Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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The Gama'a as a safety valve?

By Jailan Halawi

Nearly two years after the nation's largest militant organisation, Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya, said it would renounce anti-government violence, the sincerity of the call is once more being questioned. The questions were raised following a statement issued last week by Rifa'i Taha, the group's senior expatriate leader, warning that the government's clamp down on Islamist militants could lead to a repeat of the 1997 Luxor massacre. Taha alleged that the militant groups were a "safety valve" for society and that the state's success in curtailing their activities could push individual militants to launch attacks not authorised by the groups' leadership.

Taha, believed to be living in Afghanistan, is one of the Gama'a's founders and the most senior member of its consultative council, or collective leadership, living abroad. Known to be a hard-liner, he left Egypt in 1988 and was sentenced to death in absentia in 1992 in a case dubbed "the returnees from Afghanistan".

"The Egyptian regime would be making a serious mistake if it believed that the Luxor operation could not be repeated," Taha said in the statement which he signed "an Egyptian Islamist".

In July 1997, a cease-fire call was made by six influential Gama'a leaders, who are serving jail sentences for their role in the assassination of President Anwar El-Sadat in 1981. Their appeal was rejected at the time by expatriate Gama'a commanders, including Taha, who insisted that the government should make concessions before any cease-fire. The expatriates made plans and raised funds for their followers to carry out anti-government attacks back home.

In November 1997, four months after the cease-fire call, 58 tourists and four Egyptians were killed in a massacre in the Upper Egyptian tourist city of Luxor. The carnage further tarnished Al-Gama'a's image at home, intensified divisions within its ranks and prompted a number of European countries to start cooperating with Egypt in tracking down key militant figures.

Experts, citing contradictory statements by Gama'a leaders following the attack, theorised that the massacre could have been the work of an ill-disciplined, possibly isolated, cell operating without direct orders from the Gama'a leadership.

"While the confrontation with the Egyptian regime over the past two decades was the work of organised groups, their role [lately] has been confined to closing ranks and containing elements that seek change," Taha said in his statement. "The absence of these groups or their inability to perform their role due to the regime's oppression will inevitably push individuals to emerge from the cloak of their groups to unleash a new and, possibly more ferocious, wave of confrontation with the regime," he added.

The Luxor carnage encouraged the more moderate wing of Al-Gama'a to intensify its efforts to gain support for the cease-fire initiative. The campaign was spearheaded by lawyer Montasser El-Zayyat, detained for seven months in 1995 for acting as Al-Gama'a's de facto spokesman. He and others inside this faction maintain that violence did harm to the group and denied it the benefits of public activities which the government had tolerated before the group took up arms in mid-1992.

In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly after paying a visit to the so-called "historic" Gama'a leaders in Torah prison, El-Zayyat affirmed the Gama'a's commitment to the cease-fire call made by the incarcerated leaders and approved by the group's consultative council in a statement issued in February 1998.

"There has not been a single attack after this statement, which shows that the Gama'a is sincere in calling for an end to military operations," he said.

El-Zayyat described Taha's statement as an expression of his own viewpoint, affirming that Taha does not speak on behalf of the Gama'a. "Followers of the Gama'a take orders issued by its consultative council, not on the basis of personal opinions. Even if Taha asked Al-Gama'a members to break the truce, no one would obey," El-Zayat said.

El-Zayyat added that following the Luxor massacre, a study prepared by a number of key Gama'a figures came to the conclusion that attacks on tourists ran counter to Islamic teachings. "There is a growing number of figures inside Al-Gama'a who have reached the same conclusion: that the use of violence against the government is not going to succeed and that public activity is more beneficial to the group," he said.

Following the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, the US led a worldwide crackdown on militant activities. As a result, key militant figures were handed over to Egypt by Albania, Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan.

Tough security measures appear to have broken the back of the militant groups, whose leaders are either dead, in prison or on the run.

"We are now in a much better position," a security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Weekly. "Contacts between the terrorists abroad and their followers at home have been cut off almost completely and those hiding in Egypt have been deprived of their sources of financing and armament. The expatriates are constantly on the run and do not have the opportunity to mastermind fresh attacks. However, we will remain alert because we cannot trust terrorists or their declarations."

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