By Hossam el-Hamalawy
Freelance journalist
11/09/2003
Karam Zohdi’s apology for Sadat’s assassination sent shockwaves throughout militant cadres.

Sadat is a “martyr,” now they say. Copts and tourists are civilians who should not have been targeted, they add. Terror is wrong and Muslim youth should not join al-Qaeda, they also stress. Meet Egypt’s Gamaa Islamiya in its new form. Once the country’s worst security nightmare before its leaders renounced violence in 1997, the group is desperately trying to reassure the state of its new moderate line. Some wonder, however, if it is too moderate that some members are unable to recognize their group anymore—which brings to the minds of some analysts the word “split.”

Gamaa’s 51-year-old leader Karam Zohdi—who has been in prison since 1981 over his role in President Anwar Sadat’s killing—sent shockwaves last July when interviewed by the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat. Asked what he would have done if time went back, Zohdi replied: “I would have intervened to prevent his murder… Sadat, may God bless his soul with mercy, is a martyr along with everyone who died in that fight.”

From killing the country’s former president in 1981 to blessing his soul in 2003, Egypt’s largest militant group has indeed traveled a long way.

Gamaa leaders launched a unilateral ceasefire initiative in July 1997, at a time when the group’s infrastructure outside prisons had been crippled by security blows. Its insurgency by then had claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people, mostly police officers, militants, and, on several occasions, Copts, tourists and secular intellectuals.

The group’s command, Shura Council, followed their announcement by producing four revisionist studies, moragaat. The government, it turned out, was not “infidel” after all, and violence was renounced.

Initially the group’s calls fell on deaf ears. The regime distrusted the Gamaa, especially when one of its units slaughtered 58 tourists and four Egyptians in November 1997 in Luxor, marking the only (though catastrophic) case where the group breached the ceasefire. Later, the regime came to endorse the initiative following Sept 11 attacks. Egypt, observers then concluded, was keen at setting a model for the West on how to fight terror, and drive away accusations that the country was a breeding ground for radicalism.

They have become media celebrities with their routine denunciation of terror.

The revisions were widely publicized in June 2002, when authorities allowed the editor of state-owned weekly Al Mussawar to interview Gamaa leaders inside jails. Since then, they have become media celebrities with their routine denunciation of terror. More importantly, recent crackdowns on Muslim militants did not target Gamaa sympathizers, whose “good conduct” earned them even praise from the country’s interior minister.

“Nearly 1,000 members of Gamaa Islamiya have been released over a period of time [three years] in line with clear guidelines and their commitment to rejecting violence,” Major General Habib al-Adly, Egypt’s minister of interior, told Al Mussawar last week. “All those who have been freed are living normally among the people and clearly state their rejection of violence and their total commitment to the initiative declared by the Gamaa leadership,” the minister added. Rights groups put the figure of Islamists in prisons at 15,000 persons.

While the minister is pleased, yesterday’s comrades in arms from other groups remain furious. London-based alleged jihadis, like Yasser al-Sirri and Hani al-Sebai, have labeled the Gamaa’s moves as a sellout.

The group is touching cornerstones of the jihadi legacy.

“These comments are coming from those who are not Gamaa Islamiya’s sons,” said lawyer Montasser al-Zayat in reply. Zayat is a former Gamaa member who acted as a de facto spokesman on launching the initiative. “They [jihadis] are commenting on an internal issue. The Gamaa did not force anyone to join its violence in the first place, so no one should instruct the Gamaa now on how to handle the initiative.”

But the Gamaa’s revisions are not solely its “internal” business anymore. The group is touching cornerstones of the jihadi legacy. Though he refused to comment on Zohdi’s recent statements regarding Sadat’s “martyrdom,” Zayat admits that the interview and condemning al-Qaeda have led militants from other groups to feel the Gamaa is stepping on their toes.

The Gamaa’s moves have already drawn a crescendo of criticism from London-based radical clerics, including: Abu Hamza al-Masri, the Saudi-born dissident Mohammed al-Massari, and earlier Abu Baseer, a Syrian exile who enjoys prominence among jihadis.

Pundits who have been closely monitoring the Gamaa’s development, like Mohamed Salah of Al Hayat, say the exiles’ criticism is unlikely to have an impact on the group. “They will not listen to them,” said Salah. “Coming under external attack could even give more legitimacy to the Gamaa’s leadership (among its members).”

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Judging by the records, the group’s history is almost void of splits that marred its brethren in the Jihad. Its centralized organizational structure bears striking resemblance to those of leftist parties, points out Diaa Rashwan, a researcher on Islamism at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a Cairo-based think tank. The group’s base-cadres have been known for their ultra-loyalty to the leadership, which has been able to maintain a strong chain of command, even inside prison. The Luxor massacre, he added, was unlikely an act of disobedience. Disruption in the chain of command, resulting from the killing of middle ranking operatives, meant severed communications between the leaders in prisons and the isolated Qena Unit that carried out the attack. “The word on ceasefire could not reach the unit on time,” Rashwan assumed.

The government itself seems to be betting on the group’s internal discipline to guarantee a consensus on the renunciation of violence. Authorities allowed the incarcerated Gamaa leaders to tour prisons in a bid to win their followers over to the new line.

“I was indeed astonished [to see] the Gamaa leaders having such immense power and influence on its members who have been in jails for a long time,” wrote Makram Ahmad of Al Mussawar, recalling a dialogue conference he attended where four Shura Council leaders addressed 500 of their supporters, whom they haven’t seen for years. Organizational hierarchy was emphasized even when it came to the conference setting. The four Gamaa leaders were in the front platform. The 18 imprisoned provincial emirs were seated behind them, facing the crowd. The generals and colonels were addressing their foot soldiers saying the war was over, and hardly anyone seemed to disagree then.

Having a strong structure is definitely an asset for the leadership if it wants to proceed with ideological changes. But Zohdi, suggests Rashwan, is not handling the media in the best possible way. The noise each interview brings, though may not immediately cause a split, can embarrass the Gamaa in such a critical period.

The increasing contacts with the media world was said to have infuriated Aboud al-Zomor, another leader in the Shura Council, although he sanctioned the revisions. Both Salah and Zayat denied reports that Zomor left the group.

“Zomor would have definitely preferred to have the revisions going in silence, and publicized only when the leaders were out of jail,” Rashwan suggested.

Abandoning the militant legacy could not have happened in a more critical time.

The fact that Gamaa leaders revised their views in prison cells may prove to be initiative’s Achilles’ heels. Other Islamists already attacked its credibility saying it was the product of security pressures, while Asharq Al-Awsat ran several unconfirmed reports over the last year on muted murmurings about a split inside prisons.

Abandoning the militant legacy could not have happened in a more critical time. “The Gamaa has always enjoyed a strong structure,” Zayat confidently said. After a silent pause he added: “But sometimes the sea tide goes against the ship.” The tide is nothing but the anger largely felt in the Muslim World, triggered by events in Palestine, Iraq and President Bush’s ongoing “war on terror.”

“The Gamaa’s leadership is trying to steer the wheel towards moderation, while the global Islamist scene is going through radicalization,” said Rashwan. “It should be no surprise that the transition would create some sort of turbulence inside the group. The new ideas have not been swallowed up completely yet.”

Ideas take time to absorb, but signs of the new breed of unorganized freelance jihadis could mean there is not much space to maneuver. Since last January, and on a nearly monthly basis, security has been announcing crackdowns on “jihadis,” “takfiris” and “Qutbists” – ready-made categories, as analysts like Salah and Rashwan believe – to try to qualify the new militant groups. Most of the suspects have no political records, as their lawyers repeatedly announced.

Wouldn’t resurgence in militant politics spill over to the Gamaa Islamiya? “Not to this generation which leads the Gamaa, at least,” replied Zayat. “Maybe the coming generations. Maybe.”

The young cadres didn’t come in close contact with the middle or old generations.

Rashwan agrees. The old leadership and its loyal middle ranks, have been exhausted by years of incarcerations, and could clearly see that violence was not leading anywhere. On the contrary, the young cadres, more zealots by age, didn’t come in close contact with the middle (let alone old) generation. They did not go through the prison experience, as they were likely detained for short periods but released for their then organizational unimportance.

A split led by radical disillusioned youth, if it happens, will be the first major incident in the Gamaa’s history, but can be very similar to other groups’ experiences.

“Such [splinter] movements are usually motivated by youth, inside or outside prison,” explained Zayat. “They seek an elder figure inside prison, who would share their views. They’ll take him as a figurehead to gain legitimacy or guidance, and would cluster their group around him. This is just what happened in the case of Sayyed Qutb. It’s possible it may occur again.”

Gamaa leaders, including the moderates, are aware of the possible risk. Asked by Asharq Al-Awsat back in March 2002 on whether other violent groups were likely to appear, Salah Hashem, the group’s moderate original founder, said: “I hope no other groups would appear and drag us to the cycle of violence, from which no one benefits but our enemies… The Egyptian regime has to realize that, and help the Gamaa Islamiya to go out of this period. We should be given the chance to practice daawa (preaching) so as to achieve stability.”

Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian freelance journalist and writer based in Cairo . He contributes to several publications including the Cairo times and Middle East Times. His main fields of interest are militant Islam, social movements, and human rights in Egypt . You can reach him at hhamalawy77@hotmail.com