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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.