During April 1994, armed actions of the radical Islamist opposition in Egypt achieved a new level of lethal efficiency. One Gama‘a Islamiyya (Islamic Group) hit squad killed Maj. Gen. Ra’uf Khayrat, who was responsible for conducting undercover operations against them; another assassinated the chief of security of Asyout province, the Islamist stronghold in upper Egypt; a third shot at a train transporting tourists to the Pharaonic monuments of upper Egypt; and two or three ordinary policemen were shot each week.

The regime responded with a two-pronged counter-offensive. The first was a massive crackdown on Islamist militants and sympathizers. Between 500 and 1,000 suspects were rounded up, adding to the 20,000 already in detention. Police broke up a large armed cell of the Jihad organization, killing its leader in the assault. These actions dealt a severe blow to the operational capacity of the armed Islamists, judging by the sharp decline in violent incidents in May and June.

The second initiative was a more diffuse and long-term cultural campaign featuring popular television and film productions. Three new television serials addressing the phenomenon of Islamist radicalism were launched during Ramadan — signaling a departure from the previous tendency to avoid representing Islam in television dramas. During a lengthy television interview on March 27, a repentant former Islamist, ‘Adil ‘Abd al-Baqi, eloquently recounted his 17-year career in the movement, from his recruitment until he voluntarily turned himself in to the authorities.

The centerpiece of this cultural counteroffensive is ‘Adil Imam’s latest film, The Terrorist (al-Irhabi), directed by Nadir Galal, which also premiered during Ramadan. It was an immediate success in Egypt and a leading attraction at the Arab Film Festival of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris during June. Its popularity is partly due to its artistic team. ‘Adil Imam is an Egyptian cultural icon, a gifted comedian who sends audiences into paroxysms of laughter with his facial expressions alone. The screenplay is by Lenin al-Ramli, a highly successful dramatist whose creativity and commercial acumen have led the revival of live theater in Cairo. But most appealing about The Terrorist are its theme and its political bravery. ‘Adil Imam’s name was already on a published list of potential targets for the radical Islamists; all those who participated in the film’s production have taken a substantial risk, and their courage must be acknowledged.

The Terrorist draws an uncomplimentary portrait of the Islamists, suggesting that they are motivated by sexual frustration and are organized around dictatorial leaders who keep them ignorant of Islam’s true message. It graphically depicts Islamists smashing up jewelry shops, destroying video rental clubs and firing on tourist buses. The film’s improbable plot is framed by the reenactment of two well-known incidents — the shooting of a high ranking army officer on the highway between Cairo and the largely upper-class and foreign suburb of Ma ‘adi, and the assassination of a secularist journalist who evokes the memory of Farag Fawda.

Fleeing the scene after executing the first of these attacks, ‘Ali, the Islamist played by ‘Adil Imam, is run over by a car which is driven, fortuitously, by the daughter of a doctor. To avoid complications with the police, her family and neighbors take him into her home, where her father treats him. Finding papers in his (stolen) attache case, the family decides that ‘Ali is a professor of philosophy at Cairo University, and they insist that he remain in their home until he is fully recovered.

In the care of this wealthy family, ‘Ali is exposed to everything he regards as heretical. He shares a room with the doctor’s son (Ahmad Ratib), which features pictures of Lenin and Che Guevara, whom the son refers to as ‘a great struggler” (mugahid). The younger daughter of the family, a student at the American University in Cairo (Hanan Shawqi), is a stereotypical airhead devotee of the lifestyle of the rich and Westernized. The older daughter who ran ‘Ali down falls in love with him after reading the poetry she discovers in a journal in his attache case. She insists that he attend her lavish birthday party, where he quickly becomes drunk. Surrounded by the care and warmth of this exemplary, modern, bourgeois family, ‘Ali decides that they are good people after all. Rather than carry out his mission to kill the journalist, a close friend of his hosts, he warns him of the assault and is gunned down by security forces as he tries to stop the murder.

Such an implausible plot is not necessarily a flaw in a dramatic comedy. But The Terrorist also imposes an implausible range of social and political choices. Only the tiniest fraction of Egyptians can aspire to the comforts and lifestyle enjoyed by ‘Ali’s hosts. The film’s attempt to represent this family as “genuinely” Egyptian by valorizing a class-blind, secularist vision of national unity, showing them enthusiastically supporting the national soccer team along with ‘Ali and their Coptic neighbor, rings hollow. The Terrorist counterposes an idyllic image of bourgeois secularism, nationalism and reason to the senseless violence of Islamist terrorists. Most Egyptians will not identify with either option.

The Terrorist makes no reference to existing social conditions facing most Egyptians: extremes of wealth and poverty; lack of affordable housing; illiteracy caused by an overextended educational system; and rampant unemployment, hovering around 20 percent. These conditions have discredited the regime and generated an angry cultural reaction against the lifestyle of people like ‘Ali’s hosts and the government whose policies facilitate it. The absence of any reference to the economic benefits of class means the film does not offer a plausible resolution to the question it poses.

Also notably absent is any reference to the regime’s tactics against the Islamists. Although the government has in the past eagerly used the Islamists as a club against the left, it has never allowed them to participate openly in the political process. President Husni Mubarak has refused to include the Muslim Brotherhood in the “national dialogue” that the government is organizing to reestablish its legitimacy, and the dialogue will not include constitutional questions that might alter the 40-year old practice of changing the head of state only as a result of his death.

One of those apprehended by the police dragnet in April was the Islamist lawyer ‘Abd al-Harith Madani, who reportedly conveyed a truce offer from the armed Islamists just before his arrest. He died 24 hours after being taken into custody — from an asthma attack, according to police. But his body was not released until more than a week later. The authorities’ refusal to permit an autopsy has led to accusations that he was tortured to death to reveal the names of his contacts in the armed groups. International human rights agencies are on record charging that political detainees are tortured in Egypt.

The Bar Association, now controlled by the Muslim Brothers, organized a one-day strike and protest march. On May 17, as some 3,000 lawyers tried to leave their headquarters and proceed to the presidential palace, they were attacked by police wielding clubs and tear gas. Forty lawyers were arrested, and that night eight more, including three Bar Association board members, were taken into custody. On June 14, five lawyers, including two with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, Gamal ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and Sayyid Fathi Naggar, were arrested for distributing leaflets calling for a second lawyers’ strike to protest the government’s refusal to investigate the circumstances of Madani’s death.

They were not released until July 5. A regime that tortures its opponents to death and attacks a peaceful protest of lawyers cannot convincingly claim to speak in the name of reason and democracy and risks further erosion of its legitimacy. A film that fails to refer to these conditions while graphically portraying the violence of the regime’s opponents grievously misrepresents the nature of the political contest.

Sonallah Ibrahim knows something about political repression in Egypt; he was jailed as a communist from 1959 to 1964. His novel, Najmat Aghustus (The Star of August), graphically depicts his comrade, Shuhdi ‘Atiya al-Shafi‘i, being beaten to death in prison. Acknowledging the social and political actualities obscured by The Terrorist, he proposed a succinct and clear response to radical Islamism in an interview with Tahar Ben Jelloun in the May 20, 1994 Le Monde:

Dialogue is possible with certain Islamists, even if it is limited. Corruption is the basis of their anger. The governments rob the people. That is what allows the Islamists to emerge. We must have a democratic government in which all the tendencies are represented, including the non-violent Islamists. It is also necessary to reform the International Monetary Fund, which abuses the people and does not affect the fortunes of the well-off classes.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "Terrorism, Class and Democracy in Egypt," Middle East Report 190 (September/October 1994).

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