Egypt’s militants rethink strategy




Attacks on police and troops counterproductive, say jailed Islamic leaders

By Mark Huband in Cairo

Financial Times, 21 August 1997

Egypt’s militant Islamist organisations are considering a halt to attacks on low ranking members of the security forces despite resistance from hardliners who are said to have killed four police officers and a civilian in southern Egypt on Tuesday.

The first signs of a changing policy emerged last month when six imprisoned leaders of the two main groups – al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and al-Jihad – called for a unilateral and unconditional ceasefire in their five-year conflict with the security forces, in which 1,000 people have died. Islamist leaders have since called for an end to the killing of Coptic Christians, and hinted that instead of fighting each other Moslems should unite for an expected war against Israel.

Both groups were founded in 1981 after a split in the original al-Jihad group which was formed in 1958. Both al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and al-Jihad, which was responsible for the assassination in 1981 of Mr Anwar al-Sadat, the Egyptian president, now see their popular support diminishing as their social and religious activities have been replaced purely by violence against the government, which refuses to allow religious groups a political voice.

“The Gama’a al-Islamiyya have committed blunders, particularly in the choice of targets, notably the killing of conscript soldiers and in the killing of the Copts. This has alienated ordinary people,” said Yassir al-Sirri, a London-based Egyptian Islamist exile, who faces a death sentence in Egypt{A and has close ties with the main groups.

“The common man has become the fuel of the fire, instead of the people at the head of the regime. This violence was mistaken because it gave the regime more respectability. The [Islamist] organisations are weak because their connection with the masses has been weakened,” he admitted, suggesting that the violence is likely to be redirected rather than stopped.

Following last month’s call, internal differences over the ceasefire within the Islamist organisations emerged. Imprisoned leaders in Egypt supported the call, while those in exile as well as some militant cells at liberty in the country advocated continued violence.

On August 9, Shiekh Omar Abdel Rahman, the Gama’a al-Islamiyya’s spiritual guide serving a life sentence in the US for his part in the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, supported the ceasefire call. On August 12, a statement in Murabitoun, the Gama’a al-Islamiyya newsletter, appeared to give official support to the ceasefire.

Mr al-Sirri said the groups were now about to make a “corrective move” in response to the realisation that “the policy of unlimited confrontation established by the Gama’a al-Islamiyya was wrong,” adding that the Islamist groups had been weakened by a failure to co-ordinate their military actions.

The two main groups now aim to re-establish a functioning presence among the population.

The Egyptian government has so far rebuffed the groups’ ceasefire call, and suspects it is intended to ease pressure on the Islamist groups while they reorganise their campaign. “Security bodies in Egypt will not stop confronting terrorist groups,” said Hassan al-Alfi, Egypt’s interior minister.

The government’s refusal to countenance any form of dialogue with the armed groups is viewed by some Egyptian political commentators as a lost opportunity: “It’s very important that [the Islamists] have said there should now be no attacks on the Copts, and that Moslems should group together to defend the Arab cause against Israel,” said Fahmi Howeidi, a political commentator with links to the Islamist movement. “All these things mean that they are rethinking their strategies.”

© Financial Times