While the U.S. and its allies are fighting Islamist ideology and terror, Egypt, a supposed Western ally, is drastically undermining their efforts. In an alleged attempt at "historic reconciliation," President Mubarak has recently released Egypt's most notorious and dangerous Islamist leaders, along with over 1,000 of their cohorts.
Among the chief leaders of the Gammaa el Islamiya, Karam Zohdi, Fou'ad El-Dawalibi and Assem Abdel-Maged were released last month on the supposition that for the past several years they had taken an active role in the spread of a pacifist ideology within the characteristically violent group. The violent Gamma el Islamiya revitalized their campaign of terror in the 1990s, seeking to overthrow the government and killing hundreds of people, including police, tourists, and their easiest targets – the Christians.
During the nineties, the group's attacks on the country's Christians increased in both their brutal and indiscriminate nature. Copts, the Christians of Egypt, whose very existence was viewed by the group as a threat to aspirations for a fundamentalist Islamic state, were assaulted, terrorized and murdered.
During this decade, Copts, Jews, and Westerners were systematically targeted as infidels, whose wealth was declared by the group's leaders as forfeit and available for the plundering of the Islamic faithful. Coptic men, women, and children were killed; Coptic businesses ravaged and looted; and Coptic churches bombed and set on fire. This onslaught of violence on Copts in their homes, businesses, and places of worship paralyzed the Coptic community.
The government's decision to release the Islamist prisoners allegedly comes on the heels of the government's promise of reform towards democratic dialogue and as a consequence of the group's alleged ideological revision. Leaders of the Gamma el Islamiya have issued statements of repentance, however curiously omitting remorse concerning the Copts, Jews, and Western victims of their campaign of violence. In fact, shortly following Zohdi's release, the group published a book, dedicating it to the "blood of all innocent Muslims who were killed in the [Riyadh] bombing and other similar attacks." The group has even gone so far as to label President Sadat, assassinated at their hands, as a martyr. Yet, the discriminatory Islamist ideology that propelled the group's members to violence against the Copts appears to remain ingrained within its new, revised philosophy. We hear no remorse for the brutality demonstrated against the infidels (Christians and Jews) - they are once again sidelined as acceptable victims of violence.
The timing of the liberation of the Islamists is to be especially noted. The prisoners were discharged in an ironic celebration of the 30th anniversary of Egypt's victory against Israel and the 22nd anniversary of President Anwar El- Sadat's assassination. The scheduled pardon of the very individuals who conspired Sadat's assassination for his peace pact with Israel conveys a symbolic rejection of the brokered peace and the support of Islamic terrorism as an alternative. Mubarak's regime has yielded to the ever-growing extremist sentiment within the country, temporarily placating the disgruntlement of the powerful Islamic extremist factions. This is where Egypt's game is taking a dangerous turn.
There is no doubt that the governmental offer of early release served as incentive to Zohdi and others for the revision of their group's public stance. This incentive is magnified in light of the severe blow dealt to Al-Jihad and other Islamic organizations subsequent to the war on terrorism. These groups have suffered as a result of the severing of their funding and the strict monitoring of Islamic charitable organizations that had long financed their activities.
While some might argue the authenticity of their remorse, two points are worth consideration. First, despite the possibility that Zohdi and his associates may have genuinely renounced violence as means to achieve their ends, there is no evidence that the immoderate Islamic ideology that espouses such violence has also been repelled. These rehabilitated criminals may go on to propagate non-violence, but their teachings, mingled with traces of radical Islamic ideology present the possibility that their students will turn to violence even if they themselves do not. Second, there has been little attention to the matter of the ‘collective repentance' of over 1000 prisoners. The wholesale atonement conferred by the government ought to generate questions regarding its ability to assess individual remorse and to monitor individual and group behavior after the release.
The release of more than 1000 members of the Gamma el Islamiya and al-Jihad organization, including several top leaders may very well serve the surge of international terrorism. Egypt, branded as a breeding ground for Islamic extremism has produced several Al-Qaeda leaders and September 11, 2001 attacks master minders such as Ayman El-Zwahari, Mohamed Atta, and Mohamed Atef. Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind terrorist sheik who is currently in U.S. prison because of his role in the 1993 World Trade Centers bombing, is an Egyptian and a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Yasser Arafat, meanwhile, the inventor of modern terrorism, was born and educated in Egypt and trained by the Muslim Brotherhood.
In this context, therefore, it should serve as no surprise that Egypt has granted the Gamma el Islamiya a new lifeline. The threat of radical ideology has been repackaged and released to once again wreak havoc on the Coptic community, Egypt, and the international community as a whole.
Apparently, convinced that the released Islamists may in fact help reverse ideological radicalism held by others, the American government has blessed Mubarak's decision. However, the shortsightedness of both governments may prove to be one of the greatest blunders in the fight against terrorism. Three decades have passed since the governments of the East and West turned a blind eye to Sadat's support of the Gamma el Islamiya under the guise of a campaign against Communism and in an effort to boost his political career. Years later, still suffering from Sadat's actions, we now face the possibility of the disturbing resurgence and reinvigoration of dangerous Islamic ideology.
Michael Meunier is Executive Director of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East in Washington, D.C.