Revisions and reintegration
Society must embrace, rather than question, the renunciation of violence by what was once one of Egypt's most militant Islamic groups, writes Jailan Halawi
When, after years of bloody confrontations with the state, the incarcerated leaders of Egypt's most militant Islamic group Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya issued a unilateral ceasefire in 1997 analysts were sceptical about its impact. Time, though, proved their pessimism misplaced. Now Jihad, Egypt's other major militant group, has announced its own renunciation of violence, issued by 57-year-old Sayed Emam El-Sherif, aka Dr Fadl, the ideologue who, decades before, produced a blueprint justifying violence that was taken up by, among others, Al-Qaeda.
On 26 December Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) held a one-day seminar under the title "A closer look to the document of Rationalising Jihad in Egypt and the World". Attended by political analysts, representatives of the Islamic movement, and members of the media, the seminar's four sessions examined the ideas contained in El-Sherif's renunciation.
The founder and first emir -- or commander -- of Egypt's Jihad group, many members of which would later join Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan and form the nucleus of Al-Qaeda, El-Sherif worked closely with Ayman El-Zawahri before breaking ranks with Al-Qaeda in the early 1990s. He then travelled to Yemen where he worked for several years until finally being extradited to Egypt in 2004 where he has since been in prison.
Participants at the seminar were divided over El-Sherif's motives in issuing the document as well as its likely impact on the global Jihad movement.
Kamal Habib, an expert on Islamic Groups and a former key figure in Jihad who has served several years in jail, analysed the way in which the document was issued, noting differences in the circulation of this and El-Sherif's earlier publications.
Anwar Mogheith, a professor of philosophy at Helwan University, produced a critical reading of El-Sherif's text, foregrounding issues the document either failed to address or denied, while professor of sociology El-Sayed Yassin analysed El-Sherif's discourse and Seif El-Din Abdel-Fattah, professor of political theory at Cairo University, furnished a glossary of the terms El-Sherif uses.
Amr Elshobaki, of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS), explained the likely domestic and international impact of the document while Diaa Rashwan, his colleague at the centre, provided a reading of El-Sherif's changing views on the future and change as encapsulated in his renunciation.
Rashwan, noting that in a recent online survey El-Sherif was ranked first among Salafi ideologues, pointed out that it is the first time in the movement's history that such outspoken criticism of its ideologies has emerged from within the group. Both Elshobaki and Rashwan refuted suggestions raised by some participants that the document should be dismissed as having been produced under duress: "What we are witnessing here is not merely an ideological change but a conversion from a profound conviction that change [establishing an Islamic state] can only be achieved through armed struggle to a realisation that the use of violence is forbidden. Faith, in short, cannot be forced but must be adopted," explained Elshobaki. He predicted that the document would have little impact on the global Jihad movement though it might be considered binding by many old Jihad members in Egypt, and went on to call for greater efforts to be made in helping former members of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and Jihad reintegrate into society once they had renounced violence. This last point angered at least one member of the audience who took to the podium to point out that it was small matter for society to forget the suffering and bloodshed caused by the militants' actions or for people to live side by side with those responsible for terrorist attacks.
Sayed Hassan Makky took the podium to provide a startling personal testimony. He was 14 years old when he was arrested as an alleged member of Jihad. He spent the next 16 years in jail, though no charges were ever brought against him. Released at the age of 30, he never faced a trial or appeared before a court, yet has spent more than half his life behind bars.
Makky's told the audience that people outside prison tend to be more extreme in their views than those in jail. Once released, former inmates continue to be stigmatised, and find reintegrating into society difficult. No one wants to hire them, and they continue to be persecuted by a blind bureaucracy. The only job Makky had been offered since his release, he said, was to deal illegally in drugs, and he has had to face an investigation into his failure to do military service as if, he says, he had been "in hiding rather than imprisoned without charges".
"When I look at Sayed, I think of my own son and the thought that he could face the same fate terrifies me. There are almost 40,000 people detained without charges or trial: in my book, if the state can find no evidence against them then they are innocent. Yet these people are incarcerated for years because they once adopted certain ideas or got close to circles which the state has outlawed. Makky and his colleagues are victims not criminals and it is our duty as a society to start finding ways to help them reintegrate instead of worsening their conditions," argued Rashwan.
Elshobaki agreed: "We need to learn how to forget and forgive and acknowledge that harm befell us all as a community. We need to move on and it is important that we consider ways of economically and socially reintegrating people who are released rather than marginalising them and questioning the sincerity of their revisions."
This seminar was held as part of the ACPSS's ongoing programme of research. The centre has long maintained a research programme, headed by Rashwan, dedicated to the study of Islamic movements.