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    Middle East
     Feb 2, 2011

Militants wait in the wings
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD - There is no opposition force in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood, sufficiently organized at this stage to take over power in the event that the ongoing public demonstrations in major Egyptian cities lead to the removal of President Hosni Mubarak and his government.

To date, the protests have lacked any structured demands, other than the call for Mubarak, 83, to step down after 30 years in power.

One wild card as the drama plays out in Egypt - where a million protesters have been called on to take to the streets of Cairo on 

Tuesday - is the approximately 15,000 former militants who have been released by the courts over the past 10 years but who have remained on the watch lists of Egyptian intelligence agencies.

"Martyrs are needed for incidents. Incidents are needed for revolutions. And revolutions are needed for progress," prominent Pakistani analyst Farrukh Saleem noted in The News International. "Revolutions are about public discontent leading to a breakdown of the established order. Revolutions are spontaneous with roots in areas that are disenfranchised both politically and economically. Revolutions begin outside the centers of power in areas where government writ is weak and then move towards the center of power."

The thousands of militants were rounded up and roughed up throughout the late 1990s to early 2001 by former intelligence chief Suleiman Omar, who this week was named vice president. Should the country's security apparatus collapse, the militants could have a say in which direction the country goes.

The militants come mainly from al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya and several little-known underground organizations that sprouted during and after the Afghan jihad against Soviet Russia. They played havoc in Egypt throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and attacks on tourists and the security forces were routine.

Most of the groups were brutally flattened by the security forces; hundreds were executed and thousands were thrown into jail while several thousands were released after publicly denouncing their activities, although they had to regularly check in with the authorities.

These militants, along with possibly hundreds of others among those who have escaped from jails over the past few days, will now be unfettered as the security forces deal with the biggest challenge Egypt has possibly ever faced.

Over the weekend, for the first time since the protests broke out last week, a hint of Islamic militancy's role in the unrest surfaced when at least four prisons were attacked and hundreds of Islamists were freed. This clearly exposed the vulnerability of a security apparatus notorious for its brutalities.

The Pakistan example
In the early 2000s in Pakistan, the regime of former president General Pervez Musharraf clamped down heavily on militant organizations such as Sepah-e-Sahabah, Harkatul Mujahideen, Laskhar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. Strict measures were adopted to prevent members from joining forces with al-Qaeda-led groups.

However, the opening of a low-intensity insurgency in the tribal areas mobilized these militants and no counter-terrorism mechanisms could stop their activities and they allied with al-Qaeda to work against the establishment.

Yemen presents a similar picture. Anti-al-Qaeda operations in the early 2000s mostly eliminated al-Qaeda in the country, but after the escape from jail of a few leading Yemeni militants a low-intensity insurgency started in the tribal areas - this galvanized the many sleeper militant cells in Yemen.

Egypt has a long history of militancy, but it has been largely dormant for many years.

Militant factions emerged immediately after the assassination of Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, in 1948. A military coup and the subsequent takeover by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956, aided Brotherhood-connected military officers, gave a brief rise to the Brotherhood, which had morphed into at least three factions.

Nasser's subsequent differences with the Brotherhood began a long period of suppression that lasted until the mid-1960s, when the Brotherhood officially agreed to denounce militancy and adopt democracy.

By the early 1970s, Brotherhood and Islamic militant groups seemed to be relics of the past, but they revived in the late 1970s and by the early 1980s they were able, under the command of Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, to plan a coup. Although it failed because of timely crackdowns, militants did succeed in assassinating president Anwar Sadat in 1981.

A review of Islamic militancy in Egypt reveals that although it has been crushed many times, it always bounces back, even if it takes many years.

Post al-Banna's assassination, militancy was a reaction to his murder. From the late 1950s until the 1960s, militancy took on extreme ideological roots and declared Egyptian society heretic. That was the beginning of a rebellion, but Egypt overwhelmed it until the mid-1970s when the restoration of Egypt-Israel diplomatic relations gave new life to the militancy, culminating in the killing of Sadat.

The Afghan jihad in the 1980s added a new dimension to the militancy, which worked toward an Islamic revolution in Egypt. But by the early 2000s, the authorities had again prevailed.

Now, come the massive protests in Egypt, militancy could rebound - and this time there is an added dimension: in the war theaters of Afghanistan and Iraq, the insurgencies are led by the Egyptian camp dominated by al-Qaeda, and the turmoil on the streets of the Arab world could give radicalism unprecedented popularity. (See Al-Qaeda's unfinished work Asia Times Online.)

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief and author of upcoming book Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban, beyond 9/11 published by Pluto Press, UK. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

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