In a recent interview conducted by the Dubai-based al-Arabiya news network, Dr. Nageh Ibrahim, senior leader and chief ideological theorist of the Egyptian Gama’a al-Islamiyya (EIG, Egyptian Islamic Group), reiterated the movement’s pledge to renounce violence. He also reconfirmed EIG’s commitment toward pursuing a peaceful and flexible agenda and its rejection of extremist positions it previously held toward the Egyptian government, Christians and theological interpretations of key aspects of Islam. Ibrahim claims that his decision to speak out publicly on these issues is meant to refute an August videotaped statement by al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri asserting that leading members of EIG split with the movement and have aligned themselves with al-Qaeda. EIG representatives strongly disputed al-Zawahiri’s claim that Muhammed al-Hakaima, a man he introduces as an influential leader of EIG from Aswan, is anything other than a low-ranking member of the organization. Ibrahim denies any knowledge of al-Hakaima (al-Arabiya, August 21). Ibrahim also spoke to the independent Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm on August 12 and the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on August 14 on these and related topics.
Ibrahim, an influential student activist in Assyut in Upper Egypt who later rose to lead EIG there, was released from an Egyptian prison recently after serving more than 24 years in custody for his role in terrorist activities, including the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Ranking members of EIG, including hundreds of other militants, were also released as part of Cairo’s decision to pardon radical Islamist detainees no longer deemed as threats. More than 900 EIG members have been released over the last couple of years, along with members of other militant movements. Ironically, as it releases EIG members, Cairo is stepping up its arrests of moderate reform-oriented Islamist opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
EIG has been implicated in a series of violent terrorist attacks in Egypt and abroad, including the 1997 attacks on tourists in Luxor and the 1995 car bombing against the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan. EIG was blamed for the attempt on the life of President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia in 1995. The group renounced violence and declared a unilateral cease-fire with the Egyptian government in July 1997. Leading members opposed to the cease-fire initiative are known to have split from EIG.
Despite widespread skepticism in Egypt and abroad about the nature of its true intentions, EIG has since concentrated its efforts on revising its former extremist worldview and distinguishing itself from al-Qaeda. During his interview with Asharq al-Awsat, Ibrahim stressed that significant differences in philosophy exist between EIG and al-Qaeda, essentially “their aim is jihad, and our aim is Islam.” In doing so, Ibrahim challenges al-Qaeda’s Islamic credentials by emphasizing its dependence on violent struggle as a means to further its goals and propagating a false definition of jihad. He believes that these tactics have failed Muslims (Asharq al-Awsat, August 14). Ibrahim emphasizes that this position is not new, but part of a long process that started with the group’s decision to renounce violence through a comprehensive revision of its ideology.
Ibrahim refutes the notion that radical elements inclined toward violence continue to comprise the organization: “Thanks to God, EIG’s members are convinced by the movement’s doctrinal revisions” (al-Arabiya, August 21). EIG’s website includes a list of published works on these subjects, including a book by Muhammed Issam Eddin Derbala—one of the movement’s leading theorists—entitled Al-Qaeda’s Strategy: Mistakes and Dangers. Among other things, the book challenges the idea that the United States is engaged in a war against Islam, although it is critical of U.S. policy toward the Middle East. In a reference to al-Qaeda on its website, it also warns Muslims against following what it describes as false calls to jihad, which it claims causes Muslims harm everywhere.
In commenting on the Islamic tenets governing the practice of war and peace in a critique of al-Qaeda’s use of Afghanistan as a base of operations, Ibrahim states, “the decision to declare war must be undertaken by the rulers alone.” In this context, he goes on to describe al-Qaeda’s declaration of war against the United States and the West in Afghanistan as a “terrible mistake.” He alleges that despite its oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar, al-Qaeda planned and executed the September 11 attacks, as well as the attacks against the USS Cole and U.S. embassies in Africa, without the Taliban leader’s knowledge. Ibrahim then asks: “What are the results of Osama bin Laden’s decision to undertake the September 11 attacks without telling the leader of the nation where he resides? The results are the occupation of Afghanistan, the end of the Taliban and al-Qaeda itself, and the president living as a fugitive in the mountains and desert; only God knows when Afghanistan will be liberated and free of foreign forces. The reason for all of this is that Osama bin Laden took the leader’s right [to declare war] without gaining his permission.”
Despite its militant past, there is evidence to suggest that Ibrahim and the EIG of today are sincere in their formal rejection of violence. EIG’s failure to overthrow the Mubarak regime coupled with its reliance on terrorism alienated the vast majority of Egyptians despite widespread opposition to the government. According to some observers, as seen in a November 2003 report from the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, lengthy prison stints for ideologues such as Ibrahim and his colleagues encouraged a closer study of religious texts, which in and of itself may have contributed to a revision of the group’s radical doctrine.
It is also feasible that Cairo succeeded in co-opting former radical elements in EIG by harnessing international events and applying pressure in order to concentrate efforts on more pressing threats to its control, namely the widely popular Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups calling for an end to the Mubarak regime. If that is the case, it is likely that radical elements opposed to EIG’s transformation will continue to operate in Egypt or choose to act elsewhere. Egyptian radicals may seek inspiration from groups such as Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) or others. Ibrahim believes that al-Zawahiri’s claim of an alleged alliance between leading EIG members and al-Qaeda is possibly an attempt to tap into this pool of potential recruits by sowing division among EIG members or others who support its non-violent stance (Asharq al-Awsat, August 14).