Keeping on the rails

15 October 2001

On 10 September, several thousand Egyptians assembled in Cairo's Tahrir square to vent their anger at Israel and the US. It was a relatively orderly demonstration, and the police had little difficulty in ensuring that the protestors were kept well away from the US embassy, just to the south of the square. Demonstrators signed a letter that was to be faxed to the embassy. It warned the US about how continued support for Israel was damaging American interests in the region.

In the aftermath of the devastating attacks carried out on New York and Washington the following day, it is clear that the Bush administration is prepared to take heed of that message, even though it utterly rejects any suggestion that the deficiencies of American policy in any way explain, let alone justify, the horrors of 11 September.

Partly in response to the urging of President Mubarak, the US has brought intense pressure to bear on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to rein in his troops in the West Bank and Gaza and start negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Mubarak was particularly blunt in his comments in Paris on 24 September after Sharon, for the second time, called off a planned meeting between his Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. 'Postponing this meeting is a very silly act,' he said. 'After what has happened, I don't think George W Bush can keep silent and let Mr Sharon do what he wants.'

Mubarak's emphasis on the Palestinian issue, his calls for an international conference on terrorism and his repeatedly expressed reservations about the prospect of US military action against Afghanistan put him in the mainstream of Egyptian and Arab public opinion. There is a high degree of scepticism in the region about the version of events reported by the Western media. The notion that well-educated young Arab men like the Egyptian town planning student Mohamed Atta could have perpetrated such acts of mass murder has met with strong resistance, and the underlying problem is seen to be American policy rather than anything directly relevant to the Arab world.

Mubarak has often described terrorism as a global problem, as he has sought to distance Egypt from the phenomenon. Egypt has furnished European governments with lists of terrorists it wants to be extradited for trial in Egyptian courts, but who are protected by human rights and asylum laws in the EU. 'If you keep a scorpion in your pocket, don't be surprised if it bites you,' commented one Egyptian businessman, arguing that Mubarak's warnings of the dangers of international terrorism had been vindicated.

The media cult of the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden has helped to disguise the extent of the Egyptian connection to the group or groups the West suspects of carrying out the 11 September attacks. However, there is no doubt that the connection does exist, and Mubarak has every reason to fear the consequences of aligning Egypt too closely with the US campaign of retaliation.

The ideological roots of the movement led by Bin Laden can be traced back to the writings of Sayed Qotb, a Muslim Brotherhood leader executed by the regime of President Nasser in 1966. Qotb developed the idea of the 'impious prince', later used by his inheritor, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman as grounds to justify the assassination of president Sadat in 1981. Abdel-Rahman, serving a jail sentence in the US for his part in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York, was also the author of a 1999 fatwa directed to followers of Bin Laden and calling for the killing of Americans. Another important Egyptian link in the chain is Ayman el-Zawahri, one of Bin Laden's key associates.

El-Zawahri's first brush with the authorities was in 1966, when, as a 15-year-old student, he was arrested at the time of the Qotb execution for membership of the Muslim Brotherhood. El-Zawahri, whose grandfather was a grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Islam's main set of learning, graduated as a surgeon in 1978. He was arrested after the Sadat assassination, and served a three-year sentence for possession of weapons. He then left the country, and emerged as leader-in-exile of Jihad, which during the 1990s launched a series of terrorist attacks inside Egypt. Jihad's emphasis was on assassinating political leaders, with the aim of inspiring a popular revolt. The other Islamist group active in Egypt in 1990s was the Gamaat Islamiya, which sought to create a broad popular movement, while trying to weaken the regime through attacking tourists.

Jihad's network inside Egypt was effectively wiped out by about 1996, and the Gamaat Islamiya suffered a serious split in 1997 after the killing of 58 tourists in Luxor. Jailed Gamaat and Jihad leaders in Egypt have declared a ceasefire, and there have been no serious incidents of violence involving Islamist movements in the country for four years. El-Zawahri, meanwhile, was in 1999 sentenced in absentia to death for his Jihad activities.

In effect, Egypt's terrorism connections have moved offshore, and the government's view is that responsibility for dealing with the problem falls on the host countries.

However, some Western critics have argued that the Egyptian regime has not done enough to tackle the roots of the problem. Chief among these critics is New York Times foreign affairs editor Thomas Friedman, whose trenchant views on the subject have produced some sharp rejoinders in the Cairo press. 'While Arab states have crushed their Islamic terrorists, they have not confronted them ideologically and delegitimised their behaviour as un-Islamic,' he wrote in a 21 September article. 'So America's standing in the Arab-Muslim world is now very low - partly because we have not told our story well, partly because of policies we have adopted and partly because inept, barely legitimate Arab leaders have deliberately deflected domestic criticism of themselves onto us.'

The Egyptian response to such attacks is to identify US support of Israel as the crucial question. As long as the US continues to be perceived as a party to the suppression of Palestinian rights and the persecution of Iraq, it remains difficult for leaders such as Mubarak to take Washington's side too overtly, as this would only serve to increase the appeal of anti-Western opposition groups. The result has been a mixture of repression and appeasement of the Islamist movement in Egypt.

Mubarak's reaction to the 11 September attacks suggests that this policy is unlikely to change. The government can be expected to step up its internal security efforts to make sure that there is no return to the violence of the 1990s. However, a degree of popular agitation in protest against American military actions is likely to be tolerated, and Mubarak will take care to ensure that any Egyptian involvement in the global anti-terrorism campaign has a cloak of international legitimacy.

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