Al-Gama`a al-Islamiyyah emerged during the 1970’s as a phenomenon rather than an organized group, mainly in Egyptian jails and later on in some of the Egyptian universities. The phenomenon of the Islamic Group was mainly affected by the militant ideology of Sayyid Qutb (executed in 1966), who paved the way for the establishment of several Islamic militant branches in Egypt and the Arab world.
Following the release of most of the Islamic prisoners from the Egyptian jails by president Sadat after 1971, several groups of militants began to organize themselves. These militant groups or cells took names such as the Islamic Liberation Party, al-Takfir wal-Hijra (Excommunication and Emigration), Al-Najun min al-nar (Saved from the Inferno), and Jihad (Holy War), as well as many others, including al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Group). Each cell operated separately and was self-contained, a fact that allowed the organization to be structured, but at the same time losely organized. It seems that there was some kind of organized contact between the leaders of the different groups, but whether there was ever an effective overall direction of all the groups is not clear.
Peace with Israel in 1979 yielded a new sense of fundamentalist outrage. In his anxiety to sustain the momentum of his peace policy, Sadat became closely identified with the American policy. Thus, in the minds of the Islamists he personified domestic failure and external betrayal. He was seen to be neglecting his Arab neighbors in favor of closer ties with the West, particularly Israel and the United States. The assassination of Sadat on October 1981 by members of the Jihad group meant that the Islamic militants were able to strike at the very heart of the Egyptian power structure.
Mubarak’s first few years as the successor of Sadat were marked by a lull in the violence. Since then, the religious militants have escalated their campaign of violence and have shaken the stability of the country. This escalation can be attributed in part to social hardships resulting from a new economic structural adjustment policy and to foot-dragging on the democratization process. The Islamic militants gave a new expression to endemic socio-economic frustrations. There was massive unemployment among university and college graduates and many of the al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya’s emirs (commanders) were drawn from their ranks. The poorer cities in Upper and Middle Egypt, for example Assiut, also furnished a disproportionate number of followers .
The militant Islamists are organized within disparate groups and are thought to number several thousand members. 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 of Jihad.
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 Egyptian society. In addition, if some might sympathize with their aims, most do not sympathize with their tactics. For instance, a series of indiscriminate bomb blasts, packed with nails, which seemed calculated to maximize the loss of innocent life in poor neighborhoods of Cairo in June 1993 are believed to have stiffened public opinion against the militants. The death of a schoolgirl bystander during the attack on Prime Minister Atef Sidki also provoked widespread public condemnation. Attacks on tourist targets only serve to alienate the thousands of Egyptians who earn their livelihood from the tourist industry.
The extremist Islamic groups of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya do not maintain connections with the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks mainly political legitimacy. In several occasions, such as the attempt on the life of the Egyptian Interior Minister, Hassan al-Alfi, in August 1993, the Brotherhood issued a statement denouncing the bombing as a dangerous evil.
The government’s response to the militant threat posed by al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and other militant groups committed to violence was swift, and an all out war has been declared against the militants; and new legislation has been passed in an effort to combat the militants. 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 centers for extremist activity.
On November 17, 1997 58 tourists and four Egyptians were killed in the southern town of Luxor in the bloodiest attack since the Gama’a took up arms in 1992 to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak’s government.
Several weeks later two statements – one vowing to halt attacks on foreign tourists and a second denying that such a decision had been made – were issued in the name of the Gama’a al-Islamiyya. The split actually began to surface in July following a truce called by imprisoned leaders of the Gama’a al-Islamyiya. The two contradictory statements showed the Gama’a was clearly fragmented both inside and outside Egypt.
The statement vowing to halt the attacks was issued by the Osama Rushdi’s faction. Rushdi is the Gama’a media official and lives in the Netherlands, where he publishes the Gama’a publication ‘Al-Murabitoun’ (Vigilant Warriors). The extremist statement was issued by Refaei Ahmed Taha, one of the Gama’a leaders who is said to live somewhere in Afghanistan.
One consequence could be that the splinter armed units in Egypt could carry out even more violent attacks and groups on the run in Egypt may work independently. According to Egyptian security sources Gama’a units working in the south of Egypt were working independently without coordination with their political leadership in what they called “a military coup.”
Qutb’s main contribution was to give Islamic religious legitimacy to the duty of maintaining violent Jihad against Arab secular regimes, which were perceived by him as heretics. He also gave priority to this kind of Jihad over the religious social Islamic revolution of the Muslim Brotherhood. The members of the new groups regarded the old Muslim Brotherhood, and the ideas of its founder, Hassan al-Banna, as completely out of date. Sayyid Qutb preached also that Muslim 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.
The targets of the militants’ struggle for the establishment of an Islamist state, have included government ministers and officials (including two attempts on the life of President Husni Mubarak). The targets have also included police officers, secular intellectuals, Christian Copts and foreign tourists. Recently the Islamic extremists have also begun targeting banks, in an effort to enforce the Islamic ban on usury. Anything considered morally offensive is also attacked, including musical recitals, film shows and video stores.
In the eyes of the militants all these targets are perfectly legitimate:
Police officers because they protect the secular state; liberal intellectuals on the ground that their works show evidence of apostasy and atheism that would have a negative effect on morals. In June 1992 Farag Foda, a writer known for his secularist views, and an out-spoken opponent of militant Islamic groups was shot dead and al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya claimed responsibility. Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali, a cleric at al-Azhar, the prestigious institution of Islamic teaching, testified at the trial of those accused of killing Foda. He declared that anyone who resisted Islamic law was an apostate and could be killed by the state or failing that, by pious Moslems.
Coptic Christians, the largest religious minority in the coun, have also been targeted. Some militants regard the Christians as infidels and therefore appropriate targets for Jihad. Attacks have mainly been concentrated in the governorates of Upper and Middle Egypt such as Minya, Assiut and Sohag, where Christians live in large numbers and have much influence in the economic life.
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; secondly, in order to rid Egypt of Western influences. In an interview with the BBC the Egyptian cleric and one of the leaders of the Egyptian Islamist militants, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, said that tourism in Egypt spreads low morals and diseases such as AIDS.