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Islam

In the Mystery of the Revolutionary Brothers

In the eye of the storm /1. Egypt. The long history of the organisation founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928. At times flattered and rejected by official political power and at times protected or persecuted, the adherents of the most important fundamentalist movement have never ceased to extend their influence, alternating dramatic acts of violence with a peaceful dissemination of their beliefs and convictions.

I prefer to speak about 'violence in Egypt' rather than 'terrorism' for a series of reasons. First of all, there is no agreement on the meaning of terrorism, its definition and its nature. Some argue that resistance to a colonial occupier is a sacred duty; others are of the view that this is an example of unjustifiable violence. Another divergence relates to the attempt to impose an idea or an opinion: those who advance an opinion or adopt it consider the propagation of their ideas a divine mission and charge. And to justify this they could adduce the famous saying 'who keeps silent about truth is a mute devil'. However, whether one is dealing with the use of intellectual or physical violence, this will whatever the case be rejected by others which see it as intellectual or practical terrorism. Then there are types of violence that are concealed behind religion and exploit religion, playing upon the religious feelings of the simple.

 

In the case of Egypt, researchers have observed how violence expresses itself and increases in specific situations such as the absence of a national project around which citizens can rally. In addition, ignorance, poverty and social injustice are auxiliary elements. Indeed, if a charismatic personality appears on the scene who enjoys popular favour and knows how to profit from it, this figure is able to drag behind him hundreds and thousands of people who are reduced to a state of unawareness.

 

The roots of the Islamist organisations, which are accused of violence, go back to the beginnings of the last century and specifically to 1928, when Hasan Ahmad 'Abd ar-Rahman Muhammad as-Sa'ati, better known as Hasan al-Banna, established the 'Association of Muslim Brothers'. After just five years Hasan al-Banna had already embarked on a political career and he continued to establish local associations of his organisation, whose numbers reached three hundred in 1938. Naturally enough, Hasan al-Banna would not have enjoyed such success if he had not had the support of the Prime Minister of the time, 'Ali Maher. In the same year, that is to say in 1938, Hasan al-Banna created a secret apparatus.

 

The Egyptian government took an important step and a step full of consequences in 1942 when it closed all the cells of the Brothers. Hasan al-Banna, however, did not accept defeat, and together with five of his companions stood for the elections of 1944 to the Chamber of Deputies. Ahmad Maher, who was Prime Minister, managed to exclude al-Banna and his friends on the basis of their previous alliance with the Wafd Party. Not only did he do this, but, raising the temperature of the conflict, Ahmad Maher also declared war on the Brothers on 24 February 1945. The response of the Brothers to this escalation was violent and was expressed in the assassination of the Prime Minister himself in the same year by Muhammad al-'Asyawi. With the growth in violence, the 'Brothers Law' was passed round about the same time, that is to say between 24 February and 8 September 1945.

 

The Brothers organised themselves in an excellent way and increasingly infiltrated the political world, organising demonstrations, in which they had the protection of the security forces. Their penetration grew to such a point that in 1946 they managed to cause the downfall of the an-Naqrashi government. Clashes took place in many areas and the Brothers managed to obtain weapons openly by employing the excuse of the Jihad in Palestine. The Brothers produced a military organisation and trained in the use of weapons under the eyes of the security forces. In the same year some Jews were killed and some shops owned by Jews were bombed. Suspicion fell on the Brothers and some of them were arrested and put on trial. The public minister Ahmad al-Khazandar imposed severe sentences and as a reprisal al-Khanzandar was assassinated.

 

The year 1948 was thick with events. The Brothers by now constituted a state within a state and began to apply their code which was emanated in the same year. An-Naqrashi, perceiving the danger, on 8 December issued a government decree which dissolved the Association of Brothers. Their answer was not slow in coming. 'Abd al-Magid Hasan assassinated an-Naqrashi on 28 December 1948. The tension continued to increase in the next year and the government had Hasan al-Banna killed.

 

1950 brought with it some signs of distension in relations which led to negotiations between the Wafd government, under Fu'ad Siraj ad-Din, and the head of the Brothers, Hasan Isma'il al-Hudaybi. These negotiations ended with the return of the Brothers to public life, albeit in an informal way given that the government did not rescind the decree dissolving the Association which had been issued on 8 December 1948. But new clouds gathered around the Association because of an internal scission caused by the issue of the use of force. We should not forget that the early 1950s marked the first stirrings of the Movement of Free Officers whose principles and objectives coincided with the leanings of the Brothers, who thus co-operated fully with that movement, above all in the fire of Cairo of 26 January 1952. Hasan al-Hudaybi blessed the values of the revolution. However, as soon as the leader of the revolution passed the law of agrarian reform which allowed the ownership of at most two hundred feddan, the tensions began. The Brothers argued that the ownership limit should have been five hundred feddan. This led them to ask Gamal 'Abd El-Nasser to submit every decision to them before it was made operative. Once again symptoms of divergence emerged when the Brothers opposed the law which dissolved the political parties. The revolution wanted the Association to be exclusively religious but it did not yield to the measure and maintained its political character.

 

Dissent spread within the Association: Hasan al-Hudaybi and as-Sanadi contested the leadership of the organisation and the elimination of Fayez, the second in command of al-Hudaybi, formed a part of this struggle. The year that was marked by the greatest number of events and developments was the year 1954. On 14 January 'Abd El-Nasser arrested four hundred and fifty Brothers. Nasser, in an attempt to put al-Hudaybi in difficulty, visited the tomb of Hasan al-Banna on 12 February. The Association responded with the demonstrations of 27 and 28 February in which slogans against Nasser and in favour of democracy were shouted. It appeared that these demonstrations were a propitious opportunity to strengthen the ranks of the Association and to recreate the apparatus of its secret organisation. The Brothers came out into the open and opposed the agreement for the British withdrawal from the country which had been signed by Nasser. On 2 October the situation within the Association was dramatically changed. While Nasser was making one of his speeches in al-Manshiyya square in Alessandria, on 26 October, an attempt was made to assassinate him. All suspicion fell on the Brothers, and Nasser launched a highly successful strike against them by arresting three thousand people in one night.

 

In 1957 two books by the thinker Sayyed Qutb, Ma'alim fi t-tariq ('Milestones') e al-hakamiyya lillah ('Sovereignty Belongs to God', a very old Muslim principle), generated great interest and gave a forceful impetus to the Association. In these books Sayyed Qutb launched an appeal for the highest authority to be God and those whom God had delegated as His representatives and were faithful to His teachings. The influence of the principles and the ideas of this thinker was soon demonstrated and found visible expression in Shukri Mustafa, the founder of the at-takfir wa l-hijra group (anathema and migration). This group declared that the whole of society was unfaithful and argued that the authorities had distanced themselves from the righteous teachings of Islam. For this reason the group called for the abandonment (translator's note: the Arabic meaning of the word hijra, hegira, migration) of society and a return to the correct principles of the faith.

 

The defeat of the Egyptian army by Israel on 5 June 1967 contributed to the spread of the ideas of Sayyed Qutb: it was said that the defeat had been caused by the distancing of the state from the teachings of Islam. There thus began a series of attacks of which the first victim was Dr. al-Dhahabi, the Minister for the awqaf (translator's note: the Muslim religious foundations) on 4 July 1977. The various formations continued their violent actions. For example, al-takfir wa l-hijra attacked the technical faculty of the Military Academy on 18 April 1974. These groups infiltrated the armed forces, the police and all strata of society. This contributed to the implementation of the plan to assassinate Anwar al-Sadat, the President of the Republic, on the day of his triumph, during the parade to celebrate the victory over Israel of 6 October 1973, namely the crossing of the Suez Canal by the Egyptian forces, the destruction of the Barleev line, and the advance into the Sinai desert.

 

The assassination was carried out on 6 October 1981 and other people lost their lives as a result of it, amongst whom the Copt-Orthodox bishop, Anba Samuel. The Islamist groups also took control of the prefecture of Assiut as a first move to establishing their authority over the whole of the governorate. The attack, carried out by armed force, led to the deaths of many soldiers and officials. Murders and attempted murders followed each other without interruption. The worst period of violence in Egypt was the two decades of the 1980s and the 1990s when the Islamist groups and the authorities confronted each other in a violent way. To illustrate this, incomplete statistics for the period 1991-1997 may be presented.

 

 

Consequences of the violence between the Islamists and the authorities in Egypt 1991-1997

 

1. Tourism. 25 attacks, 93 foreigners dead, 68 wounded (47 foreigners, 21 Egyptians). The case that had the widest echo was number 552 of 1992 (Supreme Security of the State), registered as number 6/93 by the Supreme Military Court. All these cases involved attacks on buses, shops for tourists or ferries on the Nile. Case n. 881/93 (the Qasr en-Nil commando) involved a molotov cocktail being thrown into the Caffè Wadi en-Nil in Tahrir square. The most famous of these attacks in absolute terms was the killing of eighteen tourists on 18 March 1996 in front of the famous Albergo Europa in Ghiza and the attack at Dayr al-Bahri in Luxor, on 17 November 1996, when fifty-eight foreigners lost their lives.

 

2. Copts. 31 attacks, 42 civilians killed, 52 wounded. The cases that had the widest echo were number 9465/91 (the commissariat of Embaba), linked to inter-religious clashes, and case 323/92 (Supreme Security of the State), that is to say the event at Abu Qurqas in 1997, which was linked to the clashes in Assiut.

 

3. Police. 83 attacks, 382 dead (policemen and elements of the Jama'a Islamiyya and civilians), 400 wounded (policemen and elements of the Jama'a Islamiyya and civilians).

 

4. Infrastructures. Attack at the airport of Assiut (4 dead and 9 wounded), attacks on banks, with a total of 11 cases.

 

5. Video clubs. 13 attacks, no dead, 5 wounded.

 

6. Cinemas. 9 attacks, 4 dead (belonging to Islamist groups), 8 wounded (Islamist groups and civilians).

 

7. Murders. 3 dead: President Sadat; the President of the Assembly of the People, Ref'at al-Mahbub; and the thinker Farag Foda. Of the many episodes we may remember: the attempted assassination of the Minister for Internal Affairs, Hasan Basha (1987); the attempted murder of the Prime Minister, Atef Sidqi (1993); the attempted murder of the Minister for Information, Safwat al-Sharif; the attempted murder of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Naghib Mahfuz; and the attempted murder of President Hosni Mubarak at Addis Abeba (1995).

 

The state, which felt that it was in danger, began to follow a new policy in order to combat violence based upon the freezing of the sources of foreign funding, the capture of members who lived outside the country, and the broadcasting of programmes that demonstrated the false character of the claims of the terrorist leaders.

 

The reasons why certain sections of the population were chosen as targets, a subject that has already been discussed in this paper, are as follows:

 

a. tourism, because it is an important source of income and a crisis in tourism undermines order. In addition, the international mass media find in such attacks a pretext to criticise the existing regime;

 

b. the Copts, because they are a religious minority and some immigrant Copts exploit the foreign mass media to speak about the weakness of the regime;

 

c. cinemas and video clubs, because they spread messages which, in the opinion of the Jama'a, are contrary to decency;

 

d. public personalities, liberal thinkers and innovators, because the Jama'a wants to continue to dominate the masses with its ideas.

 

e. the exponents of the state, so that, if possible, power can be seized.

 

 

In the facts that have been presented in this paper one can detect an increase in armed operations by the Islamist groups against tourism during the years 1992-1993, then their near disappearance in the period June 1993 to March 1996, their return in the years 1996-1997 and then their termination, above all after the launching of the initiative for the halt to violence by the 'radical' Islamic associations. Indeed, in 1997 there was the proclamation by Shaykh Muhammad al-Maqarri of a fatwa by which violence was halted. Operations were thus suspended but the next year the Islamic Front for the Struggle Against Jews and Crusaders was founded, with the adherence of the Egyptian medical doctor al-Zawahiri to Osama Bin Laden. Violent operations once again appeared, first of all with the two attacks in Cairo in 2004-2005 and those in Taba and Sharm el-Sheykh (2005), which were perhaps a message to the President of the Republic who liked meeting his guests at Sharm el-Sheykh.

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