The Middle East Channel

Egypt’s democratic Jihadists?

"We were not in love with combat...if there was a way to hold a government accountable, Sadat would probably be alive today...we didn't know another way to change things." That is how the Jihadist icon Abbud al-Zumur, a former leader of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri's al-Jihad Organization, recently explained the most famous assassination in modern Egyptian history. Zumur is currently an elected member of the Consultative Council of the Egyptian Islamic Group (IG). Until last March, he was also the most famous political prisoner in Egypt.

Zumur was one of the eight IG leaders who signed a unilateral ceasefire declaration in July 1997. The Initiative for Ceasing Violence ultimately transformed into a comprehensive process of abandoning and de-legitimating armed activism against political enemies. Zumur was the only one of the eight signatories who was not released from prison. While he agreed to abandon political violence, he did not agree to stop vocally opposing Mubarak. His commitment to political opposition, combined with a principled rejection of violence, represents the current face of Egypt's Islamic Group as it faces a rapidly transforming Egypt.

Egypt's Islamic Group was the largest armed Islamist organization in the country and second largest in the region, after the now defunct Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The estimated number of the IG members is somewhere between 15,000 to 25,000 men. During its Jihadist phase, the IG operated in more than a dozen countries. In armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya; in training camps in Pakistan and Sudan; in assassination attempts in Ethiopia; in bombings in Croatia and the United States, and in a five-year insurgency in Egypt, the name of the IG usually came to the fore.

In its post-Jihadist phase, the IG abandoned violence, strongly criticized al Qaeda's behavior and strategies, and accepted participating in elections. Now, it lies on the right of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) when it comes to social conservatism and constitutional liberalism. For example, the IG still categorically denies the right of Copts and women to run for presidency (the MB does not deny that right, but says it will not support any female or Coptic candidates). When it comes to the Salafis, there are more similarities. The IG is Salafist in religious doctrine, though its relationship with mainstream political and apolitical Salafis was quite tense in the past.

The IG entered the post-Mubarak period with some serious credibility problems. The head of the IG's Consultative Council, Karam Zuhdi, and his deputy, Nagih Ibrahim, did not only call on Islamists to abandon politics, but also declared that any opposition to Mubarak and his son was futile. "Those guys became a mouthpiece for the interior ministry," says a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. He was not too far off. The position of some of the IG leaders between 2003 and 2011 was quite close to that of the regime, especially when it came to criticizing other Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah. Traumatized by the experiences in Mubarak's jails and estimating that he will survive, both Zuhdi and Ibrahim supported the dictator until his last days in power.

This was not the case with the IG mid-ranks and grassroots. Most of the ones I spoke to described the position of the leadership during the revolution as a disgrace. "They told us it is illegitimate to join the revolution...we disobeyed they want to jump [capitalize] on the blood of the martyrs" said a former member of the dismantled armed wing. "The relationship between the leadership and the members was always characterized by strong emotional ties and solid loyalty. But their stance with Mubarak killed it," said another.

Post-Mubarak, the IG held elections for its highest executive body, the Consultative Council, on May 23, and both Ibrahim and Zuhdi were voted out by members. Others, including Zumur, came to the fore. The Consultative Council of today is quite different from the one that decided to assassinate President Sadat. Four of the nine members hold PhDs, including Dr. Safwat Abd al-Ghani, the former head of the armed wing. He was also the author of "Another God with Allah? Declaring War on the Parliament," the IG's anti-democratic manifesto, which was also quite popular among other Jihadists. Abd al Ghani's dissertation, however, was on political plurality and democratic transition.

The IG, in its new form, decided to participate in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. The question is why? The likelihood of losing is quite high, especially to Islamist rivals like the Brotherhood and the Salafis. The reactions to the IG leaders speaking on TV were largely negative, with thousands of tweets mocking them. Moreover, the mid-ranks are complaining that the grassroots are not so eager to fill in the party membership and registration forms. "I am responsible for Aswan City, but I know others who are asked by the leadership to fill a number of forms that are 10 times the number of members...we should be led by the realities on the ground, not by the wishful thinking of the leaders," says Ismail Ahmad.

Indeed, a coalition or a merger with a larger, more experienced group like the Brotherhood makes more sense. But the quest for legitimacy and legal protection is one of the main determinants of the current behavior of the IG. In Egypt, there is a saying: "A white dime will serve you in a black day." Aside from the political incorrectness, the reality of the IG is similarly saying "a good party today will serve you in the bad moment tomorrow." In addition, like other Islamists, the IG's history is that of "punching above its weight." It can pull an upset, sometimes.

Egypt's Jihadists today are relatively insignificant and too individualized. (Some also argue that they are good in hiding.) This is not their time. Unarmed civil resistance delivered a heavy blow to Jihadism and significantly undermined its rationale (that armed activism is the most effective and most legitimate tool for change). "The Islamic Group sacrificed a lot in the 1990s," says Ibrahim. "Two thousand its sons were killed, 100 were executed by military trials, and some of our 20,000 prisoners were detained for 20 years without a court order, despite having more than 45 court judgements ordering their release. This is a high price, without achievements. [The] January 25th revolution accomplished great things in 18 days and it was all done peacefully."

Thus far, the IG has adhered to its commitment to abstain from violence, even as a good opportunity to engage in violent activism has presented itself. The proliferation of small and mid-size arms is currently a security problem in Egypt, due to the Libyan conflict and other factors. Any group that strategizes for a future armed campaign should be using this rare opportunity. But rather than stockpiling weapons, rebuilding its armed wing, recruiting and training angry teenagers and manipulating the weak security arrangements, the IG is holding internal elections, asking its members to fill party registration forms, holding anti-sectarian violence rallies, and issuing joint statements for peaceful coexistence with the Coptic Church of Assyut. "We were finally capable of taking revenge from the state security officers who tortured us. Instead we chanted silmiya (peaceful)," said Muhammad Abbas, a former member of the IG's armed wing, a graduate of the famous Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, and a veteran of multiple battles against the Soviets. 

But if most of the problems between the IG and the Egyptian government were resolved, this is not necessarily the case with America. The United States still holds Dr. Omar Abd al-Rhaman, the first leader of the IG and its inspirational ‘godfather,' who was convicted of ‘seditious conspiracy' in October 1995. The IG held several rallies in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo demanding his release. It also organized several widely attended conferences to support him. The IG is also on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations (which generally needs an update). "They are still on the black list, despite abandoning violence 14 years ago. What message does that send?" says Dr. Osama Rushdi, a democracy activist who was the IG's spokesperson in the mid-1990s who left the organization in 1998. He told me this while showing me a handwritten letter by Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri, the famous Jihadist strategist, in which al Suri was complaining that Rushdi was undermining Jihadi activities in Europe.

In any case, U.S. policymakers may want to keep in mind that the group will play a role in the future politics of Egypt, either by forming a coalition with other Islamists or by rebuilding its support base in Upper Egypt. From what I saw, the latter process is on-going with determination. What is certain, though, is that the IG's subscription to Jihadism is currently expired. Whether others will follow its model or not in the post-Mubarak era is yet to be determined. Egypt was the birthplace of modern Jihadism. But after Mubarak, it may also be its graveyard. 

Dr. Omar Ashour is a lecturer in politics and the director of the Middle East Graduate Studies program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (UK). He is the author of "The De-Radicalization of the Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements."

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Who is running Yemen?

On June 3, Yemen's long-ruling President Ali Abdullah Saleh was badly injured in an attack by unknown assailants. His departure from Sanaa to a military hospital in Saudi Arabia seemed to many people to have finally resolved the long standoff between Saleh's embattled regime and a variety of political challengers. But the intervening weeks have brought Yemen no closer to resolving the political uncertainty.

Anti-government protesters first erected tents in cities like Sanaa and Taiz. Tribal leaders then began to slowly come out against the Saleh government and express their support for the youth movement. As the once resilient tribal patronage system began to break down, chaos erupted across the country, leaving Saleh with only a small piece of real estate in a northern mountain valley to reign over. With Saleh in Saudi Arabia and no replacement in sight, who is running Yemen?

In the vacuum created by Saleh's absence, his politically crippled deputy has been left as a steward to Sanaa's empty seat of power. Just days after his unplanned departure, Saleh's son Ahmed took up residence in the presidential palace, sending a message to protesters and defiant tribesmen that his father's will would be done through his proxy. Meanwhile, Yemen's political opposition, the Joint Meeting Parties, has taken control of Sanaa's Change Square protest camp, attempting to solidify its political life in any new government. While Sanaa's power brokers look to posture themselves to take seats of power, the Yemeni government has lost total control over the rest of the country.

Yemen's rugged northern tribal regions have rarely been ruled directly by president, imam, or foreign colonizer until the rise of Ali Abdullah Saleh in 1978. Learning from the dismal failures of the Ottomans and succeeding five failed presidents, two of which were assassinated, Saleh took a more nuanced and delicate approach to ruling the fractured region. Instead of governing Yemen's tribes by force or sheer military domination, Saleh began to co-opt the tribes into Yemen's government through a system of patronage. Some sheikhs received government stipends while others were placed in prominent political and military positions.

Throughout most of his political career, Saleh maintained a subtle but stable hold on the Yemen Arabic Republic, known as North Yemen. In 1990, he became the first ruler since the Queen of Sheba to rule over the entire historic region of Yemen (except for northern regions now under the control of Saudi Arabia). In spite of a civil war in 1994, he continued to hold North and South Yemen together in one state.

Fissures began to appear in Saleh's fragile dominance over Yemen's north in 2004 when a group of tribesmen, calling themselves the Believing Youth, rose up in armed rebellion against the Saleh government. While the Yemeni government claimed that the Zaidi Shiites of the northern Saada governorate sought to reinstitute an imamate, the rebels themselves claimed that they were marginalized and discriminated against by the government. These Houthi rebels, named after their now dead leader Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, fought a series of six wars against the Yemeni military, with the last war ending in 2009. Ironically, what was once the most war-torn region of Yemen is now the safest. With most of the military focused on maintaining control of major cities swarmed by anti-government protesters, the Houthis have had an opportunity to rebuild their communities and live in complete lack of state control.

Sanaa: Saleh's last bastion
One of the last remaining vestiges of government control in Yemen is the country's capital, Sanaa. In spite of Saleh being whisked away to Saudi Arabia to receive treatment for wounds sustained in an attack on his palace, his son Ahmed, commander of the Republican Guards, and his eldest nephew Yahya, commander of the Central Security Forces, have maintained a stranglehold over the city. Military checkpoints still dot the city; more ominously, soldiers of the Central Security Forces, the only Yemeni military branch that has remained ostensibly loyal to President Saleh, still roam the streets. All along the city's major thoroughfares, Yahya's men stare intently at passing traffic, looking down the barrels of Russian heavy machine guns mounted in the back of camouflage-painted pickup trucks.

The rural north: The land of tribal autonomy
Yemen's tribal areas have never been friendly to centralized control, at the behest of foreign powers or Yemeni leaders. The country's most powerful tribal confederation, Hashid, has even managed to bring the fight to Saleh's doorstep in the capital. Under the leadership of Sadeq al-Ahmar and his younger brother Hamid, a billionaire businessmen and opposition political figure, the Hashid confederation and Yemen's Republican Guards engaged in a 13-day-long war in downtown Sanaa. After Saudi mediators managed to negotiate a cease-fire, fighting began in several tribal strongholds such as the city of Arhab, just a few miles outside Sanaa. With fighting still ongoing, tribesmen are showing no intention of coming under the umbrella of Saleh's government ever again.

Marib governorate: Yemen's Wild West
The Marib governorate, east of Sanaa, has been wracked with chaos ever since the death of Jabr al-Shabwani, son of prominent Sheikh Ali al-Shabwani, killed by a U.S. drone strike in May 2010. To take revenge for his son's death, Ali destroyed a section of one of Yemen's largest oil pipelines, leading to billions of dollars in lost revenue for the Yemeni government. As anti-government protest began sweeping the country, Ali and his tribesmen ramped up their campaign against the government's infrastructure. The oil pipeline was attacked several more times, and attacks against power stations began. In addition, tribesmen still control a long stretch of road leading into Sanaa, blocking shipments of fuel.

Taiz: The hub of the youth revolution
Last February, protesters first erected tents in the city of Taiz, Yemen's intellectual and industrial capital. Since the first tent spike was driven into the asphalt, crackdowns on protesters have been worse than in any other city in the country. Also unlike anywhere else in Yemen, tribesmen have been fighting back against security forces in Taiz. Sheik Hamoud al-Makhlafi, a former member of Saleh's ruling General People's Congress Party, has declared himself and his tribe to be defenders of the youth revolution. Street battles are a common occurrence in this contested city as Saleh and his relatives attempt to retain control of Yemen's second-largest city.

Aden: South Yemen's former capital
Founded in 2007, Yemen's southern separatist movement has suffered extremely violent crackdowns and political imprisonments. Claiming to be under the occupation of the northern tribal regime, the southern movement has come out of the shadows in Aden and is operating in the open. The military personnel loyal to Saleh's regime are distinctly absent in Aden. Unlike Yemen's capital where anti-government banners and signs are found only near Sanaa University, the port city is emblazoned with anti-government graffiti on walls and shops and even across the high security walls of now empty government buildings. The flag of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, the former state of South Yemen, is a ubiquitous symbol, hastily spray-painted throughout the city.

The Abyan governorate: Under AQAP control?
Last month, armed militants descended from the surrounding mountains into the city of Zinjibar, the capital of the Abyan governorate. The militants were able to seize control of the city and adjacent villages with ease, according to Abyan residents and witnesses who say that Yemen's elite American-trained counterterrorism unit inexplicably withdrew from the area hours before the attack. Since the seizure of the area by what the government claims to be al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants, a war of attrition has been waged by the Yemeni military through constant airstrikes and artillery bombardments. Thousands of Abyan residents have fled the intense violence.

With southern Yemen falling away from government control and the north embroiled in political and tribal chaos, Yemen's fractured entities show little sign of coalescing. While several tribes, including the Houthi rebels and the Hashid Confederation, have expressed support for the youth revolution, few people, if any, have command of the vast tribal network that Saleh utilized so masterfully. Along with disparate northern tribes, many southern Yemenis have expressed a desire to secede from the north completely regardless of who is in power in Sanaa.

Prospects for the future
Whatever government is born from Yemen's conflict, if any, it will face the almost insurmountable task of re-creating a state out of a county that has descended into regional control. With the economy gradually slipping into complete free-fall, powerful tribesmen have taken it upon themselves to supply Sanaa with gasoline and other basic essentials, increasing personal revenue and solidifying their control over major highways. With Yemen importing most of its supply of wheat grain and other basic foods, the power to distribute fuel to trucks bringing food into major cities has fallen to tribes. Any new government that is born from Yemen's political turmoil would face these tribes as powerful rivals to consolidated central government.

With tribes seizing control of the northern economy, Yemen's south is left to suffer the consequences of what has essentially become a foreign economic crisis. As already deep-seated hatred for northerners continue to fester as the conflict continues, south Yemen, similar to Somaliland, may simply find it more prudent to secede and avoid undue suffering.

Jeb Boone is a freelance journalist based in Sanaa, Yemen, and managing editor of the Yemen Times.

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