From Terrorism to Democracy

Washington should hold up Islamist groups that renounce violence and embrace politics as examples, not continue to call them terrorist organizations.

“If the ruling junta doesn’t give us what we want, we will take to the streets to make our voices heard.” The sentiment is a familiar one today across the Middle East and especially Egypt, where the masses that brought down Hosni Mubarak from Tahrir Square have returned again and again to challenge the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that rules in his place.

However, calls for street protests and sit-ins should not be expected from Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya, the Islamic Group that terrorized Egypt—its secular government, its citizens and its visiting tourists—throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Elements of Al Gamaa cooperated with associates of Ayman al-Zawahiri, now the head of Al Qaeda, to assassinate Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. Some members of Al Gamaa, such as al-Zawahiri and others in his Al Jihad group, fled Egypt and later joined up with Al Qaeda. Others remained, such as an Egypt-based cell that gunned down sixty-two tourists and Egyptians at Luxor’s Temple of Queen Hatshepsut in 1997.

In a brutal crackdown, the Mubarak regime managed to crush this Islamist insurgency. With many of its leaders and operatives in jail, Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya began to reconsider whether its violent actions were aiding or hurting its goal of toppling Egypt’s secular government and replacing it with a regime dedicated to its vision of sharia, or Islamic law. At the prodding of Egypt’s minister of the interior, according to some accounts, the movement renounced terrorism against the state in 2003. Through this jailhouse conversion, Al Gamaa claimed—or at least convinced itself—that violence was never its aim, but the strong arm of the state left it no alternative.

On February 11, 2011, the secular state Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya had been fighting against crumbled. The organization, along with many other Islamic and Islamist groups, found an opening to remake Egypt as a Muslim emirate. Al Gamaa and like-minded groups have brought followers out in droves to support political ends. Some of its leaders, such as cousins Tareq and Abboud al-Zomer, were released from prison for the first time since being swept up in Sadat’s assassination investigation. After tense internal deliberation and a purging of its leadership, the movement formed its own political party: the Building and Development Party (BDP).

In a recent column, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius referred to Al Gamaa’s gains as “electoral bin Ladenism,” despite participatory democracy being anathema to the late Al Qaeda leader. But unlike Hamas or Hezbollah, two Islamist terrorist groups that also participate in elections in the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon, respectively, Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya has laid down its weapons. The base of the movement, those who remained in Egypt, has not been implicated in terrorism since 2003.

After flirting with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, BDP decided to join the Islamist bloc, dominated by the Salafi Al Nour Party, for elections to Egypt’s People Assembly last fall. Today, thirteen BDP parliamentarians sit in the heavily Islamist legislature. Members of Al Gamaa deliberate with fellow members of parliament, a long way from their past rejection of man-made rule.

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