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Between the Ballot and
the Bullet: Egypt's War against Terrorism
World Press Review correspondent
Nov. 15, 2001
A debate has broken
out in Egypt over the country's now most famous, and embarrassing
export: Islamic militancy. TV shows and columnists are asking
how and why the country produced the anti-Western religious
fanatics at the center of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and
at the core of the Al Qaeda network which, it seems all but
certain, carried out the atrocity. American investigators think
one of the men who plunged hijacked aircraft into the World
Trade Center towers on Sept. 11 was an Egyptian. The main deputies
of Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, are Egyptian. One
of them, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is the leader of Egypt's militant
Jihad group, and has been mentioned as the "brains"
behind Al Qaeda's operations. And seven of 22 people on a Federal
Bureau of Investigation "most wanted" terrorist list
| Riot police surround Cairo's
venerable Al-Azhar Mosque, Oct. 12, 2001 (Photo: AFP).
So it is that a number of influential U.S. publications have
wondered why the United States' "moderate" Arab allies
Egypt and Saudi Arabiathe other country that supplied
a striking number of suspected participants in the Sept. 11
attackshave spawned these people. They have accused Egypt
and Saudi Arabia of running dysfunctional, undemocratic states
that simultaneously abuse the human rights of suspected militants
and quietly permit religious fanaticism to spread throughout
society. Egypt and Saudi Arabia's critics have charged that
many Islamist radicals, squeezed by security forces rather than
neutralized by pluralistic policies, left Egypt in the 1990s
to join Bin Laden in Afghanistan. Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria,
one of the first to dig the knife in, said the Bush administration
needed to prod Egypt and Saudi Arabia to "actively fight
the virulent currents that are capturing Arab culture"
because both countries had "resisted economic and political
Egyptian politicians are vehemently rejecting the charges. Foreign
Minister Ahmed Maher has repeatedly said that Egypt deserves
praise for its iron-fist policy towards extremist groups, which
launched an open war against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak
in 1992. "Everyone knows Egypt's role, which is appreciated
by the whole world, including the United States," he recently
told reporters. Osama Al-Baz, political advisor to Mubarak,
has called suggestions that lack of opportunities for political
participation have helped promote extremism in Egypt "nonsense".
This is nonsense, it's not true. The extremist groups don't
believe at all in democracy. If you want democracy, you must
talk to people, have a dialogue with them, distance yourself
from violence, and not impose your opinion," he told this
correspondent. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President
Hosni Mubarak has repeatedly stressed that a resolution of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict would take the wind out of radical
Islam's sails, and that "over 50 percent of terrorism is
because of the Palestinian issue". Domestically, Egypt
also likes to blame the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest Islamist
group in the Arab world and to this day the biggest and most
influential force in opposition politics in Egypt. These two
themes, Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood, were prominent
in a recent rare discussion on state television of why groups
with radical ideologieswhich view Arab societies, not
just the West, as heretical and outside Islamhave appeared
in Egypt over the last generation.
of the Terrorist as a Young Man: Egyptian-born Dr.
Ayman Al-Zawahiri, shown here in an undated photo published
by London's Al-Hayat on Oct. 10, 2001, is now on
the FBI's most-wanted list.
However, most observers of Islamist politics say this analysis
is too simplistic. They argue that the republican regime that
came to power in 1952 has made critical errors in its long struggle
with political Islam: Former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel
Nasser's crackdown was overly cruel. His successor Anwar Sadat
naïvely encouraged them, hoping to co-opt them into the state.
And President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since Jihad
and the radical Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya assassinated Egyptian
president Anwar Sadat in 1981, has used a mixture of Nasser's
strong-arm tactics and Sadat's accommodating tactics. Historian
of the Muslim Brotherhood Salah Issaa well-known leftist
no stranger to Nasser and Sadat's jailssays that though
the Muslim Brotherhood only dallied with violence in the 1940s
and 1950s, it was so ruthlessly suppressed by Nasser's secular-nationalist
regime in the 1960s that its politics became dangerously radicalized.
The new ideologies this suppression createdakin to the
thinking of a sect in early Islam known as the Kharijitesviewed
contemporary societies as Muslim only in name and enjoined true
believers to work towards overthrowing their rulers to create
a new and pure Islamic order from the top. Their model was Prophet
Mohammad's decision to leave godless Mecca for exile, where
the believers prepared for their triumphant military return
to establish a Utopian Islamic state. The first modern proponent
of this formula was Sayyid Qutb, a Brotherhood leader hanged
in 1966, after he had used his years in prison to pen the original
fundamentalist action pamphlet, Ma'alim fi Al-Tareeq
(Signs on the Way). "Qutb concluded that a ruler
who deals so cruelly with a group of Muslims, who consider themselves
as acting for the good of Muslims in general, cannot be a Muslim
any more," Issa says. When Sadat released members of the
Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt's prisons in the 1970s, he didn't
realize that this fundamental shift had taken place in Islamist
thinking. A plethora of radical groups appeared, bearing extremist
ideologies declaring the state infidel and preaching revolution.
Evolution of a Terrorist: Al-Zawahiri in a photo published
It did not take long for them to make their presence felt on
the Egyptian political stage. In 1974, a group of army cadets
calling themselves the Islamic Liberation Party staged an unsuccessful
coup attempt. Following this failure, two groups gradually emerged
as the main forces in radical politics: Jihad and Al-Gama'a
Al-Islamiya. To these two might be added the more moderate Muslim
Brotherhood, which returned to the platform it had originally
espoused at its birth in 1928. Gradually, it dropped its more
extreme rhetoric in favor of calls for the application of Islamic
Sharia law through legislative and community-level action.
The Muslim Brotherhood's more moderate stance may have lulled
Sadat into a false sense of security. After making a maverick
peace with Israel and sheltering the Shah amid Iran's Islamic
Revolution, he was murdered by Islamist radicals in 1981.
as head of a wing of the Egyptian radical Jihad organization
and alleged brains behind Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist
network. He is shown here in hiding with Bin Laden in
a cave in Afghanistan (video grab: Al-Jazeera).
Issa argues that the conflict between Palestinians and Israel
has permeated the history of Egypt's political violence far
longer than Mubarak implied in his recent comments. "After
the Palestinian Revolt in 1936, Palestinian Islamic leaders
came to Cairo and the Brotherhood started to give them weapons.
By setting up a secret military wing within the Brotherhood,
they copied the Zionist groups in Palestine who had created
militias in secret," Issa says. It was the Brotherhood
who first roused Egyptian public opinion against the political
ambitions of the Jewish settler movement, organizing mass protests
in Cairo, Issa says, and it was the Brotherhood that sent activists
to help Palestinians in the 1948 fighting that saw the birth
of the state of Israel and the dispossession of up to 1 million
Palestinians. The loss of Arab territories to Israel in 1967,
which exacerbated the Palestinian refugee problem, further radicalized
political Islam. So perhaps it is no coincidence that Palestinians
were key figures in the radicalization of Islamist thinking.
Indeed, Salah Sirriyathe leader of the botched coup attempt
in 1974was a Palestinian refugee who grew up in Iraq.
And Mohamed Salem Rahhan, a Palestinian refugee who grew up
in Jordan, was also involved with the Islamic Liberation Party
before coming a member of Jihad after the Islamic Liberation
Party's coup attempt failed.
Islamists argue that Mubarak lost a golden opportunity to neutralize
the influence of the radical religious groups in the 1980s when
promises of democratic reform foundered on rigged elections
and rigid state control of political life. Montasser Zayat,
one-time "spokesman" for the Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya,
told state television on Oct. 17 that the group assassinated
parliament speaker Rifaat Mahgoub in 1990 in retaliation for
the unprovoked murder of the Gama'a spokesman Alaa Mohieddin
that year. Zayat previously argued, in his 1995 book Hiwaraat
Mamnuua (Forbidden Discussions) that Algeria-style
eradicateurs in Egypt's government deliberately provoked
a fight with the radical groups around 1990 to avoid democratizing
and having to accommodate both the radicals and the popular,
moderate Brotherhood. "Some perhaps feared that if they
created democracy, the [radical] groups would find quite a bit
of support and they could turn against them [the Egyptian government],"
Zayat says. He says a second fear of the authorities was that
such a policy of accommodation would cast Egypt in so religious
a hue it would become unattractive to its Western financial
When the radical groups declared an open war against the Egyptian
government in 1992, the government responded in kind. Although
Mubarak's strong-arm tactics have brought considerable success
in crippling many groups, these successes have come at a price.
More than 1,200 people have been killed in the fighting, including
58 foreign tourists massacred in the southern resort of Luxor
in 1997. The 1997 massacre at Luxor sharply curtailed tourism
and the foreign capital it brings.
But Mubarak seems to have met with great success in his battle
with Islamists. Since 1997, tourism revenue has recovered. The
exiled and imprisoned leaders of Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya have
declared a ceasefire. But Islamic Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahri,
and dozensif not hundredsof radical Egyptian Islamists
are now in Afghanistan, allied with Bin Laden.
And it would be premature for Mubarak to celebrate. Many Islamists
still harbor a deep grudge against the government for the often-brutal
tactics it has used against them. Human rights lawyers say at
least 10,000 men suspected of links to the radical groups are
holed up and forgotten in Egypt's prisons, most of them detained
without formal charges against them. Radical groups and human
right's lobbyists alike have repeatedly demanded that those
held without charges be released and that the government guarantee
suspected Islamic militants a civilian trial. Suspected Egyptian
Islamist militants have faced military judges since 1991, when
a civilian court acquitted the suspected murderers of parliamentary
speaker Rifaat Al-Mahgoub because they had confessed under torture.
Well-known Muslim Brother Mohamed Abdel-Qaddous recently offered
bitter memories of a colleague who he said was tortured at a
state security detention center in 1981. "The number one
suspect in his murder is still alive and I see him sometimes
on television talking as a terrorism expert," Abdel-Qaddous
recently wrote in Egyptian opposition paper Al-Haqiqa.
"When the sun of freedom shines in my country, this terrorism
expert and his likes will be the first to face trial, and, if
God wills, the tyrants will be punished in this world before
the next," he vowed.
Meanwhile, the government has rebuffed repeated attempts to
legalize the Muslim Brotherhood and last year rejected two attempts
by figures once associated with Jihad to set up political parties.
On Oct. 27, Mubarak aide Osama Al-Baz repeated the government's
categorical refusal to legalize the Muslim Brotherhood. "If
we have a group calling itself the Muslim brothers, then we'll
have a group that wants to represent the Copts, and we can't
have that," he said, repeating the state's mantra that
parties based on a religious platform could polarize Egyptian
society between Muslims and Egypt's 10 percent Coptic Christian
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (1918-1981) before he was
murdered by Islamist militants.
The Egyptian government has tried to reduce the influence of
religious conservatives in society, surmising that they have
helped create an atmosphere sympathetic to militancy, over the
last 30 years. In 1996, Egyptian religious leaders grumbled
when Mubarak appointed a "moderate Muslim" in charge
of Al-Alzhar, the oldest university in the world and now a primary-to-university
education system where preachers study. The current head of
Al-Azhar, Mohamed Tantawi, has moved to moderate the tone of
Al-Azhar's religious education. This too has provoked hardliners
within the school system to complain bitterly that he is trying
to turn Egypt into a secular state along the lines of Turkey.
Most mosques are now under state control, and the education
ministry has ruthlessly plucked religiously conservative teachers
out of the public school systemeither by sacking them,
banishing them to distant schools with few pupils, or by badgering
them into keeping religion as much as possible out of the classroom.
In light of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, it seems likely that
the Egyptian government will only crack down all the more repressively
on the Islamist opposition. "Moderate Islamist movements
in Egypt and elsewhere are worried that governments will be
more repressive, and that international community will turn
a blind eye," political analyst Wahid Abdel-Meguid says.
Already, British authorities have arrested Islamist Yasser Al-Sirry,
an Egyptian who obtained residency in England despite an Egyptian
court death sentence against him for the 1993 attempted assassination
of former Prime Minister Atef Sidqi in 1993. Britain has refused
to extradite him because of European Union rules concerning
the death sentence and because he was convicted by a military
court with no right of appeal. And rights activists have noted
that his indictment is not actually for his alleged role in
that assassination attempt, but rather for his supposed role
in the assassination of Afghan rebel leader Ahmad Shah Massoud
two days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Since the attacks, Egypt has sent some 300 men to military prosecutors
ahead of certain military trial. They join the ranks of thousands
of detainees from diverse groups, some detained over the last
two years, apparently for alleged involvement in terrorist attacks
around 1994, and some who were arrested in May 2001, apparently
for plotting attacks against U.S. targets. But the names of
the detained and the exact charges have not been released. Rights
activists worry that the Egyptian government will exploit the
moment to deal with diverse groups of detainees at a time when
Western governments and rights groups are unlikely to fault
Egypt for abusing the suspects' human rights. Perhaps in an
effort to soothe the public after the spectacle of police vans
raiding Cairo neighborhoods, government-owned newsmagazine Al-Mussawar
on Oct. 10 claimed some of the suspects were linked to Bin Laden,
and had been plotting an attack on Cairo similar to the attacks
of Sept. 11. The claim played well to public opinion, but turned
out to be entirely untrue, as the Interior Ministry admitted
in a statement later released to news agencies.
The continued disregard for due process and cumbersome legality
suggests that, while the debate on the origins of militant fundamentalist
politics rages on, one thing is for certain: as long as Mubarak
is in power, there is no hope for Islamists to gain any more
leg-room than they already have in Egypt's narrowly-confined