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.

But Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya remains on the U.S. Department of State’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). The group may not be pleasant; in March, a BDP leader blamed “liberals” for instability in Egypt, and its views on women and minorities offend Western sensibilities. However, neither has Al Gamaa taken up Al Qaeda’s war against the West and the Middle East’s “apostate” regimes. In a recent diplomatic flare-up between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Al Gamaa actually took the Saudis’ side, saying the country was too important to Egypt to break ties. The BDP has even promised in the near term to accept the 1971 constitution’s designation of sharia as the “main source” of law while maintaining its more comprehensive long-term goal of implementing the specific proscriptions of sharia in Egypt.

Al Gamaa’s FTO designation complicates the U.S. relationship with a transitioning Egypt. BDP parliamentarians have been consulted by the Freedom and Justice Party, which controls a plurality of the legislature, in discussions on bringing down the SCAF-appointed government and on the formation of a cabinet from the legislature. Members of Al Gamaa are also sure to be included in the constituent assembly that will write Egypt’s new constitution. BDP is formally in alliance with the Nour Party, which controls a quarter of Egypt’s People’s Assembly. If Al Nour or BDP joins a future government, is Egypt a terrorist state?

While Al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya is small enough simply to be ignored by U.S. policy makers, American interests can be promoted by holding up the group as an example. The U.S. government may not like BDP’s political platform or goals, and it should not acquiesce to demands such as releasing Omar Abdel Rahman from federal prison—a nationalist goal, shared by secular Egyptians as well. However, revoking Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya’s FTO designation and engaging with its political party to a limited extent would allow Al Gamaa to serve as a direct refutation of Al Qaeda: an Islamist group using the political system, not terrorism, to advance its agenda. If Al Gamaa no longer “engages in terrorist activity or terrorism, or retains the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism,” then its trajectory from violence to political participation is the exact path down which the United States should hope to see all terrorist groups travel. If the group has stopped supporting terrorism and violence, as it claims, then delisting it would send a powerful message.

Zack Gold is a Washington-based Middle East analyst conducting research on Egyptian Islamist groups. Follow him on Twitter: @ZLGold.

Image: Kodak Agfa