Egypt’s release of Islamist detainees raises fears of security blowback

Egypt suffered after releasing Islamists from jails in the past. Some formed terrorist cells or joined militant groups.
Sunday 09/02/2020
Inmates seen inside their cell at Burj al-Arab prison near the Egyptian city of Alexandria, last November. (AFP)
Hopes and concerns. Inmates seen inside their cell at Burj al-Arab prison near the Egyptian city of Alexandria, last November. (AFP)

CAIRO - Rights advocates in Egypt welcomed the release of hundreds of prisoners, including political activists, saying the move is a positive step that portends greater freedoms.

“This is a good political gesture,” said human rights lawyer Negad el-Borai. “I hope the authorities will compound it with the release of all political activists in the prisons.”

The release of the prisoners came February 1 on orders from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who pardoned them as part of Police Day celebrations.

However, the move caused alarm among security specialists.

The released prisoners included hundreds who had been members of Islamist movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest Islamist movement in Egypt and a bitter enemy of Sisi’s regime. Most of prisoners had been found guilty of attacking state institutions or police following the ouster of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi in mid-2013.

Egypt went through its bloodiest phase in years that followed Morsi’s ouster in an army-backed popular uprising. Muslim Brotherhood militias, members and sympathisers attacked police stations, torched dozens of churches and killed tens of policemen.

Brotherhood members travelled to Sinai and joined a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS). Some crossed into Egypt’s western neighbour Libya to fight for Islamist militias.

Many Egyptian cities were caught in the violence, which scared tourists away and threatened economic activities, costing Egypt dearly in terms of revenue.

Sisi put thousands of Islamists in jail. The arrests included non-violent activists, said to have been imprisoned because they objected to Sisi’s rule. Local and international rights groups criticised those arrests. In its World Report 2019, Human Rights Watch lashed out at the arrest of political opponents and civil society activists by Egyptian authorities.

However, the release of the prisoners, especially Islamists, caused concern.

“I was shocked when I heard the news about the release of these Islamists,” said security expert Gamal Eddine Mazloum. “Security agencies have to be on full alert.”

Egypt suffered after releasing Islamists from jails in the past. Some formed terrorist cells or joined militant groups.

Most extremists campaigning against Sisi’s government and calling for killing army troops and policemen were in prison before the 2011 uprising against long-time President Hosni Mubarak. Thousands of Islamists were set free after the uprising.

One of the perpetrators of the December 2016 bombing of a chapel near Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, the seat of the Coptic Orthodox pope near downtown Cairo, had been released from jail a short time before the attack that left 29 people dead. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack and vowed to target Egypt’s Christian minority.

Those released from the prisons recently underwent revisions. One of the released Islamists said representatives of state institutions visited the prisoners in their cells and lectured them.

“They showed us what is right and what is wrong,” a local newspaper quoted the unnamed ex-prisoner as saying.

Another prisoner said he was grateful to state authorities for reaching out to him and to other prisoners. “They are giving us another chance,” the prisoner said.

The fear is, however, that this will be a second chance for involvement in violent activity. Security specialists called on the authorities to keep watching these Islamists after their release.

“There are real risks in the release of these people, including their possible merger into terrorist organisations,” Mazloum said.

The Muslim Brotherhood is technically non-operative, except for its media machine, which contains TV channels broadcast from Turkey. Egyptian police have eradicated most of the Muslim Brotherhood’s militias.

However, ISIS is still alive even as operations by the Egyptian Army have weakened it.

Islamists released from the prisons in the past faced stricter ideological revisions that included lectures by moderate religious scholars and political experts who worked to correct misconceptions the Islamists held about Islam and authorities.

Some of those undergoing revisions renounced violence and abided by the peaceful line they vowed to adopt. However, others quickly returned to violent actions.

Following the latest release of Islamist prisoners, many cast doubt on the viability of the revisions and the pledges they made before their release.

“People do not usually change their ideas or beliefs easily,” said Islamism expert Sameh Eid. “Most of those making the revisions pledge to follow a non-violent course because they only want to get out of the prisons.”