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
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
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
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
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[email protected]