In his downtown Cairo law office, Montasser al-Zayat is fielding phone calls on his land and mobile lines, answering e-mails, checking the website of a local soccer team and meeting with the press–all while he’s tending to his clients. These are women, mostly, who have come on behalf of sons, brothers and husbands imprisoned for their involvement in Egypt’s armed Islamist movement. Zayat is the man to see, a celebrity of sorts, famous as the lawyer and de facto spokesman for al-Gama’a al-Islameya, once one of the world’s most notoriously violent Islamist groups.
Throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Gama’a sat in judgment over Egyptian society, targeting politicians, policemen, intellectuals, foreign tourists and the Coptic Christian minority for assassination. And for their involvement in a war that left more than 1,300 dead in the 1990s alone, thousands of Gama’a members are still lingering in the country’s brutal prison system. Many of them are being detained illegally, even though their bloody engagement with the state officially ended with Gama’a’s unilateral truce in 1997. Indeed, this past summer several imprisoned Gama’a leaders went so far as to repudiate a key part of their historical legacy when they apologized for the 1981 assassination of Anwar el-Sadat. The Egyptian president they killed for making peace with Israel, they now say, was a martyr. Militants from other Islamist groups have criticized Gama’a for its change of heart, but Montasser al-Zayat says it’s none of their business.
“Our fight now is not to be excluded from society,” says Zayat. “Our aim is to get back to our original message of peace and preaching, and to reconcile with the Egyptian people.”
Zayat is a barrel-chested 52-year-old whose appearance comports well with his new message of moderation and compromise. He’s wearing the signature Islamist beard, a fistful of hair the way the Prophet Muhammad supposedly wore it, along with a tie and shirtsleeves. Zayat spent three terms in prison himself for his opposition to the government, and while he still believes that the current regime is corrupt, he no longer wants to topple it through violent means. The Islamists, he says, are no more capable of running Egypt than the government is.
“I’m self-critical,” says the onetime militant turned maverick. “Any other Islamist would say of course we should lead, but they’re not as courageous as I am.”
Zayat is one of Egypt’s best-known Islamists, with a flair for self-promotion that’s made him a favorite of the foreign and Arab press here in Cairo, and yet he’s always been slightly cagey about his exact relationship to Gama’a. Like all political organizations based on religion or ethnicity, Gama’a is officially banned, and membership in it is therefore illegal–a charge Zayat was imprisoned for in 1994. Thus, while he reportedly joined Gama’a in 1975, he usually represents himself, as he did to me, not as a member of Gama’a but as its lawyer. As one of the more eagerly public faces of the Islamist movement, Zayat has gone even further than Gama’a’s reconciliation with the Egyptian government. Last year he challenged his former colleague Ayman al-Zawahiri to call off the jihad against Americans as well.
Zawahiri is the Egyptian doctor and Osama bin Laden lieutenant who merged his own group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, with Al Qaeda in 1998. Zayat first met him in prison when they’d been rounded up in the aftermath of Sadat’s assassination, and still considers him a friend in spite of their tactical differences. Although Zawahiri is in hiding, Zayat managed to get a message to him asking whether he had any second thoughts about killing civilians.