In October the Egyptian authorities released several hundred political detainees, out of the many thousands that it is estimated to hold. Those who were released included the so-called "historical leaders" of the Gama’ah Islamiyya (Islamic Group), who were nearing the end of the 25-year prison sentences they were given in connection with the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981.
In October the Egyptian authorities released several hundred political detainees, out of the many thousands that it is estimated to hold. Those who were released included the so-called "historical leaders" of the Gama’ah Islamiyya (Islamic Group), who were nearing the end of the 25-year prison sentences they were given in connection with the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Any notion that their release marked some reconciliation between the state and the Islamic movement was soon shattered by the continued police harassment of the Muslim Brotherhood and its exclusion from talks that the ruling National Democratic Party said it intended to conduct in November with the legally sanctioned political parties. These parties are, in fact, mere signboards, as even the government admits; this is the real explanation for the seemingly generous offer of talks –those talks will be with a mere handful of people, some of whom are more pro-government than the ruling party itself.
By the late eighties the Gama’ah Islamiyya was a spent force, and by the early nineties the security services’ actions had all but annihilated it. In the nineties there were several initiatives to end the exchange of violence between the authorities and remnants of the Gama’ah Islamiyya, but the authorities felt that they had won the war, and were not interested. Suddenly, however, in the last year the government’s newspapers and the security forces have started publishing reports and running features on a change taking place in the thinking of several leaders of the Gama’ah Islamiyya. These prisoners have apparently started, with the encouragement and facilitation of the authorities, to contact fellow Gama’ah Islamiyya prisoners to discuss this change with them. A series of talks, seminars, and exchanges ended this autumn with the Gama’ah Islamiyya publishing four books in which it reneges on its former revolutionary ideas and renounces the use of violence as a tool for overthrowing the regime. But the whole affair has failed to attract the sort of attention that the authorities had apparently hoped for, probably because the Gama’ah Islamiyya no longer really exists and because it has become clear that in actual fact the government is behind the books and the process that led to their publication. In effect, the only appeal of the Gama’ah Islamiyya in its heyday was its revolutionary slogans; those gone, the group has no real hope of regaining any influence.
Nevertheless, the climate of official propaganda surrounding the release of hundreds of people (many of whom were held without trial as suspected members of the Gama’ah Islamiyya) triggered a wave of speculation about the real reasons for the whole affair. Apparently, the leaders of the Gama’ah Islamiyya had no choice but to comply with the government’s demands and renounce violence verbally. It is curious that they had to do this by convening study groups and publishing books, when intellectual prowess was never their forte. Whatever the case may be, and considering that their prison terms were about to end shortly and that they could be denied release under the ordinances of the emergency law, their "repentance" rang hollow indeed to many. It was not that the Gama’ah Islamiyya leaders were suspected of lying and of planning to return to violence after their release; they cannot do so anyway, thanks to the ubiquity of the security forces. Rather, suspicion and speculation focused on the real goals the authorities wanted to achieve by the release and the announcement of the leaders’ "repentance".
The government has everything to gain, and nothing to lose, from this calculated move. The Gama’ah Islamiyya is no longer any threat to the regime, either intellectually or politically. The leaders’ sentences were about to end, and nothing could be more successful, as a propaganda ploy, than to make capital of an expired file while closing it at the same time. Propaganda value has been extracted from claims that the authorities have succeeded not only in physically overcoming the Gama’ah Islamiyya but also in morally vanquishing it by "persuading" it to change its extremist ideas. This claim is not just boastful posturing; it is vitally important to the country’s relationship with America. At a time when the US portrays itself as locked in serious combat with the dangerous and recalcitrant spectre of "Islamic terrorism", here comes friendly Egypt with the experience not only of overpowering but also of domesticating the monster. This valuable experience could be an "export" commodity not only to the US but to the Europeans as well, earning the regime handsome political returns.
There are other propaganda uses for the staged repentance and release of the Gama’ah Islamiyya cadres and leaders. It is a good reply to the stream of complaints of human-rights abuses and torture that came from various quarters even while the prisoners were being released. It can distract attention from the fact that human-rights groups estimate that many thousands of people (almost all Islamic activists) are still being held in the government’s prisons. Moreover, at a time of imminent change at the top, this move comes to create a calmer climate for the new president.
Nevertheless, the propaganda value of this move is overshadowed by the political targets. First of all, this repentance-release charade is calculated to blacken the image of the Islamic movement as a whole, by portraying it, and not just the Gama’ah Islamiyya, as nothing more than a criminal affair. By reducing the depth and variety of the Islamic movement in Egypt to the size and character of a narrow faction, the authorities are claiming in effect that there was nothing more to the Islamic movement than a few misguided hotheads who resorted to violence to hide the fact that they had no thought or political programme. Once those elements were caught and imprisoned they began, with a little help from the authorities, to realise the error of their ways and, hopefully, repent: then they could be rehabilitated and returned to society, as happens with "ordinary criminals". In the context of the ongoing demonisation of the Islamic movement, this criminalisation of Islamic elements comes very handy.
Having said this, it should be pointed out that the government’s main political object is probably to use the released leaders and some of their followers as a tool with which to attack the Muslim Brotherhood, which is their main enemy at present. The authorities, of course, have no intention of allowing the released leaders to undertake any political or even religious activity, and any attempt to exploit them overtly by setting them on the Muslim Brotherhood would be too obvious, and hence likely to fail. Rather, a few agents from among this Gama’ah Islamiyya batch can be given access to the government-controlled media and press, or even to some pulpits in the police-controlled mosques, to air views that attack the Muslim Brotherhood, describing them, for example, as misguided in their opposition to the regime, and urging them to repent as the Gama’ah Islamiyya have. The matter could well develop into a kind of road show on the American type of Alcoholics Anonymous, with key leaders taking turns to warn the young against the danger of the "demon drink"; i.e. of the Islamic trend or the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is unfortunate that an action that could have heralded a political and social reconciliation has been made into a propaganda trick and a means of achieving some dubious political objectives.