Egypt’s al-Gama’a al Islamiya facing uncertain future

Sunday 23/07/2017
Undemocratic politics. An Egyptian demonstrator uses a stick to beat a graffiti portraying an armed Islamist in Luxor. (AFP)

Cairo- Major divisions within Egypt’s al-Gama’a al Islamiya threaten to disband its Building and Development Party and deal another blow to po­litical Islam in the country.
“This is particularly the case after the Muslim Brotherhood totally got out of politics,” said Kamal Habib, an Islamist leader and an expert in Islamist movements. “Current conflicts within al-Gama’a al Is­lamiya will have far-reaching reper­cussions on the future of political Islam as a whole.”
Best described as a generational divide, polarisation within al- Gama’a al Islamiya showed after the re-election of controversial figure Tarek al-Zomor as secretary-gener­al of the Building and Development Party, which he helped establish.
Zomor, 56, was implicated in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in October 1981 and spent nearly three decades in jail. He was released in March 2011.
He fled to Qatar in July 2013 af­ter the Egyptian Army backed a popular uprising against President Muhammad Morsi, a long-time member of the Muslim Brother­hood, and subsequent crackdown against the group and its support­ers, including senior Building and Development Party figures. Zomor was tried and convicted in absentia of several crimes, including inciting violence.
The diplomatic crisis between Qatar and fellow Arab countries Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain has put Zomor back in the spotlight. On June 8, the four countries issued a list of 59 terror suspects, includ­ing Zomor, whom they accuse Qa­tar of abetting. Cairo is demanding that Doha hand over Zomor, along with other Egyptian Islamists in the country.
Zomor’s re-election in May as head of the Building and Develop­ment Party, with 52% of the vote, fuelled conflict between the party’s old guard, which wants to keep faith with Zomor, and younger members, who are looking ahead to an increasingly uncertain future.
“Young party members want to break away from the policies of the party leadership,” said Nageh Ibrahim, am al-Gama’a al Islamiya leader known to be the ideologue behind the movement’s mid-1990s renunciation of violence. “The young members want to save the party, put an end to the alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and be part of Egypt’s political life.”
Al-Gama’a al Islamiya backed the Muslim Brotherhood after the June 30 uprising, refusing to recognise the post-Morsi government, land­ing thousands of the group’s sup­porters and members in jail.
Although the Building and De­velopment Party has avoided be­ing formally disbanded, it is facing court challenges. The re-election of a person with Zomor’s record as its leader is not helping matters.
It is a major fall after the party won the second highest share of the vote (28%) in the 2011-12 elec­tions as part of an Islamist alliance with the Salafist Al-Nour Party. The Building and Development Party boycotted the 2015 parliamentary elections and it appears increas­ingly likely it will not see another election.
On July 17, the Parties Affairs Commission, the state-run body that regulates political parties, said it was investigating 11 Islam­ist parties, including al-Gama’a al Islamiya. Commission Chairman Adel el-Shorbagy said the Building and Development Party violated the constitution, given that it was explicitly based on religion, add­ing that investigations were looking into the alleged funding of terror­ism. Al-Gama’a al Islamiya was des­ignated a foreign terrorist organisa­tion by the US State Department in 1997.
While al-Gama’a al Islamiya con­tinues to have a strong following, particularly in southern Egypt, ana­lysts equated the dissolution of the Building and Development Party with the end of political Islam in Egypt.
“Look at this political stage now and you will find no influential Is­lamist parties on it,” said Hani Ab­dullah, a researcher on political Islam. “This means that political Islam might be in for tough times in the years to come, at least in Egypt.”
Egypt’s Salafists, as represented by the Al-Nour party, would be­come the sole sanctioned repre­sentative of political Islam. Al-Nour backed the popular uprising against the Muslim Brotherhood and sup­ported successive military-backed governments, even campaigning for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during Egypt’s 2014 presidential election. This, however, coincided with the group’s dwindling popu­larity. Al-Nour won just 11 seats in the latest parliamentary elections, compared to 111 seats in the 2011-12 vote.