The End of the Islamist Insurgency in Egypt?: Costs and Prospects

By Gerges, Fawaz A. | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

The End of the Islamist Insurgency in Egypt?: Costs and Prospects


Gerges, Fawaz A., The Middle East Journal


The Egyptian state appears to have weathered the storm of violent Islamist opposition from al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya and Jihad which lasted from 1990 until the Luxor attack of 1997. Its successes stem in part from the internal divisions of the Islamist movements. This article examines both the means by which the government overcame the Islamist challenge and the implications of continuing government exclusion of mainstream Islamist movements from political life. It also examines implications for US policy.

Once again the Egyptian state appears to have survived another paramilitary challenge by a populist protest movement. From 1990 until 1997, Egypt witnessed a low-level war of attrition between the authorities and revolutionary Islamists, like al-Jama`a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group) and Jihad, resulting in about 1,300 casualties, billions of dollars in damage to the tourist industry, and considerable costs to relations between state and society. Although initially embattled and besieged, by 1997 the government of Egyptian President Husni Mubarak finally contained the threat from al-Jama`a, Jihad, and other fringe groups by crushing their military capability, arresting, and killing most of their effective leaders.

Al-Jama`a al-Islamiyya and Jihad are the orphans of splintered Islamic politics in Egypt. Though this article does not attempt to offer a history of these movements, some understanding of the historical context is useful. One cannot understand the historical origins of either movement without examining the rise and fracturing of al-Jama`a, which began in the Islamist student associations that were established during the Presidency of Anwar Sadat (President 1970-81), and that became the dominant force on Egyptian campuses. An initial honeymoon between Sadat and the associations paid off handsomely for the latter when the 1977 student elections produced an Islamist landslide. But the honeymoon was shortlived; al-Jama`a turned against Sadat after his dramatic reorientation of Egypt's domestic and international politics and his procrastination on the issue of making the Islamic shari `a the law of the land. Pressure from radical elements within the Islamist student organizations split al-Jama`a; the Jihad group arose from such splits. Although initially al-Jama`a and Jihad relied on students as foot-soldiers and leaders, they subsequently extended their recruiting networks to include members from other social strata all over Egypt. Nevertheless, this splintering of Islamic activism lies at the heart of its subsequent radicalization. For example, Sadat's crackdown on al-Jama`a's activists in the late 1970s and early 1980s culminated in his assassination in 1981 by Jihad, and further militarization of Islamic politics. Egyptian authorities successfully contained the spillover effects of Sadat's assassination and imprisoned hundreds of militant Islamist activists. Despite this temporary setback for both al-Jama`a and Jihad, a decade later the two organizations reorganized their forces and launched a deadly assault on the regime of the inheritor of Sadat's legacy, Husni Mubarak. Assassinations and assassination attempts were made against several prominent officials in the early 1990s, while in some parts of middle and Upper Egypt violence between Islamist groups became a frequent occurrence.

Several reasons best explain the Egyptian state's success in neutralizing revolutionary Islamists. To begin with, one of the strategic errors committed by al-Jama`a and Jihad was their failure to cultivate and sustain a strong social base of support. Instead of building bridges to the public at large and gaining popular support, al-Jama`a and Jihad, impatient and shortsighted, spent most of their energies and meager resources on trying to capture political power. As some of their former leaders acknowledged in interviews with this writer in Egypt during 1999, they felt "empowered" and "arrogant" and lost touch with reality. …

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