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EGYPT: Islamist Opposition Groups

Author: Esther Pan
Updated: August 1, 2005
This publication is now archived.

Which Islamist groups are currently operating in Egypt?

Islamic opposition groups have been active in Egypt for decades. The nation's latest terror attacks--which killed at least sixty-four and injured more than 200 at the seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh July 23--has again focused world attention on the activities of such groups. Two little-known organizations claimed responsibility for the Sharm attacks: the Abdullah Azzam Brigades of al-Qaeda in Syria and Egypt, and the Holy Warriors of Egypt, but experts say their claims are difficult, if not impossible, to verify. These groups might be offshoots of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist ideological and political movement that has renounced violence but spawned many violent splinter factions. The main terror groups active in Egypt--Jamaat al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad--are both Brotherhood offshoots. Either could have been involved in the recent attacks.

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What is the history of these groups?
  • Jamaat al-Islamiyya, Egypt's largest militant group, has been active since the late 1970s. It is loosely organized, but has supporters in countries around the world. It has been involved in a series of deadly attacks in Egypt, including a 1997 attack on tourists at Luxor that killed fifty-eight, the attempted assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia in 1995, a series of Cairo bombings in 1993, and several attacks against intellectuals and Coptic Christians throughout the 1990s. Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the spiritual leader of Jamaat al-Islamiyya, was sentenced to a life term in U.S. prison for his involvement in the 1993 bomb attack on the World Trade Center, which was committed in conjunction with al-Qaeda. In the 1990s, Jamaat al-Islamiyya sought to depose Mubarak's secular, autocratic regime of government and establish an Islamic theocracy in its place. However, the group renounced violence after Egyptian authorities jailed many of its leaders and agreed to a ceasefire in 1999. The group was added to the U.S. list of terror groups in 1997, although some experts say the organization is now much less of a threat.
  • Egyptian Islamic Jihad has also been active since the late 1970s. Its primary goals are to overthrow the Egyptian government and replace it with an Islamic state, and to attack U.S. and Israeli interests in Egypt and abroad. The group assassinated Egyptian President Sadat in 1981 for making peace with Israel, and also attempted to assassinate at least two Egyptian cabinet members in the early 1990s. Egyptian Islamic Jihad staged a 1995 suicide bomb attack on Egypt's embassy in Pakistan, and, in 1998, planned an attack on the U.S. embassy in Albania. Also that year, the group was instrumental in planning the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Egyptian Islamic Jihad merged with al-Qaeda in 1998, and "is now a wholly owned subsidiary of al-Qaeda," says Steven Cook, a Middle East expert and the Douglas A. Dillon fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The group's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is widely regarded as Osama bin Laden's chief deputy.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna. Its ideology states that a true Islamic society is one in which all institutions, including the government, obey strict Islamic principles. The Brotherhood's philosophy has spread around the world, inspiring many smaller groups to strive to establish Islamic states in their own countries. (Many of these smaller groups advocate military struggle to achieve regime change; some do not. Some are only inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood ideals and have adopted different names, while others call themselves the Muslim Brotherhood, but may or may not share similar goals and methods with the Egyptian branch of the organization.) The Muslim Brotherhood has disavowed violence and denies any links with violent groups. The Egyptian government outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954; the group is now "illegal but officially tolerated" in Egypt, Cook says. Seventeen independent politicians linked to the Brotherhood are currently serving in Egypt's parliament.
What has Egypt done to confront these groups?

Through much of the last decade, Mubarak's government actively fought opposition groups: detaining their members, jailing their leaders, and cracking down on their finances. "The Egyptian regime really went after these people in a big way," Cook says. The crackdown was effective; it led to a period of quiet between the 1997 Luxor attacks and the October 2004 bombings in the resort town of Taba that killed thirty-four. During this time, tourism in Egypt--which brings in some $6 billion annually--experienced a resurgence.

The Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh bombings have led experts to believe that homegrown Egyptian extremism is on the rise again. A Bedouin tribesman from the Sinai region was arrested by Egyptian authorities in the fall of 2004 after admitting he sold the explosives used in the Taba attacks. Egyptian authorities clamped down harshly on Bedouin tribes after that, arresting hundreds of young Bedouin men. Human-rights organizations say many of the detainees were held for months without charges, and some were tortured. Officials say 139 of the men are still in jail.

Are Bedouins also suspects in the Sharm el-Sheikh attacks?

Yes. In the days after attacks, the Egyptian authorities took DNA samples from the families of five Bedouin men from the Sinai region in order to try to match them with DNA of the suicide bombers. They also rounded up dozens of suspects for questioning, including more than twenty Bedouins. Some experts warn the mass arrests, on the heels of the harsh crackdowns in Bedouin communities in 2004, could have the contradictory result of inspiring future attacks. "There’s a clear linkage between repression and radicalization," Cook says. "Every repressive encounter leads to more commitment to violence."

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