Former Egyptian militants turn to politics
The strictest of Egypt's Islamists, some with roots in terrorist groups in the 1980s and '90s, are emerging from the shadows of the Mubarak era to fight for power at the ballot box.
In the Nile River city of Luxor, assailants bearing knives and firearms massacred 62 foreign tourists and Egyptians in the majestic Temple of Hatshepsut in 1997. Some of the attackers belonged to the Gamaa Islamiyah, a militant group that announced last month it's forming a political party.Skip to next paragraph
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The group, led at one time by Omar Abdel Rahman, the "blind sheikh" serving life in a US federal prison for his role in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, is just one of a slew of Islamist organizations mobilizing for a share of the spoils in post-Mubarak Egypt. Though the group renounced violence in a deal brokered with Hosni Mubarak soon after the Luxor massacre, its members still adhere to the hard-line salafi interpretation of Islam.
“It’s fascinating because you essentially have a former terrorist group deciding to throw its [hat] into the political arena,” says Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in Doha, who studies democratization in the region. “That’s always a big deal, and it suggests that everyone wants a piece of the pie.”
The salafis were forced underground by the Mubarak police state. Since his fall, they've had almost unprecedented freedom. But finding their voice has been accompanied by sectarian violence between Coptic Christians and groups that claim allegiance to the salafist movement. For many Egyptians, that scattered fighting is raising concerns about Egypt's Islamists going forward.
The United States fears that the chaos of a country in transition could lead to an increase in Islamist militancy in Egypt, and that some of the emerging salafi groups might turn to violence.
Earlier this month, US Coordinator for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin was among representatives from 30 countries and organizations who attended the Global Counterterrorism Forum in Cairo. Mr. Benjamin also met with senior Egyptian officials in defense and security.
“Many countries are trying to build relations with the new Egyptian government right now – the new people running things – and say, we have similar interests and concerns in trying to keep the bad guys out," says a Western diplomat in Cairo, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A push for sharia
Gamaa Islamiya (GI) has not yet announced its party platform. But like half a dozen other salafist parties, it is urging governance by Islamic law, known as sharia.
“I don’t think anyone should be under the impression that [GI] has become moderate,” Dr. Hamid says. “No – this is going to be a very conservative anti-western, anti-secular, Islamist party. This will not be like the Muslim Brotherhood in that respect.” The GI insists that women's faces must be covered in public, and is generally less flexible than the Muslim Brotherhood on how Islam should be interpreted in the modern world.
The GI emerged from student groups in the 1970s after the Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence. For the next two decades, they carried out terrorist attacks and partnered with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1981. Islamic Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahiri went on to be Osama bin Laden's No. 2 in Al Qaeda, and has now succeeded bin Laden as the group's official leader.