Egypt’s Islamist Dilemma

Egypt’s Islamist Dilemma

Militant leaders now preach peace, but they may have won the ideological war.


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.

“I asked him, ‘Now that more than a year has passed since September 11, are you still convinced what you did was right?'” Zawahiri’s response, posted last winter on the Internet, was unequivocal. Regarding “the blessed September attacks,” he wrote, “do not stop…killing Americans, as they kill us everywhere.”

“He believes what he did was right,” says Zayat, “and that I should agree.” Zayat doesn’t agree. “I refuse violence,” he tells me. “I denounce it from conviction.”

Zayat’s activities over the past two years–writing books, hosting conferences and giving scores of interviews–demonstrate that he has exerted considerable effort to distinguish himself from Al Qaeda.

“Gama’a thinks it’s better than Al Qaeda,” says Mohammed Salah, Cairo bureau chief of the influential pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat. “They’re not going off on their own to do whatever they like. They’re older, and they work according to Sharia [Islamic law].”

And that was their point of reference when, following the attacks this past spring that left thirty-five dead in Saudi Arabia and forty-three in Morocco, Gama’a leaders criticized Al Qaeda for violating the principles of Sharia. Days after the operations, Al Jazeera broadcast a recording of a voice that was allegedly Zawahiri’s, urging Muslims to drive Westerners out of the “land of Islam,” not with “protests and conferences” but with “bloodshed.” In the Egyptian press, Gama’a countered that such actions would serve only to force the Muslim world into “enmity with the rest of the world.” Gama’a wanted to make it clear that “since we don’t aim to harm any nation in any way, they should not target us either.”

Al-Gama’a al-Islameya’s peaceful rapprochement with Egyptian society represents a significant shift in the Islamist movement. While the group’s imprisoned leadership asserts that religious study led them to reject their legacy and re-evaluate their aims, there’s little doubt their self-reflection has been at least partly prompted by the authoritarian regime that suffers them to exist. Nonetheless, for some time before the 1997 truce, many of the onetime militants recognized that armed struggle had not only failed to bring down the government but had alienated them from their local constituencies. Their moderate turn couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. With American policy-makers seemingly bent on fostering democracy, including free elections, throughout the Arab world, the Islamists are in position to reap the benefits.

The notion that any Islamist group at this point is moving toward moderation seems at least counterintuitive, if not absurd. After all, recent terrorist operations, including the November 9 attack in Saudi Arabia, seem to bear out Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s warning that the American war in Iraq would give birth to a hundred more bin Ladens. Of course, Mubarak was hardly concerned about breeding a hundred more Zawahiris when he conducted a ruthless, and ultimately successful, war against Islamists at home. His strategy, not all that different from the Bush Administration’s, was that, first, only overwhelming force stops those determined to do violence; second, it deters everyone else from attempting it. The regime drove those it didn’t kill into exile, like Zawahiri, and tamed those like Zayat and other Gama’a leaders into wishing no harm to “any nation in any way.”

Hala Mustafa is a liberal academic who has written extensively on the Islamist movement. She is a consultant at Egypt’s state-sponsored Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and editor of Democracy, a political journal. “All of these divisions in the Islamist circles,” she says, “are about the competition of leadership, and arguments over tools and methods. Zawahiri favors a radical approach, while Zayat advocates a more gradual revolution. It’s not over basic ideas.”

The movement’s basic ideas haven’t changed much since Egypt’s nineteenth-century Muslim reformers laid down the ideological groundwork that led to the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. The Brothers believed that after years of imperialism–Ottoman, French, British and now American–the decay of real Islamic values had caused Muslims to lose their way. The nascent Islamist movement argued that the only thing that could win justice for Muslims, and make them aware of their true nature, was the installation of a genuine Islamic state. Islam huwa el hal, say the Islamists: Islam is the solution, not only to man’s spiritual needs, but his political ones as well. As the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna put it, the Koran is our constitution.

Whether or not that constitution is compatible with democracy is a current concern among Western policy-makers and academics, but this debate has a long pedigree in Islamist circles. Typically, extremists or militants disdain talk of anything but a theocratic state, whereas moderate Islamists demand, like most Egyptians, transparent elections. Elections, of course, are a necessary component of the democratic process, but they are not the sole defining characteristic of a democracy. Indeed, guarantees associated with democracies, like equal rights for minorities and freedom of speech, are at least expendable, if not contradictory, in a political system that merely advocates majority rule.

While “tolerance” is a moderate Islamist key word, it’s not at all clear that it’s a concept embodying actual equal rights for non-Muslims and women rather than just a description of a privileged attitude of executive power. The main problem with taking the moderates’ talk about democracy seriously is that there is little in the writings or statements of any Islamist indicating a willingness to build democratic institutions that mediate and maintain legitimate political authority. In short, it appears that moderates have merely found it convenient to adopt some of the language of liberal democracy. Granted, it’s impossible to judge how the rule of Egypt’s moderates would compare with that of Islamists in power in Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan, but Gama’a’s past record of attacks on Coptic Christians and women deemed immodest suggests it’s unlikely they’d be any more democratic than the current authoritarian regime.

There is only one significant factor, then, that separates moderates like Zayat and militants. The former, for the time being at least, have renounced violence.

After all, as Zayat says, “Starting violence was the government’s trap to make the people hate us.”

That the Islamists were forced into armed resistance by the state’s cruel methods has become a standard conceit, adopted by much of the Western press and even some US government officials. This is a fiction–for external, especially American, consumption. Violence has been a part of the movement’s intellectual legacy dating back to its very origins, and the groups have proven themselves no different from other Egyptian political bodies, including the state, that have used murder as a political tool. Some of the signal moments from that history include the Brotherhood’s 1948 assassination of Egypt’s then-prime minister and the 1949 assassination of Banna in retaliation. After the Brotherhood’s attempt on Gamal Abdel Nasser’s life in 1954, he responded with a massive roundup of the Brethren. What followed was a period of severe repression, torture and execution that culminated in the 1966 hanging of Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb.

Once Anwar el-Sadat came to power in 1970, he started releasing prisoners his predecessor had jailed. The Brotherhood had become moderate, broken by torture and execution; also, they’d just grown older. The agents of most of the world’s violence, after all, are young men, and jihad is no exception.

Sadat partly encouraged the younger groups as well, al-Gama’a al-Islameya especially, which was at the time predominantly a student organization, with unofficial membership at its high point reckoned in the thousands. One of their recruiting grounds was Cairo University, where Zayat was studying law. While Gama’a’s original mission, as Zayat describes it, was da’wa, or preaching, the group also offered opportunities for younger activists to make political headway outside the rigid hierarchy of the Brotherhood. Moreover, it was an outlet for those activists who were eager to take up arms once the Brotherhood had decided to lay theirs down. It wasn’t long before Gama’a members, influenced by Qutb, began to agitate for armed insurrection.

Sadat was willing to use Gam’a’s violence against the left, a tactic generally supported by his new US allies, long obsessed with Soviet influence in the Middle East. Historians and analysts have tended to criticize Sadat for unleashing forces he could not control, but generally it is they who have been wrong to underestimate the deeply rooted appeal of Islamic identity.

One of the great paradoxes of the Islamist movement is that it dressed its anticolonial utopianism in the privileged vocabulary of the Arab empire’s most enduring legacy. Of course, few Egyptians, or Muslims anywhere, regard Islam as an imperial ideology. Islam is simply a fact of Egyptian life. Thus Sadat fashioned himself the pious president. He was faced with mass migrations to the cities from the countryside, much of it comprising young college students who, thanks to Nasser, had access to free education. It’s easy to understand how Sadat might have thought Islam was not only a relatively safe palliative but a cohesive force holding the Egyptian family together.

After all, as Mustafa says, “religion is a traditional source of legitimacy in Egypt.”

It was certainly familiar to rural migrants and disenfranchised urbanites. This is one reason, as Zayat says, “people liked al-Gama’a al-Islameya.”

Gama’a also participated in the sort of welfare programs that characterize the socially conscientious side of Islamist groups, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front and the Palestinians’ Hamas.

Gama’a’s support was lost amid the blood it shed, including Sadat’s. The assassination of Sadat was the “one time that Gama’a and Jihad worked together,” Zayat explains, with a half-smile crossing his lips. The operation was one of the turning points in the history of Islamism and, in retrospect, a pretty clear indication of the movement’s troubles. The groups had killed a leader largely out of favor with the Egyptian people, but they were no closer to genuine political power. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, they would continue their domestic jihad, but without realizing the true Islamic state they’d dreamed of.

“There was no way to bring down the Egyptian government through armed struggle,” Zayat says he recognized back then. “We were losing this cycle of violence. It weakened us.”

The spectacularly vicious 1997 operation at Luxor, which killed fifty-eight foreign tourists and four Egyptians, was, till now anyway, the last violent gasp of the militants inside Egypt. With 15 percent of the Egyptian work force depending on tourism for its living, attacks on tourists were calculated to force an economic crisis. The regime’s stability, however, was never seriously threatened, and it was only regular Egyptians who suffered. Gama’a succeeded only in yet further alienating its ostensible constituency. With most of its leadership and military wing imprisoned, deceased or abroad, Gama’a had no choice but to make peace. It had gotten the regime’s attention but had mobilized a body whose capacity for violence and cruelty was much more formidable than its own.

What has happened to Gama’a is essentially what happened to the Muslim Brothers several decades before. The government beat them militarily, broke them in prison and then showed a kind of mercy. Mubarak started freeing Gama’a members, several thousand by 2001, with the release of another 1,000 this fall. And, again following precedent, the regime sought to use the Islamists to its advantage. In June 2002, a state-owned newspaper conducted interviews with Gama’a leaders in jail, where they renewed their calls for peace. The question was, why now?

The Mubarak regime was caught between a hard-line United States on one side and, on the other, an Egyptian public increasingly outraged over Israel’s suppression of the intifada in the Palestinian territories. To the Egyptian government, a cache of reformed terrorists who’d reconciled with their jailers must have seemed like a public relations jackpot. These interviews, says a journalist with ties to the Egyptian government, served two purposes.

“First, it was directed to the United States. The Americans told the regime, ‘The Islamists hit the United States because you were ruthless with them,'” he explains. “The regime said, ‘No, we’re on good terms with them. We have a truce with the Islamists. Their problem is with you, the United States, especially with what you do in Palestine.'”

Further, he says, it allowed the regime to make common ground with the Islamists. “‘America is our common enemy,’ they said. ‘Look at what they do to the Palestinians.'”

Double-dealing is not a long-term political strategy, but one that illuminates a fundamental weakness of the Egyptian government. Since elections are rigged, the state has no real source of popular legitimacy. Further, it lacks a well-articulated vision of what Egypt should look like. Hence, the Islamists, who have a very clear idea of what Egypt should look like, have been able to shape the issue so absolutely that the government itself has come to look like a very large, very violent and bureaucratically inept Islamist group.

“The Islamists established the agenda,” says Mustafa. “They put other political forces on the defensive.”

The government waged an incoherent ideological campaign and thus lost the larger war. While secular journalists were lampooning the Islamists in the state-controlled press, the government also enlisted the official religious authorities, especially the sheiks at the mosque and university of Al-Azhar, to stand with them against the militants. The traditional religious authorities, increasingly more radicalized themselves, promoted a conservative social agenda that effectively served to popularize Islamist discourse. The government and the Islamists, as Mustafa explains, “are competing for the same source of legitimacy, Islam, and the competition is very hard. Between the two of them, they’ve Islamized Egyptian society.”

The fact that the government has prevented the Islamist organizations from registering as legal political parties further enhances the Islamists’ luster. In their view, any legitimacy deriving from a corrupt government would only make them illegitimate in the eyes of the public, whose support, as Zayat explains, they’re struggling to regain. Thus at present, says Zayat, “there’s no point running in elections.”

Still, the Mubarak regime has never underestimated the popularity of the Islamists and indeed has used the specter of a theocratic takeover to fend off US complaints about human rights violations and rigged elections. And the United States, not wanting another Islamic republic like Iran, especially one on Israel’s southern border, has typically conceded the point. Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal, and his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, may be in line to succeed the president, but the Islamists have overwhelming popular support.

Washington hopes to find liberals throughout the Arab world, but even during the heyday of Egyptian liberalism, during the first decades of the last century, there was never a very solid base of support outside of a few stalwart intellectuals and the Westernized elite. And even that is changing now with the rising generation, which has become increasingly conservative, with more and more young women wearing the veil. This is a very dangerous state of affairs for the Mubarak regime: It’s one thing to have the underemployed middle classes embrace Islamist discourse; it’s yet another for the children of the very elites who have flourished under the government to partake of the Islamic resurgence.

The result is that there are many Egyptians at every level of society who sound like the newly moderate Montasser al-Zayat. Zayat recognized years ago that the militants were losing their war and losing face. He moved toward the center and found that much of Egypt had come there from other directions and for different reasons. Hence, it seems that the forms the Islamist movement will take in the future will look less like revolutionary cadres of the faithful and more like political parties. This has already started to happen in some Arab states, like Kuwait, where the July parliamentary elections were a major victory for Islamist parties and Islamist independents.

One question now circulating in the Egyptian press is whether the government intends to bring Gama’a into the political process. The regime has already made an example of Gama’a to show there is no advantage to militancy; will it show there are practical political benefits to moderation? If the Islamists are not brought into the process, the likely alternative is an unhappy one. The contemporary history of the Islamist movement suggests that there will be more rounds of violence from young men who will take up arms, even after the aging leaders of al-Gama’a al-Islameya have laid theirs down, as the Muslim Brothers did before them.

Still, the prospect of an Islamist Egypt, even by democratic means, is hardly appealing to all Egyptians, nor should it be to the citizens of Western liberal democracies who are appalled by the rampant brutality and corruption of the Mubarak regime. It is no use glossing over the historical record of Egypt’s Islamist groups, nor of those movements that have come to power in Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan, where rights denied women and minorities are a preface of even worse things to come. “Living in a country run by the Islamists,” says Hala Mustafa, “would be hell itself.”

With the US invasion of Iraq, everyone will have to reckon with the consequences of the White House’s most optimistic claims: that a democratic Iraq will make Arabs throughout the region demand the right to choose their own governments. One of the fortunate, though likely unintended, results of the war on Saddam Hussein is that if the government of the United States intends to bring self-determination to the Arabs, it no longer enjoys, as President Bush pointed out in his November 6 speech, the tacit prerogative to “excuse and accommodate” authoritarian regimes in the region. The United States is now on public record. And if Islamists do come to power in Egypt and elsewhere, the United States will need to draw on that account to assist real Arab reformers, real liberal democrats, legally and legitimately.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy