4 - 10 July 2002
Issue No. 593
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A new rapprochement?Diaa Rashwan* ponders the implications of the government's seeming acceptance of Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya's renunciation of violence
Five years ago six key leaders of the Al- Gama'a Al-Islamiya made a public declaration to the effect that the group had renounced violence. Since this declaration was made, on 5 July 1997, many -- Egypt's officialdom included -- have questioned the motives and sincerity of this declaration. Only in the past two weeks has official Egypt seemed to take the non-violence declaration seriously. The media made that abundantly clear, especially in the interview Al-Musawar published with the imprisoned members of Al-Gama'a. Why did it take so long for official Egypt to recognise the declaration as credible?
Since last January there have been signs that Al-Gama'a's initiative is gaining credibility in official quarters. The state allowed the group to publish four books detailing the doctrinal premises of the renunciation. Eight key figures co- authored what reads like a collective repentance. Karam Zuhdi, Nageh Ibrahim, Usamah Hafiz, Asim Abdel-Maguid, Isameddin Derbalah, Ali El-Sherif, Fouad El-Dawalibi, and Hamdi Abdel- Rahman published their work under the following titles: "The Initiative to End the Violence, Legal Perspective and Pragmatic View", "The Impermissibility of Exaggeration in Religion and the Sinfulness of Contesting the Faith of Co- believers", "Shedding Light on the Errors of Jihad", and "Advice and Enlightenment on Mending the Ideas of the Devout".
The shift in the media treatment of Al- Gama'a was remarkable, though belated. For at least the past three years the group has shown clear signs of a radical ideological revamp. The state, until recently, was unimpressed. What made it change its mind?
Some analysts have suggested that the state is trying to clear the image of Al-Gama'a in order to create a viable rival to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The state, the argument goes, is suspicious of the Brotherhood's motives, displeased with its political and media activities, and particularly annoyed by its bid to control professional syndicates. But does this mean that it can use Al-Gama'a as a rival to the Brotherhood? Unlikely, I think.
The state has long experience of Al- Gama'a. In the mid-1970s and the early 1980s, the state lent support to young activists of Al-Gama'a on Egyptian campuses in a bid to roll back the influence of leftist and Nasserite groups. The honeymoon did not last long; Al-Gama'a soon grew to pose a threat to the stability of the state. The state may finally believe that Al-Gama'a has lost its penchant for violence. This does not mean that it will rush to give political endorsement.
Would Al-Gama'a want to challenge the Brotherhood politically? Even if Al-Gama'a were to get its political act together, the normal course of action would be to forge a political partnership with the Brotherhood, which is more experienced in political and public work. The two groups may differ on some issues but there is enough common ground to make cooperation useful to both.
Other analysts have suggested that the state is implementing a "deal" made five years ago. Al-Gama'a, it was said, promised to renounce violence in return for the state's releasing its imprisoned leaders and relaxing the ban on its public activities. This too, is unlikely.
The non-violence pledge seems to be a doctrinal shift that evolved voluntarily within the ranks of Al-Gama'a and was endorsed by its most veteran leaders, particularly those who have been in prison since 1981. Almost half the members of Al-Gama'a's Shura Council, which approved the non-violence pledge on 24 March, 1999, live abroad and many of them face death sentences in Egypt. For the past five years the state has continued to prosecute and pass harsh sentences against Al-Gama'a members. Some death sentences have been carried out.
The state, however, seems to have made overtures of its own in recognition of Al- Gama'a's 1997 non-violence declaration. It improved prison conditions for the group's members. It allowed some of Al-Gama'a members and lawyers to speak publicly on behalf of the "initiative", and it encouraged the semi-official press to ponder the seriousness of Al-Gama'a's new approach. Early in 1998 the state abandoned the random detention policy that had become wide-spread following the November 1997 attack in Luxor. Since then several thousand Al-Gama'a members and sympathisers have been released from preventive custody. All of the above measures indicate a measured response by the state to the non-violence pledge. None is sufficient to indicate that a deal was done.
Again, why has the state finally put its seal of approval on Al-Gama'a's renunciation of violence? To answer this, one must take international developments into account.
In August 1998 US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed, apparently the handiwork of the World Islamic Front for the Fight Against Jews and Crusaders, a subsidiary of the network run by Bin Laden and his Egyptian lieutenant Ayman El-Zawahiri. US investigators, while accusing Bin Laden of masterminding the attack, saw no links between Al-Gama'a and Bin Laden. Similarly after the 11 September attacks: US authorities did not associate Al- Gama'a with any of Bin Laden's activities although the group continued to appear on US terror lists. Two months ago things changed. US authorities began to accuse Al-Gama'a of involvement in Bin Laden's network.
The new US assessment surfaced at a time when the Egyptian state was reassessing its judgment on the sincerity of Al-Gama'a's non-violence pledge. In view of the sharp discrepancy between US and Egyptian assessments, the state seems to have found it advisable to allow Al-Gama'a to address the local and international public directly. In their interview with Al-Musawar, veteran Al-Gama'a leaders made sure to denounce both the 11 September attacks and Bin Laden.
Perhaps there is a pattern developing here. As the US turns up the heat on everything Islamic, a new dynamic may evolve within Muslim and Arab states that encourages reconciliation between governments and formerly violent opposition groups. The long and winding US war against so-called terror, a war arbitrary in its choice of targets and enemies, may end up stimulating domestic rapprochements of the kind just seen in the case of Egypt's Al-Gama'a. By threatening the stability of Arab and Muslim nations, the US war against terror may, ironically, heal some of the bloodiest rifts within these nations.
* The writer is an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and managing editor of the CPSS's State of Religion in Egypt Report, issued annually.
Letter from the Editor
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