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.

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.

But over time, militant Islamist groups in Egypt lost support because of their violence. The Islamic Jihad eventually renounced violence as well (Zawahiri and many of his confederates, however, fled the region for Pakistan and Afghanistan). Today, the GI in Egypt claims to have about 50,000 members, according to Stephane Lacroix, an assistant professor at Sciences Po in Paris who studies militant Islam.

'Tea Party effect' could lessen Egyptian support for Israel

Analysts say Islamist groups have little chance of winning a large number of seats in upcoming elections, but that their mobilization will still have an impact.

The Brotherhood will no longer have a monopoly on the religious vote and will be forced to compete with more conservative groups that might ultimately drag religious parties in a more overtly pro-sharia direction, analysts say.

“It’s like a Tea Party effect in the US,” Hamid says. “You might end up seeing something similar in Egypt, where right-wing parties pull the Muslim Brotherhood and other mainstream parties to compete more on their turf.”

Lacroix, however, argues that the opposite is also possible. Liberal groups could pull mainstream parties to the left.

Some Western governments are concerned that if politics shift toward the hard-liners, Egyptian government support for Israel cemented by years of financial aid could be threatened. Other concerns include women’s rights and treatment of religious minorities.

Danger of disillusionment

On the positive side of the ledger, Islamist groups' incorporation into a political system could also help decrease the risk of terrorism, some analysts say.

Paul R. Pillar of Georgetown University’s Security Studies program, a former US national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, argues that when groups like GI are allowed to take part in political processes, they are less likely to use violence to achieve their aims.

“They will now enter the political field and try to train and adapt themselves to political standards and with time they have to be more modern,” says Diaa Rashwan of Egypt’s Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

But Egypt’s liberals are not enthused. “We didn’t start the revolution for the Islamists to steal it from us,” says Amal Sharaf of the April 6 Youth Movement, who views religious parties as a threat to democracy.

But the salafis could well become more influential than their secular rivals, who have little funding and have shown minimal organizational skills.

“I don’t know if it’s a case of crying fire in a crowded theater on the part of these Egyptians… but the reality is that these liberals are not organizing themselves as a solid group, a party that would be able to combat the rise of Islamist, salafist groups," the Western diplomat says. “You have to look at people and say, ‘Okay, stop your hand-wringing and do something.’”

The main concern for Dr. Pillar is that some Egyptians might move toward salafist groups if new political processes fail, either because the ruling military council doesn't help facilitate a smooth transition toward democracy, or because Egyptians don't see rapid improvement in their economic conditions over the next several years.

“That may cause more people to turn to extremist ideologies and to accept extremist messages that peaceful democracy doesn’t work – that the extremists are right,” he says.

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