It has been 20 years since the Egyptian state first unleashed the Islamists against the left. Today the Islamic upsurge has taken on dimensions far beyond state manipulation. The mid-term confrontation, marked by the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat in 1981, ended in a draw. Now, more than a decade later, the battle rages more fiercely than before. Violence, and not just “Islamic” violence, now characterizes the temperament of this supposedly placid nation. [1] In the general atmosphere of state violence and citizen violence, Islamist terrorists are no strangers. When ordinary citizens rioted in 1992 against the authorities in Edku and Abu Hammad in the Delta (where things are generally calmer than in Upper Egypt), no Islamists were involved. [2] The riot was a spontaneous reaction against police brutality. A similar dynamic almost recurred in Cairo itself, in novelist Naguib Mahfouz’s favorite Gamaliyya district.

The Egyptian state is paying now for its belated action against the Islamists, not to mention its earlier complicity. Deferring confrontation was an instinctual tradeoff, not a carefully thought-out state policy. The government turned a blind eye to Islamist grassroots power. In return, the Islamists did not confront state corruption and inefficiency, especially in Upper Egypt.

When the state finally decided to act, was it a simple reaction to armed terrorism? The main confrontation in late 1992 and early 1993 was triggered by selective assassinations of “state security” officials for their role in torturing and killing Islamists. Former and incumbent interior ministers were the top targets. But the state endured this, as it had the killing of 13 Christians in Dayrout in May 1991. The change of policy was less a response to this terrorism than to non-violent but threatening political challenges posed by the Islamists.

Among these challenges were Islamist successes in local elections. The regime, furthermore, together with its right and left allies, lost the elections for the governing council of the Bar Association, long a liberal bastion. Sheikh Jabir, the leader of Cairo’s “Islamic Republic of Imbaba,” held an international press conference in which he mocked the government’s lack of power in what he referred to as his domain. The final straw was the challenge posed by the terrorist attacks on foreign tourists. [3]

The state executed its crackdown in a manner that will prove counter-productive in the long run — and even in the short run. [4] When President Husni Mubarak proclaimed to Egypt’s intellectuals at the Cairo Book Fair in January 1993 that he was trying to spare Egypt the fate of Algeria, he seemed oblivious to the possibility that his approach might lead to an Iranian scenario. His regime spares no effort to antagonize the masses and alienate the elite.

Ordinary Egyptians already endure economic crisis and structural adjustment. They require no further harassment in the form of increasing police brutality. While few Egyptians have real sympathy for terrorism, especially those who suffer from the loss of tourist revenues in Upper Egypt, they still hate the police. One journalist warned that without citizen involvement the confrontation appears to be one between the police “family” and the terrorist “family.” [5] Be it in Imbaba or in Asyout, citizens are caught in a crossfire. [6] In the Aswan massacre, eight citizens — not terrorists — were killed at prayer time in al-Rahma mosque on March 10. [7] The savage torture of arrested Islamists, terrorist and non-terrorist alike, sustains their logic of violence in the eyes of some spectators. [8] Journalists and intellectuals keep advising the government about the insufficiency of the “security solution,” not to mention its excesses. [9]

Indiscriminate Attacks

What is more serious is the indiscriminate targeting of all Islamists. [10] The government capitalized on the support it got from both right and left. Al-Wafd, supposedly the premier liberal newspaper in the Arab world, applied a blackout on human rights violations when it came to Islamists. The secretary-general of the leftist Tagammu‘ party, Rif‘at al-Sa‘id, emphasized the sectarianism of Islamists (citing their harassment of Christians). He called them muta’aslimun (pretenders), denying them any integrity and refusing to distinguish between moderates and extremists. [11] An indiscriminate vocabulary has characterized both government and opposition press, except the Socialist Labor Party’s neo-Islamist al-Sha‘b.

More significantly, the government began harassing the Labor Party and the Muslim Brothers, thus homogenizing the Islamic movement despite its many factions. This is not learning from history. After failing to defeat the Brothers at the ballot box in professional associations, especially the Bar Association, the government unilaterally imposed a new legal structure on union and syndicate elections. This episode was a declaration of political bankruptcy. The new election law was hastily promulgated, literally within 24 hours. It stipulates that, to be valid, union and syndicate elections require a quorum of one half of all voting members. This requirement does not exist for — and has never been achieved in — national elections for members of Parliament or for the president of the republic. The statute, officially called the “Law of Democratic Guarantees for Professional Unions,” was instantly nicknamed the “Law of Nationalization of Unions,” contrasting it with the privatization campaign underway in the economy.

The reaction in the unions themselves, especially the Engineer’s Union, whose general assembly meeting coincided with the promulgation of the law, was clearly hostile to the government. Inadvertently, the government catapulted the Muslim Brothers to the forefront of the opposition. The Brothers responded tactfully — meeting with the prime minister to discuss a compromise, taking the case to court and calming the outraged union rank and file. [12] This reflected their intention to avoid a major confrontation with the authorities, as they sensed that a wave of repression was underway.

The government also exacerbated tensions with the Socialist Labor Party, instigating a splinter group to hold a conference, oust the party leadership and halt the publication of al-Sha‘b. [13] This attempt was thwarted by the speedy mobilization of party members, including opposition figures who rejected government manipulation on principle. [14] The government, at the last minute, also acted with restraint (perhaps as a result of some external advice). Thanks to government miscalculation and misdeeds, the Socialist Labor Party, which got some 8 percent of the electoral vote in 1984 and some 18 percent jointly with the Muslim Brothers as the Islamic Alliance in 1987, is becoming a pole of power for a radical but non-violent Islamist alternative in Egypt. If free elections were held now, a repetition of the Algerian episode would be a serious prospect. Secular intellectuals shrug off this possibility, as they did in Algeria prior to the election results there.

In an effort to check the pan-Islamist connections of the Socialist Labor Party, the government introduced changes into the political parties law. It made permission from the Parties’ Commission (dominated by ruling party elements) a prerequisite for international activities of political parties, which also have to report back to the commission after the fact. Further, it prohibited parties whose application for license is pending from engaging in activities — hitherto they had been allowed to act until a license was denied. In effect, the regime is driving underground those who want to act above ground!

To prove its firmness against terrorism, but at the cost of alienating the judiciary, Mubarak’s government last October decreed that accused Islamists would henceforth be tried in military courts. In a speedy show trial in Alexandria in early December, a military court sentenced eight Islamists to death and passed harsh prison sentences on 30 others. [15] The ruling was overturned by the Administrative Court, whose chief judge, Tariq al-Bishri, was then attacked personally by government cronies in the press and in Parliament; the dispute is now in the hands of the Constitutional Court. Another case of some 50 Islamists accused of attacking tourists was tried in a Cairo military court in mid-April.

To defuse the Islamist trend, the government is reducing the religious content in the media and diluting sectarianism in the schools. Even though this policy may be long overdue, some have voiced doubt about its sudden application. [16] When the education minister dismissed a teacher and her four students for having played a tape in the classroom denigrating Christians, riots broke out in the city of Qalyoub (in the Delta near Cairo). [17] The minister had to reinstate them, all the while denying he was succumbing to pressure. [18]

The intellectual monologue “against terrorism” at the Cairo Book Fair in January only proved how far secular intellectuals of the right and left are ready to play into the hands of the government. [19] The exception was labor lawyer Nabil al-Hilali, who vehemently criticized state terrorism when he was invited — perhaps inadvertently — to speak there. [20]

The Third Way

Is it too late? Are we witnessing the run-up to an Islamist takeover or a military takeover? Can the system absorb it all? No illusions should prevail about the legitimacy or capabilities of the present system, beyond its ability to rig elections and deploy troops. The Shah had similar capabilities. The capacity to surround terrorists and destroy them is no real accomplishment. The power of the terrorists is their ability to expose the weakness of the system, weakness that lies outside the police and security forces. It lies in the regime’s inability to win clean elections, in its refusal to share power even with its supporters. The same people hold power indefinitely. The president himself is presently preparing for a third six-year term. Corruption in Egypt has reached unprecedented levels — one critic, from within the establishment, recently called it “unbridled.” [21]

The regime’s ability to incorporate the younger generation in Egypt’s political economy is at its lowest point. What they get is poor quality education, which they have to pay for even though it is nominally free. After graduation, they join the ranks of some three million unemployed. They find it difficult to marry, since housing is not available except for the rich. Their alienation makes them eager to leave the country, and receptive to rebellious indoctrination. The Islamist extremists may not all themselves be unemployed, but unemployment feeds a general atmosphere of disappointment upon which fanaticism feeds. The terrorists of today were around ten years old when Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated. Not only has the regime failed to resolve the state — Islamist confrontation in its bloodiest form, but the pace of recruiting the young to violence has speeded up.

The way out is obvious. The present polarization can only be broken by a massive reform program. At the political level this means ending the monopoly of power, changing the constitution, having elections for president and not just yes-or-no referenda. A pluralistic parliament is not hard to imagine; there are 440 seats, enough to accommodate the entire range of political forces in the country. Conduct local elections, leave the unions and professional associations alone, and, most importantly, incorporate the bulk of Islamists into the system by legalizing a non-violent Islamist party (the Muslim Brothers are the obvious choice).

To raise morale, and morality, mount a serious campaign against corruption. Some present cabinet ministers are obvious candidates to stand trial. This is a prerequisite. [22] Cleaning up the ruling party can pave the way for a coalition government, including moderate Islamists. This would set the course for expanding employment opportunities for the young.

Only after putting its house in order can Egypt play a regional role commensurate with its potential: contributing to resolving the problem of Palestine and settling its differences with Iran and Sudan to reduce regional tensions.

There is no alternative if Egypt is to evade the Hobson’s choice of Islamicization by the Algerian model or the Iranian model. The Egyptian third way should be one of reform and reconciliation. Continuous confrontation, civilian disintegration and military intervention will only make things more difficult. Egypt’s concerned friends might remind the present rulers in Cairo of the price of retarded change.


[1] There was, for example, the incident of a child burned alive in a neighborhood quarrel in Cairo. Al-Ahram, January 1, 1993.
[2] See al-Sha‘b, October 2, 1992.
[3] See Salah al-Din Hafiz, “Rise and Fall of the State of Imbaba,” al-Ahram, December 16, 1992.
[4] For an informative account of the present confrontation, see Hisham Mubarak, “Scorched Earth Policy,” al-Yasar (April 1993).
[5] Nabil Omar, “Asyut Unveils the Mask of Fear,” Al-Ahram, March 25, 1993.
[6] Note the excesses of the police in the Imbaba siege and cleansing operation. See the report of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, March 20, 1993.
[7] Al-Sha‘b, March 16, 1993, and Al-Ahali, March 17, 1993.
[8] See “That is how a Cairo University teacher was tortured,” Al-Sha‘b, February 2, 1993.
[9] A young woman was beaten up at a police station in Cairo. She turned out to be the daughter of a prominent psychiatrist, and her uncle happened to be the second most senior officer of the Cairo police! No one seems to be spared. See Muhammad Shaaban, “The Silent Majority,” Al-Sha‘b, April 2, 1993. A senior police “intellectual” (general and PhD) advised that terrorism should be treated as a crime per se without apologetic reference to its social foundations. See Ahmad Galal Ezzeddin, “The Question of Terrorism and the Approach,” Al-Ahram, March 13, 1993.
[10] Fahmi Howaidi, “Political Thinking!” Al-Ahram, March 2, 1993.
[11] See his radio debate with Rashid al-Ghannushi of Tunisia in Al-Ahali. November 18, 1993.
[12] See Medhat al-Zahid, “Half Victory-Half Defeat,” Al-Yassar, April 1993.
[13] Akhbar al-Yom, February 20, 1993.
[14] Mustafa Amin called it a crime of hope (Akhbar al-Yom, February 20, 1993).
[15] Al-Ahram, December 4, 1992.
[16] See Fahmi Howaidi in Al-Ahram, February 2, 1993, and March 16, 1993.
[17] Al-Ahram, March 9 and 15, 1993.
[18] Al-Ahram, March 19 and 27, 1993.
[19] For a liberal critique of acquiescent liberals, see Ayman Nur, “Liberal Forces and the Crisis of Egyptian Reality,” Al-Ward, February 17, 1993.
[20] For another leftist critique of government, see Muhammad Rida Muharram, “You Cannot Cheat Everybody,” Al-Ahali, February 10, 1993. See also his “Pushing in the Wrong Direction,” Al-Ahali, December 23, 1992.
[21] Tahsin Bashir, “An Open Letter to President Mubarak,” Al-Ward, September 3, 1992.
[22] The alternative would be a “safe passage” abroad, as suggested by Ibrahim al-Dessouki Alaza in Al-Ward, February 25, 1993.

How to cite this article:

Ahmed Abdalla "Egypt’s Islamists and the State," Middle East Report 183 (July/August 1993).

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