Is this the end of Egypt’s Jamaa Islamiya?

Jamaa Islamiya is facing a tough test of survival after the Cairo Criminal Court ruled to include 164 of the group’s members on a new National Security Agency terrorism list.
Sunday 25/11/2018
Proclivities. A 2013 file picture shows a supporter of Jamaa Islamiya chanting slogans in support of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. (Reuters)
Proclivities. A 2013 file picture shows a supporter of Jamaa Islamiya chanting slogans in support of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO - One of Egypt’s most prominent remaining Islamist groups, Jamaa Islamiya, is facing a tough test of survival after the Cairo Criminal Court ruled to include 164 of the group’s members on a new National Security Agency terrorism list submitted by Egyptian authorities last month.

This is the first time the Sisi administration has sought to directly target leaders of Jamaa Islamiya, a staunch ally of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which was designated as a terrorist organisation in late 2013 following the ouster of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi.

The list includes leaders of the organisation, both inside and outside Egypt, and some senior members of the group’s still functional political wing, the Building and Development Party.

The move, political analysts said, threatened Jamaa Islamiya’s existence and paved the way for the dissolution of its political party.

Jamaa Islamiya was a prominent terror group in the 1980s and 1990s before officially renouncing violence in 2003. In the 80s, it was famously led by Omar Abdel-Rahman — the “Blind Sheikh” — who was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing in New York. He died in prison in February 2017.

More recently, Jamaa Islamiya has largely managed to sidestep growing popular discontent and government initiatives targeting political Islam in Egypt, but the recent blacklisting could change that, analysts said.

“Now, the organisation has to appeal the inclusion of its leaders in the list,” said Sameh Eid, a specialist in Islamist movements. “It faces the prospect of total illegalisation if it does not take this move.”

The new terror list falls into the wider context of Egypt’s ongoing crackdown on political Islam.

Since coming to power in mid-2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has staged an unwavering clampdown on Islamist movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.

Jamaa Islamiya, which has been linked to the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in October 1981 for signing a peace treaty with Israel, witnessed a political renaissance following the 2011 popular uprising against autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Those implicated in Sadat’s assassination, including cousins Aboud and Tarek al-Zomor, were released from jail after the uprising following three decades of incarceration. Exploiting the group’s popularity, especially in Egypt’s southern provinces, they quickly formed the Building and Development party. It became the third pillar in a loose Islamist political alliance that included the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Al-Nour party. This Islamist bloc came to dominate parliament, with the Building and Development party securing its first ever parliamentary seats.

Following Morsi’s ouster in mid-2013, Jamaa Islamiya sided with the soon-to-be outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, joining a so-called national coalition that rejected post-Morsi rule. According to documents submitted to Cairo’s criminal courts, members of the group held meetings following Morsi’s ouster and agreed to provide financial support for the purchase of weapons and ammunition. The government also accused some of the group’s members who are included on the list of staging terror attacks against state institutions and churches.

“Jamaa Islamiya’s collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood was a fatal mistake,” said Nagih Ibrahim, a former leading figure of the group. “To survive the test it is undergoing now, Jamaa Islamiya has to chart a totally new course, one that has nothing to do with violence.”

This is exactly what the group and its party are seeking to do to ensure that they will not face the prospect of dissolution.

Apart from preparing an appeal against the new terrorism list, the Building and Development Party has launched a charm offensive to improve its image. The campaign includes a large number of seminars and the publication of articles by moderate members, in which they renounce violence. In one of the videos on the party website, a member speaks against the targeting of army troops and policemen.

In an interview on the website dated October 15, leader Mohamed Tayseer said his party backed state institutions, supported equal rights for all citizens and called for peacefully settling political conflicts.

Tayseer’s claims appear to completely contradict the intelligence gathered by the National Security Agency and submitted to the court. According to media reports, the agency received information about plans by the organisation’s fugitive leaders to enlist services from jihadists returning from battlefields in Syria and Iraq to form an armed wing.

Jamaa Islamiya sought to form its own militia — called “Vigilante Committees” — in 2013 during Morsi’s term in office to keep law and order in some of the southern provinces where the group had strong representation. Locals complained that the committees acted as de facto morality police, haranguing people to attend prayers and preventing unrelated men and women from walking in public together.

Jamaa Islamiya’s charm offensive is also expected to include the replacement of leaders included on the terrorism list with organisation doves, such as Ibrahim.

Imprisoned for years after Sadat’s assassination, Ibrahim was one of dozens of Jamaa Islamiya leaders who made ideological revisions in prison and renounced violence. He became a hated figure inside the party for opposing Jamaa Islamiya’s belligerence against the authorities and also its alliance with the Brotherhood.

Nonetheless, those following the organisation and its struggle to retain influence said such efforts are unlikely to succeed. Jamaa Islamiya, they said, was violent at heart and there is a renewed insistence inside decision-making circles in Egypt to put an end to its presence on the political stage.

“There is no future for the group unless it initiates full ideological revisions,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Only then can the authorities accept its presence on the political stage.”