Jihad revisions

Jihad revisions

Before Al-Qaeda”s chief theorist, Imam Abdul- Aziz Al-Marouf, publicised the ideological revisions drafted by the founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Sayed Imam El-Sherif (Dr Fadl), and since the Egyptian Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya announced its desire to enter into serious dialogue with the Egyptian authorities, a single question has reigned foremost in the minds of intellectuals involved in the study of Islamist organisations. This same question has also caused government and security officials considerably concern. Is the declared interest of these groups in dialogue and understanding, pursuant to the political and ideological change they are undergoing, a tactical manoeuvre or a strategic option? It is virtually impossible to gather sufficient tangible evidence to provide a comprehensive and conclusive answer. The secrecy enveloping the hearts and minds of the revisionists who publicly recanted on recourse to violence is too great and it is as yet too early to know how the rest of the rank and file will react to the revisions announced by their emirs or historical leaders.

Nevertheless, if we were to pass a cursory judgement based on the limited scope of our knowledge of those leaders, the conclusion that immediately springs to mind is that they have made an irreversible strategic decision. They have tried rebellion through recourse to arms and have reaped only a quarter of a century in prison. As the years passed, they would have realised that their dreams of rule were fantasies and that their impression of the fragility and disintegration of the regime was a figment of the imagination. They would have drawn the inevitable conclusion that their only choice was to accept reality and to deal with the regime in a constructive way that would ultimately offer the chance of emerging into the light of day again and living out the rest of their now grey-haired lives as normal citizens.

These individuals will never be able to engage again in the life of political protest, of any stripe. Their release was conditional upon their pledge never to return to the now paralysed Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, and their rehabilitation as ordinary citizens was contingent upon their commitment to persuade their former colleagues and members of other groups to recant and follow their lead in renouncing violence as well. In addition, the fact that they will be under constant surveillance for a long time to come will prevent them from so much as contemplating a return to political activism. In view of such considerations, their renunciation of violence had to be a strategic shift militated in part by necessity and in part by conviction.

On the other hand, there may well exist a handful of minor radical leaders who are biding their time to seize an appropriate moment to surface and spearhead the alternative. Such a development would be inspired naturally by opposition to the established leadership”s revisionism. Indeed, they might, themselves, regard that leadership”s renunciation of violence as a tactical move intended to buy time for their organisation to tend to its wounds, reassemble and gather enough strength to act again. Or perhaps they would see it as a compromise: a protracted truce with the regime instead of virtually certain defeat culminating from a confrontation that lasted from 1988 through the Luxor massacre of 1997 that claimed the lives of approximately 60 foreign tourists.

Because the Islamic Jihad had disintegrated under the onslaught of the American-led war on “terrorism”, with the largest contingent of it being absorbed into Al-Qaeda, Fadl”s ideological revision pertains more to the radical Islamist movement outside of Egypt. Therefore, for him, personally, this would constitute a definitive strategic departure: he will never be able to return to the fold of his organisation again. But the same does not apply to Al-Qaeda itself, which has attempted to cover up or underplay the latest pronouncements of its chief theorist, or to portray them as the consequence of torture and brainwashing in prison, even as it continues to ideologically ground itself on Fadl”s book, Foundations for Preparation for Holy War.

Perhaps a more crucial consideration in the long term is that ideological revisions, even when undertaken by individuals as prominent and influential as Fadl, do not in themselves end the causes of extremism and violence. These emanate from an intricate web of domestic and foreign social, political and economic plights, ranging from poverty, unemployment, despotism and underdeveloped educational systems, to America”s pro-Israeli bias, the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and the post-11 September polarisation that has swept the entire region. It is therefore mistaken to regard the ideological revisions proclaimed, firstly by Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, then by the Egyptian Jihad and most recently by Fadl, as a form of precision surgery that will heal quickly without leaving scars. There are bound to be repercussions, some of which will be felt soon, others of which will remain latent for some time only to flare up unexpectedly at some point in the future.

For the moment, at any rate, ordinary members of these organisations are shocked and bewildered by these unexpected revisions, having long subscribed ardently to the ideas in The Charter of Islamic Action of the founder of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, and having zealously worked to carry out the plans of their emirs to overthrow the ruling regime in Egypt. When these ideas and plans were at their zenith, they believed that victory was their ally and that the road to the fulfilment of their radical vision and the creation of an Islamic state was paved before them. Now they appear numbed into total silence. No criticisms have been forthcoming; but neither have words of praise. So far, the only observable consequence from the revisions is that some imprisoned Gamaa members have been released and now reside in their homes, beneath the vigilant eyes of national security agencies. As to whether their statements regarding their commitment to the resumption of peaceful ordinary life reflect their actual convictions or are a form of temporary “cover” remains a mystery concealed in their own hearts and minds.

There have been, however, a few random interruptions of the silence on the part of what are termed fringe radical groups. Small, isolated cells appear to operate outside of a broader ideological or organisational framework and to be largely interested in mounting rapid strikes in order to accomplish limited or short-range objectives. Indeed, such cells may disperse once such objectives are accomplished. In 2002, Egypt experienced some random outbursts of violence on the part of Islamist extremists. Three years later, in 2005, there was a similar spate of incidents: the hand-bomb explosion in the Khan Al-Khalili area in Cairo on 7 April, the explosion in Abdel-Moneim Riad Square in downtown Cairo on 30 April and, in tandem with the latter, the shooting at a tourist bus in Sayeda Aisha near the Citadel. Three tourists were killed and 18 foreigners and Egyptians were wounded in the first two incidents. There were no casualties in the third, although the two women who perpetrated the shooting committed suicide following the attempt. However, soon afterwards there occurred the far more vicious and deadly coordinated bombings in Sharm El-Sheikh, which were carried out by another small local cell calling itself Al-Tawhid wal Jihad (Unity and Jihad Group).

Radical fringe groups of this nature are not a new phenomenon to Egypt. The 1980s saw the emergence of dozens like them. Some were splinter groups that had broken away from mother organisations, whether over ideological or tactical differences, or out of the desire of their leaders to assert their independence through a bid to outshine the older leadership in militancy, or out of the conviction that the creation of a new organisation would do more to promote radical Islamist aims than remaining under the mother organisation.

At the narrow local level, the likelihood is that such fringe groups will resurface following the revisions of the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and Jihad leaderships. Conditions at present are inimical to larger, ideologically cohesive organisations with an appeal that cuts across place, class and cultures. At the international level, Dr Fadl”s recantation is certain to have at least a temporary impact on Al-Qaeda in view of his status within that globalised, transcontinental organisation. However, it is doubtful that such an impact will be so severe as to precipitate Al-Qaeda”s collapse, a sharp decline in its influence, or a significant rift in its ranks.