The Middle East Channel

Egypt’s democratic Jihadists?

"We were not in love with combat…if there was a way to hold a government accountable, Sadat would probably be alive today…we didn’t know another way to change things." That is how the Jihadist icon Abbud al-Zumur, a former leader of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al-Jihad Organization, recently explained the most famous assassination in modern Egyptian ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

"We were not in love with combat…if there was a way to hold a government accountable, Sadat would probably be alive today…we didn’t know another way to change things." That is how the Jihadist icon Abbud al-Zumur, a former leader of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al-Jihad Organization, recently explained the most famous assassination in modern Egyptian history. Zumur is currently an elected member of the Consultative Council of the Egyptian Islamic Group (IG). Until last March, he was also the most famous political prisoner in Egypt.

Zumur was one of the eight IG leaders who signed a unilateral ceasefire declaration in July 1997. The Initiative for Ceasing Violence ultimately transformed into a comprehensive process of abandoning and de-legitimating armed activism against political enemies. Zumur was the only one of the eight signatories who was not released from prison. While he agreed to abandon political violence, he did not agree to stop vocally opposing Mubarak. His commitment to political opposition, combined with a principled rejection of violence, represents the current face of Egypt’s Islamic Group as it faces a rapidly transforming Egypt.

Egypt’s Islamic Group was the largest armed Islamist organization in the country and second largest in the region, after the now defunct Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The estimated number of the IG members is somewhere between 15,000 to 25,000 men. During its Jihadist phase, the IG operated in more than a dozen countries. In armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya; in training camps in Pakistan and Sudan; in assassination attempts in Ethiopia; in bombings in Croatia and the United States, and in a five-year insurgency in Egypt, the name of the IG usually came to the fore.

In its post-Jihadist phase, the IG abandoned violence, strongly criticized al Qaeda’s behavior and strategies, and accepted participating in elections. Now, it lies on the right of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) when it comes to social conservatism and constitutional liberalism. For example, the IG still categorically denies the right of Copts and women to run for presidency (the MB does not deny that right, but says it will not support any female or Coptic candidates). When it comes to the Salafis, there are more similarities. The IG is Salafist in religious doctrine, though its relationship with mainstream political and apolitical Salafis was quite tense in the past.

The IG entered the post-Mubarak period with some serious credibility problems. The head of the IG’s Consultative Council, Karam Zuhdi, and his deputy, Nagih Ibrahim, did not only call on Islamists to abandon politics, but also declared that any opposition to Mubarak and his son was futile. "Those guys became a mouthpiece for the interior ministry," says a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. He was not too far off. The position of some of the IG leaders between 2003 and 2011 was quite close to that of the regime, especially when it came to criticizing other Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah. Traumatized by the experiences in Mubarak’s jails and estimating that he will survive, both Zuhdi and Ibrahim supported the dictator until his last days in power.

This was not the case with the IG mid-ranks and grassroots. Most of the ones I spoke to described the position of the leadership during the revolution as a disgrace. "They told us it is illegitimate to join the revolution…we disobeyed them…now they want to jump [capitalize] on the blood of the martyrs" said a former member of the dismantled armed wing. "The relationship between the leadership and the members was always characterized by strong emotional ties and solid loyalty. But their stance with Mubarak killed it," said another.

Post-Mubarak, the IG held elections for its highest executive body, the Consultative Council, on May 23, and both Ibrahim and Zuhdi were voted out by members. Others, including Zumur, came to the fore. The Consultative Council of today is quite different from the one that decided to assassinate President Sadat. Four of the nine members hold PhDs, including Dr. Safwat Abd al-Ghani, the former head of the armed wing. He was also the author of "Another God with Allah? Declaring War on the Parliament," the IG’s anti-democratic manifesto, which was also quite popular among other Jihadists. Abd al Ghani’s dissertation, however, was on political plurality and democratic transition.

The IG, in its new form, decided to participate in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. The question is why? The likelihood of losing is quite high, especially to Islamist rivals like the Brotherhood and the Salafis. The reactions to the IG leaders speaking on TV were largely negative, with thousands of tweets mocking them. Moreover, the mid-ranks are complaining that the grassroots are not so eager to fill in the party membership and registration forms. "I am responsible for Aswan City, but I know others who are asked by the leadership to fill a number of forms that are 10 times the number of members…we should be led by the realities on the ground, not by the wishful thinking of the leaders," says Ismail Ahmad.

Indeed, a coalition or a merger with a larger, more experienced group like the Brotherhood makes more sense. But the quest for legitimacy and legal protection is one of the main determinants of the current behavior of the IG. In Egypt, there is a saying: "A white dime will serve you in a black day." Aside from the political incorrectness, the reality of the IG is similarly saying "a good party today will serve you in the bad moment tomorrow." In addition, like other Islamists, the IG’s history is that of "punching above its weight." It can pull an upset, sometimes.

Egypt’s Jihadists today are relatively insignificant and too individualized. (Some also argue that they are good in hiding.) This is not their time. Unarmed civil resistance delivered a heavy blow to Jihadism and significantly undermined its rationale (that armed activism is the most effective and most legitimate tool for change). "The Islamic Group sacrificed a lot in the 1990s," says Ibrahim. "Two thousand its sons were killed, 100 were executed by military trials, and some of our 20,000 prisoners were detained for 20 years without a court order, despite having more than 45 court judgements ordering their release. This is a high price, without achievements. [The] January 25th revolution accomplished great things in 18 days and it was all done peacefully."

Thus far, the IG has adhered to its commitment to abstain from violence, even as a good opportunity to engage in violent activism has presented itself. The proliferation of small and mid-size arms is currently a security problem in Egypt, due to the Libyan conflict and other factors. Any group that strategizes for a future armed campaign should be using this rare opportunity. But rather than stockpiling weapons, rebuilding its armed wing, recruiting and training angry teenagers and manipulating the weak security arrangements, the IG is holding internal elections, asking its members to fill party registration forms, holding anti-sectarian violence rallies, and issuing joint statements for peaceful coexistence with the Coptic Church of Assyut. "We were finally capable of taking revenge from the state security officers who tortured us. Instead we chanted silmiya (peaceful)," said Muhammad Abbas, a former member of the IG’s armed wing, a graduate of the famous Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, and a veteran of multiple battles against the Soviets. 

But if most of the problems between the IG and the Egyptian government were resolved, this is not necessarily the case with America. The United States still holds Dr. Omar Abd al-Rhaman, the first leader of the IG and its inspirational ‘godfather,’ who was convicted of ‘seditious conspiracy’ in October 1995. The IG held several rallies in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo demanding his release. It also organized several widely attended conferences to support him. The IG is also on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations (which generally needs an update). "They are still on the black list, despite abandoning violence 14 years ago. What message does that send?" says Dr. Osama Rushdi, a democracy activist who was the IG’s spokesperson in the mid-1990s who left the organization in 1998. He told me this while showing me a handwritten letter by Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri, the famous Jihadist strategist, in which al Suri was complaining that Rushdi was undermining Jihadi activities in Europe.

In any case, U.S. policymakers may want to keep in mind that the group will play a role in the future politics of Egypt, either by forming a coalition with other Islamists or by rebuilding its support base in Upper Egypt. From what I saw, the latter process is on-going with determination. What is certain, though, is that the IG’s subscription to Jihadism is currently expired. Whether others will follow its model or not in the post-Mubarak era is yet to be determined. Egypt was the birthplace of modern Jihadism. But after Mubarak, it may also be its graveyard. 

Dr. Omar Ashour is a lecturer in politics and the director of the Middle East Graduate Studies program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (UK). He is the author of "The De-Radicalization of the Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements."