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Egypt's terrorism
sets the tone



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

July 13, 2006

LONDON - Memories are short, and perspectives even more so. None of the tourists I spoke to visiting the Valley of the Kings remembered that only nine years ago 55 Swiss tourists were murdered here in a savage attack by the oldest of Egypt's proliferating terrorist groups. The event pushed the tourist-dependent economy into a severe recession and has been seen by many as a prelude to September 11th, four years later.

Doubtless it is good for Egypt that the tourists were not frightened away for long, but there is more good in the story than that.

The heartland of militant violence-prone Islamic fundamentalism has long been Egypt. What happens in Egypt is often a bell weather for what will happen elsewhere. This is arguably even more true than it was, now that the Egyptian inspired off-shoot, Al Qaeda, is to all intents and purposes directionless, broken up by the American-led onslaught, even though Osama bin Laden is still in hiding.

In retrospect the murder of tourists at Luxor was a historical watershed in the long journey of Egyptian terrorism. It may come to be seen as also a watershed in the demise of Al Qaeda, although the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are confusing the picture, to put it mildly.

Violence-prone fundamentalism in Egypt goes back to 1928 and the founding of the Muslim Motherhood, which is still highly active, if more sober than then. It was led by Muslim militants angry with the still continuing influence of Attaturk's Turkey, intent on creating in their old colony a secular state. Later, in 1948, they murdered two prime ministers as well as targeting both domestic and foreign journalists. Later still they tried to murder President Gamal Nasser, but he retaliated with a massive act of repression that effectively smashed them for fifteen years.

They only revived when bin Laden's intellectual godfather, the theologian, Sayed Qutb, came to the fore. Much of Qutb's writing was done from the prison cell in the 1960s, inspiring a new generation of Brotherhood members who plotted consistently to kill the secular-inclined Nasser. Qutb was eventually hanged and since then millions of his books have been printed throughout the Islamic world, inspiring terrorist movements both at home and abroad.

In Egypt the two most successful were Jihad and Gama'a. It was a combined action of the two groups that led to the murder of President Anwar Sadat (Bin Laden's deputy, Dr Aiman Al Zawahiri, was one of the leaders of the plot.) Later they tried unsuccessfully to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak.

From the 1980s on these violent groups were officially shunned by the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, although sympathy was maintained. That and the wearing effect of Mubarak's successful repression, leading to the arrest of over 20,000 members and sympathisers, pushed the leadership to start to rethink their tactics. From their prison cells the leaders began to consider a truce.

Then came the Luxor massacre, engineered by a group of militants estranged from the leadership. It not only repulsed Western opinion, it had the same effect inside Egypt. It was for the Gama'a leadership the turning point. In 1999 they formally abandoned violence and in 2002 they published from their prison cells a four volume series of books admitting their past mistakes, distanced themselves from bin Laden and Al Zawahiri and forbad their members to join Al Qaeda.

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A combination of tough repression on the one hand and, on the other, the growing sentiment against violence within Egypt itself, a liberalising of the government's attitude towards the politicking of the Muslim Brotherhood as long as its rhetoric and activities were non-violent, together with the middle-ageing of the leadership of Jihad and Gama'a, all worked to stabilise Egypt.

There still remain fringe groups of terrorists - such as those who a year and a half ago bombed the tourist resorts in the Sinai. But mainstream militant Islam has now made a sort of peace with the Mubarak regime and has little sympathy for Al Qaeda, even though it is highly anti-American and anti-British.

Slowly, too slowly say critics as diverse as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Bush administration, Mubarak is loosening up. The Brotherhood in last year's carefully orchestrated election were allowed to win a substantial presence in parliament.

It is well within the realms of possibility that as before what happens in Egypt will profoundly influence what happens in the rest of the Islamic world, given an interlude for the message to percolate. If the U.S. and Britain had not overreacted in Afghanistan and Iraq, and concentrated on police work at which they are good rather than war at which they are manifestly bad and which continues to stir the emotions of the masses as well as the militants, by now we might well have seen the end of Al Qaeda too.


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


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