CAIRO - From the cells of a notorious prison nicknamed “The Scorpion,” the men who plotted Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 and served as godfathers of Islamic militancy in Egypt have declared the violence that they once endorsed a historic mistake.
They have promised to formally apologize to their victims, recognized the legitimacy of governments they once reviled, and issued a call for peaceful Islamic activism that has ignited a debate in Egypt and the broader Arab world.
The statements, carried in a series of articles in a leading Egyptian magazine, seek to overturn the tenets that have inspired a generation of Islamic militancy, from Algeria to Pakistan and beyond. More remarkable is their source: the now middle-aged men from Egypt’s bleakest, most impoverished region who provided the ideological rigor for an Islamic movement that carried out bombings, massacres of tourists, and a bloody insurgency in the 1990s. The turmoil they unleashed once threatened the stability of President Hosni Mubarak, Washington’s most important Arab ally.
The interviews with the imprisoned leaders of al-Gam’a al-Islamiya, or the Islamic Group, were published in June and July. They enlivened arguments that have raged in the Arab and Muslim world for years, and with added urgency after the Sept. 11 attacks.
”In our time, many Muslim youth challenged Muslim states and their institutions and fought against them in the name of jihad. The result was that the youth harvested great evil and weakened the nation,” said Ali al-Sharif, one of the imprisoned leaders. In hindsight, he said, that confrontation “is prohibited by Islamic law because Islam never condones evil.”
The man recognized as the group’s leader, Karam Zuhdi, added that the transformation “cannot be temporary or tactical. It is a strategic vision.”
Islamic activists have pointed to the declarations as evidence of ferment within a movement often seen as monochromatic in the West. Across Egyptian society, calls are mounting for a government response to the overtures that goes beyond the heavy-handed repression of the past. For the wider Arab world, the exchanges have begged the question of democratic reform, namely how to answer activists who only recently have promised to seek change peacefully.
While some in the Egyptian government and Islamic circles question the men’s sincerity, most have endorsed the importance of their words.
”It’s a turning point. I think it is a decisive moment for the Islamic movement,” said Makram Mohammed Ahmed, a confidant of Mubarak who conducted the interviews for his weekly magazine, al-Musawar. “How do you break the cycle of violence? We have a chance now.”
Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, has long served as a barometer of Islamic militancy.
The Arab world’s largest Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, was born along Egypt’s Suez Canal in the 1920s. Sayyid Qutb, an Islamic thinker executed by Egypt in 1966, emboldened Islamic movements a generation later with his call for revolution. The carnage of Sept. 11 bore the fingerprints of Egyptian radicals - Ayman al-Zawahiri is the deputy to Osama bin Laden, and hijacker Mohammed Atta was considered the ringleader of the attacks.
The imprisoned Islamic Group leaders sprung from that milieu. The most promiment among them - Zuhdi, and Nagih Ibrahim, the chief ideologue - were jailed after plotting Sadat’s assassination, then trying to foment revolution in the southern Egyptian city of Asyut. The interviews, organized by the government, were the first since their imprisonment 20 years ago.
In the articles, Zuhdi and 11 others said they would issue an apology for the harm they caused Egyptians “due to misinterpretation of religion” and would consider compensating their victims with the sales of what they publish.
They said it “was utterly wrong to fight the state” and that they recognized the legitimacy of the Egyptian government, a regime they once considered infidel and were determined to overthrow. They also denounced the killing of police officers, Christians, and foreign tourists, long the targets in an insurgency that began in 1992 and killed more than 1,200 people.
In the articles - roundtable-style interviews and reporting on a dialogue they held with fellow prisoners - the men called Sadat’s assassination a mistake and condemned bin Laden and the Sept. 11 attacks.
In recognition of their influence, the government has allowed them to tour 13 Egyptian prisons since last year, speaking to hundreds of jailed militants.
Their calls grew out of a cease-fire that they issued in 1997. A massacre of 58 foreign tourists outside a 3,400-year-old temple in the ancient city of Luxor followed months later. The Islamic Group’s leadership blamed a rogue faction for the killings, and it turned out to be the last major attack.
In the interviews, the men said that since the cease-fire, their time in prison was consumed with work on a series of four books published in January that add religious weight to the truce. In them, they seek to rebut the concepts that have guided Islamic militancy: the vision of jihad as armed struggle, a call to arms against Muslim leaders they consider infidel, and the legitimacy of violence against civilians.
”It has become clear to me that this confrontation has created great harm to our country without realizing any benefits,” said Hassan al-Khalifa, who was pictured for the article dressed in the red prison garb of inmates sentenced to death.
If not for the men’s reputations, the call would probably be dismissed as government propaganda. Speculation is rife in Egypt over the motive of the government in giving voice to militants with whom it has ruled out any dialogue. Members of the group abroad have criticized the interviews, saying the decision to speak out was made without consulting the movement’s exiled leadership.
Some suggested they overreacted when given the opportunity to speak publicly.
”You take someone from a fire and put them in cold water. It’s a shock,” said Abou Elela Maady, an Islamic activist who has sought for years government permission to establish a moderate Islamic party that includes women and Christians.
But the imprisoned leaders still enjoy immense credibility within Islamic circles; Zuhdi’s reputation rivals that of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Egyptian cleric imprisoned in the United States for plotting attacks on New York landmarks, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Given the cease-fire call in 1997 - and its consequent success - many see the interviews as a logical progression in the militants’ thinking. Some analysts point out that the decisions mirror moves by other Islamic groups and parties in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and parts of the Persian Gulf to recognize the legitimacy of governments and seek to take part in elections, albeit with varying degrees of success.
Ahmed, the magazine editor, who was a target of an assassination attempt by militants in 1987, said he has no doubts about their credibility.
”It’s very hard to argue that it’s tactical,” said Ahmed, whose first interview with the prisoners ran three hours. “I don’t know what is in their hearts. But they didn’t try to hide their ideas, they talked with courage, their responses were direct, and they spoke with one language.”
How the government will respond remains a mystery - and the subject of a growing debate.
In the 1990s, the government waged a fierce crackdown on Islamic militants, arresting thousands, putting hundreds before draconian military courts, and giving security forces license to wipe out their strongholds in southern Egypt.
Mubarak, a target himself of several assassination attempts, has made clear he has no intention of accepting a religiously based political party and has waged an on-again, off-again test of wills with the Muslim Brotherhood, a well organized Islamic group that renounced violence in the 1970s and remains the government’s only effective competition.
Many suspect the interviews were a prelude to a government release of some of the imprisoned leaders, particularly those on the verge of completing their sentences. But debate is believed to persist within the government over the wisdom of such a move. As many as 15,000 Islamic militants remain in Egyptian prisons, although the government has released thousands since the 1997 cease-fire call.
”If they keep them in jail, they’re not paying any price to do so,” a Western diplomat in Cairo said. “If they let them out, there’s a possiblity they could do either harm or good. I don’t see what they get as a guaranteed benefit.”
But figures ranging from columnists in government newspapers to Islamic activists have urged Egypt to seize the opportunity and begin a reconciliation with relatively moderate Islamic currents that remain powerful in a country mired in recession and political stagnation. A previous move at reconciliation was scotched by the government in the early 1990s.
”The Islamic Group has changed deeply and decisively,” said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamic movements at Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “For the government, now is the moment to confirm the group’s transformation. It should be a priority.”
The record of other Arab countries doing so is mixed. Jordan, to a large degree, has accommodated its Islamic opposition. Far less successful is Algeria, whose government canceled results of an election an Islamic party was poised to win in 1992. That ignited a bloody civil war.
Gamal Sultan, the 42-year-old editor of The New Minaret, an Islamic political journal, warns that without reform, a similar future could be in store for Egypt. He was jailed for seven months after Sadat’s assassination. Like a handful of other Islamic activists, he renounced those ideas in the 1990s and sought to form a party that would work within the system. The government refused permission.
To him, the question revolves, not around the sincerity of moderate Islamic activists, but around the sincerity of the government.
”For our generation, the violence has ended. But for the new future generation, if they can’t taste freedom, then they will turn to violence,” he said. “Violence was never an ideology. It was a reaction.”