In the wake of the democratic revolution, Islamist groups that were once considered enemies of the state are now openly pursuing their political ambitions.
On a September morning in 2001, Aboud el-Zomor rejoiced as he saw the twin towers coming down on his television set. This former leader of Egyptian jihad was then rotting behind the walls of a prison somewhere in the rich lands of Damanhour, in the Nile Delta, where he was thrown in 1984 for his involvement three years earlier in the assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar Al Sadat. Now a free man, el-Zomor was in Cairo when he learnt about the killing of the leader of al Qaeda, now probably ruled by Ayman al-Zawahiri, his former brother in arms for the jihadist cause.
Had Hosni Mubarak not been removed from power, Aboud el-Zomor, who finished his jail term in 2005, would probably now still be behind bars. In the wake of the revolution, the Egyptian justice decided to free hundreds of radical fighters that the former president had always refused to let loose from the dungeons, even if they had long finished serving their sentences.
Taking up the arms in the 1980s and 1990s, Egyptian Islamists have long wreaked havoc with the aim of triggering the downfall of the "heretic" Egyptian state, "guilty" of having signed a peace treaty with Israel. Hunted down, imprisoned, tortured, and unable to reach Hosni Mubarak, some of them fled to Afghanistan, from where they instead directed their anger towards the far away enemy – the United States, "Jews and crusaders."
Ironically enough, it is a handful of young people, armed only with mobile phones, who succeeded in bringing down the Pharaoh after only 18 days of revolution, without resorting to violence or to Allah. Issandr el-Amrani, a specialist of Egyptian politics, is convinced that "the age of radical Islam in the Arab world has ended some time ago. Extremist groups tried to set up an Islamic state but they failed, so they took refuge in Sudan and Afghanistan, from where they were scheming against the United States."
Hasan is looking with a wry face at the dusty TV in the Cairo café where he is working as a waiter. Al-Jazeera is showing the images of jubilant American crowds celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden. "He didn't represent Islam. His death won't change anything, someone else will just take his place," Hassan says. He hasn't shed any tears for bin Laden, and he didn't rejoice either; but like so many others, he did feel a certain amount of admiration for the man who had dared raise against the American superpower. But the recent revolutionary frenzy in Tahrir Square in the Egyptian capital has captivated his attention a lot more, a frenzy he was sometimes part of. He knows that many Islamists did the same.
The Muslim Brotherhood was slow to join a revolution that it hadn't started nor even seen it coming. Ever since the unrest, the Brothers have abstained from clamoring their religious slogans, and they are now reaping the revolution's benefits. Forced until recently to run their candidates as independents because of the ban it was subjected to, the organization announced last week the creation of their political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. Its leaders have insisted that the group would not be theocratic, as the Egyptian constitution bans any parties which are based on religion.
After so many years without freedom, the Brotherhood knows that playing the game of democracy is now indispensable. But in a society that has been marked by a process of reislamisation these past 20 years, Salafists and other radicals have no intention of letting the Brothers exploit Islam alone. Having usually kept themselves away from politics, Salafist groups have just announced their intention to set up a party too. But their thick beards and short galabeyas traditional Egyptian garment still terrify many Egyptians. Many do not hide their apprehension at seeing the "wolves coming out of the forest," as Amina, a Christian, says. She thinks that, all things considered, the revolution has unleashed more problems than it has solved.
The group Christian Egyptians such as Amina particularly have in mind is the formerly banned Al Gamaa al-Islamiya, whose members are now on campaign too. At the beginning of April, they have addressed tourists and Coptic Christians – their former targets, now "brothers in humanity –, trying to reassure them. "We didn't have any other choice but violence," says Essam el-Derbala, one of their leaders. "If you hit and stop an animal from moving, that animal will bite you. But if we are allowed to exist and express ourselves, we will have no reason to do that."
photo - Al Jazeera