Vol. 4, No. 18 16 February 2005
How Egypt Molded Modern Radical Islam
Former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt and Sweden
The basic ideology of political Islam - which was adopted later by all radical groups - finds its origin within Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
During the 1940s the Muslim Brotherhood turned into a powerful extra-political force, leading a campaign of violence and assassinations that eventually brought about the Free Officers revolution in 1952, thus ending the sole liberal experience in Egypt's history. Later it also turned against Nasser and tried to kill him in 1954 but failed. Nasser declared the organization illegal and arrested 60,000 people, condemning its leaders to death.
President Sadat released the members of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1971 and let them widen their influence over Egyptian society. He believed at the time that he needed them to fight his opponents, the remnants of the Nasser era that he wanted to obliterate.
An Egyptian jihad group that had declared war against what it called a non-Muslim government of Egypt assassinated Sadat in October 1981, but failed to carry out the coup d'etat it had planned to follow the killing. President Mubarak proclaimed a state of emergency which remains in effect twenty-four years later, meaning that the danger is still there today.
In the mid-1990s al-Gamaa al-Islamiya waged what may have been the first large-scale organized war between a government and a Muslim terrorist group that wanted to destroy it and its economy from the inside by killing officials and tourists in order to create a new Muslim society. In 1995 they tried to kill Mubarak in Addis Ababa.
It was believed that Egypt had overcome the onslaught of the radical Islamic groups after the massacre of foreign tourists at Luxor in 1997. However, the bombings at Sinai resorts in October 2004 reveal that the disciples of radical Islam are still active.
The Mission of Radical Islam
Islam as viewed by the radicals is not just a religion or religious narrative like Judaism or Christianity. It is a divine program conceived to be implemented on earth. The Muslims were entrusted with the task of carrying out this great mission. The beginning of its successful implementation was at the time of the Prophet and the establishment of the Muslim core state in Yathrib, the original name of Medina before the hijra, the migration of Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina.
What distinguishes this divine Islamic program is the holiness of its source, described as being the perfect and complete authority in all places, at all times, for all peoples. The most important commandment for a Muslim is to labor ceaselessly to implement this program and ensure its success. Sayyid Qutb summarized it in his call to Muslims to interfere in other countries' affairs in order to impose Islam on them - either through demonstration of its superiority, by convincing, or through the sword and the spear. The ultimate purpose of the Islamic program is to eliminate all the gods so that the world only worships Allah, and to crush the regimes of these countries so that they pay tribute to the Muslims and become subservient and humiliated. This is radical Islam in the eyes of the Islamists, as described by Egyptian liberal thinker Sayyid al-Kimni.1
The Origins of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood
The bombings at Sinai resorts in October 2004, which killed 34 people and destroyed a wing of the Taba Hilton Hotel, have turned the spotlight again on the activities of Islamists in Egypt. There had been a tacit belief among observers that Egypt had overcome the onslaught of the radical Islamic groups after the Luxor massacre of 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians on November 17, 1997. However, a closer look reveals that the disciples of radical Islam are still active and that the Islamist current in Egypt is still simmering, even under harsh pressure by the authorities. It may erupt again, either ignited from abroad by an international Islamist organization such as al-Qaeda, or from inside Egypt. Since many Egyptians are losing any hope for significant reform in the political and economic system, they are turning more to the Muslim Brotherhood, which offers the hope of redemption through Islam.
When we speak of radical Islam, we are referring to a number of organizations that have engraved on their banner their intent to implement the rule of Islam within their country, and also to impose Islam on the world at large. At first this involved the Muslim Brotherhood, and later the jihadists separated off from the Brotherhood.
The basic ideology of political Islam - which was later adopted by all radical groups - finds its origin within Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by Sheikh Hassan al-Banna in the city of Ismailia, on the banks of Suez Canal. It began as a kind of youth club where the Sheikh used to preach about the need to introduce moral and social reform into Egypt and the Arab world. Basically, it was a reaction to British occupation and the penetration of Western values into Arab society. The larger background was the collapse of the Ottoman Empire - the last Muslim empire - a few years before, and the abolition of the caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1922, who sought to build a secular state on the ruins of the empire.
In the beginning, al-Banna's brand of Islam seemed peaceful. However, this did not last long since at the core of his belief stood the universality of Islam and its inclusiveness: religion and state are one. This required restoration of the caliphate - the creation of an Islamic state comprised of all Muslim countries, ruled by an Islamic government, based on shari'a, the religious law of the Koran.
Another disturbing characteristic of the Muslim Brotherhood is its xenophobic nature, which translates into anti-Semitism and anti-Christian preaching and activity.
In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood soon became involved in politics and turned to violence. During the 1940s it established a special apparatus - al-Tanzim al-Has - that initiated a campaign of terror against the government and assassinated a number of political personalities, among them two prime ministers. It soon became the most powerful extra-political force in Egypt, threatening the regime and wrecking havoc in the country.
This campaign of terror is considered one of the important factors that led to the Free Officers revolution in 1952, thus putting an end to the only liberal experience in Egypt's history, initiated by the Wafd party. Later the Muslim Brotherhood became disappointed in Nasser's socialist and secular policy; it turned against him and tried to kill him in 1954 but failed. Nasser's reaction was brutal, declaring the organization illegal, arresting 60,000 people and putting them into camps. Its leaders were tried and condemned to death, thus ending the first chapter of radical Islam in Egypt.
Sadat Frees the Muslim Brotherhood
The rise of Sadat to the presidency in 1970 led to the arrival of a new brand of radical Islam. The jihadist groups born in Nasser's prison camps in the 1960s were inspired by Qutb's ideology, openly professing violence in order to impose an authentic brand of Islam not only on Egypt but also all over the world.
President Sadat released the members of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1971 and let them widen their influence over Egyptian society, but he remained quite suspicious of them. He did not allow them to regain their legal status but left them in limbo - active and infiltrating civilian and religious organizations but without the possibility of reviving their old framework as a political party or legal NGO. Sadat believed at the time that he needed them to fight his opponents on the left, the remnants of the Nasser era that he wanted to obliterate. Apparently, he was not aware that some of the Brothers had been converted to more extremist views, urging limitless violence to promote their goals.
Sadat twice changed the constitution of Egypt to appease them. In 1970, even before he freed them from the camps, Sadat added a clause declaring Islam as the state religion. After the secularism of Nasser this was very significant. It further stipulated that the shari'a is a source of legislation. The radicals and the Muslim Brotherhood were not satisfied and in 1980 Sadat changed the same clause to emphasize that shari'a is the main source of legislation. But this did not convince them and they killed him one year later.
Immediately after the release of the imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood members in 1971, a number of extremist groups were formed: Al-Takfir wa al-Hijra, Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami, and al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. Al-Takfir wa al-Hijra declared all Egyptian society to be infidel. In the beginning they did not preach violence but were very radical in their thinking. Later, they became involved in the abduction and killing of a former minister of religious endowments, for which their leader, Shukri Mustafa, was arrested, tried, and hanged. All of the groups retained the concept of takfir, declaring infidel, but not necessarily referring to all of society.
The violence continued and culminated with a jihad group that declared war against what it called a non-Muslim government of Egypt. Their activity peaked with the assassination of President Sadat in October 1981, but they failed to carry out the coup d'etat they had planned to follow the killing. President Mubarak proclaimed a state of emergency and began a relentless war against them, a war that is not over yet.
With the assassination of Sadat, another phase of radical Islam came to an end. However, the march of development in Egypt and its opening to the West were also obstructed. Mubarak continued the peace with Israel and deepened Egypt's relations with the West, but he remained very cautious, trying to find the balance between the pressure of Islam and its radical dissidents, and Western values and technology.
The drive for world jihad was next given impetus by the Iranian revolution and the Afghanistan war, moving its center out of Egypt. From 1980 jihad organizations began appearing among the Palestinians in the territories. In Lebanon it is the Hizballah.
Then came al-Qaeda led by bin Laden. For the first time, an international jihadist organization was making a major effort to operate in many different countries, Muslim and non-Muslim. Still, the ideology of al-Qaeda is from the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the leaders of the Egyptian jihad group. He and a number of his colleagues fled from the authorities after the assassination of President Sadat and went to Afghanistan.
The War of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya
In the mid-1990s al-Gamaa al-Islamiya waged a war against the Egyptian government and the economy of the country, especially targeting tourism, Egypt's main source of foreign currency. This may have been the first large-scale organized war between a government and a Muslim terrorist group that wanted to destroy it and its economy from the inside by killing officials and tourists in order to create a new Muslim society. They created an atmosphere of fear and insecurity, and in 1995 they tried to kill Mubarak in Addis Ababa. More than one thousand people died during this brutal war. Many were Coptic Christians who had become a prime target for al-Gamaa. In the end, the terrorists were eventually crushed.
Later, probably under the influence of the terrible massacre in Luxor, al-Gamaa al-Islamiya's imprisoned leaders proclaimed a ceasefire. After a period of reflection and debate among religious personalities, they even professed to repent, and most of them were released. However, the jihad group members that assassinated Sadat have not been freed because the authorities consider them much more extreme in their positions, and fear their connection to al-Qaeda and its operation in many countries.
The Muslim Brotherhood Today
The Muslim Brotherhood still does not exist legally in Egypt, but its members have become very active on educational and social issues. They have also founded charity, youth, and student organizations throughout the country. In many respects they are doing the government's job in these fields and have gathered many supporters. Should there ever be free elections in Egypt, their political force is estimated at about one-third, a force to be reckoned with. They make enormous efforts to penetrate key political organizations such as the professional associations. They have taken over the engineers' and doctors' groups and are powerful in the journalists' and lawyers' associations.
They have even found a way to put their representatives into parliament, either through agreements with opposition parties like the Wafd in 1984, or as independent candidates. They try to give the impression that they are distancing themselves from violence and are now adepts of democracy, but they continue to believe in the sovereignty of God and the implementation of the shari'a. They overtly proclaim their support for terrorist operations in Israel and Iraq. The Egyptian government distrusts them, based upon the past, and Egyptian law forbids the establishment of political parties based on religious platforms. From time to time the press reports on the arrest of a group of Muslim Brotherhood members for subversive intentions.
In 1998, a group of the Brotherhood tried to set up a supposedly moderate Islamic party, the Wasat party, but the government rejected its demand to be legalized. At present the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to reach an agreement with one of the opposition parties in order to be able to present its own candidates in the parliamentary elections in November 2005.
The Radical Jihadist Groups Today
The violent groups of radical Islam are also still active, and the authorities periodically arrest their members. They include the Wa'ad group in September 2002, a jihad group in October 2002, the Qutbion in April 2003, jihad again in September 2003, Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami in March 2004, and even a new al-Takfir wa al-Hijra group in 2004. Egyptian security has them under control, but they still exist.
The attack in Sinai in October 2004 was the first time that a radical group succeeded in carrying out an important operation since the 1997 massacre in Luxor, despite the strict control of the Egyptian Mukhabarat. While we don't yet know who sponsored this operation, we do know that, according to Egyptian NGOs, at least 3,000 people were arrested and interrogated. Habib al-Adli the Egyptian minister of interior, foresees the aggravation of terrorism and the use of more terrible weapons by international groups.
Egypt, Hamas, and the Israeli Withdrawal from Gaza
Egypt is today facing a difficult dilemma regarding Hamas and its possible connection to radical Islam on Egyptian territory. Hamas is another offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, established in 1980 and striving both for the destruction of Israel and the establishment of a Muslim state.
The disengagement initiative of Prime Minister Sharon came as a surprise to Egypt and constitutes a challenge for its security establishment, since it is expected that Egypt will have to take responsibility for watching the border together with Israel. Until now, Egypt has chosen to ignore the weapons smuggling from Sinai to Gaza, which complemented its policy of total support for the Palestinian cause and its unwillingness to confront Hamas terrorists and their allies inside Egypt. But once Israel is out of Gaza, the border and what happens inside Gaza will become an Egyptian concern as well. Now that Abu Mazen has been elected, the Egyptians would like to see him disarm the armed factions, especially Hamas and jihad groups, and take control of the Gaza Strip. This would lessen the potential of weapons smuggling and the chances of confrontation with Hamas and jihad organizations and their radical colleagues in Egypt itself. This is why Egypt is involved in such a complex and lengthy negotiation with Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
At the same time, every day, a few dozen anti-Semitic and anti-Israel articles appear in the Egyptian media, lying, exaggerating, and distorting the reality about Israel. Mubarak could have stopped it if he wanted to, but in a cynical way it serves his policy of a cold peace. He may now regret this a bit because he would like to warm up relations, but this is very difficult after so many years of hatred and incitement.
The Continuing Threat of Radical Islam
Radical Islam has been active in Egypt for the last 75 years and has had a direct influence on that country's political life and economy. In fact, it has been and remains an important obstacle to development in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is alive and kicking, and continues to infiltrate the political arena and strengthen its position. In addition, the radical groups of al-Gamaa were not completely crushed, and they are still trying to regroup and reorganize.
Observers foresee no imminent danger of major disturbances in Egypt today. However, in the continued absence of economic progress and a relaxation of the political system, disorder might occur, which the Muslim Brotherhood could join and intensify. In addition, there is always a danger that a radical group might carry out new operations, as occurred in Sinai. There is also a possibility that an organization like al-Qaeda might make contact with extremists inside Egypt. We should remember that the Egyptian Muhammad Atta was the head of the 9/11 team, and that Ayman al-Zawahiri is bin Laden's chief deputy. It is known that many Egyptians from the jihad group joined al-Qaeda, and that al-Qaeda has tried to make contact with Hamas.
To protect itself, Egypt has an omnipresent security service and maintains emergency rule twenty-four years after the assassination of President Sadat, meaning that the danger of radical Islam remains serious.
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1. Sayyid al-Kimni, Shukran Bin Laden ("Thank you Bin Laden" - meaning that by the 9/11 attack Bin Laden opened the eyes of the U.S.A. to the danger of radical Islam) (2004).
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Zvi Mazel recently completed his tour as Israel's Ambassador to Sweden. From 1996 to 2001 he served as Israel's Ambassador to Egypt. He also held senior positions in Israel's Foreign Ministry as director of the Eastern European division and head of the Egyptian and North African department. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on January 12, 2005.
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