Ayman al-Zawahri’s recent calls to arms could embarrass those who once fought alongside him back home, especially when they are trying to give up their legacy of armed opposition.
For years a security nightmare before its leaders renounced violence in 1997, Egypt’s al-Jamaa al-Islamiya is desperately trying to reassure the state of its new ‘reformed’ line.
The al-Jamaa’s 51-year-old leader Karam Zuhdi – who has been in prison since 1981 over his role in the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat the same year – caused a stir last July with a frank confession to the Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.
Asked what he would have done if he could turn back the clock, Zuhdi replied: “I would have intervened to prevent his murder … Sadat, may God bless his soul with mercy, is a martyr along with everyone who died in that fight.”
From killing the country’s former president to anointing his soul, Egypt’s largest armed opposition group has indeed travelled a long way.
The al-Jamaa leaders launched a unilateral ceasefire initiative in July 1997, at a time when the group’s infrastructure outside prisons had been crippled by security blows.
By then its insurgency had claimed the lives of more than 1000 people, mostly police officers, the al-Jamaa activists, and, on several occasions, Copts, tourists and secular intellectuals.
Renounciation of violence
The group’s leadership, the Shura Council, followed their announcement by producing four revisionist studies. They reiterated that the government was not “infidel” after all, and renounced violence.
Initially the group’s calls fell on deaf ears. The regime distrusted the al-Jamaa, especially after one of its units slaughtered 58 tourists and four Egyptians in November 1997, in Luxor. But later, following the 11 September 2001 attacks, the regime came to endorse the initiative.
The government turnaround was confirmed in June 2002, when authorities allowed the editor of state-owned weekly Al-Mussawar to interview the al-Jamaa leaders inside jails. Since then, they have become media celebrities with their routine denunciation of terror.
More importantly, recent crackdowns on Muslim opposition movements have not targeted al-Jamaa sympathisers, whose “good conduct” even earned them praise from the country’s interior minister.
“Nearly 1000 members of al-Jamaa al-Islamiya have been released over a period of time [three years] in line with clear guidelines and their commitment to rejecting violence,” Major General Habib al-Adly, Egypt’s minister of interior, told Al-Mussawar in September.
“The al-Jamaa’s leadership is trying to steer the wheel towards moderation, while the global Islamist scene is going through radicalisation”
“All those who have been freed are living normally among the people and clearly state their rejection of violence and their total commitment to the initiative declared by the al-Jamaa leadership,” the minister added. Rights groups put the figure of Islamists in prisons at 15,000.
While the minister is pleased, yesterday’s comrades in arms from other groups remain furious. London-based Islamists such as Yasir al-Sirri and Hani al-Sebai have labelled the al-Jamaa’s moves a sell-out.
“These comments are coming from those who are not al-Jamaa al-Islamiya’s sons,” said lawyer Montasser al-Zayat in reply. Al-Zayat is a former al-Jamaa member who has acted as its de facto spokesman.
“They are commenting on an internal issue. The al-Jamaa did not force anyone to join its violence in the first place, so no one should instruct the al-Jamaa now on how to handle the initiative.”
But the al-Jamaa’s revisions are not solely its “internal” business anymore. The group is touching the cornerstones of a deep legacy. The moves have already drawn a crescendo of criticism from London-based activists, including the Saudi-born dissident Muhammad al-Massari, and Syrian exile Abu Baseer.
Observers who have been closely monitoring the al-Jamaa’s development, like Muhammad Salah of Al Hayat, say the exiles’ criticism is unlikely to have an impact on the group.
“They will not listen to them,” said Salah. “Coming under external attack could even give more legitimacy to the al-Jamaa’s leadership (among its members).”
Too early to tell
If its history is anything to go by, talks of a split may be premature. The al-Jamaa has always enjoyed a strong centralised command structrure, according to Diaa Rashwan, a researcher on Islamism at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a Cairo-based think tank.
The group’s base cadres have been known for their ultra-loyalty to the leadership, a feature which has enabled it to maintain a strong chain of command, even inside prisons. Diaa believes that the Luxor massacre was unlikely an act of disobedience.
Disruption in the chain of command, resulting from the killing of middle-ranking operatives, severed communications between the leaders in prisons and the isolated Qena Unit that carried out the attack. “Word of the ceasefire did not reach the unit on time,” Rashwan told Aljazeera.
The government itself seems to be betting on the group’s internal discipline to guarantee a consensus on the renunciation of violence. Authorities allowed the incarcerated al-Jamaa leaders to tour prisons in an attempt to win over their followers to the new line.
“I was indeed astonished [to see] the al-Jamaa leaders having such immense power and influence on its members who have been in jails for a long time,” wrote Makram Ahmad of Al- Mussawar, recalling a dialogue conference he attended where four Shura Council leaders addressed 500 of their supporters.
Organisational discipline was emphasised even in the conference. The four al-Jamaa leaders sat on the main platform with the 18 imprisoned provincial amirs behind them, facing the crowd. The generals and colonels were addressing their foot soldiers saying the war was over, and hardly anyone seemed to disagree then.
Twists and turns
However, the fact that the al-Jamaa leaders revised their views in prison may yet add another twist to the turnaround. They have already faced criticism for bowing to security pressures. Asharq Al-Awsat has run several unconfirmed reports over the last year on a leadership split inside prisons.
The al-Jamma is trying to reconcile
Abandoning armed opposition could not have happened at a less favourable time. “The Jamaah has always enjoyed a strong structure,” Zayat reiterates. “But sometimes the sea tide goes against the ship.”
“The al-Jamaa’s leadership is trying to steer the wheel towards moderation, while the global Islamist scene is going through radicalisation,” said Rashwan. “It should be no surprise that the transition would create some sort of turbulence inside the group. The new ideas have not been swallowed up completely yet.”
Ideas take time to absorb, but emerging signs of the new breed of unorganised armed opposition activist could leave the government little room to manoeuvre.
Since last January, and on a nearly monthly basis, security has been announcing crackdowns on “jihadis,” “takfiris” and “Qutbists” – ready-made categories, as analysts like Salah and Rashwan believe – to try to qualify the new militant groups.
Most of the suspects have no political records, something their lawyers have repeatedly stressed.
Will not a resurgence in violent opposition spill over to the al-Jamaa al-Islamiya? “Not to this generation which leads the al-Jamaa, at least,” replied Zayat. “Maybe the coming generations. Maybe.”
Tired of serving time
Rashwan agrees. The old leadership and its loyal middle ranks, have been exhausted by years of incarcerations, and could clearly see that violence was not leading anywhere. At the same time, young cadres, detained at most for short periods, were deprived of contact with the preceding generations and have failed to absorb their changes.
A split led by disillusioned youth, if it happens, will be the first major fissure in the al-Jamaa’s history, but could follow well-established patterns set by similar groups.
“Such (splinter) movements are usually motivated by youth, inside or outside prison,” explained Zayat. “They seek an elder figure inside prison, who would share their views. They’ll take him as a figurehead to gain legitimacy or guidance, and would cluster their group around him.
“This is just what happened in the case of Sayyid Qutb,” he added referring to the executed father of radical Islamic politics in the 1960s. “It’s possible it may occur again.”
The al-Jamaa leaders, including the new “moderates”, are aware of the possible risk. Asked by Asharq Al-Awsat back in March 2002, on whether other violent groups were likely to appear, the Jamaah’s original founder Salah Hashim said:
“I hope no other groups appear and drag us into the cycle of violence, from which no one benefits but our enemies … The Egyptian regime has to realise that, and help the al-Jamaa al-Islamiya to go out of this period. We should be given the chance to practice daawa (preaching) so as to achieve stability.”