One little-noticed story in the international media last month was the reported arrest and interrogation of 40 men in Egypt, allegedly for having links with al-Qa’ida. According to reports first carried in Al-Masry al-Yom, an independent Egyptian daily newspaper, the men were actually arrested in April but news of the arrests was deliberately not released. Subsequent media investigations have unearthed further details, many of them inconsistent. The leader of the group is variously reported to have escaped arrest and fled either to Ghazzah or to Libya. The Al-Ahram Weekly reported on July 19 that Montassir al-Zayat, a lawyer with a long association with jihadi Islamic groups, and who has written a book about his one-time association with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former Gama‘a leader now famous as Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command, had confirmed that the arrests had taken place, and that the men were being held on suspicion of clandestinely promoting jihadi ideology by means of various activities. Interestingly, the stories were largely ignored by the official Egyptian media.
On the face of it, these developments are not surprising. Given the attraction of the salafi jihadi trend to young Muslim activists elsewhere -- partly because of the massive publicity given to al-Qa’ida by the West and the international media -- it is not surprising that some in Egypt should also fall into the same errors. Indeed, considering the role played by Gama‘a al-Islamiyya in the development of the tendency, it could be regarded as a homecoming of sorts. They are, however, particularly worrying for a number of reasons. One is that Egyptians, including many Islamic activists, hoped that they had moved past this limited militant approach to the Islamic movement, with the passing of al-Gama‘a, which called a ceasefire after a series of operations in the 1990s, culminating in the killing of 62 foreign tourists in Luxor in 1997, which shocked and alienated Egyptians and achieved little more than justifying the government’s brutal response.
In recent years, a feature of Islamic-movement discourse in Egypt has been the publication of a series of recantations of their previous positions by former leaders of al-Gama‘a, called tashih al-mafahim (“correction of concepts”. In these recantations, most of which resulted from meetings between Gama‘a leaders in Egyptian prisons, they sought to correct the theological misinterpretions that had led them to justify declaring Muslims apostates, and therefore legitimate targets for jihad (hence the term “takfiri” used for them), and the targeting of civilians and civilian targets. Although there was initially some suspicion about these recantations, made by leaders incarcerated in Egyptian prisons, many of whom have since been released, it is clear that they are the result of genuine debate between the former mujahideen on the errors that led to appalling atrocities being committed in the name of Islam, not only in Egypt but also in other countries, such as Algeria.
Now the Arab world is awaiting the publication of a book by Sayid Imam al-Sharif, a former associate of Zawahiri who has been in jail in Egypt since being captured in Yemen in 2004. Formerly a close associate of Zawahiri, and a key ideologue of the jihad movement in Egypt, he wrote a book called Foundations of Preparation for Jihad under the pen-name “Dr Fadl”, which remains widely read by salafi jihadists today. In a recent statement faxed from the notorious Torah prison, he condemned armed operations targeting women and children as wrong and counter-productive, citing the Qur’anic ayah:
“Fight in the cause of Allah, but do not transgress the limits; for Allah loveth not the transgressors” (2:190).
His message provoked a response from Zawahiri in a subsequent video message. “Are there fax-machines in Egyptian cells now?” he asked rhetorically; “I wonder if they are connected to the same line as the electric-shock machines.”
Although there is no doubt that the repentances of former jihad leaders have been exploited by the Egyptian authorities, they cannot be dismissed as irrelevant. They emerge from a genuine debate about the jihad strategy among Islamic activists outside prison as well as inside it, and reflect a genuine sense that the pursuit of jihad has led some Muslims into deeply damaging errors. As many other Muslims have argued, military jihad is only one of many possible strategies for the establishment of Islam, to be used only when appropriate and necessary. All in Egypt must hope that the recent reports of al-Qa’ida activities there do not herald a return of such methods.