moderation, fighting extremism, cutting financial resources from those terrorist attacks and exchanging actionable intelligence and other information.

FADEL: This is an I-told-you-so moment for Egyptian leaders trying to get the world on board with their crackdown on their opponents in the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that rose to power and was ousted from power by the current president. Again, Abdelatty...

ABDELATTY: Those groups came from one umbrella - from one source. So it's very very important to deal with all terrorist organizations in one time.

FADEL: It's a connection that analysts say is more political than real. The Muslim Brotherhood doesn't publicly call for violence and took part in Egyptian politics before the organization was banned. Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert at The Century Foundation, says sure ISIS does give Egypt a chance to get back on the global stage. But...

MICHAEL HANNA: What it doesn't do is prove the broader case that the Egyptian government has pushed forward that makes no distinctions between Islamism - that sees a group like the Muslim Brotherhood and a group like ISIS as virtually one and the same.

FADEL: Egypt's role in this coalition, Hanna says, will largely be a symbolic, partly because Egypt is consumed with domestic militancy and threats from its porous borders with Sudan, Gaza and Libya. But also because it doesn’t have the military capacity to actively fight outside Egypt.

Egypt's foreign minister Sameh Shukry was recently quoted in a state newspaper saying the country had no plans to get involved militarily. Egypt's focus would be on domestic threats.

And while militant attacks are a concern for Egyptian citizens, some analysts say the government is shifting the narrative from discussions about social justice and democracy to a narrative of fear and counterterrorism.

ZIAD AKL: They are making it one of the fundamental goals of the state and they're trying to make people believe that it is one of the main demands that the public should have.

FADEL: That's Ziad Akl, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He says the state is preaching that all forms of Islamism will turn into extremism. It's a notion that allows the state to control religious messages unquestioned and, he says, put issues of human rights on the back burner. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.