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Egypt’s terror lawyer trades arms for politics
Egypt’s terror lawyer trades arms for politics
Montasser al-Zayat, a former militant from Egypt’s bloodiest Islamist group and ex-prison mate of Al-Qaeda’s current eminence grise, is taking his battle against the regime to the ballot box.
Tuesday, May 29,2007 13:44

Montasser al-Zayat, a former militant from Egypt"s bloodiest Islamist group and ex-prison mate of Al-Qaeda"s current eminence grise, is taking his battle against the regime to the ballot box.

"I have long renounced violence and want to enter politics to represent the disenfranchised whom the regime has betrayed," Zayat told AFP, speaking from his law practice in downtown Cairo.

Ironically, the 49-year-old lawyer who earned a reputation as the "Perry Mason of jihad fighters" was endorsed in the dirt poor Cairo constituency of Bulaq Dakrur by the liberal and secular Wafd party.

He will face a myriad of other candidates, from the ruling National Democratic Party as well as several from an opposition coalition that includes the Wafd, leftist parties and the powerful Muslim Brotherhood.

"I wish I didn"t have to compete against a member of the Muslim Brotherhood when we both believe Islam is the solution. I failed to convince them not to field a candidate there," he said.

But the former militant of the hardline Gamaa Islamiya (Islamic Group) didn"t have only kind words for his rivals.

"The Brotherhood has not worked hard enough in parliament for the adoption of the Sharia," or Islamic law, he said.

Zayat, who is also running as an independent, hopes he will lead the way for other Gamaa Islamiya activists to have their try at politics.

The group laid down its arms in 1997 after a two decade-long insurgency against the state that killed more than 1,000 people, including policemen, militants, members of Egypt"s Christian Coptic minority, tourists and secular intellectuals.

Zayat, a friend and former next-cell neighbour of Al-Qaeda"s Egyptian-born number two Ayman al-Zawahiri, vows to use non-violent means to fight against "the regime"s corruption" and for an end to the 24-year-old emergency laws and the creation of an Islamic state.

"Zayat"s decision to run is huge. It shows the group is keen on playing the political game," commented political analyst Dhia Rashwan.

As to whether the Gamaa Islamiya stands a chance of exerting influence in Egypt"s political scene, Rashwan said it was too early to tell. "The movement is in full transition and needs a new political constituency."

Father of five Zayat spent almost four years behind bars in the 1980s, including a three-year term handed down in 1981 following a massive arrest campaign after Egypt"s president Anwar Sadat was assassinated by extremist Islamists.

Egypt"s rights groups estimate that more than 10,000 Gamaa militants and sympathizers remain behind bars.

While Zayat supports "armed rebellions against occupying powers in Palestine, Iraq or Chechnya", he condemns the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States.

He also deplores the wave of bombings that rocked resorts in Egypt"s Sinai and Cairo tourist spots in the past year.

"Some Egyptian youths are tempted by violence because they are politically and economically excluded by the regime," said Zayat who makes a living defending radical Islamists on trial.

"I share my experience with them and explain to them why violence is not the way."

Part of the remedy, he contends, is "for them to feel they are politically represented by people like me."

Zayat is all the more determined to make it in politics because he believes Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who won a fifth six-year term last September, will not honor his reform pledges.

"Pushing for reforms is incumbent on the opposition," he said.

He said he has no qualms about joining forces with non-Islamist groups and points out that one of his campaign supporters is a Coptic Christian.

"It"s not like fire will engulf Egypt if we rule one day. Opposition will have its place if it"s the will of the people," said Zayat.

"But Copts should stop asking for minority rights and to build more churches than they need. They are full-fledged partners in the state," he added in the same breath.

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