Al Qaeda slips further from political goals

Egypt's security state has pushed Islamic radicals who once reigned in neighborhoods like Imbaba to the fringes.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Abdullah Mullah shuddered as he thought back to the early 1990s. In his sprawling neighborhood, the center of Egypt's radical Islamist movement, his wife was beaten on the street for wearing jeans and he was visited by thugs "concerned" about his irregular mosque attendance.

Imbaba was a place the police feared and the militants ruled.

Neighborhoods like this, teaming with devout Muslims, may have been considered fertile ground for Al Qaeda's goal of building a global movement. But six years after 9/11, Osama bin Laden's group appears to have attracted few loyal followers here. In fact, the militants who once reigned in Imbaba are all but invisible.

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What has happened in Egypt represents an overlooked success story in much of the Arab world. While Muslim anger toward the US and its Arab allies has soared in the post-9/11 war on terrorism, and the Iraq war has been a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda, there is little chance militant Islamists can seize power power in any of the region's established states.

But this has come at a price. The Egyptian story is one of how an effective, often brutal, security establishment has pushed militant Islamists to the fringes.

Today, Egypt has as firm a grip on Imbaba as it does on the rest of the country. Political Islam, however, still has great appeal for millions of Egyptians, but most of them are attracted to the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that repudiated violence decades ago.

Indeed, there are exceptions to the clout that militant Islamists hold within large segments of Arab society.

Hamas, the Palestinian group which now controls the Gaza Strip, is considered a terrorist outfit by the US, Israel, and the European Union. But its political platform is far from Al Qaeda's. It uses violence to extract land from Israel, not in the service of establishing an Islamic caliphate, a key Al Qaeda aim.

In Egypt, the hard line from the state in dealing with radical groups also comes with a growing Arab revulsion of Al Qaeda's indiscriminate violence and thuggish behavior.

"These groups have of course been around for a long time. But what people discovered with them is that they're incredibly rough and rigidly ideological," says Diaa Rashwan, an expert on political Islam at the Al Ahram Center for Strategic and International Studies in Cairo. "Their methods weren't about winning people over, being with them, but imposing upon them. No people in the world like that."

A turning point for Imbaba

In 1992 the situation looked more ominous. More than 10 years earlier, Egypt's Islamic Jihad had assassinated President Anwar Sadat, using members of the Egyptian Army it had managed to recruit. A key leader of the organization was the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, who went on to become Al Qaeda's No. 2.

In the 1980s, that group and the Gamaa Islamiyah (GI), whose spiritual leader is the blind sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, currently serving a life sentence in the US for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center attack, continued to target officials for assassination, and in the 1990s moved into large-scale terrorist attacks.

In 1992, Sheikh Jabir Mohammed Ali, a firebrand leader of the GI started telling reporters that his men had "liberated" Imbaba from the Egyptian state. He vowed the rest of Egypt was next. The government of President Hosni Mubarak had had enough; that December, thousands of troops rushed to seal off the neighborhood and for a month, they moved door to door, arresting hundreds.

At the time it appeared to some observers that Egypt was at the precipice of an Islamic revolution. But in fact, the violent tactics of Sheikh Jabir's men had turned off many devout Egyptians and that December was the beginning of a crushing defeat for the militant revolutionaries.

"Many very religious people grew fed up with being pushed around and threatened all the time," he says. "A lot of people might want women to wear head scarves, or to have a more Islamic country. But the group's men were on the streets with chains and knives. They were burning video stores and barbershops."

The GI's wave of violence culminated in a 1997 attack in Luxor, in which 58 foreigners and four Egyptians were murdered by a gang of militants. Those killings led to a backlash among average Egyptians and threw the tourist-based economy of Upper Egypt into a tailspin.

The role of government repression also can't be discounted in controlling these movements. In the 1990s, the government made thousands of arrests, sometimes rounding up men because of the mosque they prayed at or because they wore long beards. Also, there have been credible reports of torture of militants in Egyptian prisons.

"The principle thing that hurt these groups was government repression," says Yehia Fikri, a columnist for Cairo's Al Dustur newspaper. "Without that, they'd certainly still have some strength. But the other side of the coin is that a moderate group like the Muslim Brotherhood was able to absorb their supporters."

The government's tough methods

Similar government tactics have been used in response to a series of terrorist attacks inside Egypt in the past three years. But from the government's perspective, that approach, which has at times been condemned by international groups such as Human Rights Watch, has been effective.

Last year, the government released about 1,000 GI members from jails after the group's leaders forswore violence, some going so far as to label Mr. Sadat, a man whose murder they'd supported, a "martyr."

This year, the government has released more than 100 members of Islamic Jihad from jail after the group's founder, Imam Abdul Aziz al-Sharif, released excerpts of a forthcoming book renouncing violence in the name of religion. That was a sharp turnaround from Mr. Sharif's last book, "Foundations of Preparation for Jihad," which he wrote after fighting with Mr. Zawahiri and bin Laden in Afghanistan, and which has been described by some as the "Jihaddis' Bible."

None of this is to say that Islam does not remain a potent political force in the region, especially since most of the Arab world's powerful opposition parties are generally Islamist in nature.

But these groups, typified by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, have sought to work from within existing systems, moving slowly to build support and sending out a message of gradual change.

"The whole notion of what it means to be radical leaves most people in the world feeling uncomfortable," says Mr. Rashwan. "The Brotherhood has worked long term and focused on people's daily problems and needs, they don't have the big, dangerous dreams of revolutionaries so that's where the support ends up."

To be sure, Mr. Mullah says, Imbaba today is a far more polarized place than in his youth. "Everyone got along until the '70s. Before that, my father's best friend in the area was a Jew. Thirty years ago, the secular leftists were the major opposition in the area. But people's economic desperation, their lack of opportunities, have left them with nothing but Islam to cling to."

Mr. Fikri agrees that a violent Islamist takeover in Egypt is next to impossible, but he worries that further waves of Islamist violence are possible, especially with the state's tactic of jailing and harassing members of the Brotherhood.

"New violent groups could resurface if the current wave of repression does not stop and democratic mobilization doesn't make any concrete gains," he says. "The problem is if the door is closed to reform completely, which seems to be the direction, the Brotherhood could lose control of some of its members."

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