Egypt: Islamic Fundamentalist Organisations: The Muslim Brotherhood and the Gama'A Al-Islamiya (The Islamic Group)

  • Author: Zina Sackur
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    1 March 1994


Throughout the last century Egypt has suffered sporadic bouts of internal violence caused by confrontation between the government and Islamic militants. But the violence is in a sense misleading. "Political Islam" is gaining ground in Egypt primarily by peaceful rather than violent means. Egyptians are increasingly embracing the social side of the fundamentalist agenda, searching for comforting certainties in uncertain times (The Daily Telegraph, 23 August 1993).

The Islamic resurgence has manifested itself in many different areas of Egyptian society. It is certainly not confined to a single class. Throughout the country new mosques are being built. Religious programmes dominate television channels, and TV shows are interrupted for the call to prayer. Religious literature is more in evidence than ever before - even in the government controlled press. Preachers such as Sheik Muhammad Mitwali al-Shaarawi are household names and enjoy celebratory status. Their voices are heard not only in mosques and at religious gatherings, but also on cassettes played all over Egypt (Esposito, 1992, 140). Veils, beards and prayer-marks are visible signs of this new overt religiosity - a phenomenon which has developed in the last decade. Islamic intellectuals are increasingly vocal in their calls for a democratic Islamic political structure (The Daily Telegraph, 23 August 1993).

These social changes - the increase in conservatism and in religious adherence - have prompted new support for the Muslim Brotherhood which is now a major voice in Egyptian life. The Brotherhood has come to represent a significant, well-organized portion of Egyptians. Exact support is difficult to gauge in a society which has little genuine democratic representation, or independent means of expression.

In comparison, it can be said with some certainty that the militant Gama'a al-Islamiya (the Islamic group) does not enjoy mass support (Esposito, 1992, 140). The Gama'a does not seek to engage in, or win the peaceful political argument. The militants believe that Egypt is an "ungodly" state and must be put on the path to "true Islam". Their language and their methods are very different from those of the Muslim Brotherhood, even if their ultimate objective - that of an Islamic state governed by Sharia law - is in many ways the same.

As this paper will show, the Egyptian Government has made little attempt to differentiate between the two groups in its efforts to overcome what it perceives to be the "extremist" threat. That policy has alienated many Egyptians who do not condone the militants' use of violence.


Egypt gained its independence from Britain in 1922. It was, however, a bogus independence - the real power remaining in the hands of the unpopular British High Commission (Gresh and Vidal, 1990, 32). Egyptians were disillusioned with their political leadership. They believed that whatever steps British officials took in Egypt they were taken with British, not Egyptian, interests in mind (Marsot, 1990, 89). This disillusion with politicians, allied to a deep recession that affected everyone prompted the growth of a number of movements and associations (Ibid). Foremost among these movements was the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by a school teacher, Sheik Hassan al-Banna. Al-Banna preached a return to a more simple approach to life centred on Islamic values. It was a social as well as a political movement, with a network of local organizations through which members helped each other find jobs and set up schools (Woodward, 1992, 14). Its message spread fast. The Muslim Brotherhood soon became a political power to contend with, claiming support among the urban poor and the middle classes, both equally disenchanted with their government, its economic policies and its inability to do much to oust the British from the land (Marsot, 90).

When war broke out in Palestine in 1948, members of the Muslim Brotherhood fought alongside the Egyptian army as volunteers. Their brave performance in the battlefield earned them widespread respect and caused the Prime Minister of the day, Mahmud Fahmi Nuqrashi, to become extremely conscious of their appeal and the subsequent danger they presented to his position (Ibid, 103). Tensions between the government and the Brotherhood increased. There were outbursts against un-Islamic influences - bars, nightclubs, cinemas. In March 1948 a judge who had passed sentence on some members of the Brotherhood convicted of terrorist acts was assassinated. Nuqrashi decided that the time had come for a crackdown. In December 1948 he ordered the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood and confiscated its funds and properties. Three weeks later Nuqrashi was assassinated by a member of the organization (Heikal, 1983, 123-124). In 1950, the unpopular King Farouk, anxious for political allies, granted the Brotherhood limited permission to operate and thus the Brotherhood gained a brief reprieve (Ibid).

With the success of the Egyptian Revolution and the coming to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, the Brotherhood continued to enjoy a measure of toleration. However, this uneasy relationship, based on self-interest, was shortlived. Early in 1954 Nasser decided to take a tough new stance against the Muslim Brotherhood (Woodward , 1992, 31). He disliked their call for a theocratic state rather than the revolutionary pursuit of social justice which he advocated. Moreover, the Brotherhood's popularity was a threat to his own position (Ibid.). Mass arrests were carried out and leaders were executed (Op. cit., 35). The Brotherhood was officially dissolved and once again had to operate underground.

After Nasser's death his successor Anwar Sadat adopted a new course. He encouraged and fostered Islamic groups, to counter the threat posed to him by leftists and liberal intellectuals (Heikal , 1983, 128-129). "On coming to power Sadat freed the Muslim Brothers from prison and made them his allies against the Nasserite ideology then current" (Marsot, 1990, 138).


The repeated crackdowns on the Brotherhood carried out by Nasser served only to radicalize the Islamists. As a result by the time Nasser died and Sadat took over, an entirely new fundamentalist underground had come into existence. Sadat, however, showed little or no awareness of these new religious movements that were fermenting beneath the surface (Heikal, 1983, 128). In the words of a later commentator: "In his attempts to use the 'religious weapon' for his own political purposes, Sadat failed to realize that the Islamic movement had acquired an independent life and logic of its own" (Ayubi, 1993, 74). The members of these new groups regarded the old Muslim Brotherhood, and the ideas of Hassan al-Banna, as completely out of date. Their mentors were the Pakistani Abu al-A'ala Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb who preached that states should be ruled by the Koran, and that all other forms of rule were a negation of the Koran and a blasphemous challenge to it. There could be no compromise between the two systems, the two sorts of society (Heikal, 1983, 126). The meeting places of these Islamists were the new Ahli (private) mosques, which belonged to private individuals able to choose their preachers without interference from the state. The militants boycotted the Hukumi (public) mosques, controlled by the Minister of Religious Endowments, where the preachers were usually state employees (Kepel, 1985, 81). It was in these private mosques that the necessity of armed Jihad (holy war) to establish the Muslim state was discussed (Ibid.).

These militant groups or cells had names such as the Islamic Liberation Party, Al-Takfir wa al-Hijra (Excommunication and Emigration), Al-Najun min al-nar (Saved from the Inferno), and Jihad (Holy War), as well as many others including the Gama'a al-Islamiya (The Islamic group) (Ayubi, 1993, 74). With each cell being separate and self-contained, this allowed the organization to be at the same time both compact and very loose. This structure is further clarified by Mohamed Heikal thus:

These groups which broke the surface of the mainstream were out of each other's sight. There does seem to have been some organized contact between the heads of the different groups, but whether there was ever an effective overall direction of all the groups is still not clear (Heikal, 1983, 243).

These groups wanted to impose a Muslim form of government, if necessary through violent or radical acts. How many such groups existed, and whether they were united or working separately but with the same end in mind is not known (Marsot, 1990, 139).

As soon as Sadat came to power he abandoned Nasser's state socialism in favour of an infitah (open door) policy which was akin to capitalism. He wanted to attract Western capital and technology in the hope that Egypt would become a haven for multinational corporations. The open door policy brought rampant inflation and consequent hardship among most of the population (Ibid., 134-137). However, as the policy of infitah developed, it also created a new social class characterized by conspicuous consumption and foreign influence. The situation became intolerable for many of the common people (Gresh and Vidal, 1990, 165). "To the religiously-inclined the 'nouveau riches' scattered their money on alcohol and immorality" (Ayubi, 1993, 75). Little by little the Islamic organizations began to express opposition to the Westernizing currents that were sweeping the country (Marsot, 1990, 138).

Sadat's autocratic style of rule also meant that normal channels for citizens to express their discontent were blocked. As a result many rallied to the religious groups as vehicles for achieving changes in government. "Religion became the only channel open to dissent" (Heikal, 1983, 217).

Peace with Israel in 1978 yielded a new sense of fundamentalist outrage. In his anxiety to sustain the momentum of his peace policy, Sadat became closely identified with American policy. Thus, in the minds of the Islamists he personified domestic failure and external betrayal (Vatikiotis, 1991, 443). He was seen to be neglecting his Arab neighbours in favour of closer ties with the West, particularly Israel and the United States (Marsot, 1990, 138).

The assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 by members of Jihad meant that the Islamic militants were able to strike at the very heart of the Egyptian power structure. For a few days following the assassination there were sporadic but vicious armed encounters with militant Islamic groups as the government set out to arrest thousands of suspected members and sympathizers (Ayubi, 1993, 76).

When Husni Mubarak, the former vice-president, succeeded Sadat he introduced a state of emergency in the struggle against the extremists. Eventually he defused the explosive political atmosphere by freeing political prisoners (Gresh and Vidal, 1990, 131).

The first few years of Mubarak's presidency were marked by a lull in the violence. Recently, however, the religious militants have escalated their campaign of violence and have shaken the stability of the country (Vatikiotis, 1991, 451).

This recent escalation is attributed in part to social hardships resulting from a new economic structural adjustment policy and to foot-dragging on democratization (Civil Society, December 1993). Twelve years after Mubarak became President Egypt is still governed by emergency laws which give the security forces sweeping powers to detain suspects for long periods without trial (Al-Ahram Weekly, 20-26 January 1994). The emergency law also allows for civilians to be tried in military courts (Middle East Watch, October 1993).


Although the Egyptian constitution bans the establishment of political parties on the basis of religion, the Muslim Brotherhood has been tolerated since the beginning of the 1970s (Al-Ahram Weekly, 18-24 November 1993). "The Muslim Brotherhood, though tolerated, is still technically an illegal organization, although it advocates the taking of power by peaceful political means" (BBC Assignment, 9 February 1993).

During Mubarak's rule the Muslim Brotherhood has reemerged as the largest and strongest Islamic organization, relying on both social and political activism. With the slogan "Islam is the solution" it calls for the implementation of Islamic law (Esposito, 1992, 133). The Brotherhood presents itself as the moderate face of those who call for the establishment of an Islamic state (Al-Ahram Weekly, 18-24 November 1993). They are effective as a pressure group against existing secular legislation (Ayubi, 1993, 73). Thus the Brotherhood pursues the path of both critic and pressure group (Esposito, 1992, 132). The organization is also active in the so-called parallel welfare system (Ayubi, 1993, 73).

As the Brotherhood is not allowed to participate directly in the country's political system, it has entered into political alliances with secular political parties and organizations (Esposito, 1992, 132). It is represented under the coalition umbrella of the Socialist Labour and Liberal parties (BBC Assignment, 9 February 1993). "Under Mubarak they have been able to participate in politics through coalitions with existing political parties" (Ayubi, 1993, 73).

The Brotherhood is able to function openly in establishing social welfare institutions.

This strand of Islamic activism has set about establishing concrete Islamic alternatives to the socio-economic institutions of the state. Islamic social welfare institutions are better run than their state-public counterparts, less bureaucratic and impersonal (...) Islamic activism has thus developed a substantial socio-economic muscle through which it has managed to baffle the state and other secular forces in Egypt (Esposito, 1992, 132).

The Brotherhood draws most of its members from the middle and lower middle classes: businessmen, bureaucrats, doctors, engineers, lawyers (Ibid.). The influence of the Islamists continues to increase at grass roots level. Dr Rifaat al-Said, Secretary-General of the leftist Tagammu party (Progressive Unionist) hinted at the growing sway and influence of the Islamists by saying: "We the legal parties are like a piece of cork on the surface of society without being able to reach down to its depths" (Al-Ahram Weekly, 16-22 December 1993).

Many Egyptians are sympathetic to the idea of an Islamic Egypt. Theirs is a general discontent fostered by poverty and by alienation from a central government seen as corrupt and repressive (BBC Assignment, 9 February 1993). It is amongst Egypt's poorest and most needy that the Brotherhood's appeal is strongest. For example, when an earthquake hit central Cairo in October 1992 leaving tens of thousands homeless, the Brotherhood were the quickest and the most conspicuous to furnish relief (The Guardian, 24 April 1993). "The Muslim Brotherhood were widely credited with providing makeshift housing and emergency medical care for families who suffered from the earthquake (...) the speedy and very public involvement of the Islamic groups in rescue efforts has raised deep concerns within the Mubarak administration" (Middle East International, 23 October 1992).

The Brotherhood have also penetrated the boards of several professional syndicates including the lawyers, doctors and engineers - the largest professional bodies in the country (Reuters, 13 January 1994). The Muslim Brotherhood sees union politics as one of the few venues through which it can participate openly in political life, and in which some kind of peripheral dialogue with the government can be maintained (Civil Society, May 1993). However the government has introduced legislation aimed at weakening Brotherhood influence in the professional syndicates and unions (Civil Society, March 1993). In the words of Amani Kandil, professor of political science at the National Centre for Social Research in an interview with Reuters news agency:

The Islamists dominate the associations because they have provided many services. An association is not a political party. It provides services and protection for its members. The Doctors Association, for example, offers members subsidised medical services, helps them buy flats, cars and household goods in instalments and provides financial support for families in case of illness or death. The government thinks that if it opens the door to a large number of voters the Islamists will lose the elections, the Islamists say they will win because those who benefited from their services will vote for them. I tend to support this view (Reuters, 13 January 1994).


Militant Islamists are organized within disparate groups. Made up of tiny cells of fundamentalist extremists, they are united in the conviction that the use of force to push Egyptian society towards Islamic rule is a religious duty (New York Times, 14 March 1993).

This belief has been elaborated by Esposito:

Since the legitimacy of Muslim governments is based on Islamic law, militants believed that Egypt's failure to implement the law rendered their country an "atheist state" against which all true Muslims were duty-bound to wage jihad (holy war). Jihad against all unbelievers is a religious duty; militants have reinterpreted Islamic beliefs, maintaining that true believers are obliged to fight those Muslims who do not share their total commitment (...) Compromise was regarded as collaboration with the enemies of God (Esposito, 1992, 135-136).

Whatever their ideological vision the militants are giving new expression to endemic socio-economic frustrations. There is massive unemployment among university and college graduates; many of the Gama'a al-Islamiya's emirs (commanders) are drawn from their ranks. The poorer cities in Upper and Middle Egypt, for example Assiut, also furnish a disproportionate number of followers (The Guardian, 24 April 1993).

The government controlled press also acknowledges economic factors in the rise of militant Islam. An article published by the semi-official Al-Ahram newspaper stated that it is among the young unemployed that the appeal of the militants is strongest. The article went on to say:

an ailing infrastructure and a poor service sector have also given Islamist militants the chance to present themselves as alternatives to the government, going as far as offering several services themselves thereby widening their support base (Al-Ahram Weekly, 18 - 24 November 1993).

But the government is also keen to blame the rise of militant Islam on outside factors. Interviewed by Akhbar Al-Yawm President Mubarak said that foreign quarters with serious domestic problems were exporting terrorism to Egypt to divert attention from their own troubles. He added that the Islamic militants were not really Islamists but a group of mercenaries who belonged to whoever paid them (Akhbar Al-Yawm, 11 December 1993). In an interview with the Financial Times President Mubarak stated: "These people were in Afghanistan. They were earning a lot of money under the Mujahedeen (...) they are persuaded by the Iranians and mainly the Iranians, who are giving them small amounts of money, to destabilise the regime (...) most of them returned from Afghanistan to Iran where they were briefed on how to make problems, then to Sudan. From Sudan via Libya they are coming here" (Financial Times, 22 April). Independent political observers have also cited the probability of their training in Afghanistan. Said al-Din Ibrahim, President of the Ibn Khaldoun Centre for Development Studies, remarked when interviewed by the BBC:

What has been new since June 1992 is the sustainability of the confrontation. On the average there are one to four incidents of killing or assault either at the symbol of the state or a secular target or another religious target. We have observed more sophistication in the use of arms and tactics something that we have attributed to the training of some of them in Afghanistan" (BBC Assignment, 9 February 1993).

The targets in the militants' struggle to set up an Islamist state have included government ministers - including two attempts on the life of the President (The Independent, 21 February 1994). The targets have also included police officers, secular intellectuals, Christian Copts, and foreign tourists (Time, 30 August 1993). Recently they have also begun targeting banks in an effort to enforce the Islamic ban on usury (Reuters, 8 February 1994). Anything considered "morally offensive" is also attacked, including musical recitals and film shows (Kepel, 1985, 205). Some of Egypt's leading film stars have hired bodyguards in response to threats against their lives by militants (UPI, 11 March 1994). In December 1993 a cinema in the industrial town of Helwan, a fringe venue for the heavily-guarded Cairo Film Festival, was attacked with machine-gun fire, killing one policeman and injuring six bystanders (Middle East International, 17 December 1993). After the attack, the Gama'a al-Islamiya released a statement claiming responsibility for attacking what it called "the guardians of eroticism" and "those seeking to destroy our young people through frivolity". The statement also called on all foreigners participating in the film festival to leave the country (BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 13 December 1993). Cinemas showing films that might offend the Islamists are heavily guarded. Egypt's recent movie block-buster "The Terrorist", which questions the violent methods used by the militants, nightly witnesses an intense security operation (Al-Hayat, 17 March 1994).

In the eyes of the militants all these targets are perfectly legitimate. Police officers because they preserve the secular state, liberal intellectuals on the grounds that their works show evidence of "apostasy and atheism that would have a negative effect on morals" (Index on Censorship, August 1993). In June 1992 Farag Foda, a writer known for his secularist views, and an out-spoken opponent of militant Islamic groups was shot dead. The Gama'a al-Islamiya claimed responsibility (Amnesty International, May 1993, 10-11). Sheik Mohammed al-Ghazali, a cleric at al-Azhar, the prestigious institution of Islamic teaching, testified at the trial of those accused of killing Foda. He said that anyone who resisted Islamic law was an apostate who could be killed by the state or failing that, by pious Moslems (Reuters, 6 September 1993).

Coptic Christians, the largest religious minority in the country, have also been targeted. Some militants regard the Christians as infidels and therefore proper targets of Jihad. Christian proselytism is seen as the major obstacle to the propagation of Islam (Kepel, 1985, 209). Attacks have mainly been concentrated in the governorates of Upper and Middle Egypt such as Minya, Assiut and Sohag, where the numerical weight of the Copts (greater than the national average of 6.31 per cent of the total population) exceeds the militants "threshold of tolerance" (Ibid.). Attacks do take place in Cairo but are less frequent. A particularly shocking example took place in May 1991 in a village outside the town of Dairut. 13 Coptic peasants were mowed down with machine-guns (New York Times, 14 March 1993). More recently, in March 1994, a gunman killed five Copts in an attack on a monastery, Deir al-Muharraq, in Assiut (Al-Hayat, 14 March 1994). One press correspondent asserted that Gama'a al-Islamiya leaflets in Assiut claimed that the attack was in revenge for the massacre of Moslems in Bosnia (Middle East Times, 21-27 March 1994). Coptic leaders argue that the Egyptian Government does little to protect them from the militants. The Copts claim that the government conduct security sweeps only after tourists have been targeted. Copts explain this bias by pointing out that tourism is a key source of foreign currency for the Egyptian Government. In the words of Antoun Sidhom, publisher of a weekly Coptic newspaper: "It's as if the government is saying it's OK to munch on the Copts, but don't touch the tourists" (New York Times, 14 March 1993).

The militants have attacked tourist targets for two main reasons. Primarily, to shake the confidence of the government by hitting it where it hurts most - the economy. A handful of violent attacks has frightened tourists and has robbed the economy of hundreds of millions of dollars in much needed foreign currency (International Herald Tribune, 28 December 1993). Secondly, to rid Egypt of Western influences (Reuters, 6 September 1993). In an interview with the BBC the Egyptian cleric and one of the leaders of the Gam'a al-Islamiya, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, said: "Tourism in Egypt spreads low morals and diseases such as AIDS. Tourism should not be about alcohol, fornication and nightclubs" (BBC Assignment, 9 February 1993).

Since February 1994 at least two warnings have been issued by the Gama'a al-Islamiya urging foreigners to leave Egypt (Middle East International, 18 February 1994). The statements warned "tourists and investors to leave the country because our next operations will be extremely ferocious" (Reuters, 3 February 1994). A second warning issued a week later called on embassies to "advise their people (tourists and investors) to leave Egypt immediately" (Statement issued by Gama'a al-Islamiya, 7 February 1994). In two years of violent activity against tourist targets, three foreign tourists have died and dozens have been wounded (Reuters, 3 February 1994).

With little security protection the tourists have proved easy targets. However, Egypt's heavily-guarded cabinet ministers and high-ranking police officers are also prey to attack. Police officers are frequently subjected to attack especially in Assiut (Al-Hayat, 22 March 1994). In October 1990 Dr Rifa't Mahgoub, speaker of the People's Assembly was assassinated. There was an attempt on the life of the Information Minister, Safwat al-Sherief in April 1993 and in August 1993 the Interior Minister, Hassan al-Alfi, survived a bomb attack which left four killed and wounded at least 15 (Time, 30 August 1993). Responsibility for the attack on al-Alfi was claimed by the Jihad organization (The Daily Telegraph, 21 August 1993). In November 1993 there was a car-bomb attempt on the life of Prime Minister Atef Sidki, the bomb missing the motorcade by a matter of seconds (Al-Ahram Weekly, 2-8 December 1993). Jihad also claimed responsibility for this attack (BBC World Service Radio, 17 March 1994). Recently, details of an alleged attempt on the life of the President have been disclosed in the opposition press and some Western papers (Middle East International, 10 September 1993). In March 1994 two army officers were executed by firing squad in Alexandria for plotting to kill the president by planting explosive devices at an airstrip near the Libyan border that was to be used by President Mubarak (International Herald Tribune, 18 March 1994).

However serious and damaging their attacks, Egypt's militant groups remain fragmented and small. They do not enjoy broad popular support. Social discontent has not always translated into membership. They remain a distinct minority voice in society (Esposito, 1992, 140).

In addition, if some might sympathize with their aims, most do not sympathize with their tactics; for example, a series of indiscriminate bomb blasts, packed with nails, which seemed calculated to maximise the loss of innocent life in poor, residential neighbourhoods of Cairo during June 1993 are believed to have hardened public opinion against the militants. The death of a bystander schoolgirl during the attack on Prime Minister Atef Sidki also provoked widespread public condemnation (Middle East International, 3 December 1993). Attacks on tourist targets only serve to alienate the thousands of Egyptians who earn their livelihood from the tourist industry (Ibid., July 1992).

The underground Gama'a al-Islamiya is thought to possess just a few thousand active members. Compared with sophisticated organizations like the IRA, the Gama'a al-Islamiya lacks both hardware and know-how. Many of their attacks have been bungled and their ability to mount a sustained campaign of violence under increasingly ruthless police pressure is questionable (London Review of Books, 24 June 1993).


Although both groups aim for the implementation of Sharia (Islamic law) the Muslim Brotherhood insists that it is opposed to violence, condemns terrorism and has no links with any of the extremist Islamic groups, such as the Gama'a al-Islamiya and Islamic Jihad (Financial Times, 22 April 1993). After an attempt on the life n the Egyptian Interior Minister, Hassan al-Alfi, in August 1993, the Brotherhood issued a statement denouncing the bombing as a "dangerous evil" (Time, 30 August 1994). In March 1994 the Brotherhood issued a statement denouncing a bomb attack on a church in Lebanon which left 10 worshippers dead and wounded 60. It described the incident as "equally brutal as the Hebron mosque massacre" (Reuters, 1 March 1994).

Saif al-Banna, head of the lawyers' syndicate and son of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, said in a BBC interview:

We can change people through education and religious conviction, we do not call for revolution, we do not call for a military coup, we do not call for violence, but we want our rights, if people believe in us, the government must comply with the people's wishes" (BBC Assignment, 9 February 1993)

The Egyptian Government insists that the Brotherhood adopts a "mild and soft" position towards the violence carried out by the Islamist militants. Officials point out that the Brotherhood chooses to focus its attention on criticism of the government's efforts to suppress the militants and on the government's failure to apply Islamic Sharia law (Al-Ahram Weekly, 18-24 November 1993).

Coordination between the Brotherhood and the militants is impossible to prove (Financial Times, 22 April 1993). However, it is a fact that the Brotherhood has been able to use the violence for its own political ends - i.e. to enhance the appeal of a peaceful transition to Islam (London Review of Books, 24 June 1993).


The government views the appeal of the Brotherhood with increasing nervousness. President Mubarak brandishes the example of Algeria to show what happens if Islamic parties are given their head (Financial Times, 22 April 22 1993). A political parties law controls the formation of all political parties. Legal status must be obtained from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). In 1992 an amendment to the law was passed which prohibited political activity by groups lacking legal status (Middle East Watch, July 1993). Brotherhood spokesman, Maamoun Hudaibi, had submitted numerous requests to President Mubarak "to demand from him that the state stop denying official recognition to the Brotherhood as an entity which has the right to operate and contact the masses just like any other political group" (Ibid.).

The Mubarak Government refuses to engage in any political dialogue with the Brotherhood. The NDP Deputy Secretary-General, Kamal al-Shazli, has stated that political dialogue will only take part with "officially recognized organizations" (Al-Ahram Weekly, 18-24 November 1993).

The government has also introduced legislation aimed at diluting Brotherhood influence in the professional associations it now dominates (Financial Times, 22 April 1993). The union law, officially known as "The Democratic Guarantees of Professional Syndicates", issued on 17 February 1993 should, in theory, make it harder for the Muslim Brotherhood to maintain control of the professional unions. It requires 50 percent of the syndicate's members to vote in the first round of council elections if they are to be valid (Civil Society, March 1993). The union law was designed to break the dominance of the Brotherhood. It assumed that the Brotherhood, a small but organized group whose supporters never failed to vote, won their majority because of a low voter turnout (Reuters, 13 January 1994). The law was issued within 24 hours without consultation with those concerned, i.e. the syndicates' boards of directors and general assemblies (Civil Society, March 1993). The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), a non-governmental organization that investigates allegations of human rights abuses and other related matters, issued a press release calling the union law "a violation of all that is claimed in its title, i.e. 'providing democratic guarantees'". The EOHR stated that the law was a violation of the rules of both the "International Convention on Civil and Political Rights" and the "International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights" to which Egypt is a party. EOHR went on to call the law "legislative terrorism which cannot be separated from the rapid deterioration of the state of human rights in Egypt during the last few years" (Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, March 1993).

A year after the passing of the union law, critics claim that it has backfired. Islamist activists are confident that they can maintain their powerful position within the syndicates. The Brotherhood-controlled Engineers Association saw its elections delayed three times because of problems related to the application of the new law. The Secretary-General of the Engineers Association, Mohammed Besher, said in an interview with Reuter that he believed the government had delayed the elections using various excuses to block an Islamist victory. It appeared that a majority of engineers had planned to vote (Reuters, 13 January 1994).

As well as the legislative attempts to curb the growing influence of the Brotherhood, some members of the Brotherhood have also been targets of arrest. In May 1993 Amnesty International documented 56 cases of Muslim Brothers arrested on suspicion of preparing to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state. Most were subsequently released uncharged (Amnesty International, May 1993).


The government's response to the militant threat posed by the Gama'a al-Islamiya and other militant groups committed to violence was swift. An all out war has been declared against the militants. Interior Minister Hassan al-Alfi has said that police campaigns against the militants "are being launched day and night and will not stop as long as there is a single terrorist in the republic, security forces will not rest until these elements are finished off" (Al-Ahram Weekly, 3-9 February 1994). Methods used by the police have raised concerns about the excessive use of force. The police clampdown has resulted in widespread allegations of police brutality from communities caught in the crossfire. For example, in March 1993 an attack during the holy month of Ramadan on the Rahman mosque in Aswan, believed to be the local headquarters of the Gama'a al-Islamiya, resulted in nine deaths and 40 injured. According to a lawyer acting on behalf of 80 men arrested after the assault, police "tried to kill as many people as they could" (Observer, 14 March 1993).

Human rights groups have long chronicled the list of human rights violations practised in Egypt. Amnesty International issued a press release in March 1993 which stated "the Security Forces in Egypt appear to be pursuing a shoot to kill policy, with at least 28 people shot dead by security forces in less than a month (Amnesty International, 22 March 1993). EHRO has said that "it appears that the government policy at the moment is to imprison less and kill more" (Interview with the Secretary- General of the EOHR, Naged al-Barri, 20 February 1994). The government consistently orders the storming of militant hideouts. Recent incidents include the storming of an apartment building in the Cairo suburb of al-Zawya al-Hamra in February 1994; seven militants were shot dead apparently after little resistance. Eight militants were killed in the Southern town of Edfu, nearly a month later (Reuters, 28 February 1994).

According to EOHR the government detains militant suspects by conducting arbitrary security sweeps, especially in areas of Upper Egypt. Anybody suspected of having anything to do with the militant organizations is arrested. The Secretary-General of EOHR has declared that the government carries out a policy of "precautionary arrest". It considers it safer to detain an innocent who might be suspected of being associated with a militant group and subsequently release him, than to give the suspect the benefit of the doubt. In many cases those that have been detained and are subsequently released emerge more sympathetic to the militants' cause. The government also has a system of informers which it uses to identify suspects. Finally confessions and information are extracted by torture (Interview with the Secretary-General of the EOHR, Naged al-Barri, 20 February 1994).

Amnesty International also draws a depressing picture:

For many years arbitrary detention on a massive scale, permitted under state of emergency legislation, has been a major feature of human rights in Egypt. The continuing practice of arbitrary detention affects thousands of individuals every year. Although in theory periods of administrative detention are limited, in practice the system of administrative detention is abused by the security authorities in order to keep prisoners in custody without any charges on an indefinite basis, sometimes for years (Amnesty International, May 1993).

Middle East Watch draws attention to the practice of "hostage taking". Family members of suspects are arrested in order to put pressure on the suspect to give himself up (Middle East Watch, January 1994). Dr Mohamed al-Sayed of the Al-Ahram centre for Political and Strategic studies believes that the security structure is suffering from the lack of an effective information base. Together with the lack of financial resources this has encouraged the government to use hostage-taking and torture to gather information (Cairo Today, November 1993).

Police may arrest a suspect without seeking prior authorization from the public prosecutor (Ibid.). According to Amnesty International, detention orders are issued without any signature, with only the vaguest information given for the reason of arrest, such as "a danger to national security". In the absence of further details courts have often ordered the release of detainees. However, the latter are frequently transferred in secret to police stations or remote prisons where a new detention order may be served on them (Amnesty International, May 1993). Once a suspect is caught, he is usually transferred to the State Security Intelligence for interrogation. In the first step of the interrogation the suspect is allegedly placed naked in a cell with others (both men and women) who are also naked. The detainees are forced to hear their colleagues being tortured. Their wives are called in and threatened with rape. Interrogations involve a large degree of torture. It is usual for a detainee to stay at a branch of State Security Intelligence for anything from a week to a month before being transferred to a main prison. They are often called back from prison to State Security branches for further investigations (Intervies with the Secretary-General of the EOHR, Naged al-Baari, 20 February 1994).

Under Egypt's state of emergency legislation a detainee must be informed in writing of the reasons for his detention and he must have the right of immediate access to a lawyer. According to EOHR these rights exist on paper only. In practice the detainee cannot see a lawyer for 30 days after the initial detention. The government does not implement any of the guarantees it has itself set out in the state of emergency legislation. EOHR estimates that there are approximately 14,000 political detainees in Egypt at any one time. The Middle East Times reports that 29,000 "extremists" now inhabit Egypt's prisons (The Middle East Times, 28 March - 3 April 1994).

In November 1993 EOHR published a report entitled A Crime Without Punishment - Torture in Egypt which was submitted to the Committee Against Torture at the United Nations. The report stated: "torture in Egypt has become routine and widespread, its practice goes without punishment, especially in cases related to political and religious matters" (Ibid.). The report also documented 14 cases of deaths in custody as a result of torture. According to Amnesty International, "Law enforcement officials, particularly those working in connection with security-related suspects, have subjected political detainees to torture or ill-treatment with apparent impunity" (Amnesty International, May 1993). Torture methods include beatings with coiled wires, beatings on the soles of the feet with the body held in awkward positions, electric shocks on sensitive parts of the body, and standing outdoors while naked, followed by dousing with cold water (Middle East Watch, January 1994). Naela Gabr, head of the government controlled human rights department at the Foreign Ministry, claims that the human rights organizations have been unfair in their reporting. She denies that systematic torture exists in Egypt and she says that jailed militants are making allegations of torture to nullify confessions made. "It's a very easy thing to say, 'We have been tortured,'" Gabr says, asserting that militants may even injure themselves to gather support (Cairo Today, November 1993).

According to Amnesty International, the trials of civilians in military courts - a practice begun in late 1992 - have allowed for violations of human rights. The right to be tried before independent and competent judges, the right to have adequate time to prepare a defence and the right to appeal to a higher court have been denied (Amnesty International, October 1993). According to Amnesty International defendants' rights are abused from the moment of arrest in ways which contribute to the unfairness of the trial. The defendants are held in secret, illegal detention and they are tortured systematically until evidence is extracted from them to be used in court. From the moment of arrest they are held in incommunicado detention and denied the right to see a lawyer and their families (Ibid.). In a similar report, Middle East Watch has described the military courts as breaching Egyptian and international law. Their verdicts and sentences cannot be appealed to a higher court. The report goes on to say:

The principle of equal justice under the law is violated, because civilians sentenced to death by military courts are not afforded the same rights as civilians sentenced to death by criminal courts, who may appeal verdicts by applying for review by the Court of Cassation, Egypt's highest appeal court. In addition because the military is part of the executive branch of government, its justice system lacks the greater independence of the civilian judiciary. Lawyers have complained of insufficient time to review case dossiers and to prepare an adequate legal defence. Defendants claim to be have been tortured in custody (Middle East Watch, July 1993).

In contrast to the common outcome of military trials, on 14 August 1993 a civilian security court acquitted 24 Islamists accused of involvement in the assassination of the People's Assembly speaker, Dr Rifa't Mahgoub in October 1990. The court ruled as inadmissible confessions that had been extracted under the "ugliest forms of torture". The men were acquitted of the murder charges but were sentenced to prison terms for other offenses (Middle East Watch, January 1994).

Noor Farahat, head of research at the Arab Lawyers Union, says that his organization is against the growing jurisdiction of military courts because military judges are not independent in their decisions. They follow a chain of command and are obliged to carry out orders from above, he says (Cairo Today, November 1993). The government has been quick to defend the military courts. First General Attorney Mohamed Fahmy said the military courts were fair and did not have a prior agenda before trying suspects. He said that quick retribution in the military courts was a clear example to others of the results of carrying out terrorist acts (Ibid.).

In the last 15 months Egyptian courts have sentenced 50 Muslim militants to death and 32 of those have been executed (Middle East Times, 21-27 March 1994).

In May 1993 Amnesty International said the human rights situation in Egypt was characterized by

mass arbitrary arrests, torture, long-term administrative detention, unfair military trials before military courts resulting in death sentences and possible extrajudicial executions. The government has adopted sweeping measures - often inconsistent with international human rights standards - in both law and practice to confront Islamic militant groups, some of whom have committed deliberate and arbitrary killings (Amnesty International, May 1993).

In addition to the above, new legislation has been passed in an effort to combat the militants. In 1992 the government passed a Law for Combatting Terrorism (Law No 97). The legislation allows the state to outlaw organizations deemed to advocate violating the constitution (Mideast Mirror, 16 July 1992). Critics of the law have said that it would muzzle the press, inhibit freedom of association and confiscate freedom of expression. In the words of an independent legislator, Kamal Khaled: "if somebody advocates the application of Sharia, or views Islam as both state and religion they can be imprisoned and tortured for their views" (Ibid.).

The law also changed the penal code. The death penalty can now be imposed for membership of a terrorist organization, and for supplying money, weapons or information to any such group. Human rights groups fear that this law permits political activities to be treated as acts of terrorism. Furthermore, in the absence of any internationally agreed definition of terrorism, the term could be widely interpreted, leading to more prisoners of conscience and a marked increase in the number of people executed for political reasons (Cairo Today, November 1993).

The government is sensitive to criticism of its human rights record. Human rights departments have been created in several of the key ministries. According to Middle East Watch, however, "it appears that the primary task of these government human rights offices is to rebut the findings of international human rights organizations" (Middle East Watch, January 1994). The government's tough anti-terrorist laws are defended to the hilt. Naela Gabr, head of the human rights department at the Foreign Ministry, defends the government's policies of stricter laws and severer punishments. "As a government, we have to take measures to stop activities of terrorism" (Cairo Today, November 1993). The President, when asked if he thought the police were being heavy-handed in rooting out extremists replied:

Do you think that the police will tell them [the militants] 'hello' and give them a cup of tea and gateau? The police at the beginning never used machine guns. But when several police were killed they started being very conscious of defending themselves. But there is a big exaggeration about this. The extremists are much more violent than the police (Financial Times, 22 April 1993).

Negotiations are out of the question. General Abd al-Halim Mussa, a former Minister of the Interior was sacked from his job for apparently attempting to open a dialogue with the militants (Middle East International, 30 April 1993). In fact General Mussa had ordered large-scale police assaults against suspected hideouts in Upper Egypt and Cairo. Many concluded that in reality he had been dismissed for lack of success in confronting the militants. The new Minister of the Interior, Hassan al-Alfi, declared his total opposition to any kind of mediation between the security forces and what he called "illegal entities". He has vowed a "decisive and comprehensive confrontation with the outlaws" (Financial Times, 19 April 1993).

Other measures have also been taken to contain the rise of radical Islam. In November 1992 the Mubarak administration announced that as many as 40,000 private mosques, believed to be the breeding ground for the militants, would be taken under government control. The Minister of Religious Endowments issued a statement warning that the state would not permit mosques to become "centres for extremist activity". The edict was announced only days after a mosque in Assiut called on its members to join an armed struggle against the central government and condemned Christians and Jews as a "common enemy" (Middle East International, 20 November 1992). Middle East Watch described the government's moves against private mosques as "a development with serious implications for freedom of speech and association" (Middle East Watch, January 1994).

Other attempts to curb the militant threat have also been made. A semi-official government newspaper said Egypt should take actions against countries that offer political asylum to those who have publicly claimed responsibility for "terrorist" operations in Egypt (Al-Ahram, 11 December 1993). In January 1994 the government asked the Pakistani Government in Islamabad to expel Egyptian militants living in Pakistan (Reuters, 5 January 1994). Egypt is seeking a formal extradition agreement with Pakistan (Al-Ahram Weekly, 3-9 February 1994). In January 1994 the Interior Minister announced that 19 "wanted terrorists" had been extradited to Egypt by "friendly countries" (Al-Ahram Weekly, 20-26 January 1994). In a related development direct telephone links between Egypt and the countries accused of harbouring militants (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen and Sudan) were suspended indefinitely (Middle East International, 28 May 1993).


The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, which is affiliated to the Cairo-based Arab Organization for Human Rights has been meticulous in chronicling abuses by armed opposition groups (Al-Ahram Weekly, 27 January - 2 February 1994). However the EOHR does not enjoy legal status and continues to be denied information from the authorities. The region-wide Arab Organization for Human Rights, which is also based in Cairo and the Egyptian section of Amnesty International are also denied legal status (Middle East Watch, January 1994).

The Egyptian press is mainly government controlled and as such reflects the governments position on most matters. According to EOHR,

the overwhelming majority of the press is in the hands of the state. State-owned national papers are in a position of near monopoly due to their long presence in the market place and the support and subsidies they receive from the state (...) the main function of the national press is to defend state policy in all fields (EOHR, March 1994).

However party papers do exist. By far the most outspoken is the Labour party pro-Islamist bi-weekly Al-Shaab (The people). Al-Shaab has undertaken the task of exposing violations of human rights and corruption. Daring headlines such as "corruption among top officials" (Al-Shaab, 25 January 1994) have resulted in Al-Shaab's editors suffering interrogations and threats of legal action (EOHR, March 1994). In October 1993 three Al-Shaab journalists, Adil Husayn, Ali al-Qammash and Salah Budaywi, were detained on charges of spreading extremist ideas through their writing (BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 16 October 1993). The journalists were eventually released. In January and February 1994 the publishers of the paper, Magdi Hussein and Ibrahim Shukri, were informed that they would be facing trial in April for making claims about government corruption (Reuters, 18 March 1994). More recently two journalists working for Al-Shaab were charged with offenses including instigating demonstrations and inciting hatred against the government, because of their coverage of demonstrations in Egypt following the Hebron mosque massacre which took place in the Occupied Territories in February 1994 (Ibid.).

Government control of Egyptian television is direct and all-embracing. Plurality has not been allowed to manifest itself in television and radio because in a country in which illiteracy rates exceed 50% it is by far the most important medium of mass communication (EOHR, March 1994). "The news on Egypt TV faithfully reflects President Mubarak's view of the world (...) in this respect Egyptian television is depressing in its sycophancy and predictability" (BBC Worldwide Magazine, November 1993).

Critics of the government thus do not have many channels of expression. However, influential voices that sometimes differ form the government's position occasionally find an outlet in Egypt's government-controlled press and more often in the Western press. Most critics and opposition parties agree that the use of violence by the militants must be confronted. However, many believe in a national dialogue which includes the Muslim Brotherhood. They argue that allowing the Brotherhood to play a role in the political process will more effectively isolate the Gama'a al-Islamiya than a crude and all-embracing policy of confrontation. Mohamed Heikal, a former advisor to Anwar Sadat and a highly respected journalist writes about the inadequacy of confronting violence with violence and calls for political action to counter the Islamist challenge (Al-Ahram Weekly, 3-9 February 1994). Salama Ahmed Salama, a columnist for Al-Ahram newspaper, urges the government to avoid all out war with the militants and talks of giving people "fresh hope of change". Even General Fouad Allam, a senior figure in the interior ministry, has spoken of the need to reconsider the belief that extremist thought should only be confronted with arms (Observer, 14 March 1993.)


Egypt has always been a deeply conservative and religious society. Islam has played a key role in moulding modern Egyptian culture. However, militant Islam has not been able to attract mass support in Egypt. On several occasions, the militants have tried to exploit grievances to gain widespread popular support but to no avail. In addition, mass arrests and blanket policing of militant strongholds have, for the moment, contained the militant threat. The strong government crackdown seems to have succeeded in taking most of the sting out of the Gama'a al-Islamiya in Cairo. However, it is clear that the militants remain strong in their main power-base in and around Assiut. If the militants have, to a degree, been contained the Egyptian government should not assume that the broader fundamentalist challenge has been overcome.

If most Egyptians feel alienated by the militants campaign of violence there is no evidence to suggest genuine popular support for the regime of President Husni Mubarak. Egypt is still, despite pretensions to democracy, a one-party state. The ruling National Democratic Party has no popular roots. Nor do the official opposition parties. The people feel they cannot influence their rulers, let alone change them. Popular dissatisfaction with the political status quo is fuelled by the economic crisis. Mass unemployment, a population growing at an insupportable rate and desperately poor living conditions all help to inflame the tensions. The only party that can claim genuine popularity is the long-established Muslim Brotherhood which has successfully escaped identification with the militant violence in the eyes of the Egyptian public. The Brotherhood offers its supporters a form of political legitimacy. Their demand for an Islamic polity based on strict interpretation of Islamic law has exposed the moral bankruptcy at the heart of the Mubarak regime. A series of corruption scandals implicating senior government officials has added to the feeling that Egypt is controlled by a self-serving elite. Events in Algeria convince the regime that they are right to exclude the Brotherhood from the legitimate political arena. To those already in power their is no difference between moderate and extreme Islamists. All of them want to establish an Islamic government with a specifically Islamic agenda - only the means to the end differ. The precise extent of support for the Brotherhood is difficult to measure. They have not attempted to spell out an economic or political alternative but, their simple message - "Islam is the solution" - seems to be attractive to many. Given the extent of Egypt's social and economic problems the chances of undermining the appeal of the Brotherhood are slim. Egypt is in need of massive economic and structural reform and a genuine democratic experiment. Without rapid and wholesale reform Egypt's record of relative stability since independence could be seriously threatened.


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"Terrorists encircled", 2-8 December 1993


"Parties compete to register votes", 16-22 December 1993


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"EOHR condemns Islamist violence", 27 January - 2 February 1994


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