Montaser El-Zayyat: The Islamist
Ten years have passed since the Gamaa Islamiya, once Egypt's most violent arm of political Islam, declared a non-violence initiative and a revision of its ideology of jihad. Effectively a ceasefire in its war with the government, the 1997 declaration saw thousands of jailed members of the Gamaa released. The rapprochement was the brainchild of one of the Gamaa's best-known members, lawyer Montaser El-Zayyat. More recently, by declaring that he would set up a new party in alliance with the Gamaa to be named Union for Freedom at a seminar held in Al-Ahram, El-Zayyat prompted a fierce attack on the part of current Gamaa leaders, who accused him of exploiting their name to promote a party they knew nothing about -- an act described in their official statement on the topic as offensive to morality and religion. Ten years on, the statement added, negotiations with the government are still ongoing. Though he describes the misunderstanding as media hype -- talk of the new party was but a two-sentence addendum at the end of his seminar paper -- El-Zayyat does feel it is time the Gamaa moved to another stage, having revised their ideology in over 25 books since the ceasefire, "otherwise you may well criticise them for being security agents or else, even, the religious wing of the [ruling] National Democratic Party"
Interview by Sahar El-Bahr
Montaser El-Zayyat -- still universally recognised as "the Gamaa Islamiya's lawyer" even despite his ardent protestations to the contrary -- concedes that his association with political Islam has benefited his career. As the earliest legal representative of the Gamaa, and unlike lawyers who were driven by hatred of President Anwar El-Sadat -- whom members of the Gamaa assassinated -- El-Zayyat had always had a profound sympathetic understanding of his defendants. Indeed current claims that he exploited the Gamaa for the benefit of his new party anger him: "I've spent my life hopping from one court to another throughout the country -- defending Gamaa members. I even visited them in prison to find out about their demands. At a time when every lawyer in Egypt was too scared to take on this risky business, I was there at the forefront, representing the Gamaa in court and before the international media, fearing neither harassment nor prison. That's how I came to be called the lawyer of the Gamaa Islamiya -- by them, not by myself. I worked hard and got exactly what I deserved in return." There were no financial benefits, he insists: he has five children, but he was paid only LE250 monthly through thousands of lawsuits in the period 1985-1994. Unlike lawyers who made a fortune out of them, El-Zayyat says he was never interested in compensation lawsuits filed against the Ministry of Interior. The Gamaa's response to news of the party is understandable, he says, since the media assumed he would be a mouthpiece for the Gamaa and consequently exaggerated his statements. It upsets him that the leaders instantly attacked him when they could have clarified the matter at the personal level, but he says Gamaa members are "more than welcome" to join his party. He had not informed the organisation of his plans to establish a party, he claims, because he wanted to avoid embarrassing them by pointing up the need for a political body to replace them. El-Zayyat is evidently eager to downplay the tension, notably with Karam Zohdi, the current head of the Gamaa's shura council and emir -- jailed for 22 years until his release in 2004. "The most powerful man in the Gamaa," he says, "does not like me, though my relations with most other leaders are excellent. Zohdi started out with a vocational diploma and didn't earn his BA in law until he went to prison. It seems he wants to have the title of the Gamaa's lawyer -- he feels I took more than my dues..."
And El-Zayyat insists he is a child of the Gamaa, not to be seen as an outsider. Born in Aswan in 1956 -- his father gave him his name, "Victor" in Arabic, to mark Nasser's triumph in the Suez War -- El-Zayyat and his brother Ahmed joined the Gamaa in 1974, becoming its first members in Aswan. Together with the earliest generation of the Gamaa, as a law student, he attended the sermons of Sheikh Abdel-Illah El-Samawy -- among the most influential figures at the time; El-Zayyat believes he was instrumental to the development of the characters of Sadat's assassins: Khaled El-Islambolly, Abdel-Hamid Abdel-Salam and Hussein Abbas. El-Samawy branded contemporary society, including secular education and the study of law, jahili (pre-Islamic, hence pagan), declaring holy war on it; it was at this time that El-Zayyat stopped watching TV or going to the movies, and replaced his jeans and sweatshirts with a short jilbab and amama. His father, a Wafd Party supporter who had in no way objected to him joining the Gamaa, waited a while before telling him that "there is no indication in the Quran that Islam has a uniform" -- prayers are answered just as well when you perform them in jeans. El-Zayyat describes his behaviour at that time as "ideologically immature", with the activities of the entire Gamaa lacking focus despite the massive enthusiasm that attended them: "the police were keen on dragging us into violence through harassment to justify arrest and torture, we were too young to realise what was happening." Months before the assassination of Sadat, Gamaa members started undergoing military training in the mountains of Naj' Hamadi -- "not only on using weapons but on collecting information on top officials from telephone guides and newspaper obituaries, drawing maps and administering first aid" -- and, in their spare time, trainees discussed jihad "without debate". They camped out, taking turns to keep watch and sleep, and woke up at dawn for the ritual prayers followed by physical exercise and practise shooting. Each had 10 bullets to try out, he remembers. The target was the face of Sadat -- all-out war.
On 5 October 1981 -- no more than a day before the assassination -- instructions were finally handed out: the Aswan faction should start preparing to seize a number of vital buildings in their hometown, with some taking control of mosques to urge the faithful to gather in those buildings and act as human shields. No less than 50 members, including El-Zayyat, had known about the assassination beforehand; some kind of large-scale "revolution" was to accompany the death of the president, however, and El-Zayyat did not know about that. He was annoyed when he found out, he says, because "violence not being in my nature, I thought killing Sadat was sufficient"; and together with one imam he demanded to meet the Gamaa's Aswan council and had a fatwa issued stipulating that no buildings should be seized. In retrospect, "the assassination of Sadat was the Gamaa's first defeat." Though people were by and large happy with the end of Sadat's reign, "revolutionary plans" faltered in all governorates except for Assiut, where clashes led to 100 deaths; some 50,000 Gamaa members and supporters were arrested, including El-Zayyat -- who was never to be charged with participating in acts of violence. At the time Abboud El-Zomor, emir of Al-Jihad, who has been in prison for 25 years now, told El-Zayyat that, though he was face to face with the minister of defence and the vice-president, El-Islambolly did not think to kill either -- only Sadat deserved to die. "El-Zomor broke down in tears when they took El-Islambolly to be executed, crying like a child. El-Islambolly and the two other assassins were very strong the moment the sentence was carried out. They asked to pray and refused to be blindfolded." Even the soldiers who were to carry out the execution refused to do so until they were told that the guns were filled with blanks. El-Zayyat stayed in custody until 1983, during which time he met both Ayman El-Zawahri and Omar Abdel-Rahman -- respectively wanted and imprisoned in America.
It was Zohdi who first singled out Abdel-Rahman -- a blind sheikh who refused to perform the funereal prayers for Nasser when the latter died at the mosque where he was imam, telling the congregation it was "wrong to pray for a tyrant" -- as a prospective emir. In the mid-1980s, El-Zayyat recalls, Abdel-Rahman used a double when he was under house arrest; the double was even imprisoned briefly. For his part El-Zawahri, about whom El.-Zayyat wrote a book in 2002, had exposed the use of torture against Gamaa members before the English- speaking media. El-Zawahri came from a wealthy, well respected family of physicians -- a profession he too practised, with his paternal and maternal grandfathers working, respectively, as sheikh of Al-Azhar and Arab League secretary. "Though I've had disputes with El-Zawahri and I may agree or disagree with him, I respect his choice to spend the rest of his life as a fugitive when he could have lived comfortably and enjoyed a fruitful career -- something he did for the sake of the ideas he believes in." In prison El-Zawahri was an ascetic and humble introvert; he rarely spoke and then only in a low voice, but he was always logical and coherent. "A born leader," as El-Zayyat describes him, "he is also skilful at the art of camouflage, that's way he and his followers shaved their beards on their release from prison." On his release he also vowed to leave Egypt, never to return -- under torture he had revealed the names and whereabouts of his followers and students "and perhaps he felt discredited" -- something El-Zawahri never mentioned in his books. El-Zayyat's main gripe with El-Zawahri is the latter's belief in the need for a violent paramilitary coup, which led him to critique El-Zayyat's initiatives for peace -- in personal correspondence and in his books -- accusing him of being a government agent following the publication of the aforementioned book. "Through an intermediary," he says, "we eventually managed to reach a reconciliation and I took the book out of print."
If Sadat's assassination was the Gamaa's first defeat, according to El-Zayyat, the split with Al-Jihad -- originally part of the Gamaa, which took place in prison soon after Sadat's death -- was the second. It occurred along both ideological and administrative-organisational lines; and it upset El-Zayyat deeply because his neutral stance and good relations with Al-Jihad eventually resulted in tensions with the Gamaa, thence headed by Abdel-Rahman. But the issue was resolved on his release when he decided to stand clear of "organisational activity", though he is eager to point out that he has remained keen on "helping those who need help" from either group. It was at the same time that he made the non-violence initiative -- a task in which he was aided by two of the country's best respected preachers in 1993: Mohamed Metwalli El-Shaarawi and Mohamed El-Ghazali. Both the Gamaa and the government initially said no, however, but by 1996 the violence had climaxed -- and El-Zayyat called on Gamaa leaders to stop violence for a year as a one-sided move -- something that prompted attacks from both directions. But El-Zayyat went on promoting the initiative in the press. It would be another year before leaders of the Gamaa adopted the initiative from behind bars, asking El-Zayyat to announce and propagate it -- initially at court. Since 1984 El-Zayyat had been briefly arrested three times, on charges of transmitting instructions from jailed leaders to free members of the Gamaa. Now the initiative yielded results. Regardless of the Gamaa's ideological revisions, violence is unlikely at present, El-Zayyat opines, due no less to the iron fist of the regime than to leaders of the Gamaa ageing and facing financial and medical problems following decades in custody. The danger comes from a new generation of Internet-savvy Islamists with access to radical and distorted interpretations of Jihad: "you can only blame the government for preventing the older, newly moderate generation from spreading their views, not to mention that this new generation, due to economic deprivation, are generally furious with the regime." For their part the Muslim Brothers -- and El-Zayyat wonders "why they hate" him -- have an admirable "methodology" but refuse to cooperate with anyone who won't be part of their group. "They are racists," El-Zayyat says. More generally, the political climate will not improve so long as the intellectuals remain corrupt and immune to the pains of the people. "The silence and passivity of Egyptians does not mean they support the government; it is rather that they don't trust the opposition." The party El-Zayyat seeks to establish will thus fill a gap, combating the government through the exercise of legitimate rights within the framework of a peaceful vision. He refuses to elaborate.