Egypt's moderate militants talk

Islamist groups say US support of authoritarian regimes only feeds radical tendencies in populace.

Gamal Sultan's past is no secret. He used to be involved in Jihad, the same outlawed Islamic militant group whose leading members included Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician who went on to be one of Osama bin Laden's closest colleagues in al-Qaeda.

But Mr. Sultan recognized that the use of violence by Jihad - which considers violence a legitimate means of ridding the country of a regime corrupted by Western values - was leading nowhere. And along with other members of Jihad, Sultan left the group to form a political party that could run in national elections.

The result, in 1997, was Islah (Reform Party), one of two Islamic political parties that asked for the right to run on last November's ballot. The government responded with a resounding blow-off.

"We received detailed notice that the reason for refusal was that the party had no new principles to offer the political arena," says Sultan, sitting on the couch in his home office near Ain Shams University, where students have been holding rallies against the US-led airstrikes in Afghanistan.

"The idea was to bring together the government and the Islamic groups, because of the constant repression on the part of the government," says Sultan, "and because of this increasing political oppression, people are becoming more extreme."

Islah's prohibition from participation in Egyptian elections hardly grabbed international headlines. Today, however, the events of Sept. 11 are bringing more attention to the role regimes such as Egypt's play in keeping a lid on Islamic fundamentalists - a lid sometimes closed so tight that militants seek ever more radical outlets.

Those who have a hard time summoning sympathy for Sultan's lack of political freedoms should consider that these Islamist groups are not just frustrated with their own government, which some say is easing back on repressive tactics. They are equally irritated with US support for the Egyptian government, which paves the way - in their eyes - for continued authoritarianism.

"This is why there is animosity between Islamists and the US, because Islamists see America as the power standing behind the oppressive regimes," says Sultan, editor of an Islamic political journal called "The New Minaret."

According to one school of thought, last month's attacks on New York and Washington only give firmer ground for President Mubarak to justify his domestic policies. He sympathizes with America, he has said, because he too is fighting terrorism operating under the banner of Islam. But many Middle East observers point out that the most pro-Western regimes have kept democratization to a crawl, fueling extremism by forcing Islamists to go underground. Several of the Sept. 11 plane hijackers came from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

"That's one of the things that drives people to extremism - that they don't have a voice," says Sharif Elmusa, director of Middle East Studies at the American University of Cairo. "Then you create an extreme fringe, similar to what we've seen in Algeria," where the government has refused to recognize Islamic gains in elections.

Sultan spent seven months in prison after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat 20 years ago as part of a series of "very public arrests," as he calls it; the brevity of his jail time suggests he had little role in Sadat's murder. But it was during that period in jail - as well as another stint in 1985 for attempting to overthrow the government - that he says he witnessed the toll torture took on other prisoners. "The real creation of terrorism," he says, "is in the jails."

As Sultan sees it, the Egyptian government has grown more oppressive in recent years. Had he been arrested under similar circumstances today, he argues, the cases would have been handed over to a military court and ended in executions.

Others, however, say that the government has made strides toward improving its relationship with the Islamists since 1997, when militants opened fire on tourists in Luxor, killing 58 people in Egypt's worst terrorist attack.

"There are no more random arrests, torture in prisons is not as bad as it used to be, and security officials have started to release people jailed for their political views - about 6,000 of them," says Montasser el Zayat, a lawyer who represents clients with connections to Islamic groups. He, too, used to be involved in Jihad, and his imprisonment after the Sadat assassination led him to pursue a career defending like-minded prisoners, often held without charges or trial. During late-night office hours, relatives of prisoners - many of them women sheathed in black - wait for hours for one of the few advocates in Egypt who will plead their cases.

"The doors are still closed in their faces. The government has refused the creation of any party based on religious grounds," says Mr. Zayat.

Officials, however, did let several candidates with known ties to the Muslim Brotherhood run as independents in the 2000 elections.

But the government has continued tightening its restraints on Islamic "outreach" and social services which, similar to others such as the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanon's Hizbullah, wins points with the underclass by providing health care, education, and the like.

"We used to be able to raise funds ... and distribute it to poor people and we used to be able to provide social services to families, and now we're not allowed to do that," says Zayat. "Some of the institutes we used to run have been taken over by the government."

Knowing the direction in which the vicious circle of extremism and authoritarianism is flowing, however, doesn't make it any easier to stop.

"The Sept. 11 events will validate the arguments of many Arab regimes in the region because they will say, 'This is what we've been telling you about, and you're pressuring us on human rights and democratization,' " says Prof. Emad Shahin, a specialist in Islamic politics at the American University here.

Sultan's appeal, as well as that of the Sharia (Islamic Law) Party, is waiting for an answer from a state court. If they lose in court, he won't try again, he says. He fears how younger Muslims will react, however. "A new generation will come up," he says, "which is much more bloody than the past generation."

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