In the early 1990s, the security forces of Egypt were embroiled in a low-grade civil war with the Gama‘a Islamiyya (Islamic Group), an uncompromising outfit committed to the violent overthrow of the government. The Gama‘a, like the even more radical Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Takfir wa al-Hijra, grew out of study circles reading the works of Ibn Taymiyya and Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual godfathers of jihadi groups across the Muslim world, including al-Qaeda. Qutb taught that jahili (pagan) governments and social elites had usurped the entire realm of Islam. For his more extreme followers, war was not only permitted, but also mandated, to restore the Muslim world to righteousness. The enemy was everywhere; the Gama‘a did not distinguish between the Egyptian regime and its “infidel” US and Israeli allies, or between armed police and camera-toting tourists. [1] The Muslim Brothers, whose ranks had included Qutb, had betrayed their past in the interest of accommodation with the regime.

After much bloodshed, and the killing or jailing of its top echelons, the Gama‘a declared a unilateral and permanent ceasefire. A parade of “repentant terrorists” appeared on Egyptian television to admit the error of their ways, and the leadership published more than 20 books detailing the group’s ideological “revisions.” A flurry of commentary has both celebrated and cast doubt upon the international significance of this volte-face. Many have touted its role in the subsequent recantations of Osama bin Laden’s former mentor, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, and the demobilization of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, seeing these events as signposts along the road to al-Qaeda’s demise. [2] Others are more doubtful that the Gama‘a Islamiyya experience can be exported. [3]

What the future holds for the Gama‘a within Egypt, however, is an unasked question that is equally important. Egyptian political life is in a fragile transitional phase. The 2011 presidential election is fraying nerves, with the prospect that President Husni Mubarak will engineer a hereditary succession to his son Gamal stoking protest from many quarters as early as 2004. The regime continues its capricious, but increasingly firm, ban upon the Muslim Brothers, the largest opposition movement, which is itself undergoing internal turmoil. Poverty and inequality stalk the country. Also politically significant is the deepening malaise of educated urban Egyptians forced to work ever longer hours just to afford rent and basic necessities, while the promise of marriage and a modicum of prosperity is endlessly delayed.

Neither the ruling National Democratic Party nor the Muslim Brothers offer solutions to these problems. While new political actors in Egypt have historically struggled to make inroads, groups known for having mass appeal have found it easier to reform after periods of retrenchment. The Brothers are the main case in point, their rapid rebirth in the 1970s attesting to the restiveness of the urban and provincial lower middle classes. [4] But many now see the Brothers as having forsaken this base in favor of stultifying parliamentary politics and international affairs, in a way that mirrors the decline of the mighty Wafd Party after the 1919 rebellion against British tutelage. The Brothers’ hegemony over the so-called Egyptian street is not unchallenged: A variety of liberals and leftists channel the middle classes’ calls for democracy and against hereditary succession, and, more ambiguously, populist preachers draw significant support from the poorer strata. The reinvented Gama‘a Islamiyya faces a new political firmament.

The Preacher of Bakus

The historical leaders of the Gama‘a, as well as the bulk of its rank and file, have now been released from prison, but they remain under close watch. The official head of the group, Alexandria-based Karam Zuhdi, suffers from several chronic medical conditions and keeps a low profile in comparison with others, particularly political chief ‘Isam Darbala, who lives in Minya, and Najih Ibrahim.

Now in his fifties, Ibrahim is the author of most Gama‘a literature (both pre- and post-revisions) and has emerged as the group’s main spokesman. [5] Ibrahim hails from the province of Asyut in Middle Egypt, but settled in the bustling popular neighborhood of Bakus in Alexandria — his wife’s home town — after his release from prison. A garrulous, paternal and
personable figure, Ibrahim oversees and writes for the Gama‘a website (the group’s only officially tolerated outlet) while earning a living as a dermatologist, a profession he continued to pursue throughout his 24 years behind bars. The study in Ibrahim’s comfortable sixteenth-floor apartment commands sweeping views of the Mediterranean Sea and, with the windows flung open and the cool sea breeze blowing in, feels like a hard place in which to think angry thoughts.

Ibrahim’s book collection speaks volumes about his intellectual formation. On the lower shelf sits a neat row of tomes, whose familiar green-and-red binding and gilt calligraphy identify them as collections of Islamic law. Above them is a more haphazard assortment of paperbacks, including many works of Egyptian political and intellectual history. Alongside volumes from his own series The Correction of Concepts, the names of major Egyptian secular writers leap out: ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Sa‘id, Anis Mansour, Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal. Propping up the books on one end is a stack of volumes containing the complete papers of seminal — and ideologically composite — Egyptian nationalists Mustafa Kamil and Muhammad Farid. Does the erstwhile theoretician of jihad now fancy himself a present-day Saad Zaghloul, the revered hero of the Wafd whose statue strides purposefully toward Europe a few miles down the Corniche?

Not quite. But Najih Ibrahim comes across as every inch the Egyptian patriot. An hour into our meeting he disappears to return with a tray of fried sardines, rice and salad, proudly and unequivocally announcing that Egyptian food is the best on the planet. More pertinently, he points out (clearly not for the first time) that the world’s first Islamist movement, the Muslim Brothers of Hasan al-Banna, was Egyptian, and now the first Islamist movement to admit to its mistakes is also Egyptian. Asked whether he thinks Egypt remains the beacon of the Islamic world, he nods slowly: “For the Sunnis you have Egypt and you have Saudi Arabia.” Saudi Arabia is important because of Mecca and Medina, but in Egypt the quality of the preachers sets the country apart: “Egyptian imams can do their sermons by heart, whereas the Saudi ones need to read from notes.”

The conceptual frame of reference for the pre-revisions Gama‘a Islamiyya, as with most Islamist groups, transcended the nation-state. As reflected in Ibrahim’s older titles, such as The Charter for Islamic Action (1984) and The Inevitability of Confrontation (1987), the worldview of the Gama‘a was relatively simple: The Islamic caliphate had been carved up and replaced by “statelets” ruled by secular-minded “infidels” in league with Crusaders and Jews. These infidels would never reestablish the caliphate, essential to the revival of Islam, and must therefore be toppled via jihad. At the same time, Muslim societies had to be purged of incorrect and deviant practices via “enjoining good and forbidding evil,” or hisba. (The Gama‘a did not go so far, as did al-Takfir wa al-Hijra and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, as to declare almost all of society to be infidel.) This direct action on behalf of religion would increase the efficacy of ceaseless proselytizing (da‘wa) to bring society back to the true religion of God.

These three elements of the Gama‘a program (jihad, hisba and da‘wa) remain at the core of the “revisions” literature, but Najih Ibrahim is keen to stress the following: Jihad is a means to an end and the end does not necessarily justify the means. The duty of violent jihad falls into abeyance if the costs outweigh the benefits. The Islamist movement erred seriously when it tried to overthrow regimes, which, no matter how decadent, cannot be declared infidel. The harming of civilians, Muslim and non-Muslim, is forbidden in Islam. The duty of hisba must be discharged in coordination with the state. Hisba is now more a set of guidelines for neighborly behavior, authorizing, at most, a kind of citizens’ arrest, than the vigilante doctrine of old. Finally, da‘wa is the prime concern and raison d’être of the Islamist movement. No step should be taken that may prejudice the goal of guiding humanity to salvation.

The Politics of Religion

After three hours of discussion, Ibrahim has to go to work. He asks his teenage son (conjugal visits were allowed) to show me around Alexandria until it is time for me to catch my train. Looking down from Stanley Bridge at the beach packed with revelers, with the sun setting over the broad expanse of the Mediterranean, it is hard to believe that the city is the epicenter of Egypt’s closed-minded salafi trend, which some believe is the wave of the political future in Egypt and beyond. [6] Owing much to the strictly fundamentalist teachings of Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his followers in the Arabian Peninsula, the Egyptian version apparently also has its own momentum. The Gama‘a itself was influenced by the austere orthopraxy picked up by the Egyptian multitudes returning from stints of employment in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

Although the Gama‘a Islamiyya would at one time have appeared near the top of the list of Egyptian (and Arab) salafi groups, Ibrahim now gives the salafi trend a mixed report card. On the plus side, the salafis tenaciously uphold the Islamic creed. And they are right to shun politics, particularly at the level of the state.

Ibrahim’s reasoning here reveals a distinctly realistic (if not realist) view of international relations, as well as cynicism regarding the benefits of ruling Egypt. “Islamists can never take power,” Ibrahim insists, and deluded are those who, like some of the Muslim Brothers, think otherwise. “Whether they try to do so by force or through elections,” Islamists will fail. “Were the Brothers to win power in Egypt,” he predicts firmly, “Israel would immediately reoccupy the Sinai and the United States would impose economic sanctions.” An Islamic state is one of several means to the end of bringing people to their religion, but should never be an end goal. In reality, for Ibrahim, the Islamic state is a misnomer. The state that Islamists really want is a civil state governed by Islamic rules — which has, give or take a law or two, been achieved already in many places, including in Egypt. Rather than aspiring to more, it is much safer and more beneficial for Islamist movements to leave the states in the hands of secularists and be allowed to pursue peaceful da‘wa under their protective shield.

Ibrahim now says that refusal to be content with this setup was the Gama‘a’s pivotal mistake. Whereas President Anwar al-Sadat had allowed nearly boundless freedom for da‘wa, the young activists were greedy. (Ibrahim was 27 when Sadat was assassinated in 1981.) “We also wanted the state. So we killed Sadat and lost the state and the da‘wa!” The freedom of the 1970s was intoxicating for these young activists who, filled with a false sense of their own power, thought that anything was possible. For Ibrahim, the “revisions” — writings full of cautious pragmatism and advising against “over-exuberance” in religion — are largely about reclaiming the space for da‘wa that he and his brothers squandered in their youth.

A Third Way?

But, for Najih Ibrahim, salafis, in their obsession with emulating every detail of the world of the prophet Muhammad, are useless when it comes to real-world issues. The Gama‘a embraces existing customs and social norms so long as they do not contradict Islamic law (shari‘a). In this regard, Ibrahim commends the Muslim Brothers for the excellent connection they enjoy with “life” and the pressing concerns of modern society. But “they put politics before religion, and that’s wrong.” In a sense, the Gama‘a has maintained this critique since the 1970s. The armed Gama‘a Islamiyya emerged from a much broader peaceful student movement. Most of this movement, including future high-fliers like ‘Isam al-‘Iryan and ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Abu al-Futouh, merged with the Muslim Brothers, whereas those interested in confrontation rather than accommodation formed the Gama‘a. (‘Iryan and Abu al-Futouh revised their ideas to the extent that they are now considered among the most liberal-minded of the Brothers’ spokesmen.) Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Gama‘a maintained a sharply critical stance toward the Brothers’ political dances with the Mubarak regime and shifting alliances with secular political forces, like the Wafd and Tagammu‘ parties.

But one gets the sense from talking to Ibrahim that the Gama‘a would participate in political life, were it allowed to. The security restrictions on Gama‘a leaders and members have relaxed since they were released from prison, but they travel only at the pleasure of the security apparatus. They are not allowed to speak in mosques or otherwise organize.

Were the regime to loosen the strings, the Gama‘a could present itself as a middle way between morally unimpeachable but defeatist salafi trends and the Muslim Brothers, who have sacrificed their Islamic soul on the altar of secular politics. According to Ibrahim, over 20,000 rank-and-file members have been let out of jail since the beginning of the ceasefire (though, since the vast majority were imprisoned without trial, it is impossible to know the extent of their commitment to the group before, during or after their incarceration). In any case, the group apparently has representatives in every Egyptian town, and the rows of bearded cadres that filled gymnasia to hear the historical leadership as it toured Egypt’s prisons to promote the revisions in 2001–2002 suggest a buoyant number. Shortly after agreeing to meet me for an interview, Najih Ibrahim dispatched “one of the brothers” from Minufiyya in the Delta to deliver personally to me in Cairo the entire corpus of Gama‘a revision literature. The speed and efficiency with which this operation was accomplished suggests that the group’s command and control mechanisms remain well oiled.

So could the Gama‘a give the Brothers a run for their money? Less than charitable commentators, such as the journalist (and former Jihad member) ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Munib, suggest that the Gama‘a has made a deal with the regime, that the regime is grooming the Gama‘a as a weapon to wield against the Brothers, that the Gama‘a tried to split the Islamist vote in elections for the lawyers’ syndicate and even that the Gama‘a supports the principle of hereditary succession and believes Gamal Mubarak will afford them freedom to proselytize in society. [7] Ibrahim has, in turn, flatly refuted such accusations. [8]

The true nature of the Gama‘a’s “understanding” with the regime cannot be grasped with certainty, but the new ideological positions seem genuine. The writings stand as authentic, unforced articulations of a coherent intellectual position. Those versed in the intertextuality of Islamic thought, such as the prominent Muslim scholar Sherman Jackson, have vouched for the quality and sophistication of the revisions’ jurisprudential arguments. [9] The group’s analyses of al-Qaeda’s motives and mistakes are dispassionate and devoid of hyperbole. They condemn all of al-Qaeda’s violent actions as misguided and counterproductive, but accept that bin Laden and his followers are sincere Muslims who want to do the best for the umma. Ibrahim remarked that Ayman al-Zawahiri, with whom he spent four years in prison, was a “good man” who had gone astray.

At the same time, it is true that as an apolitical (and currently marginal) religious group the Gama‘a poses no threat to the regime. It does not challenge state policy on either domestic or foreign issues and criticizes those who do so. It opposes not only the Brothers’ contestation of elections but also the Kifaya opposition movement, which Najih Ibrahim laughingly dismissed as a “cocktail” in reference to its political and ideological heterogeneity. Like the Brothers, the Gama‘a is against workers’ protests and strikes at a time when labor unrest has swept the country.

Be Careful What You Wish For

If the regime genuinely expects the Gama‘a, as with more assuredly anti-political salafi actors, to offer a safer alternative to the Brothers, it will have to allow the ex-militants to recommence their da‘wa activities. It is difficult to see how, in this scenario, the Gama‘a could remain aloof from politics while also staying connected to the real-life concerns of Egyptians. The massively popular, but scrupulously apolitical evangelist ‘Amr Khalid (whom Ibrahim also described reverently as a “good man”) ran afoul of the regime over an anti-poverty campaign that clashed with the latter’s own initiative in this domain.

Even if not in the regime’s pocket and given latitude to mobilize in society again, however, it is doubtful that the Gama‘a in its present form would adopt a revolutionary course. The “revisions” literature has much in common with the conservative intellectual reactions that followed previous upheavals in Egyptian history. It was after the mass movement in support of the nationalist colonel Ahmad ‘Urabi in 1882 that the gradualism of Muhammad Abduh, Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid and Rashid Rida replaced the more radical exhortations of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. Similar returns to gradual change, reflections of a bourgeoisie closing its ranks, followed close on the heels of popular uprisings in 1906 and 1919. Nasserism can, in some ways, be interpreted as closing the revolutionary upsurge following World War II via its overbearing influence on the Egyptian masses. The popular discontent manifested in the 1977 bread riots may have contributed to the Gama‘a’s belief that mass mobilization could help bring them to power. The dismal failure of the group to conquer Asyut after Sadat’s assassination showed this belief to be a chimera, but it was another decade and a half before the mayhem that spread across Upper Egypt would end.

The Gama‘a leaders espouse the same socioeconomic vision as the Muslim Brothers. The group professes a commitment to the free market shared by the Brothers and the “reformers” surrounding Gamal Mubarak in the ruling party. In the rural sphere, the Gama‘a supports the unraveling of Nasser-era land reform, in particular the Law on Rents for Agricultural Land that benefited the rural aristocracy and rich property speculators, even though (or, more cynically, because) the Gama‘a fed off those forced to leave the land and flock to urban slums because of the liberalization of rents in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Gama‘a does not offer a progressive social agenda to lift Egyptians out of poverty and adopts a paternalistic attitude toward the Egyptian poor. The group shares with conservatives everywhere the conviction that society’s problems are due mainly to lax morals, not an unjust economic system. In a proper Islamic society, the poor will be taken care of through the benevolence and piety of the rich, who will conscientiously keep up their charitable obligations. State intervention in this and most other realms is, for Ibrahim and many others, totally counter to Islam, a vestige of the communistic Nasser years. Social justice consists of eliminating bribery, corruption and “bad management” as the middle classes perform their duties as Muslims.

Back to Basics

Where the Gama‘a will likely seek to broaden its popular appeal, again in common with conservatives everywhere, is the issue of crime and social decay. Though it is difficult to find reliable statistics, there is a widespread perception that petty crime is on the increase in Egypt. The Gama‘a’s Taliban-style approach to combating crime was a key factor in its rise before being crushed by the Egyptian security forces. As Ibrahim recalls, the Gama‘a was attractive because of its energy and goals, but it also offered protection and retribution to victims of theft or assault. Such services were particularly useful for the dislocated laborers and students for whom the traditional tribal structures were unavailable. The police, then as now, were of no use in such situations, especially in rural and slum areas. The Gama‘a was about ridding the streets of drug pushers, fornicators, thugs and an ever expanding list of evils that came to include, for some, unveiled women, artists, musicians and Copts. Research by Salwa al-Awa on the Gama‘a also suggests that much of the group’s morality policing was met with approval. [10] Ibrahim emphasizes — with a vague hand gesture across the rooftops his apartment overlooks — that the problems of petty crime (including muggings) are still very much in evidence.

As Egypt’s poor continue to fall through the cracks, the Gama‘a may be around, if allowed, to help clean up the mess. The question then would be how far it can or will go. The group’s new prescriptions on hisba may advocate nothing more than firm advice to the concerned citizen, but the old literature on the same topic was not very explicit about using force, either, and, as with any political organization, there is always scope for the rank and file to interpret written directives. To the extent that the Gama‘a wants to offer more than the apartness of the salafis — or, for that matter, the Sufi orders — some elements of the group may end up returning to the more proactive vigilantism of old, particularly in those districts where the state fears (or can be induced not) to tread. But too much security entrepreneurship might anger the authorities, as happened in the 1980s. Could the Gama‘a become loosely incorporated into the state as a quasi-official militia, a la the Iranian Basij? Currently this move seems unlikely, but given the uncertainty of Egypt’s future in the late Mubarak era, the regime’s historical predilection for such cooptation, the growing unmanageability of Egypt’s urban spaces and the political platform that a rejuvenated Gama‘a would adopt, the possibility should not be discounted.


[1] See the interview with former Gama‘a leader Tal‘at Fu’ad Qasim, “What Does the Gama‘a Islamiyya Want?” Middle East Report 198 (January-March 1996), pp. 42–43. Egyptian security men killed Qasim in 1998.
[2] Omar Ashour, “Ending Jihadism? The Transformation of Armed Islamist Movements,” Arab Reform Bulletin, September 9, 2009.
[3] Khalil al-‘Anani, “Jihad Revisions: Is It Too Late?” Daily News Egypt, November 27, 2007.
[4] Khalil al-‘Anani, al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun fi Misr: shaykhukha tusari‘ al-zaman (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq al-Dawliyya, 2007), pp. 62–63.
[5] This article is based on an interview with Najih Ibrahim in Alexandria on June 22, 2009.
[6] Interview with Husam Tammam, Sixth of October City, Egypt, June 7, 2009.
[7] Abd al-Mun‘im Munib, “Wa al-dustur ta‘qub: limadha lam yaqul Najih Ibrahim ra’yahu bi-saraha fi tawrith al-hukm li-Gamal Mubarak,” al-Dustur, July 8, 2009.
[8] Najih Ibrahim, “Faruq wa-huwa fi ad‘af halatihi qatala al-Banna…wa-‘Abd al-Nasir a‘dam sitta min al-Ikhwan…fa-hal yahtaj nizam Mubarak lina li-yadrub al-Ikhwan?” al-Dustur, July 8, 2009.
[9] Interview with Sherman Jackson, Cairo, June 4, 2007. See also Sherman Jackson, “Beyond Jihad: The New Thought of the Jama‘a Islamiyya,” Journal of Islamic Law and Culture 11/1 (March 2009), pp. 52–62.
[10] Salwa al-Awa, al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya al-Musallaha fi Misr, 1974–2004 (Cairo: Maktabat al-Shuruq al-Dawliyya, 2006), p. 86.

How to cite this article:

Ewan Stein "What Does the Gama`a Islamiyya Want Now?," Middle East Report 254 (Spring 2010).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This