Notorious Egyptian terror group tries to carve a nonviolent path in politics

Al Gamaa al-Islamiya, which waged a deadly campaign of terror against the government for decades, says it has renounced violence and wants a spot in Egypt's fledgling democracy.

By , Contributor

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    Egyptian men pray, at the el-Gamaayah el-Sharaayah mosque also used as Al Gamaa al-Islamiya's headquarters, in Assiut, southern Egypt, in March. The Gamaa al-Islamiya, a homegrown Islamist militant group reviled at home and abroad for the 1997 murder of dozens of foreign tourists near Luxor, says it has renounced violence and wants a spot in Egypt's fledgling democracy.
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During his 30 years in prison, Tareq al Zumar missed out on modern inventions such as the Internet, smartphones, and laptops. So it is all the more incongruous to see him tapping deftly on his iPad as he fields questions about his Islamist political party.

In the corner of his office he keeps garments that, along with his beard, mark him as a religious man. With outsiders, though, he dresses in a suit, and strives to present himself as an ordinary politician.

He is hardly an ordinary politician, though. Jailed for his alleged involvement in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, he now represents the moderate face of Al Gamaa al-Islamiya, a homegrown Islamist militant group reviled at home and abroad for the 1997 murder of dozens of foreign tourists near Luxor. The US and European Union have classified it as a terrorist group. 

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As a founder of the Building and Development party, founded in 2011 as the political arm of Al Gamaa, Zumar must now carve out a role for himself in Egypt’s political maelstrom. His personal reinvention from militant to politician is a microcosm of the arc of Al Gamaa's own effort to transition from terror group to political force.

The group renounced violence in 2003, but it was the 2011 revolution that demonstrated the futility of armed insurgency, Zumar says: “The revolution of Jan. 25 set out new rules. It showed us that peaceful ways work better than violence ever did.”  

Penance and rehabilitation

Al Gamaa, Egypt's largest armed group, began as a reaction to government policies that marginalized poor and heavily rural Upper Egypt, its seat of support. Its leadership viewed violence as the only defense against the persecution and torture of Islamists, first under President Sadat and later under President Hosni Mubarak.

Before joining Al Gamaa while in prison, Zumar was a part of Islamic Jihad. Islamic Jihad was behind Sadat’s murder, but Al Gamaa is widely believed to have played an assisting role. But he concedes it would have been better if Sadat's death had been avoided.

“Sadat brought himself down,” says Zumar. “Back then, the circumstances were different. But if we were to go back in time, it would have been preferable to see him overthrown rather than killed.”

By the 1990s, the group was engaged in a low-level insurgency with Mubarak’s regime. It began targeting tourists as a way to harm the economy and bring the government down. 

While Sadat’s death met with a mixed response in Egypt (his repressive policies and decision to make peace with Israel had alienated many), there was widespread revulsion to the killings at Hatshepsut temple near Luxor, when gunmen mowed down 58 tourists and four Egyptians in a 45-minute frenzy of killing, watched in horror by local guides leading their donkeys along the cliffs above. It triggered an even harsher crackdown on the militant group, which ultimately paid a high price for its actions: more than 2,000 dead in attacks and clashes with authorities, some 100 executed, and thousands more jailed for decades. 

Their rehabilitation into society has been a long and arduous journey, epitomized by the so-called "prison debates." In the 1990s, with thousands of members in Egyptian jails, Al Gamaa’s leadership launched a review of its policies. Conversations among themselves and with scholars from Al Azhar, Egypt’s most venerated seat of Islamic learning, led them to a total renunciation of violence in 2003, as well as condemnation of Al Qaeda. Thousands of members were released from jail.   

“They realized that violence in a fierce and repressive state is not the recipe for change,” says Emad Shaheen, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. “There is a strategic imbalance, and they will always lose in the end.”

Starting from scratch

A few years ago, Al Gamaa’s emergence as a political force would have seemed unthinkable. Many of its members were still in jail and those freed had agreed to give up political activity.

That changed with the revolution and the subsequent opening up of the political sphere. The Islamist parties quickly coalesced into alliances with either the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafist parties that together won nearly 70 percent of seats in the national assembly.

Al Gamaa's Building and Development Party (BDP) is just one of several Salafist parties struggling to carve out a political identity. Whether it will emerge as an independent political force in its own right or play a supporting role to the Islamists, such as the Brotherhood, in power remains open to question. 

Hazem Kandil, a fellow at Cambridge University in Britain, was invited to brainstorm with BDP shortly before its creation in 2011. “I thought they would want to ask about specifics, but when I went to meet them, they were still asking about the basics,” he recalls. “They wanted to know what a political party is, how is it different from a lobby group, why anyone would want a political party.” 

Many secular Egyptians see little distinction between the Islamist groups. Al Gamaa is one of several that espouse an ultraconservative strain of Islam, known as Salafism. The rise of such groups has become a major cause for concern among liberal and secular Egyptians who fear infringement of their liberties and the creeping Islamization of the state.

But for the many Egyptians who sit somewhere between the two poles on the religious-secular spectrum, the Salafists still hold some appeal because, unlike the Brotherhood, widely criticized for overreaching its authority and failing to resurrect the economy and ensure security, they have not yet experienced failure. 

Al Gamaa and others are, says Mr. Kandil, enjoying a “probation period” with Egyptians, who are suspending judgment while the Salafist groups find their feet. 

“Public opinion looks at all these different groups and says the following: Whatever they said before was either high-flying rhetoric or has become irrelevant,” says Kandil. “They themselves still wonder if they want to achieve the same things or not.”

Purity vs. pragmatism 

Some support Al Gamaa precisely because its members are seen as true to their beliefs, especially their vision of an Islamic state.

Other parties, particularly the Brotherhood and al Nour, the most prominent Salafist party, have embraced a more pragmatic approach, muting some of the more divisive aspects of religious rule, such as the issue of women’s rights, to woo moderate voters and remain the acceptable face of Islam in the West.

“The Brotherhood mixes religion with politics, but Al Gamaa knows what religion is and what politics is. … Politics can change, but religion is constant,” says Hamid Abdel el Latif, a clothes vendor in Cairo. “Values of religion, namely equality and justice, would be applied [under Al Gamaa].” 

The group’s reach remains small, however. In the parliamentary elections, which it contested under the umbrella of Al Nourit won 13 seats out of 498, a relatively modest achievement, but nevertheless an advance on some of the secular and left-leaning parties.  

While Zumar remains hopeful that the party can expand on that in elections expected later this year, analysts say it will be difficult for the party to broaden its appeal outside of its current support base. A drop in Brotherhood votes is more likely to benefit more mainstream Salafist parties than the former militant group. 

Professor Shaheen, of American University of Cairo, suggests Al Gamaa will remain hampered by its violent past. Despite the Brotherhood’s success in the last elections, Shaheen says that many Egyptians remain suspicious of the group because of its terrorist past, despite its not having committed a major act of violence in more than 60 years. 

Of Al Gamaa, he says, “This legacy [of violence] outside of their immediate supporters will always linger.”

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