A report from a London-based Islamic affairs research centre illustrates the ongoing pressure exerted by the Egyptian government on its Islamist dissidents. A November 30 statement issued by the London-based al-Maqrizi Centre for Historical Studies, headed by former member of the outlawed Egyptian group Islamic Jihad Hani al-Siba’i, highlighted the unexpected news that a leading figure from the Egyptian terrorist organization al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya is still alive and in detention in Cairo. According to the al-Maqrizi Centre’s report [www.almaqreze.com] Sheikh Rifai Ahmad Taha, the former head of the Consultative Council of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, is being pressured to follow the lead of other Gama’a leaders and recant his views, on pain of the execution of the death penalty, which was pronounced against him in December 1992. Rifai Taha was handed over to Egypt from Damascus immediately following the September 11 attacks on the United States. He had been intercepted earlier in 2001 on one of his frequent trips between Afghanistan, Iran and Sudan and transferred to Cairo before mediators had time to effect his release.
The background to Rifai Taha’s case is interesting. He is considered to have been the leading hawk in al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya’s leadership. The group became notorious in the 1990s for its attacks on secularists, Coptic Christians, tourists, and on members of the government, culminating in the attempt on President Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995. But two years later a number of the group’s imprisoned leaders called a truce. Hardliners such as Rifai Taha who was in Afghanistan condemned the truce, and he is held to have ordered, as a signal of his faction’s refusal to abide by a ceasefire, the attack on tourists at Luxor, which killed 58. Denunciations, and subsequent denials of denunciations, indicated a major rift in the Gama’a was taking place.
By this time Rifai Taha had become increasingly close to Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda. Indeed Taha was one of the signatories, alongside Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the founding charter of the ‘Islamic Front for the Jihad against Jews and Crusaders’ established in February 1998, when the fatwa was issued calling for attacks on all Americans, including civilians. It is believed that Osama bin Laden may have subcontracted the Gama’a to bomb the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. However, immediately prior to the bombing an interview with Rifai Taha was posted on al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya’s web magazine, al-Murabitun, strenuously distancing the Gama’a from the Islamic Front – which analysts later interpreted as an attempt to avoid the expected heat of U.S. retribution [weekly.ahram.org.eg/1998/390/in4.htm].
Rifai Taha’s signature on the Islamic Front charter aroused the opposition of other Gama’a leaders, who were re-configuring the group’s ideology to formulate a new, non-violent program. The initiative to end armed confrontation first issued by the group in 1997, was repeated in 1999. Since then, leading figures in the Gama’a, many of whom are still in prison, have been publishing detailed refutations of the doctrine of violence. The last of these was ‘The Strategy and Bombings of al-Qa’eda: Errors and Perils’ reviewed on January 11 this year by the Saudi-owned newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat [www.aawsat.com]. The book underlines flaws in al-Qaeda’s strategy, and in its understanding of jihad and the application of Shari’ah on jihad. It most notably refutes al-Qaeda’s assumption of a religious Christian alliance against Islam. In addition, the book underlines the damage al-Qaeda has done to Islamism as a cause: firstly the collapse of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan; secondly the relentless hunting down of Islamists as part of security globalization; thirdly the damage to the interests of Muslim minorities by the confusion between terrorism and resistance movements; and fourthly the promotion of Israel’s objectives.
However, although Rifai Taha officially resigned from the leadership council in the period after the Luxor massacre, he is considered to have retained his influence over the group, and opposed any ceasefire initiatives, claiming that the movement has obtained nothing in return from the Egyptian government. His position at present is, therefore, a difficult one.
There is pressure on him to agree to the recantation position adopted by other Gama’a leaders. To avoid the application of the death penalty, Cairo has demanded that he disown his own book, Imata al-Litham, in which he opposed al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya’s publications on non-violence; assent to the seven books which repudiate the group’s previous acts against the regime and which hold that President Anwar Sadat died a martyr; condemn acts of robbery on banks and violence against tourists and security personnel; and call on the younger generation members to consider armed activities religiously unacceptable.
In return for this, Rifai Taha is to be reprieved and benefit from improvements in his prison conditions. So far, the al-Maqrizi Centre reports, the Sheikh has refused this deal and has maintained his traditional views. The Centre has called on human rights organizations to intervene to prevent the carrying out of the death sentence, and prevent the Egyptian state pressurizing him to change his ideological positions.