Exporting Terror

Between the Ballot and the Bullet: Egypt's War against Terrorism

Andrew Hammond, World Press Review correspondent, Cairo,November 14, 2001

Riot police surround Cairo's venerable Al-Azhar Mosque, Oct. 12, 2001 (Photo: AFP).
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 are Egyptian.

So it is that a number of influential U.S. publications have wondered why the United States' "moderate" Arab allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia—the other country that supplied a striking number of suspected participants in the Sept. 11 attacks—have 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 modernization."

Portrait 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.
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 ideologies—which view Arab societies, not just the West, as heretical and outside Islam—have appeared in Egypt over the last generation.

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 Issa—a well-known leftist no stranger to Nasser and Sadat's jails—says 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 Evolution of a Terrorist: Al-Zawahiri in a photo published by Al-Hayat.
The new ideologies this suppression created—akin to the thinking of a sect in early Islam known as the Kharijites—viewed 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.

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.

Al-Zawahiri 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).
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.

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 Sirriya—the leader of the botched coup attempt in 1974—was 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 backers.

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 dozens—if not hundreds—of 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.

Former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (1918-1981) before he was murdered by Islamist militants.
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 minority.

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 system—either 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 political space.

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