Watch the Islamists

January 31, 2011 Topic: Domestic PoliticsTerrorismSecurity Region: Egypt

Watch the Islamists

How much longer can Cairo contain Upper Egypt's Islamists?

An estimated three dozen Islamist militants reportedly escaped from an Egyptian prison on Sunday amid the chaos that has enveloped the country. This did little to quiet the raging debate over the possibility of an Islamist takeover in Egypt if the thirty-year-old regime of Hosni Mubarak crumbles.

Those who warn of a new Iran are right to point out that the Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized opposition group and that it has long been waiting for such a moment. On the other hand, Islamists have had little to no footprint in what can only be described as a leaderless protest movement.

How do we know if the Islamists are poised to pounce? The answer might be found in Upper Egypt.

This southern area of the country—known as Upper Egypt because the Nile River flows from south to north—has considerably weaker central authority than Egypt’s north. Also known as the “Sa’id,” the region includes a string of poverty-stricken towns along the Nile, stretching south from the pharaonic pyramids to the Aswan Dam. These towns, including Beni Suif, Minya, Mallawi, Asyut, Sohag, Qena and Luxor, are traditionally less developed, less educated and less influenced by the outside world. When the regime of Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser drove the Muslim Brotherhood out of Cairo and Alexandria in the 1950s and 1960s, the Islamists migrated south, where weaker government authority allowed them to operate more freely.

For two decades, the Islamists of Upper Egypt thrived. Motivated by their ascetic interpretation of militant Islam, they created grassroots schools, health clinics, mosques and other civic services, which were not sanctioned by the state, but were vital for creating sympathy, legitimacy and an environment for recruitment. The two primary groups to emerge: al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya and al-Jihad.

On October 6, 1981, Egyptian army lieutenant Khalid Islambouli assassinated Sadat and seven others with an automatic rifle at close range. Islambouli’s 1982 trial revealed that he was part of a twenty-four-man al-Jihad cell from Upper Egypt.

Concurrent to the assassination, al-Gamaa launched an uprising in the Upper Egyptian town of Asyut. The new Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, subsequently crushed Islamist groups throughout Upper Egypt, arresting thousands. He cracked down on the unlicensed mosques and implemented a state of emergency that remains in effect to this day.

Despite the repressive measures, fits of violence rocked Upper Egypt in the 1990s. Islamists launched attacks against tourists, liquor stores, theaters, Coptic Christians and former government figures.

The Islamists of Upper Egypt posed an even-greater threat after al-Qaeda established a base in neighboring Sudan from 1992 to 1996. Several Egyptian figures took the opportunity to establish closer ties with Osama bin Laden’s global terrorist group. Among the high-profile Egyptians based in Khartoum were Ayman al-Zawahiri, future deputy to bin Laden, and Muhammed Atef, al-Qaeda’s deputy chief of operations in the early 1990s.

On November 17, 1997, al-Gamaa carried out a grisly attack that was both local and international in nature. Terrorists entered a popular tourist site in the Upper Egypt town of Luxor, killing sixty-two tourists in cold blood. A statement found amid the dead left little doubt that the killings were the work of al-Gamaa.

This was the last straw for Mubarak, who struck the Islamists of Upper Egypt with an iron first. Over three decades, the government arrested tens of thousands of suspected Islamists, backing them into a corner where they were forced to renounce violence. In 2002, al-Gamaa issued a four-volume set of books entitled Correction of Concepts, which criticized al-Qaeda’s strategy and tactics. The group also condemned the 9/11 attacks in the government-run al-Mussawar magazine. The government has slowly allowed many of them to re-enter society after undergoing a “reprogramming regime” of sorts.

Though these two groups have been militarily defeated, their ideology is still very much alive. Upper Egyptian culture is saturated in Islamism, and Cairo has taken only nominal steps to undermine the message. It certainly never provided a strong alternative ideology.

As more secular protests rage in Cairo and Alexandria, an eerie calm has descended on the traditional hotbed of Islamist violence farther south. In the past, government repression has kept a lid on al-Gamaa and other groups in Egypt’s Islamist movement. But with the regime on the verge of collapse, how much longer can the movement be contained?

Jonathan Schanzer, a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. Treasury, is vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.