Release of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya prisoners marks a turning point for Egypt’s Islamic struggle

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

B Nafi

Muharram 30, 1420 1999-05-16

Occupied Arab World

by B Nafi (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 6, Muharram, 1420)

The Egyptian government’s decision to release 1,200 al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya prisoners is a significant development in the long struggle between the militant Islamic groups and the state. Most of the freed Islamists had been jailed without trial or had already served their sentences, and thousands more remain in jail. However, the decision is a positive government response to the renunciation of violence by some al-Gama’a leaders earlier this year, and thus may mark the emergence of a new political environment in the country.

The bloody confrontation between the Islamic movement and the government, which has dominated Egypt in the 1990s, dates back to the government’s crackdown on al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya in 1991. However, the militarisation of parts of Egypt’s Islamic movement was first seen in the mid-1970s, when cadets from the elite College of Military Technology, led by Dr. Salih Sirriyya, a Palestinian academic, attempted a military coup against the government of Anwar al-Sadat. This failed coup attempt - whose perpetrators have become known as the first Jihad Group - was followed by the emergence of militant activists, provoked by Sadat’s pursuit of peace with Israel, and driven by radical interpretations of the ideas of Sayyid Qutb and Abu al-A’la al-Mawdudi.

Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (‘the Islamic Group’) was born in the late 1970s as a platform for non-Ikhwani Islamist university students. Although mainly inclined to cultural and political activism, the first generation of Gama’a leaders were still susceptible to militant ideas. They had become increasingly disillusioned with the ineffectiveness of al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon (the Muslim Brotherhood), but the Ikhwan’s radical and populist message, and their community-oriented activism had opened them to the idea of armed struggle.

In the summer of 1981, as Sadat launched a massive crackdown on the political opposition, a loose alliance emerged from the coming together of a small number of jihad cells, militant salafi elements, and grass-root Islamic activists from the Gama’a. The Jihadis had long justified the resort to arms by denouncing the state as non-Islamic. The new breed of militant salafis, meanwhile, constructed an ideology that was largely inspired by Ibn Taymiyya, who held the Moguls of the fourteenth century to be untrue Muslims despite their apparent conversion to Islam. The coming together of these factions resulted in the assassination of Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981.

The assassination of Anwar Sadat was followed by an attempted armed insurrection. The state’s response to the 1981 “autumn of fury” was rapid, brutal and sweeping. During the first few months of Mubarak’s rule, hundreds of Islamic activists were killed in confrontations with the political police (al-Mabahith), thousands were arrested - scores of them to be executed after summary trials - and thousands more fled the country. But Mubarak knew that the bloodbath had to stop. By the mid-1980s, the state’s campaign against the Islamic movement was scaled down. At the same time a new generation of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya leaders were beginning to question the militant approach.

Gradually, therefore, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya returned to community-oriented and university-based activities. By the late 1980s, the Gama’a had effectively replaced the Ikhwan as Egypt’s main Islamic group, particularly in Upper Egypt. Among millions of Egyptian dwellers of the poor quarters of Cairo, a network of clinics, pharmacies, evening and weekends schools and charitable organisations, run by dedicated Muslim activists, enabled the Gama’a to replace the state agencies as the main provider of services, and gave the Islamic movement far deeper popular support and roots than the militant approach had achieved. It was this that provoked the massive police operations against al-Gama’a’s strongholds in various parts of the country, which drove the Gama’a back to armed struggle in the summer of 1991.

In the beginning of their anti-state campaign al-Gama’a armed units attacked ministers, high-ranking state officials and police officers. But as the state deployed the full force of its military machine against them, the militant Islamic cells were pushed into the few urban hideouts and the sugar-cane fields and mountain caves of southern Egypt. Security forces imposed collective punishment on villages and towns suspected of sympathising with the Islamists. The humiliation and oppression to which many activists’ families were subjected, especially in the deeply conservative south of the country, made the conflict personal and resulted in a vicious circle of revenge and reprisal.

It quickly became apparent that the impact of this armed struggle was helping neither Egypt nor the Islamic movement. Concerned about the losses that the Islamists were suffering, and the integrity of the societal fabric, the late Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali, accompanied by a small group of Islamic intellectuals and public figures, offered to mediate. The interior minister accepted the offer, but was overruled by Mubarak and subsequently dismissed from office. Mubarak declared a policy of ‘no negotiations with the terrorists’ and determined to crush the Islamists by sheer force, regardless of the consequences. Some desperate Islamists now widened their targets to attack police guards, banks, Christian Coptic shops, and eventually foreign tourists. But by late 1997 al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya was clearly losing the battle.

In fact, the outcome of the conflict was never in doubt. Unless the state collapses, armed struggle by small units can seldom succeed in changing the political order. In Egypt, the Islamists were confronting a formidable military and police machine, and quickly became isolated from the major Islamic circles of the country, which expressed strong objections to their increasingly indiscriminate methods. Perhaps even more damaging was the erosion in popular support, as the drawn-out conflict severely disrupted everyday life in many cities and towns.

The first to appreciate the futility of the conflict was a group of jailed Gama’a leaders, prominent among them ‘Abud al-Zumar, a former major in the Egyptian External Intelligence who received a life sentence in 1981. Al-Zumar realised that al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya had to denounce armed struggle to play a role in shaping of Egypt’s political future. After extensive deliberations with other Islamic leaders, inside and outside the prisons, al-Zumar and other jailed leaders called for a cease-fire and political dialogue. The cease-fire initiative was, however, rejected by General al-Alfi, the ruthless and corrupt interior minister, as well as the exiled leaders of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya.

Inside Egypt, remaining pockets of armed Islamists were also unreceptive to their leaders’ call. As a whole generation of devout, well-educated and bright young Egyptians was lost to the unprecedented campaign of state-sponsored violence and methodical dehumanisation, there seemed to be no room left for rational reconsideration. The deep bitterness finally exploded in the attack by a group of young Islamists carried out on foreign tourists at the southern city of Luxor in November 1997.

The Luxor incident was a turning point. Al-Alfi was dismissed for negligence, while the debate about Islam, violence and the political situation was re-ignited. Within al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the urgency with which the denunciation of violence was debated indicated that it was no longer the political future of al-Gama’a that was at stake but the souls of many bitter activists.

Reaching a consensus among the leaders of al-Gama’a was a daunting task, especially when communications between jailed and exiled leaders and sympathisers were not always easy. It is not clear who the main figures in the debate over the past year have been, nor whether the government facilitated communications between them. However, the result was al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya’s denunciation of violence in March, which has opened new possibilities for both Egypt and the Islamic movement.

One reason for the government’s reciprocal gesture towards al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya may have been Mubarak’s need to relieve some of the bitterness which the years of conflict have caused before the coming presidential elections. The militant Islamists may have been losing, but the government knows that such a war cannot be totally won.

But the real test for the regime is not in releasing batches of prisoners every few months. The real test is whether the government will open the political arena in the country, even though the Islamic movement would emerge politically again. Three major professional associations - of medical doctors, engineers and lawyers - are currently inactive because of government objections to their elected leaders. Despite the establishment of a multi-party system in the 1970s, Egyptian authorities have rejected every attempt by Islamists to establish political parties, including the Ikhwan, the more liberal al-Wast and the pro-Gama’a intellectuals. Yet Islam remains the inspiration for Egypt’s people. Something has to change.

Muslimedia: May 16-31, 1999

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