The rise and fall of Egypt’s militant Islamist groups


Cairo : Ten years ago, the leaders of Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group), one of Egypt's most violent militant groups, issued a statement announcing what it called a "ceasefire initiative", under which the group suspended armed operations and said it was revising the ideological basis of past violence.

Support TwoCircles

Together with another Islamist group, Egyptian Jihad, the Gama'a carried out the spectacular assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on Oct 6, 1981. The two groups had merged in the early 1980s, but split in 1984 when most of their leaders were in jail.

"The Gama'a was responsible for more than 95 percent of the violence that hit Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s, whereas most Egyptian Jihad operations were limited to the use of small arms," says Diaa Rashwan, an expert on the Islamist groups and senior researcher at the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

"Until the end of the 1990s, armed operations in Egypt were local, aiming to overthrow the regime and Islamise Egyptian society," he adds.

The militant Islamist groups waged a war of terror against the Egyptian regime in the 1990s, hitting hard at the country's tourism industry. Operations ranged from shooting at tourist buses, Nile cruise ships and trains to attacking tourist sites at the height of the season.

According to Mamdouh el-Sheikh, an expert on militant Islamism, between 1991 and 1997 a total of 1,368 people were killed in bloody confrontations between the groups and the regime, including "93 tourists, 368 policemen, 508 group members and 299 innocent Egyptians".

The bloodiest incident took place at the Temple of Hatchepsut in Upper Egypt when terrorists ambushed and killed 58 tourists. The massacre took place four months after the Gama'a had announced its ceasefire in July 1997, and it was denounced by the group's jailed leaders, who blamed a splinter group.

Observers claim that it was the barbarity of the Luxor massacre that persuaded the security forces to enter into negotiations with the Islamist groups in order to try to put a stop to a confrontation that was leading to increasing numbers of deaths and was harming the country's economy.

Five years after the "ceasefire initiative," the Gama'a issued in 2002 a document entitled Tasheeh al-Mafahim (revision of concepts) written by group leaders in prison at the time. A series of such documents have since appeared, building into a comprehensive library of the group's so-called "revisions".

"The 22nd document in the series appeared this year, and in this body of work the group's ideologues spell out the basis for believing that past violence was misguided and against Islam," Rashwan explains.

These revisions have paved the way for the gradual release from prison of Gama'a members, the last batch of who were freed in April this year.

According to Montasser el-Zayat, a lawyer for the militant Islamist groups, 16,000 group members have been set free over the past few years. However, "despite their having been cleared by the security forces after reneging on their extremist beliefs, these people are harshly treated by the community and denied work opportunities" outside prison, he claims.

Rashwan believes "the state has to play a role in the rehabilitation of these people, and in providing them with the means to earn a living. Otherwise, their suffering might provide fertile ground for a return to violence".

Analysts say that between 1981 and the present day, some 20,000 to 30,000 militant Islamists have been detained in various Egyptian prisons, the vast majority of them without trial.

In 2006, the leaders of Egyptian Jihad also announced their wish to publish their "revision of concepts". The Egyptian press has since reported that prominent members of the group are now ready to renege on their earlier beliefs and apologize to Egyptian society for their previous violence.

Sayid Imam, also known as Fadhl, a surgeon by profession, who joined the militant Islamists when fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, largely drafted the revised statement of Egyptian Jihad's ideology.

Imam was subsequently arrested in Yemen in 2001 and handed to the Egyptian authorities in 2004. He is the author of a work entitled al-Omda fi Idad al-Edda (A Reference in Preparing for the Enemy), considered to be a manifesto for jihadist groups around the globe.

Imam's involvement in the "revision of concepts" process has made many observers optimistic about the prospects for closing this bloody chapter in Egypt's history. El-Zayat, for example, believes that though Islamist violence has surged worldwide since 9/11, it has nonetheless been declining in Egypt.

However the three terrorist attacks that have taken place in Sinai since 2004 have led other analysts to be more cautious, as has the occurrence of a series of minor attacks in Cairo.