Repentant Jihadists and the Changing Face of Islamism

Repentant Jihadists and the Changing Face of Islamism

Repentant jihadists—former Islamic militants who won release from prison by explicitly renouncing violence and other extremist ideas—have become a topic of political debate in Egypt and provoke varying reactions, most of them negative. The regime, which engineered their reeducation, continues to deal with them strictly as a security threat and has prevented them from resuming political activities. Some groups question the sincerity of the jihadists” transformation and refuse to take them seriously. Other Islamist forces, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, view the repentant jihadists as potential competitors capable of contesting their claim to moderate Islamism. Overall, jihadists who have repented since the regime broke the back of their movement in 1997 have faced an unwelcoming political environment.


Exactly how many Egyptian jihadi prisoners have repented, and to which movements they belonged, remains unknown. Estimates range from 20,000 to 30,000, the majority of whom (some 12,000) are members of al-Gama`a al-Islamiyya, the militant organization that perpetrated much of the Islamist violence of the 1980s and 1990s. The remainder are members of smaller groups, mostly al-Jihad, or are independent jihadists espousing Salafi ideologies.


For most jihadists, the decision to repent represented a retreat from public life and an attempt to resume their private lives, put on hold for twenty years in some cases. The problem, however, is that most of them were ill-prepared for the changes that have taken place during their years in prison. In today”s Egypt—plagued with rising prices, unemployment, and a dearth of job opportunities—repentant Jihadists simply do not have the skills necessary to compete on the job market and have therefore struggled to make a decent living.


Some jihadists, notably the leaders of al-Gama`a al-Islamiyya, have tried to resume political activity through indirect methods, primarily through the establishment of a presence on the internet. In an effort to resurface on the political scene and draw attention to its new image, al-Gama`a al-Islamiyya has espoused views in sharp contrast to its previous positions. On one occasion, it praised late President Anwar al-Sadat, assassinated by al-Gama’a in 1981. On another occasion, it described late President Gamal Abdul Nasser as “Egypt“s Ataturk” and criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for attempting to assassinate him in 1954.


Introducing new items to its agenda, al-Gama`a has turned its attention to Egypt”s social problems, addressing unemployment and secondary education, and opining on matters of public concern such as the emergence of new preachers, the Coptic Diaspora, the role of the left, and that of secularism. Al-Gama’a has also joined the conversation on practical religious matters, such as whether it is legitimate for Muslims to celebrate Mother’s Day. Finally, the organization has engaged other intellectual and political currents in a number of debates. Al-Gama`a has thus offered tangible evidence of its transformation and presented itself in accessible language—completely devoid of the ideological rhetoric and archaic formulations that characterized its past discourse—to the Egyptian public. Despite this, al-Gama`a has been unable, for security reasons as well as lack of public acceptance, to expand beyond its presence on the internet and engage in any kind of social or political activism.


Despite the political, economic, and social frustrations they face, Jihadists have not rescinded their repentance or returned to violence. Skeptics question their sincerity and argue that the despair brought on by current political conditions in Egypt will drive jihadists back to violence, but this is extremely unlikely. Most penitent jihadists are over the age of 50. Having spent twenty years or more in prison, they lack the ability to communicate with members of the young generation who would take up arms in any confrontations with the regime.


Beyond the question of violence, the changing nature of religiosity in Egypt also diminishes the jihadists’ current relevance. Until the mid-1990s, belonging to a particular organization was a cornerstone of Islamist activism. Now, religiosity has taken on a remarkably individualized form. This model is based on a sort of free-market of religious ideas, which offers a broader array of choices, none of which is necessarily binding. Unlike the religious commitment (peaceful or violent) of the past, which required organizational affiliation, today”s religious commitment does not require any direct connection with Islamist organizations or a particular ideological framework.


Understanding these dynamics makes clear why there is no reason to fear that released jihadists will reorganize and return to violence. Individual disgruntled activists might resort to violence in response to a certain feeling of despair—despair about social conditions in Egypt and U.S. policies that push religious and nationalist sentiments to the limit. But any such violence would be diffused and limited to small cells linked by social or occupational interests, unlike the organized jihadi violence of the past. That sort of violence also is more likely to be fueled by the desperate social conditions that Egypt is witnessing than by an Islamist ideology.


Hussam Tammam is an Egyptian researcher focusing on Islamist movements. Dina Bishara translated this article from Arabic.

This commentary is reprinted with permission from  Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.