by Nasr Salem (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 18, Ramadan, 1423)
After more than two decades of being at the forefront of armed struggle against Egypt’s latter-day pharaohs, the jailed leaders of the radical al-Gama’ah al-Islamiyyah (Islamic Group) have renounced the use of violence. In a series of interviews with al-Musawwar, the pro-government weekly magazine, the so-called “historic leaders,” who are serving life terms for their role in assassinating Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, restated the commitment they made in 1997 to halt all armed attacks.
Among those who took part in the interviews were political leaders and members of the group’s majlis al-shura (‘consultative council’), such as Karam Zuhdi, Najih Ibrahim, Safwat ‘Abd al-Ghani, Ali al-Sharif, Usama Hafiz, Badri Makhluf, Hisham ‘Abd al-Zahir and Mamduh Yusuf, as well as four jailed leaders of the group’s military wing: Hassan Khalifah, Ahmad Bakri, Gharib al-Shahhat and Sha’aban Haraydi.
In the interviews, the leaders reiterated their previous public recantations, expressing regrets for and condemnation of the acts of violence the group had carried out in the 1980s and 1990s. They emphasized that by foreswearing violence the group has effectively started a journey back to its original roots as a salafi group dedicated to da’wah by peaceful means. In the 1970s and 1980s the group was involved in many social and educational programmes dedicated to ameliorating living conditions and the welfare of Egypt’s growing poor and needy population.
The leaders also stated their readiness to pay diyyah (blood money) to the families of the victims of these acts of violence, saying that the money will come from profits from the sale of books they had recently published. The group has so far published five retrospective books that take a critical look at the resort of some Egyptian Islamic groups to violence in their confrontation with the government. These are: “Shedding Light on the Errors Committed during Jihad,” “Advice and Clarification in Correcting the Concepts of Muhtasibin,” “The Prohibition of Extremism in Religion and Excommunicating Muslims,” “The Initiative to Halt Violence: A Realistic View and a Shari’ah Perspective,” and “The Islamic Revival at the Threshold of a New Century.”
It should be borne in mind that more than 1,200 people, including group members, police officers, tourists and Egyptian citizens, both Muslims and Coptic Christians, are estimated to have been killed at the height of the group’s military campaign between 1992 and 1997. Tens of thousands of members of Egypt’s banned Islamic groups were jailed and tortured, and scores were sentenced to death in military courts and executed. Presided over by army officers on the ministry of defence’s payroll, these courts did not meet any judicial standards. The government’s use of repression and torture became so widespread that it stopped being a technique used just against suspected members of Islamic groups. The suspects’ relatives, and sometimes whole villages and neighbourhoods, were also subjected to various forms of physical and psychological torture. Threats of rape were the authorities’ favourite tactic to put pressure on the suspects’ women relatives. Human-rights activists say that, in city slums and throughout the countryside, soldiers and police officers went on rampages, torching villages, burning houses, and arresting everybody between the ages of 13 and 45.
The books are the culmination of a long period of gestation the group has undergone on the way of forgoing violence. The process started with a unilateral truce offer proposed by six jailed Gama’ah leaders in June 1997. But the military commanders and exiled leadership, which planned most of the attacks carried out inside Egypt, opposed the offer, which came to be known as the “non-violence initiative.” The internal debate tilted heavily in favour of forgoing violence after the Gama’ah claimed responsibility for the attack in Luxor in November 1997 that cost the lives of 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians. Subsequently, pressure mounted on the group’s military and exiled leaders to support the initiative, which they finally accepted in April 2000.
In many respects, and regardless of the specific conclusions arrived at by the Gama’ah leaders, the group’s re-examination of the limits and utility of the use of violence is a positive development. This is a question that has proven notoriously difficult to answer, taxing in the process the wisdom and intuition of many a scholar and activist involved in the multi-faceted struggle of the Islamic movement. It is true that in many ways the violent acts carried out by parts of the Islamic movement in Egypt, let alone the Gama’ah, can be subsumed under the category of “counter-violence.” In other words, many of these acts were reactive violence in response to the entrenched violence of a warped state: a corrupt system of governance standing on a moral void, reducing its links with its own people to a mixture of excessive repression and patronage, and spinning around itself nothing but a legacy of sleaze, a monopoly of wealth and power, and an ocean of popular disgust.
The Gama’ah was formed in the early 1970s by Islamic activists who had been freed from Egyptian jails by Sadat after 1971. Sadat’s motives were sordid. At the time, he was embroiled in a power struggle against Egyptian leftist and Nasserite elements, whom he termed as “power centres” (marakiz al-qiwa), and wanted to use the Islamic movement to contain the power of his opponents. The Gama’ah, like other militant groups such as al-Takfir wal-Hijrah (Excommunication and Emigration), al-Najun min al-Nar (the Saved from Hellfire), and al-Jihad, was disillusioned by the Muslim Brotherhood’s new-found gradualist strategy and passivity, and was inspired by the militant ideology articulated by the late Sayyid Qutb, the Brotherhood ideologue executed by the Nasser regime in 1966. At the risk of over-simplification, Qutb’s main contribution can be described as a sort of a Manichaean worldview centred on a broad understanding of jahiliyyah (pagan ignorance). Unlike traditional scholars who largely viewed jahiliyyah as an historic condition predating Islam, Qutb viewed it as a present condition as well, exemplified by any system of government not ruling strictly by the Shari’ah, thus giving religious legitimacy to the use of violence against ruling governments in the Muslim world that did not implement the Shari’ah. This was a radical reinterpretation of a key Islamic concept, and also a radical divergence from classical Sunni political thought.
The Gama’ah’s decision to confront the government came in the late 1970s in the face of the growing megalomania and repression of the Sadat regime, as well as its move to sign a peace treaty with Israel. The Gama’ah took part, along with al-Jihad, in the assassination of the Egyptian president in October 1980. After the assassination, some areas of southern Egypt erupted in an armed revolt, led by both Jihad and the Gama’ah. In the ensuing fighting, hundreds of Islamic activists, policemen and civilians were killed before government forces were able to crush the rebellion.
But even if one were to understand the Gama’ah’s decision to confront the government’s apparatus of repression with force as a response to heavy-handed despotism, the group erred badly in its excessive use of violence, as well as in expanding the scope of the targets it considered to be legitimate. During its campaign, the Gama’ah attacked government offices, police stations and officials, including two attempts on the life of president Husni Mubarak. It also targeted banks, foreign investments, jewellers, secular intellectuals, Coptic Christians, and other targets contributing to the spread of lax morality, such as music performances, film shows and video stores. Military activity forced the Gama’ah to go underground and maintain a loose, small-cell structure. Each tiny cell operated separately and was considered self-contained. As such, if it were ever discovered and destroyed by the authorities, other cells would not be affected.
Despite the damage inflicted on the regime (and the extent of this damage is a matter of controversy), the conspiratorial nature of their underground military activity meant that Egypt’s militant Islamic groups, including the Gama’ah, remained fragmented and had limited popular support. Within the ranks of the movement, a predominant mindset of salafism bred an atmosphere of intolerance and exclusivism that effectively turned internal debate into a fissiparous process. Factionalism within the Gama’ah was embodied in the phenomenon called “tawa’if al-Gama’ah al-Islamiyyah” (the Sects of the Islamic Group).
Expanding the scope of violence, itself highly problematic and questionable, meant that these groups, despite their large circles of followers and sympathizers, remained a distinct minority voice in Egyptian society at large. A natural outcome of this state of affairs was that the Gama’ah, much like other militant Islamic groups, failed to translate widespread social discontent into membership. Even many of those who sympathized with their goal of establishing an Islamic state did not sympathize with their methods. One natural by-product of attacks that resulted in the death and injury of civilians and bystanders was to stiffen public opinion against the militants. Launching an armed insurrection without thorough preparation and wide grassroots support proved their strategic naivety.
The Gama’ah’s re-examination of its ideology and modus operandi signals a triumph of non-confrontational, non-revolutionary trends in classical Sunni political thought. But at some points the Gama’ah’s retrospective books go beyond even that. Some passages read as an apologia for the government, absolving it of responsibility for its errors and repressive measures against society. Yet, despite this weakness, the re-examination has involved a great deal of moral courage, forthrightness and honesty on the part of the Gama’ah leaders to admit their past mistakes. But it will remain a lopsided exercise in futility unless it is met by an equal readiness on the part of the Egyptian government to conduct its own candid reassessment of its repressive ways of governance. So far, all indications are that the Mubarak regime lacks the requisite moral courage to transform itself into a tolerant, open system of government rooted in popular legitimacy.