The fall of Baghdad, as President Bush had expected, sent shockwaves throughout the region. Some say, however, if the American president thought the domino effect would be one of democratization, he is likely to be mistaken. Many Arabs across the region are not savoring America’s triumph and instead, they argue, Muslims are more likely to rally around the Quran and the Kalashnikov to provide an answer to the American tanks on the streets of Iraq’s capital.
“War has shifted the fortunes of Islamists,” said Emad Shahin, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. Before the war, they were on the defensive globally as a result of 11 September. Now, the world’s attention is focused on America’s might-makes-right policies. “Bush became the bad guy. The Islamists won some sympathy.”
Political Islam, particularly in Egypt, received a shot in the arm.
“War has created favorable conditions for recruiting more cadres,” said Muhammad Salah, Cairo bureau chief of Al Hayat and expert on fundamentalist groups.
In times of crisis, Salah argues, people seek refuge in religion and God, especially when they feel they are confronting an invisible enemy who can target them using laser-guided bombs fired hundreds of miles away.
“Numbers of worshippers have indeed increased a lot before and during the war in our mosques,” said Ayman al-Sebae, a 22-year-old member of Tabligh wal Dawa, Egypt’s largest preaching network. “People do not find answers for what’s happening. But now they understand that returning to religion is the solution.”
Feeling the street pressure and the possible repetition of the Iraqi scenario, the Egyptian regime has invited the country’s largest opposition force to government-sanctioned rallies, namely at the Cairo Stadium and Al Azhar mosque. Muslim Brotherhood activists were working hand-in-hand with police officers to keep law and order during the protests. A bizarre scene, for some observers, since the banned group has been, until recently, a target of a series of security crackdowns, and had one of its lawmakers forced out of parliament last January.
“The regime knows what’s coming ahead, so it wants to secure support to face the American pressures,” said Shahin. “It will try to reach out for the opposition.”
If 11 September provided the authorities with a carte blanche to crack down on the movement, war has now provided the Brothers with the chance for rapprochement with the state, make their presence felt, and increase their popularity. The Brothers managed to deliver on the micro-level sending a number of aid caravans to Iraq. People can see they “did something,” added Shahin.
At the same time, the Brothers are playing a risky game. Their moderate approach, absence from street politics, and joint coordination with the security services may ultimately have a negative effect on the movement’s popularity.
Leftist student activists at Cairo University accuse the Brotherhood students of “collaborating” closely with security as a safety valve during the capital’s recent riots and protests.
The lack of militancy has pushed several group’s base cadres to send an open letter–published by Al Hayat–to the movement’s supreme guide on 4 April 2002, questioning the leadership’s strategy.
Hala, a fourth-year history student at Cairo University who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, said she feels uneasy about coordinating protests with security. “But it is imposed on us by the authorities. We don’t like this limited freedom.”
Criticism is not only coming from the left and the group’s own base cadres, but also from militants within the Islamist movement.
The government’s invitation is “an attempt to absorb the street’s discontent, and contain the Islamist movement,” said Yasser al-Sirri, director of the London-based Islamic Observation Center. “The state wants to reap the fruits of the Islamists’ activities. Any action, done in coordination with the government, is a downfall for the Brothers and provides the regime with legitimacy. The man on the street understands that well.”
For their part, the Brothers say Bush has managed to unite the whole of Egypt–both government and opposition–in the face of an American threat, since “despite the deep wound it created, the crisis in Iraq has awakened the people, given them zeal, and shown clearly that America is not God’s heaven on Earth,” as Rashad Bayyoumi, a member of the group’s leadership and professor of science at Cairo University, put it.
“We can never be contained. Our history proves this,” he said in defense of the Brothers’ strategy. “We do not consider ourselves at odds with the regime. We care for the country’s interests.”
Still the group, according to observers, can risk losing ground to the radicals.
“The war has promoted a fertile ground for militant ideas,” Salah said. “It showed significant Islamist circles, as well as ordinary citizens, that the US has to be confronted now. Many will realize the conflict cannot wait as the reformist Brothers preach.”
Brothers’ leaders seem aware of that. “The public has to breathe,” warned Bayyoumi. “Repression could lead to violence. Extremism has been tried before and had catastrophic results.”
Praying and other peaceful like-minded attempts to find answers in the mosques are unlikely to be the sole channel through which the Muslim World, including Egypt, expresses its dissatisfaction with what they regard as a return of 19th century-style colonialism in the region. The fallout will likely include reviving militant Islam, which the Egyptian regime has been trying to suppress over the past two decades.
“When it is over, if it is over, this war will have horrible consequences,” President Mubarak warned last month in a meeting with Egyptian army leaders in Suez. “Instead of having one [Osama] Bin Laden, we will have 100 Bin Ladens.”
Armed groups, like the Islamic Jihad, long perceived as finished organizationally, could be revived again.
Militants, including Yasser al-Sirri–whom the authorities are keen to extradite from Britain for his alleged role in the Islamic Jihad’s assassination attempt against then Prime Minister Atef Sidqi in 1993–argue that the regional developments promote jihadi ideologies. Judging the development of the Islamist movement according to statements by well-known figures preaching moderation could lead to nothing but false deductions.
“The events boosted Islamism, both under and above the ground,” he said in a telephone call from London.
Observers point out that, thanks to the war, the most difficult stage in the radical groups’ activities have been facilitated: finding fresh recruits. The recruitment process, which usually takes years in each individual case, involves security checks, indoctrination, and enforcing loyalty to the group’s leadership.
Now, with the radicalization resulting from the Palestinian intifada and the Iraqi crisis, “these stages have been burnt. Recruitment takes relatively less time,” affirmed Salah of Al Hayat.
The picture is probably different with the Gamaa Islamiya, the country’s largest armed Islamist group that waged a relentless war against the regime in the 1990s, before its leaders renounced violence in 1997. With the Gamaa’s infrastructure crushed, it is unlikely to lead the jihadi movement once again.
When contacted, Montasser al-Zayat, a Gamaa-affiliated lawyer who helped broker the truce between the group and the government, refused to comment describing the situation as “demoralizing.”
Violence is likely to be revived again, but it will not come from the Gamaa, suggested Khaled Sherif, a freelance journalist and a former Gamaa member. The group is currently contained, with the overwhelming majority of its leaders in prisons.
Moreover, “the Gamaa had a bitter experience with armed struggle, both in Afghanistan and Egypt. It is difficult to conceive that they will repeat the experiment again,” he said. Nevertheless, some individual members of the Gamaa acting without the leadership’s blessing may be encouraged to carry up arms again, he added.
Already, there had been calls to the Gamaa from fellow militants in other groups to rethink its new pacifist position, and return to jihad. Ayman al-Zawahri–leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Bin Laden’s key lieutenant–engaged in fierce polemics against Al Zayat last year across the pages of Arabic newspapers about the dangers of “succumbing” to the Egyptian regime.
Last February, Abu Baseer, a London-based Syrian militant in exile who enjoys prominence among radical Muslim activists made a similar call to arms. After initially blessing the Gamaa’s truce, he made a U-turn and accused the Gamaa of being a “sellout” and called on its base cadres to renounce their leaders and continue fighting the Egyptian regime.
Still, Sherif thinks that even if the group wants to, it does not have the organizational resources to resume the war, nor to send mujahideen to Iraq.
With the outbreak of the war, thousands of Arabs–unspecified numbers of Egyptians among them–volunteered for Jihad against the US-British invasion. Arab fighters battled US marines in west Baghdad, as well as other parts of the city, engaging in suicide attacks on several occasions. Two dozen bodies of those volunteers were buried by residents in one of west Baghdad’s outskirt neighborhoods, reported the Qatari-based Al Jazeera channel on 14 April. And they included Egyptians. Some wonder if Iraq will be the new bus stop for the mujahideen after Kabul, Bosnia, Grozny, Kosovo and Kashmir.
According to Salah, the organized militants are a minority among the volunteers. Most of the Arab fighters are ordinary Muslims or unaffiliated Islamists who were emotionally stirred up by scenes of the war.
Sirri explained that most of the volunteers were Arab students in Jordanian and Syrian universities. But he said also a significant number of organized jihadis–from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kurdistan–joined the ranks of Ansar Al Islam, a radical Sunni group operating in Kurdistan and accused by the US administration of having links to Al Qaeda.
During the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan was an open arena for jihad, since the Arab regimes and the US, at the time, embraced Muslim youth who wanted to travel and fight the “infidel communists.”
While recognizing that the mujahideen are currently under siege, Sirri still thinks it is not impossible for them to flock into the ranks of Ansar al-Islam, which is trying hard to secure a favorable fighting environment.
Since the group, he continued, does not have air defense capabilities, its fighters withdrew to their bases on the border with Iran and other areas. Moreover, to the group’s fortunes, the Americans bombed the bases of the Kurdish Gamaa Islamiya, which had taken a decision not to resist the coalition forces. Rank and file members were dissatisfied. A split occurred, and some went over to Ansar al-Islam, Sirri added.
Salah describes the jihad movement right now as still spontaneous and disorganized, but sees it gradually coalescing into organized groups that will act like a pole of attraction to the other unaffiliated volunteers.
“It might create a new generation of mujahideen similar to the Afghani Arabs–the ‘Iraqi Arabs,’” said Salah. “Expect in a year’s time to hear news about the bombing of the US Embassy in Madagascar, another American navy destroyer in Philippines, and so on.”
While established militant organizations could be targeted by security services, an army reserve of freelance jihadis are expected to play a role in attempting to destabilize the domestic stage.
“Violent reactions will not necessarily come from militant groups, but from the Muslim public in general,” said Sherif, the former Gamaa member.
With the feelings of public anger at the US–in addition to easy access to online radical websites and “anarchist cookbooks”–ordinary young Muslims, may start taking matters into their own hands if they feel their government has let them down. The radical literature available for any web surfer means the ideological foundation can easily be provided.
Last January, authorities announced the arrest of 43 alleged jihadis, and accused them of trying to blow up Western interests using homemade explosives, carried by pigeons, to be flown to their targets. Al Qaeda literature, downloaded from the internet, was found in some of the houses of the suspects, but the government acknowledged they don’t have any “organizational” links to Bin Laden’s network. None of the arrested had previous political records.
Freelancers like those 43 jihadis could well be the future of armed politics, suggests Dia Rashwan, a researcher with Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “This can happen through individuals, spontaneous initiatives, neighbors who know each other, or a group of friends who pray together at a local mosque,” he said citing the Al Waad group trial–which rights activists said was a sham–as an example. “It was a group of zealots with no political history. Aggravated by the events in the Islamic world, they tried to raise funds to support Muslim causes.”