Egypt’s Islamists caught in a bind

Shaken by November’s atrocity in Luxor, Egypt’s response has been to intensify police repression. The government refuses to differentiate between the diverse streams of political Islam and is lumping the armed extremists together with the moderate – and entirely pacific – Muslim Brotherhood. Refusal to recognise the Brothers, and failure to address the twin evils of poverty and heavy-handed authoritarianism, can only fuel the flames of violence.

By Eric Rouleau

The slaughter of some sixty tourists in Luxor on 17 November 1997 was a shock for the Egyptians in more ways than one. The atrocity of the event (at such odds with Egyptian character and tradition), together with its disastrous implications for an economy in which millions of people depend on tourism, have prompted a sudden awareness: the Islamist problem, said to have been more or less resolved, has not gone away.

A foreigner in Cairo the day before the bloodletting could scarcely fail to be astonished by the relaxed attitude in the sensitive areas of the city. All the indications were that, on the whole, people felt that the security services had things under control, judging by the numbers at the museums, historic monuments, cinemas, theatres, nightclubs and the big hotels where the well-to-do celebrate their weddings and birthday parties. Few doubted the regular assurances over the months that any “residual terrorism” was on the way out.

It is true that this belief had some foundation. With just a few exceptions, the attacks were confined to two regions in Upper Egypt (Minya and Assiut), where vendettas are nothing new and poverty exacerbates social conflict, as witnessed in recent months by peasant revolts which have claimed some forty lives. And the massacres of Greek tourists outside their Cairo hotel in April 1996 and German tourists in front of the Cairo Museum last September were put down to “mentally deranged” individuals. The official version was all the more plausible as the leaders of the Gamaa Islamiyya, responsible for virtually all the attacks over at least the last five years, seemed to confirm it, calling all attacks against innocent civilians “anti-Islamic”, whether they were foreign tourists or Christian Copts (murdered from time to time in Upper Egypt). None of which stopped six Gamaa suicide bombers from gunning down the Luxor tourists two months later.

The authorities’ lack of foresight stemmed from two wrong assessments. The first was to believe that all the Gamaa militants would obey their leaders in prison, rather than those abroad who favoured continuing “armed struggle”. The second was to have dismissed rather too lightly a solemn cease-fire undertaking on 5 July 1997 by the six “historic” leaders of the movement, including those responsible for the murder of President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. Sentenced to life imprisonment, they had humbly admitted that the use of violence had proved ineffective and called on their followers to carry on the fight by legal means.

Caught off guard, the government started off by shilly-shallying and then announced yet again that it “would not talk with terrorists”. Even though the terrorists in question had not attached any conditions to their offer to cease hostilities, which they themselves termed “unilateral”. Still, they were obviously waiting for some gesture in return which would maintain their credibility in the eyes of their followers. It was well-known that they were hoping for the release, if only partial, of the thousands of Islamist prisoners, most of them held without trial – or, at the very least, an improvement in prison conditions.

Some such gesture of leniency would have justified their initiative and strengthened their position in relationship to the six other members of the leadership living abroad, who were either noncommittal or downright hostile to the step taken by their imprisoned colleagues. Events were to show that, although the Gamaa’s spiritual guide, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, in prison in the United States, rallied to the cease-fire, it was not enough to swing the balance in favour of the “doves”, even though it had given them a majority within the ruling committee.

Inadvertently, the Egyptian authorities contributed to discrediting the moderates by portraying them as “defeated”, with no choice but to capitulate. Yet one more reason not to sit down and talk to them. The minister for home affairs, Hassan al-Alfi (to be sacked the day after the Luxor bloodbath), remembered that his predecessor had lost his job for trying to negotiate an end to hostilities in 1993 and triumphantly claimed that there was now clear proof that “terrorism has been eradicated in Egypt”.

Two factors had largely contributed to weakening the trend to terrorism: the growing unpopularity of its criminal actions, including among Islamist sympathisers, and the extent and severity of repression. The state of emergency, in place for more or less thirty years, permits curfews, combing and sealing off areas known as Islamist, and demolition of houses which have sheltered presumed members of terrorist organisations. So-called anti-terrorist legislation allows suspects to be held for questioning for six months, renewable at will, and provides for long prison sentences just for possession of publications issued by secret organisations.

Crimes, or offences of a “terrorist” nature (that is, those connected to anyone of Islamist persuasion), are dealt with only by martial law courts. There is no appeal and the president of the republic has never seen fit to grant a pardon. More often, his regular interventions have served to make sentences passed by the military tribunals even harsher: recently he refused to ratify a verdict acquitting a young defendant and ordered his re-trial, which resulted in a death sentence. In total, some 90 death sentences have been passed in the last five years; all, except the 30 tried in absentia, were hanged.

No exact figures are available since the number of detentions fluctuates according to event, but the authorities say there are about 10,000, while the Islamist opposition claims there are over 30,000. Both the opposition and human rights organisations report serious violations of rights: routine and systematic torture, unexplained disappearances and deaths of detainees, even summary executions during confrontations between suspects and the forces of law and order. The authorities stoutly deny these accusations, even though, in some instances, they have conducted inquiries – without publishing their conclusions.

The brutality of the repression has doubtless sapped the momentum of the terrorists. But has it stopped the spread of political Islam, which, with its deep-seated roots, has become part of the Egyptian landscape? This heterogeneous collection of disparate, sometimes diverging, doctrines is heavily dominated by the Muslim Brothers, a movement which is simultaneously reformist and conservative. Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, the Brothers have had a chequered history, in turn espousing violence, in turn staying within legal bounds; sometimes fighting the regime, at other times collaborating with it to fight a common enemy, either communist (under the monarchy), Nasserist (under Sadat), or Soviet in Afghanistan (under Mubarak). But whether they were being repressed or tolerated, the Muslim Brothers have remained illegal for the whole of their fifty years.

The actual status of the Muslim Brothers is extremely curious. The movement remains underground, but its leaders are contactable by appointment… Their offices are to be found in a dusty building in the old part of Cairo, without sign or letter box. The local shopkeepers and the porter of the building do not know (or pretend not to know) of the Brothers, who are finally located by knocking at every door, floor by floor. The deputy Supreme Guide and spokesman of the movement, Sheikh Maamun al-Hodeiby, is in his seventies, with a great white beard. A retired magistrate, he expresses himself with ease.

What about terrorism, we ask? The answer is clear: the Brothers condemn violence, all violence. And the call for a cease-fire by the six Gamaa leaders? Interesting, but one needs to be sure of their long-term sincerity. What about Algeria? The military regime is as much to blame as its opponents, who call themselves Islamists. “Neither the one nor the other are real Muslims, since they massacre innocents…” What of the Islamist government of Sudan? In reality, comes the answer, it is a military dictatorship, corrupt to boot, which oppresses the people. What about Iran? “We are pleased about the progressive liberalisation of the regime, but we hope that it will finish by installing a pluralist system in which all the parties will be freely allowed to take part.”

Here we have it: the Muslim Brothers are “rational democrats”. Of course, they have no programme since they have no legal existence, but the communiqués that they try to put out, often in vain, show the principles that guide them. Sheikh Hodeiby apologises for not being able to give us the entirety of their texts. Not only have the Brothers been without a press outlet since 1982, but virtually all their publications were confiscated in a police raid, along with their archives. However, there remain three “manifestos”, published recently, one calling for “indispensable democracy”, another on the rights of minorities, in particular, those of “our Coptic brothers and compatriots”, and the third on the “status of women”.

But the sheikh omits to mention that these manifestos, which are undeniably a great advance on the old positions of the Brothers, were proposed and written by young members of the movement, before they were adopted – with less than complete conviction, it is said – by the leadership’s old guard, most of whose members are over seventy. The forty-something year-old champions of Islamic revival have gone from challenging what they saw as the over-conservative views of their elders to becoming outright dissidents. On 10 January 1996, seventeen of them asked official permission to found a separate new political party called Al Wasat.

A split within the Brotherhood

The founders of the new school have virtually the same profile: aged between 35 and 45, mostly members of the liberal professions (doctors, lawyers, engineers, chemists), in the 1970-80s they had taken part first in student, then in union disputes. In turn they had clashed and made tactical alliances with their Nasserist, communist and liberal adversaries. Despite harassment from the security services, for the most part they had managed to get themselves elected to responsible positions in the professional unions. And, travelling abroad to all sorts of conferences made them receptive to the changes taking place elsewhere. The experience they had gained created a wider gap between them and their elders, who promptly reacted by barring their access to the leadership.

The spokesman and driving force of this group, Abul Ala Madi, aged thirty-nine, has been deputy secretary-general of the Engineering Union for about ten years and was an unsuccessful candidate in the last legislative elections. He is also an activist in various human rights organisations, including Amnesty International. He explains that he and his colleagues found it intolerable to belong to an organisation which had neither a programme, nor statutes, nor elected officials. He thinks that the Muslim Brothers’ leaders fear the legalisation of the movement, whatever they may say, since its inevitable democratisation would make them lose the absolute power they presently enjoy.

A keyword in Mr Madi’s vocabulary, besides democracy, is modernity. Overall, he reproaches the Brothers for defending the “archaic concepts” inherited from the movement’s founder, Hassan al-Banna. He proposes as an alternative solution “a modernist vision, founded on the experience of the past, but angled towards the challenges of the 21st century”.

So the forty-somethings have decided on a thorough rehaul of the Islamist agenda with its guiding principles laid out in the preface of their programme. They have chosen to call their party Al Wasat (the middle) to symbolise several ideas they hold dear: Islam, according to the Quran, is situated “between the rigidity of Judaism and the laxness of Christianity”; it favours moderation in its objectives as well as its means (legal and peaceful) in order to attain them; from this follows the need for compromise (“to avoid the threat of the Lebanonisation or Algerianisation of Egypt”); only the values of Islam are immutable, everything else is subject to evolution. Hence they are rallying to a system of government, called Western, which means respect for all freedoms, collective and individual, pluralist elections, changeover of power and primacy of the law.

On this last point, Al Wasat approves of Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution, which stipulates that sharia “the principle” source of inspiration for legislation, rather than “the unique” source, as the radical wing of the Islamists demand. The justification for this position, as Abul Ala Madi explains it, would certainly be judged as sacrilege by many Islamists, including moderates. He maintains that “the sharia is very simply a collection of guiding principles, which should be put to ijtihad, to a free interpretation in order to adapt them to a world in the process of change”. Al Wasat pledges explicitly in its programme to respect the constitution. And, as additional proof of its willingness to respect Republican legality (and the 1977 law forbidding the creation of parties on a religious basis), it has decided to put itself forward as a non-confessional party, saying that it sees Islam as much as a civilisation with a universal vocation as a religion. To cap it all, it has included a Copt, Dr Rafiq Habib, son of the head of the Anglican community of Egypt, in its founding committee.

All this proved a waste of time. For on 13 May 1996 the authorities threw out the party’s request for legalisation, presented four months earlier. Two days after this rejection, three of the party’s main founders, including Mr Madi, were arrested and sent before the higher military court accused of “plotting to overthrow the regime by force”. A number of secular lawyers – including Nasserists, liberals and communists – joined the Islamists to form a defence collective. They won the case and had the three Wasat leaders released just three months after their arrest. Abul Ala Madi remains confident. Al Wasat would soon be recognised, for “the wisdom of the politician will win the day, rather than the stupidity of the eradicators”.

This statement needs to be qualified. The government’s frenetic repression is essentially hitting the Islamists who have chosen terrorism as a means of acheiving power. Leaving aside the excesses of the security forces, it has a point, given the numbers of attacks and assassinations of high-ranking members of the regime. Altogether, starting with Sadat in 1981, there are 1,251 victims. However, all these crimes are the work of the Gamaa Islamiyya and other small groups, like the Islamic Jihad, which belong to the religious sphere which considers the Egyptian regime to be “ungodly”, and, therefore, irredeemable. Which is not the case of the Muslim Brothers and their like who, by contrast, recognise the Islamic nature of the state. All they want is to reform it by filling in the cracks and stopping the slide.

Refusing to acknowledge such distinctions, the authorities make blanket accusations, on the premise that all the organisations derived from political Islam are, by their very nature and vocation, bent on taking power through violence. As illustrated by the interior minister’s statement last April: “All the terrorist attacks are carried out under the umbrella of the Muslim Brothers, who are the main instigators of all acts of violence and all attempts at subversion”. A perfect justification for the permanent harassment, arrests, long prison sentences for the Brothers, just on account of their political activities.

Nasser, in his day, never knew how to deal properly with the problem of the Brothers. He tried to eliminate them (along with others), by sending their leaders to the gallows. It was a time of general confrontation. His successor, Anwar al-Sadat, used a strategy of tolerance-cum-connivance, designed to use the Brothers against his left-wing enemies, whom he judged more dangerous. President Mubarak’s policy of containment has had various versions, none of which have proved conclusive (1).

The first was influenced by the Afghan war. It consisted of dealing tactfully with a movement, then held in high esteem in the United States, which was playing an active role in the fight against the Soviet occupiers. Thinking it would neutralise them, the government allowed the Muslim Brothers to stand in the legislative elections, first in 1984 under the banner of the Wafd Party (liberal), then in 1987 on the lists of the Work Party (the only legalised Islamist platform). The consequences were judged frightening. No only did the Brothers win first place among the opposition parties in parliament, but, carried away by their success, they managed to get their members elected and in control of most of the professional organisations. It was proof that the Muslim Brothers, even without being recognised legally, had deep roots among the population.

So the government reverted to strong-arm tactics. It paralysed the working of the professional organisations and student unions. It got rid of the Brothers’ representation in parliament by arresting those most likely to stand in the 1995 elections. It was back to security. None of which stopped those who had been outlawed, increasingly seen as victims, from patiently continuing to work through a multitude of clubs and associations of all kinds, cultural, welfare, youth – all technically apolitical – with which they swamped the country.

Their task was not difficult given the social ills engendered by unbridled economic liberalism (whose macro-economic performance was undeniable): extended unemployment, especially among the qualified young; aggravated social polarisation in which ill-gained wealth, insolently displayed, stood out against the growing misery of the rural and urban populations; and generalised corruption spreading right up to the highest levels of society and state. Egypt was not an exceptional case among countries which change too fast, and without any rigorous democratic control, from a planned, so-called socialist, economy to a scarcely-controlled free market.

Assuming the role of champions of social justice, and of the fight against corruption, the Islamists are still benefiting from the democratic deficit, which allows them the chance to gain ground in the place of the legalised political parties. These suffer a double disability. First, theirs is a dubious legitimacy, whose existence depends entirely on the will of the rais. Then, their freedoms are circumscribed, which stops them playing their role fully, while the Islamists have fifty thousand mosques (many of them, irony of ironies, built with state funds) through which to spread their message, always, of course, unassailably “apolitical”…

It is enough to recall that, in the present parliament, elected in December 1995, the National Democratic Party of President Mubarak has 94% of the seats. This leaves all the other parties together, right, left and centre, with scarcely 3% representation nationwide. With a majority like this, Egypt is in practice governed by a single party, which precludes all change, or even the existence of any counterweight which could moderate the arbitrary nature of government. So it is hardly surprising that the Islamists have managed, in increasing numbers, to raise the standard of democracy, even in the once denigrated “Western-style”.

Although mostly hostile to the legalisation of the Muslim Brothers, as feared political rivals, the authorised opposition parties have realised, since the Luxor attack, that the fundamental problem facing Egypt is not secularism (the Nasserist state grew considerably more Islamic over the years, in the hope of neutralising the Islamists). It is democracy. The parties have decided to form a front grouping Muslim Brothers, communists (also outlawed, but tolerated), the Progressive Rally (left-wing), the Wafd (liberal right-wing) and the Socialist Workers’ Party (Islamist-leaning). Its only platform would consist of the “full democratisation” of institutions, the abolition of martial law and respect for freedoms.

A strategy of political integration would thus replace one of containment through repression, as a way of reducing, and then eliminating, the evils of terror. The success of the enterprise is not guaranteed. But, given the failure of all that has gone before, it deserves to be put to the test.


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