Egyptian militants drop ‘failed’ armed campaign




By Mark Huband in Cairo

Financial Times, 28 April 1999

Egypt’s largest Islamist guerrilla organisation aims to intensify political pressure on the government after abandoning an eight-year military campaign that its leaders admit has been a failure.

“There’s a feeling that the government has won. We want to create a peaceful climate so that we can take our time and think about what should happen next,” said Muntassir al-Zayat, a lawyer who acts on behalf of the Gama’a al-Islamiyya militant group. Mr al-Zayat had been liaising between exiled and jailed leaders of the organisation in the talks, which led to a ceasefire after a campaign in which 1,300 people, mainly policemen, were killed and serious damage caused to tourism, the country’s highest foreign exchange earner.

“Fighting is not an aim in itself. It’s a means. If that means proves to be a failure we should find another way. Within two years we will begin to see some fruit,” Mr al-Zayat said.

“What is clear now is that the Gama’a has grown up, based on the experience of the past 10 years. We will still oppose the government, strongly oppose the government. But it will be peaceful.”

He insists the organisation’s agenda remains the same. Only the means of achieving it has changed.

The fracturing of the Gama’a al-Islamiyya between leaders exiled abroad and those jailed in Egypt{A led to a breakdown in strategic planning that had, until recently, seen the exiled leaders insist on a continuation of the armed campaign while those in jail had called for a ceasefire. This confusion may have been behind the killing of 58 foreign tourists at Luxor in November 1997, which came three months after an original ceasefire call by the jailed leaders.

It cannot be assumed that all armed activists associated with the Gama’a al-Islamiyya, which was born out of social and economic frustration in upper Egypt, will immediately heed the order. But with a broad swathe of the leadership – including Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, its spiritual leader, now serving a life jail term in the US – having agreed to abandon the strategy of violence, the issue facing the Islamists and government is how best to advance a political solution.

The Egyptian government is so sensitive about the issue that it has not responded to the ceasefire. Nor has it officially announced that it has released 1,000 Islamist prisoners in the past three days.

So determined is the government to retain the credibility of its security-centred, rather than political, approach to the Islamist issue, it will continue to maintain that political dialogue is unthinkable.

However, the timing of the prisoner release is not regarded as coincidental.. The sentences of many of those released had long been served, and the prisoners’ continued incarceration had fuelled the Islamists’ sense of injustice.

The Gama’a al-Islamiyya’s shift in strategy is also being regarded by some analysts as reflecting a significant change in the political role of militant organisations across the Islamic world.

Increasingly the objectives of these groups are being defined by their response to the call in 1998 by the Afghanistan-based Saudi Arabian dissident Osama bin Laden for a global assault on US interests.

While Jihad and its Afghanistan-based leader Ayman Zawahri have allied themselves with Mr bin Laden, Gama’a al-Islamiyya rejected such a move. Although three Gama’a leaders are known to be in Afghanistan, they are not with Mr bin Laden.

“They saw no urgency in declaring the war against America,” said Mr al-Zayat. “The Gama’a says that its problem is with the Egyptian government. It is not wise to win extra enemies.”


© Financial Times