Islamist Militias Take to the Streets as Egyptians Look for Solutions to Internal Security Crisis

Andrew McGregor

March 21, 2013

Though it lacks the compelling and convenient images produced in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during Egypt’s dramatic January, 2011 revolution, Egypt has been plunged into what has been variously described as a counter-revolution, a continuation of the 2011 revolution or an attempt by Islamist forces to consolidate power by taking advantage of Egypt’s internal security crisis. With police walking away from their duties across the country, Egyptians are seeking solutions to a security collapse that has given free rein to criminals, vandals and political extremists. Solutions such as massive reforms in the Interior Ministry or even privatization of the police have been floated, but Egypt’s Islamist movements have come up with their own solution – the creation and deployment of Islamist militias known as “popular committees.” The inability of the government to deal with the ongoing security crisis and the growing divide between Egypt’s religious and secular communities has many Egyptian politicians and commentators raising the possibility of a civil war.

Islamist MilitiasPublic protests have been fueled by economic turmoil, fuel shortages and controversial court decisions such as the acquittal of seven police officers tried for their role in the soccer-related violence that claimed 74 lives in Port Said in February, 2012 (21 civilians have been sentenced to death for their involvement in the violence) (al-Arabiya, March 11). Ongoing strikes in the industrial sector have paralyzed economic development.

Some demonstrations have involved shutting down public transportation and assaulting railway passengers, behavior that was unthinkable in pre-revolution Egypt (Ahram Online, February 11). Even the Mugamma building, Egypt’s monument to labyrinthine bureaucracy in Tahrir Square, has been subject to assault by demonstrators as security forces stood by (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], February 24). Cairo’s “Ultra” soccer hooligans have also engaged in vandalism and public violence in their deadly feud with Egypt’s security forces. A Muslim Brotherhood website has claimed that former leading officials of the now dissolved National Democratic Party (NDP – the ruling party of the former regime) are instigating the Ultras to attack the Muslim Brothers (, March 15). Several days later, the same website claimed that former NDP members were alternately bribing citizens to go on strike or forcing them to strike at gunpoint (, March 18).

In a troubling development, weapons appear to be pouring into the traditionally unarmed civilian population of Egypt since the revolution and the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in neighboring Libya. A recent sweep by Egyptian police seized 423 weapons, including machine guns and rifles (Middle Eastern News Agency [MENA – Cairo], March 17).

In what could be an embarrassing challenge to Egypt’s pretensions of leading the Arab world, reports have emerged that the Arab League is considering moving its headquarters out of Cairo due to continued violence that has forced the group to relocate many of its meetings (Ma’an News Agency [Bethlehem], March 18). Foreign investment is in steep decline and Egypt’s tourist industry, a vital source of hard currency, is floundering as Western tourists look for more secure places to vacation. For Egypt’s Islamists, however, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as they seek to replace Western tourists with Muslim tourists from the Gulf States, though the latter seem to be avoiding Egypt as well.

Citizen’s Arrests or Privatization?

Egypt’s prosecutor-general Talat Abdullah (an appointee of Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi) created a storm of controversy by urging “all citizens” to combat the destruction of private and public property and the creation of roadblocks by exercising “the right afforded to them by Article 37 of Egypt’s criminal procedure law to arrest anyone found committing a crime and refer them to official personnel” (Ahram Online [Cairo], March 10; al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 12). A later statement from Abdullah’s office tried to back away from advocating citizen arrests, but had little impact.

Article 37 is an existing but little-used piece of legislation that allows citizens to arrest defendants for offenses that can be punished by no less than one year in prison – making an arrest on lesser offences could result in a charge of illegal arrest. These provisions are clearly designed to limit the use of Article 37, but these details are likely to be overlooked in the current heated environment. According to a military source cited by a major Cairo daily, “The statements of the prosecutor-general regarding granting citizens arrest powers are a clear attempt to legalize the militias of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists on the streets and to give them the right to arrest citizens, which puts Egypt on the verge of a civil war and ends the state of law” (Ahram Online, March 11).

While secular opposition parties denounced the prosecutor-general’s statement as an attempt to legitimize Islamist militias and a violation of the constitution, the secretary general of the Islamist Hizb al-Bena’a wa’l-Tanmia (Building and Development Party) Ala’a Abu al-Nasr, hailed the announcement, saying “The decision of the prosecutor-general to grant citizens the right to arrest vandals is a correct decision based on the law… The decision comes as a first step to confront systematic violence in Egypt” (Ahram Online, March 11).

The dismissal of prosecutor-general Abdullah and the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Hisham Qandil are among the demands an opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, has said must be met before they will participate in forthcoming parliamentary elections (Ahram Online, March 14). Talat Abdullah has submitted his resignation once already since his November 2012 appointment after hundreds of public prosecutors staged a sit-in outside his office (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 12). The largest of Egypt’s Salafist parties, the Nur Party, is also backing calls for the replacement of the Qandil government.

On March 9, Sabir Abu al-Futuh, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, Ḥizb al-Ḥurriya wa’l-Adala (FJP – Freedom and Justice Party), announced that the party was considering legislation that would give private security firms the right to bear arms, make arrests and be engaged by the state to provide domestic policing functions. Abu al-Futuh also recommended the establishment of armed “popular committees “in the event that police continue their strike action.” Ahmad Fawzi of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party called Abu al-Futuh’s proposal “a continuation of the Islamist group’s ongoing endeavors to monopolize power in all of its forms, whether it be police, army or judiciary” (Ahram Online, March 10).  Some Egyptians warn that privatization of the domestic security services would open the way for U.S. security firms to set up shop in Egypt with the approval of their “friends” in the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 16).

The Interior Ministry

Striking police oppose what they describe as the “Brotherhoodization” of the Interior Ministry and call for the dismissal of another Mursi appointee, Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim (Ahram Online, March 15). Scores of police stations and Central Security Force (CSF) camps across Egypt (including those in the main cities of Cairo and Alexandria) have joined the strike that began March 7 when security forces in the Suez town of Ismailiya refused to deploy to Port Said, where several police officers have been killed in ongoing unrest. Egypt’s security services are still reeling from the public contempt that followed their brutal response to the anti-Mubarak revolution and fear that association with the ruling party will only further alienate the security forces from the public. According to one striking policeman, “We don’t want to be hated and feared by the people; we don’t want to be treated as the enemies of the people and the servants of the regime” (Daily News Egypt, March 9). The striking policemen are also calling for better arms to tackle the wave of lawlessness sweeping Egypt.

Islamist Militias 2Many policemen have been suspended after growing beards to express their affiliation with Islamist movements. Though an Administrative Court ruled in favor of the “bearded policemen” on the grounds of religious freedom, the Interior Ministry has refused to follow the court’s ruling, leading to further demonstrations and the creation of an official Facebook page: “I am a bearded policeman” (Ahram Online [Cairo], March 14). There are now also demands from some members of the army that they be allowed to grow beards, demands that have been interpreted in some quarters as an attempt to turn the army into an armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Watan [Cairo], March 17).

One of the early victims of the police strikes was the CSF commander, Magid Nouh, who was replaced on March 8 by CSF veteran Ashraf Abdullah after he failed to persuade the security services to allow him to return to work (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 8; al-Jazeera, March 8). The Egyptian president followed this move by making a personal visit to the Cairo headquarters of the CSF where he returned to the familiar language of “external threats” by warning the officers: “Beware, our outside enemy is seeking to create division among us, and we must not allow it” (Ahram Online [Cairo], March 15).

Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya

Leading the effort to form “popular committees” is al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI), a Salafist group that turned to non-violence after a long record of terrorist attacks through the 1980s and 1990s. Many leading members of the GI and BDP are former militants released from prison during the 2011 revolution.

According to a spokesman for the BDP, the GI’s political wing, “community police groups would step in under the supervision of the Interior Ministry,” while claiming that “this system is applied in other countries” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 12). Another BDP spokesman has complained the police are forcing the people to choose between torture or a lack of security: “We call on the police to meet their duty in protecting state institutions and not to give up the country’s security and stability in such critical times” (Ahram Online, March 9).

Asim Abd al-Magid, a senior GI member, has been given the job of organizing the GI’s “popular committees.” Besides calling on Egyptians to gather at mosques to form militias, Abd al-Magid has shown only slight respect for the security services: “Any policeman who wants to leave his position can do so, but he will not be allowed to come back… We want to purge the ministry of such elements anyway” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 12).

Satellite television has carried footage of the “Gama’a al-Islamiya police” parading in the streets of Asyut in cars and motorcycles despite warnings from the police that their activities are illegal (al-Hayat TV, March 12). In the city of Minya, the BDP has joined with the Salafist Nur Party to form “popular committees” to restore order in the streets (Ahram Online, March 9). 

The Muslim Brotherhood

The vice-president of the FJP (the Brothers’ political wing), Dr. Rafiq Habib (a Coptic Christian), believes that the chaos in Egypt’s streets is the work of secular forces and representatives of the old regime who see the violence as a means of preventing the Islamists from governing the country effectively, thus opening an opportunity for the restoration of the old regime (sans Mubarak) (, March 15).

The Brotherhood has been unnerved by a series of arson attacks on its offices throughout Egypt that began last December. At times, these attacks have resulted in pitched street battles between anti-Brotherhood protestors and Brotherhood self-defense groups (Amal al-Ummah [Alexandria], March 19). In an effort to come to grips with the spiraling violence, the leader of the Muslim Brothers, Dr. Muhammad Badi, launched an initiative on March 16 that calls for all the various political factions to remove their supporters from the streets for a specific period of time so that maximum efforts can be made to re-build the country (, March 17).

The possibility of Islamist militias taking to the streets reminded many Egyptians of the shocking photos published in 2006 that showed a military display at Cairo’s Islamic al-Azhar University put on by a Muslim Brotherhood student group known as “the Hawks,” though the event was later dismissed by the Brotherhood as nothing more than “a theatrical display” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 13, 2006). More recently, Cairo’s al-Dustur daily reported on March 20 that Muslim Brotherhood members had received military training at CSF camps in preparation for fielding militias, though the Interior Ministry has denied these claims.

The Army

Demonstrations in Alexandria have called for the resignation of President Mursi, the trial of Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim on charges of killing demonstrators in the Suez region and the return of the army to run the country until new elections can be held (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 8). A recent poll by Cairo’s Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies showed a surprising 82 percent of Egyptians want the army to take control of the country on a temporary basis (al-Masri al-Youm [Cairo], March 18). The poll results were released days after residents of al-Nasr City took to the streets on March 15 to demand a return to military rule (MENA, March 15). Calls for the return of the army are also beginning to appear with frequency in the non-Islamist Egyptian press.

Defense Minister General Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi maintains that the “Brotherhoodization” of the military is a near impossibility, but has warned recruits to abandon sectarian or political allegiances when they enter the military (al-Ahram [Cairo], March 15). Whether they form the government or not, the Muslim Brotherhood cannot easily transform the leadership of an institution that has spent decades purging all officers suspected of being sympathetic to the Brothers. While the situation could be changed very gradually through loosening restrictions on officer-candidates, command of the military cannot be simply handed over to a group of inexperienced Islamist subalterns. The Islamization of the military could more realistically take one or two decades – any sudden attempt to transform the military would inevitably result in yet another coup d’état and a return to military rule. The military’s surprising cooperation with the Brotherhood so far has raised the possibility that the command has simply given the Islamists enough rope to hang themselves in trying to transform a deeply entrenched social and political system. When popular opinion cries out for a return to the stability of military rule and foreign governments begin to give indications they are ready to look the other way, the military will be in a prime position to return to government or install a more pliant regime. The Army still controls a large but undefined section of the national economy, making it a necessary partner in any shift in political direction.


Before his death last year, former Egyptian intelligence chief General Omar Sulayman warned of the creation of Islamist militias in Egypt and the consequent threat of a civil war: “The Muslim Brotherhood group is not foolish, and hence it is preparing itself militarily, and within two to three years it will have a revolutionary guard to fight the army, and Egypt will face a civil war, like Iraq (al-Hayat, May 22, 2012; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, June 1, 2012).

The Egyptian Army has indicated that the creation of private militias is a “red-line” for the military that could bring on military intervention to restore state control (Ahram Online, March 11). Interior Minister Ibrahim has insisted there is no role for vigilantes or militias in Egypt: “From the minister to the youngest recruit in the force, we will not accept having militias in Egypt. That will be only when we are totally dead, finished” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 12). For Egypt, however, the greatest challenges to internal security may be yet to come, as Egyptian jihadists return from the battlefields of Syria and exiled Egyptian members of core al-Qaeda take advantage of the security collapse to re-infiltrate the country and resume the type of bloody operations that marked the struggle between Islamist terrorists and security forces in the 1990s.

This article first appeared in the March 21, 2013 issue of the Terrorism Monitor’s Terrorism Monitor

Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi Urges Merger of Salafism and Sufism

Andrew McGregor

January 27, 2013

Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim Brotherhood ideologue and one of the most influential men in modern Sunni Islam, has long resisted the Salafist trend of condemning Sufi Muslims as heretics and even apostates. Though he has been offered the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood several times, al-Qaradawi has always declined, saying he would prefer to be a guide for the nation in general, rather than be the leader of a specific group. The Shaykh has pursued this goal through a highly successful media strategy, involving a satellite television show and a popular website, IslamOnline. Nevertheless, he is held in suspicion by the West and is banned from travelling to the UK and the United States. The Shaykh recently offered his views on several issues, including the Sufi-Salafist split in Sunni Islam, in an interview carried by a pan-Arab daily (al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 23, 2010).

QaradawiYusuf al-Qaradawi (Right)

Al-Qaradawi naturally objects to Egypt’s official ban on political participation by the Brotherhood, asking if it is really possible that religious people are banned from practicing politics and participating in the development of the country: “There is no doubt that this is a crime, because religion is the essence of life, and the religious individual has the right to participate in building the country through his personal opinion, be it political, economic, educational, or health opinion… If the groups are banned from working publicly, they will start to work underground. The Islamist groups might be forced to work secretly. This is an unhealthy situation, because whoever works in the open can be held to account for his actions, and you can criticize him, but how can you hold to account whoever works in secret?”

Though the interview took place shortly before the uprising in Tunisia, al-Qaradawi noted that many of the governments in the Arab and Islamic world do not have any popular support and derive their authority solely from rigged elections disguised as democracy: “They are governments that are hated by their peoples, and they govern their countries by brute force and martial and emergency laws rather than governing through the consensus of the people.”

With regard to a growing perception in the Sunni world that Shi’a Islam is intent on expanding its numbers and territory in the Middle East, al-Qaradawi warned that Shiites are trained for preaching their creed and have access to large funds to promote Shi’ism as well as having the support of a major nation — Iran— behind them.

In his defense of Sufism, al-Qaradawi brought up the names of two medieval theologians who are regarded as providing many of the intellectual underpinnings of Salafist Islam: Shaykh Ibn Taymiyah (12633-1328) and his disciple, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim (1292-1350). According to al-Qaradawi, the two were “among the greatest Sufis,” but rejected what was inappropriate in Sufism: “Personally, I call for ‘making Sufi into Salafi’ and ‘making Salafi into Sufi.’ The Sufi takes from the discipline of Salafi in not following the fabricated Hadith, polytheist rites, and tomb-side rites, and we want the Salafi to take from the Sufi tenderness, spirituality, and piousness. From this mixture we get the required Muslim.”

Hassan al-BannaMuslim Brotherhood Founder Hassan al-Banna

In his search for reconciliation between the two trends of Sunni Islam, al-Qaradawi also called upon the thought of Muslim Brotherhood founder Shaykh Hassan al-Banna (1906-1947), saying al-Banna conceived the Brotherhood as an inclusive grouping of Sunni Muslims: “It is a Salafi movement as it calls for returning to the Koran and Sunna, it is a Sufi tendency as it calls for purifying the hearts and returning to God, it is a Sunni way that is based on honoring the Prophet’s companions and on the work of the Sunni school of thinking.”

Al-Qaradawi suggested that, contrary to public perceptions, Salafism is in fact a constantly evolving trend in Islam that now encompasses several schools of thinking, including those that are close to “centrism” and the ideology of the Muslim Brothers. After long denouncing the Brothers for participation in politics, the Salafists have now taken to politics in a major way. Exposure of the modern Salafists to developments in the wider world through travel after years of isolation and access to theological literature previously unavailable has also led to changes in Salafist jurisprudence.

Al-Qaradawi said the violent Salafi-Jihadi groups do not share the same agenda as the Muslim Brothers, who have told them: “We have tried such things, but they have not been helpful, and we have not gained anything out of them other than detention, suffering and victimization.” He noted that many of these groups, especially those in Egypt, have now reconsidered their strategies, issuing books of “Revisions” outlining their mistakes. Nevertheless, “All Islamist movements are entitled to try for themselves, and start from zero until they reach the conclusions of the preceding groups.”

This article first appeared in the January 28, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Egypt’s Muslim Brothers Watch as Divisions Rend Their Salafist Challengers

Andrew McGregor

January 25, 2013.

As the February 25 parliamentary elections grow near, the political wings of Egypt’s Salafist movement continue to fragment, raising questions about the movement’s ability to replicate its relative success in last year’s elections, in which the movement took nearly a quarter of the available seats despite being political neophytes.

Abd al-GhafourEmad Abd al-Ghafour (al-Jazeera)

Egypt’s Salafist movement was shaken on December 26, 2012, when Nur Party leader Emad Abd al-Ghafour and two former Nur Party spokesmen, Yousri Hammad and Muhammad Nur, joined roughly 150 other party members in a mass resignation followed by the creation of the new Watan (Homeland) Party (Daily News Egypt, December 29, 2012). The Nur Party was the lead element in a largely Salafist coalition that placed second in parliamentary elections last year before that parliament was dissolved as unconstitutional by a June decision of the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt.

Abd al-Ghafour became engaged in a power struggle with Nur Party vice-chairman Shaykh Nasser al-Borhami, a founder of al-Da’wa al-Salafiya (the Salafist Calling), an Islamist group formed in 1970s Alexandria as a rival to the Muslim Brotherhood that later created the Nur Party as its political expression. Al-Ghafour led a wing of the party that called for internal reform of the powerful role played in political decisions by the clerics of al-Da’wa al-Salafiya. Not surprisingly, al-Ghafour and al-Watan have lost the support of the Salafist Calling, which will inevitably hurt their appeal to the party’s core constituency. Referring to the dispute, Ahmad Badie, a prominent Nur Party defector and new Watan Party spokesman, said: “The role of clerics should be restricted to handing down edicts and opinions on matters that pertain to the Shari’a… but they should not be involved in elections or day-to-day politics” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], January 21).

Watan Party vice-president Dr. Yusri Hamad explained in an interview with a pan-Arab daily that the new party’s ultimate reference is Islamic Shari’a, “the general model for all Salafist parties.” Al-Watan, however, will not be “exclusionist,” but will welcome the participation of Copts and women in its ranks: “We have spoken about women’s rights and dignity and the importance of women playing a role. At the same time, we are also extending our hand in national partnership to the Copts because Egypt was not built by any one faction or entity; therefore everybody is invited to participate in the country’s construction and development.”   This openness will not, however, extend to guaranteeing women roles as candidates for the party. In the Egyptian context, Hamad says Salafism “means that we believe that state-building and reform must be based on two things; modernity, in addition to the traditions and values that are present and which distinguish Egypt from other countries” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 7).

Borhami and the Nur Party are adamant that mandatory representation for women and Christians in the new Egyptian parliament is a violation of Shari’a and the constitution; “Allocating quotas for women and Copts simply because of their gender or religion is blatant discrimination” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], January 21). The Nur Party was forced to include female candidates in the previous parliamentary election to avoid being banned from participation.

Given the measured words of the Watan leaders and their temperate demeanor, it is somewhat surprising that they have aligned themselves closely with Shaykh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an outspoken and unpredictable preacher who spoke at the Watan founding despite planning to announce his own Salafist party days later.

Abu Ismail keeps his place in Egyptian headlines through an apparently endless series of provocative statements. Most recently he blamed Egypt’s post-revolution economic collapse on “rumors about the economy” spread by the political opposition (al-Shorouk [Cairo], January 4). He has also condemned the national protests scheduled for January 25, describing their advocates as “criminals” who want “to burn the country” (Daily News Egypt, January 4).

Abu Ismail has repeatedly called for the dismissal of Interior Minister Major General Ahmad Gamal al-Din after police tried to enter his political headquarters following an outbreak of political violence. A series of violent attacks on the offices of the Wafd Party and its newspaper as well as the offices of the Popular Current, a political coalition led by Neo-Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi (Karama Party), were blamed by police on members of Abu Ismail’s party.  Abu Ismail denied any knowledge of the attacks but was undone by his own followers, who celebrated their role in the attacks on their Facebook accounts (Daily News Egypt, December 16, 2012).

Abu Ismail has said he will not run for president or for the House of Representatives (the new name for Egypt’s parliament), adding that he had only run for president in the last election from fear that the regime would mount a counter-revolution (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], January 22). Before his disqualification from the contest on the grounds his mother had dual U.S.-Egyptian citizenship (a violation of electoral rules), Abu Ismail shocked many Salafists with his advocacy of rebellion against “unjust” rulers. Despite the suspicions raised by his support for this very un-Salafist belief, Abu Ismail seems to have appealed to many young Islamists who subsequently entered his camp (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], January 21).

Besides their alliance with Abu Ismail’s Umma al-Misriya Party, al-Watan is seeking to build a coalition named Watan al-Hor (Free Homeland) with other Salafist parties, including the Asala (Fundamentals) Party of Shaykh Muhammad Abd al-Maqsud, Hizb al-Fadila (Virtue Party), Hizb al-Islah (Reform Party) and the Islamist New Labor Party. Negotiations continue regarding the participation of two other parties, Hizb al-Wasat (Center Party), a moderate breakaway faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hizb al-Bena’a wa’l-Tanmia (Building and Development Party), the political wing of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya.

Though an accelerating process of political divisions is usually regarded as a troubling sign for most political movements or ideologies, the deputy chief of the Nur Party, Mustafa Khalifa, has put a more attractive spin on the political fragmentation, suggesting it will provide voters with “more alternatives from across the political spectrum” (al-Ahram Weekly, January 23). In a less rosy light, it appears that, unlike the more powerful and enduring Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist movement in Egypt has fallen victim to the growth of personality-driven politics. There is little to differentiate between the aims and ideology of the growing number of Salafist political parties; in most cases these differences could probably be accommodated within a single party. As the new Salafist formations draw their strength from existing parties, a space is opened for the emergence of confrontational leaders such as Abu Ismail who have the potential of polarizing the nascent electorate. The Muslim Brotherhood can also be expected to exploit the Salafist divisions in February’s parliamentary election by presenting themselves as a movement where the promotion of Islam in daily life is more important than the success or failure of individuals.

This article first appeared in the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor, January 25, 2013.

The Face of Egypt’s Next Revolution: The Madinat Nasr Cell

Andrew McGregor

November 20, 2012

A raid by Egyptian security forces in a suburb of Cairo on October 24 revealed an unexpected intersection of several important threads in the evolving security situation in the Middle East, including a possible revival of domestic terrorism in Egypt, the attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi and Cairo, the cross-border shipment of Libyan arms, the growing Islamist role in the Syrian insurgency, the growth of Islamist militancy in the Sinai, the return to arms by political prisoners freed during the Egyptian Revolution, a possible reversal in the declining fortunes of Egypt’s internal security services and a new direction for a beleaguered al-Qaeda leadership.

Egyptian PoliceThe initial raid on a first-floor gymnasium converted into an armory in the crowded Cairo suburb of Madinat Nasr (Nasr City) has now blossomed into a nation-wide sweep of militants and hidden caches of arms and explosives. With Egypt in the midst of a difficult democratic transition made harder by a deteriorating security situation in the Middle East, details of the terrorist campaign outlined in the charges against members of the Madinat Nasr cell are especially disturbing. The Islamist suspects have been accused of accumulating weapons, planning the assassination of a wide swathe of Egyptian political figures, including newly elected president Muhammad al-Mursi, and of seeking to overthrow Egypt’s elected government.

The Raid

The investigation into the alleged terrorist cell began with the search of a car belonging to suspected jihadis Bassam al-Sayyid Ibrahim, an escapee from Wadi al-Natrun prison, and his brother Haytham. After a hand grenade, explosives and fuses were seized from the vehicle, interrogations led to the raid in Madinat Nasr (al-Hayat, October 31, 2012). The raided property in a 15-storey residential building was allegedly rented by Karim Isam Ahmad Azzazi, who carried out various work at the property, including the installation of an iron door (al-Wafd [Cairo], October 28, 2012). Karim Isam detonated an explosive device during the raid, killing himself and causing enough structural damage there are fears the building may collapse. Witnesses described seeing a number of men fleeing from the building, one of whom was killed by police (al-Akhbar [Cairo], October 26, 2012). Those detained in the raid insist they were only smuggling arms from Libya to Syria and had no intention of carrying out terrorist operations in Egypt. Police believe that some of the suspects fled from Libya after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi (al-Tahrir [Cairo], October 29, 2012).

Karim Ahmad is alleged to be the author of a handwritten document found in the raid entitled “The Conquest of Egypt.” The work is reported to provide a detailed plan for the establishment of an Egyptian Caliphate through a campaign involving the assassination of leading Egyptians, including the president and the newly appointed Coptic pope, a wave of bombings (especially in places where Coptic Christians are known to gather), attacks on military posts in Cairo and the Sinai and the takeover of communications networks (al-Arabiya, November 13, 2012). Other materials found in the raid include blueprints of important buildings, records of the movements of significant individuals and plans to strike the U.S. and Israeli embassies (al-Tahrir [Cairo], October 29, 2012; al-Shuruq al-Jadid [Cairo], October 31, 2012; al-Wafd [Cairo], October 29, 2012).

Various reports of the contents of the weapons cache uncovered in Madinat Nasr are so inconsistent as to be useless in determining the threat level posed by the group. These accounts report the seizure of quantities of surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank rockests, bags of TNT, explosive belts, Katyusha rockets, hand grenades, rifles and detonators, often in wildly varying quantities (al-Akhbar [Cairo], October 26, 2012; November 14; al-Arabiya, November 2, 2012); Some Islamists have suggested there were no weapons at all in the raided building, but journalists with a state-controlled Egyptian daily said they witnessed a “large number of heavy and light weapons” being removed from the building (al-Akhbar [Cairo], October 26, 2012).

On October 27, security forces in Alexandria raided a shop in the Burj al-Arab district, seizing 20 sacks of TNT they believed had been stored there by members of the Madinat Nasr cell (Amal al-Ummah [Alexandria], October 28, 2012; al-Akhbar [Cairo], November 8, 2012). Other explosives were reportedly found in a warehouse in the Cairo suburb of al-Sayyida Zaynab and in a car driven by accused members of the Madinat Nasr cell (al-Akhbar [Cairo], November 8, 2012). Four Sinai Bedouin were arrested on October 29 in Giza Governorate in possession of automatic weapons and a large amount of explosives they confessed to obtaining for use against institutions in Cairo and Gaza. Police claimed the four were tied to the Madinat Nasr cell (al-Ahram [Cairo], October 30, 2012; al-Hayat, October 31, 2012).

Many of the Islamist militants now active in Egypt are said by security sources to have fled the Sinai following the intensification of the counter-terrorist “Operation Sinai” in September. They have since spread to a number of Egyptian governorates, including the densely populated capital region (Egypt Independent, October 27). Police also suspect that Sinai militants recently arrested while preparing to carry out terrorist attacks on the Red Sea tourist resorts of Sharm al-Shaykh and Dahab may have ties to the Madinat Nasr cell (al-Hayat, October 31, 2012).

The al-Qaeda Connection

With al-Qaeda relegated to the sidelines during the momentous events of the Egyptian Revolution, al-Qaeda leader and veteran Egyptian jihadist Ayman al-Zawahiri has attempted to keep his movement relevant and his name familiar to Egyptians by releasing a long series of video statements entitled “A Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt.” In the eleventh and latest release in this series, al-Zawahiri described al-Mursi as a president without authority who was cooperating with the United States in the “War on Terror” while failing to commit to a nation-wide jihad to liberate Palestine. The solution to this problem, according to the al-Qaeda leader, is the initiation of a new revolution that will bring the people of Egypt to Islam. Al-Zawahiri’s chosen instrument for this new phase of revolution is Shaykh Hazim Abu Isma’il, a leading Egyptian Salafist and colleague of the al-Qaeda leader’s brother, Muhammad al-Zawahiri and Aboud al-Zomor, an Islamist leader released during the revolution after nearly three decades of imprisonment for his role in the Sadat assassination:

Shaykh Hazim, his followers, and all loyal people in Egypt should launch a popular campaign of incitement and preaching so as to complete the revolution that has been aborted and the gains of which have been compromised. We urge them to apply the rules of Shari’a and ensure pride, justice, freedom, and dignity for the steadfast mujahideen and Muslim people of Egypt. [1]

Shaykh Hazim, Aboud and Muhammad al-Zawahiri were all observed at the September 12 storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, an event for which the Islamists later claimed responsibility. Muhammad al-Zawahiri has also expressed his opinion that the democratic process is un-Islamic as it gives rule to people rather Allah and has stated that he and his Salafist colleagues do not recognize al-Mursi’s authority (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], November 12, 2012; Capital Broadcasting Center TV [Cairo], October 4, 2012). Shaykh Hazim was a would-be candidate in the presidential elections earlier this year but his candidacy was eventually rejected by the Electoral Commission on the grounds that his mother had American citizenship, a violation of the rules contained in the Egyptian constitution. The shaykh is a vocal opponent of the Egyptian military’s political influence, though some Egyptian Salafists have withheld their full support of Shaykh Hazim because the shaykh’s father was a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a scholar at Cairo’s al-Azhar Islamic university, the center of Sunni Islamic orthodoxy (Egypt Independent, March 8, 2012).

The Brotherhood’s spokesman, Dr. Mahmud Ghuzlan, said that al-Qaeda’s criticism of al-Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood was in fact an honor “because it proves the Muslim Brothers’ moderation and [the effectiveness of] its middle-of-the-road approach in confronting extremists” (Amal al-Ummah [Alexandria], September 29, 2012). A leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, Azab Mustafa, suggested that al-Zawahiri’s arguments were irrational because al-Qaeda’s jihadist ideology “does not exist in Egypt” (al-Shorfa [Cairo], October 31, 2012).

Dr. Najih Ibrahim, a founder and former leader of the Salafist al-Gama’a al-Islamiya [GI], has warned of a recent and explosive growth in the takfiri tendency in Egypt: “Suddenly I woke up to the fact that the takfiri ideology has spread in an amazing way after the revolution; it has not stopped at considering the liberals, the socialists, and their ilk as infidels, but it has extended to judging as infidel anyone they considered to be so in the past, as if we have not elected a religious president.” The former GI leader further claims that dozens of jihadist cells have been established across Egypt and are awaiting instructions from abroad before carrying out operations in Egypt (al-Hayat, October 27, 2012).

Tarik al-Zomor, a current co-leader of GI who was freed from three decades of imprisonment along with his aforementioned cousin Aboud al-Zomor during the Revolution, has said that he thinks it unlikely jihadi groups will make a comeback in Egypt because the revolution created new political conditions that exclude Islamist violence and that it is now necessary for the GI to help the president in working towards the implementation of Shari’a (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, November 2, 2012; al-Hayat, October 28, 2012). More recently, however, a statement from GI’s political wing has called for the dissolution of the cabinet and the creation of a parallel “revolutionary government” in opposition to the ruling political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the movement accuses of “hijacking the revolution and denying the people its profits” (al-Masry al-Youm, November 19, 2012).

Tarik al-Zomor also insists Interior Ministry claims that the suspects were preparing terrorist strikes within Egypt are fabrications designed to help state security forces regain their hold over Egyptian society and suggests that the men may have been transporting Libyan arms to Syria (DPA, November 2, 2012). Other Egyptian Islamists have echoed these sentiments (Ahram Online, November 1, 2012). However, Interior Minister General Ahmad Jamal al-Din angrily rejected suggestions the case was another police fabrication in the style of the Mubarak-era: “Did [they] expect us to wait until some important locations were bombed? Did they not see the fire which erupted after the explosion inside the apartment of Madinat Nasr while it was being raided?” (al-Akhbar [Cairo], November 8, 2012).

The Interior Ministry

According to police, one of the targets of the Madinat Nasr cell was the Interior Ministry headquarters in Cairo (al-Masry al-Youm, October 30, 2012). The Ministry, for decades the arch-enemy of Egypt’s Islamists in a dirty war fought out in the backstreets of urban housing projects and in blood-spattered interrogation rooms, continues to be viewed by the Islamists as a force working against Egypt’s interests despite its near collapse in the wake of the revolution (see Terrorism Monitor, April 7, 2011). Muhammad al-Zawahiri has gone so far as to accuse the Interior Ministry and other security bodies of “adopting the Israeli agenda to separate Sinai from Egypt” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], November 12, 2012).

Following reports that jihadis fleeing Egyptian operations in the Sinai had prepared an assassination list of 300 political figures, there were demands from some quarters that the Ministry restore ex-members of the pre-revolutionary security apparatus who specialized in the investigation of jihadi and takfiri elements (al-Dustur [Cairo], October 29, 2012).

Changes in the structure of the Interior Ministry and its operations made at the behest of the Muslim Brothers are said to have angered a large number of mid-level officers (al-Shuruq al-Jadid [Cairo], November 13, 2012). Police methods are proving resistant to change in post-revolutionary Egypt, with the familiar abuses of the Mubarak-era still prevailing. A recent report from the El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture documented 88 cases of police torture in the first 100 days of al-Mursi’s presidency and 34 incidents of death at the hands of police. [2] The Minister of the Interior, meanwhile, has warned civil society organizations to beware of false claims of torture and other excesses by policemen (al-Akhbar [Cairo], November 8, 2012). A lawyer for the original eight accused in the Madinat Nasr case maintains that they have all suffered torture during their interrogations and several of the suspects told prosecutors they had been tortured after their arrest (al-Shorouk [Cairo], November 3, 2012; al-Hayat, November 4, 2012).


It is a fact borne out by history that revolutions rarely finish where and when they are expected to finish. In Egypt’s case, it could hardly have been foreseen that in such a short time into their rule the most dangerous opposition to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood would come from other Egyptian Islamists. In the world of the takfiri extremists, even President al-Mursi can assume the role of an apostate tyrant on the level of Mubarak and Sadat. Of similar importance is the establishment of transnational networks connecting Salafi-Jihadists from Libya to Syria that were unthinkable only two years ago under the combined rule of Qaddafi, Mubarak and Assad.

Have Egyptian police uncovered an Egyptian terrorist cell determined to carry out a wave of violence designed to overthrow the Mursi government? Or have they uncovered a pipeline of arms and fighters running between jihadi groups in Libya and jihadi insurgents in Syria? The Interior Ministry would have reason to prefer the former; establishing an internal danger to the state and its president would go a long way towards preserving the latitude of action and culture of immunity the Ministry’s agents have traditionally enjoyed. With the Ministry in tight control of the information flow concerning the case and key evidence yet to be made public, it is hard to say at the moment which scenario is accurate. What is certain, however, is that whether the Madinat Nasr cell intended to operate within Egypt or not, Islamist militants are organizing within Egypt, many of them at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood government and entirely capable of translating that opposition into violent attacks by exploiting the new free flow of Libyan arms across northeast Africa.

The question of the purpose of the Madinat Nasr group and other armed cells disrupted later is central to determining whether Ayman al-Zawahiri’s calls for a new, armed phase of the Egyptian Revolution to implement the organization’s version of Shari’a and focus Egypt’s military on defeat of the Zionist enemy have a receptive audience among the roughly 1,200 Islamist militants who escaped prison, were released during the revolution or have returned from exile after the fall of Mubarak (al-Hayat, October 27, 2012). There is little question the al-Qaeda leader would like to reinsert himself into the political equation in Egypt, a land where an all-pervasive security regime eventually squashed al-Zawahiri’s EIJ in the 1990s and prevented al-Qaeda infiltration before the Egyptian Revolution brought the collapse of the internal security apparatus and effective border controls. An al-Qaeda inspired or controlled terrorist campaign at this most critical time in Egypt’s difficult political transition would quickly threaten to derail Egypt’s already erratic progress towards democracy and unleash new and unpredictable forces throughout the Middle East.


1. “As-Sahab media presents a new video of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt,” October 24, 2012.

2.  “100 days of Morsi Rule: 100 days of detentions, torture, violent crash on protests and killing outside the law,” El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, Cairo, November 13, 2012,

This article first appeared as a Jamestown Foundation “Hot Issue”

Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhoood: Alternative Visions of an Islamist Egypt

Andrew McGregor

August 10, 2012

In late July, Shaykh al-Mujahid Hussam Abd al-Raouf a prominent al-Qaeda ideologue, member of its strategy committee and editor of Vanguards of Khurasan, the magazine of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, presented a lengthy examination of the steps Egyptian president Muhammad al-Mursi should take in transforming Egypt into an Islamic state.

Egypt MapIn an article carried on jihadi websites  entitled  “If I was in Mursi’s place and sat on the Throne,” Abd al-Raouf suggests the new Egypt should be a self-sufficient state based on social justice and preparation for jihad, both defensive and offensive (, July 25). According to the shaykh’ austere vision of a “New Egypt”:

  • The Islamic Shari’a must form the constitution of the country. It is a powerful force that can overcome any obstacle or challenge to comprehensive reform. Its implementation and progress should be explained in a monthly public broadcast. Senior figures of the old regime should be prosecuted “in all fairness and efficiency” and the funds that were looted in the past three decades should be recovered and deposited in the state treasury, “a battle that will not be easy or short.”
  • There must be a comprehensive change in the lifestyle and behavior of the Egyptian President. This should begin with a move from the opulence of the presidential palace in Heliopolis to much more modest quarters in the suburbs as a first sign that the president intends to follow “a policy of austerity, justice and humility.” The presidential palaces, grounds and furnishings should be put up for rent or sale, as should most of the fleets of cars and aircraft, leaving only what is essential for the operations of the president. Further austerity measures should include the abolition of Egyptian embassies in countries that do not have direct political, economic or military ties to Egypt as well as the cancellation of official celebrations and festivals.
  • All international conventions must be reviewed, according to the rule of law, with an eye to eliminating those conventions and treaties that have created in Egypt a cycle of poverty, underdevelopment and defeatism. Payments on enormous international debts created through usury should be canceled “on the spot.” Alternatives to such borrowing should be examined, including interest-free short-term loans, relying on Arab and Islamic solidarity for their provision.
  • Investment from domestic capital and Arab and Islamic countries should be encouraged to exploit the business advantages offered by Egypt, including security, cheap labor, technical competence and low wages for professionals in comparison to those of Western or Asian countries.
  • All Islamist political prisoners should be released immediately and the Ministry of the Interior cleansed of all those officials still loyal to the former regime. These steps should be accompanied by a review of the judicial system as a whole, including the qualifications of judges and amendments to the curricula of law schools and colleges.
  • Rather than be appointed by the president of the republic, the Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar should be elected directly by religious scholars. The awqaf system (religious endowments) and its control by a government ministry should be reviewed and reformed, while salary increases and bonuses to improve the social status of scholars and preachers will encourage academically outstanding students to study Islamic law and the Arabic language.
  • The Culture and Information sectors should be cleansed of corrupt officials and those promoting apostasy, immorality and vice.
  • Immorality fostered by tourism is linked to corruption and decadence in Egypt. Given the impossibility of cancelling this sector due to the employment and hard currency it provides, tourism should be “Islamized” by encouraging domestic tourism and visits from other Arabs and Muslims. “Foreigners” would be welcome if they agreed to abide by community ethics and behavior consistent with Islamic law.
  • Citizens should be held accountable in their observance of the pillars of Islam, such as the performance of prayers, fasting and pilgrimage for those who can afford it. Of special concern should be employees of the state who do not perform prayers or who break the fast during Ramadan.
  • The problem of male youth unemployment and resultant issues of crime could be eliminated by removing women from the work force. Working women may spend more than their salary on transportation to and from work, nursery fees, meals, clothing and accessories while their children develop mental and physical health issues in their absence. Why not then return women to their homes where they are protected and can avoid mixing with men? In a reversal of the modern assembly-line technique of mass production, the shaykh suggests that women who seek to supplement their husband’s income can be trained by television in home production techniques and have raw materials delivered to their homes and finished products picked up later. Uneducated women can pursue sewing, embroidery, knitting and carpet production while educated women can assemble products such as watches and electronic devices.
  • The performance of government departments and state facilities must be improved, especially government hospitals.
  • Sectarian conflict must be extinguished in Egypt.  According to Abdul-Raouf, the current leaders of the Coptic Church in Egypt continue to follow policies of the late Pope Shenouda III that fuelled sectarian disputes by attempting to create a Christian “state within a state.” Christians must not form part of the nation’s senior leadership as there are a sufficient number of Muslims with “experience and competence.”
  • All citizens must be provided with food security and adequate housing. Agricultural scientists and scholars of animal production must be employed in efforts to bring self-sufficiency in food to Egypt, which currently relies heavily on foreign imports. With many Egyptians living in slums, shanty houses and tents, the state must dedicate itself to creating new urban communities where borrowing from “Arab and friendly countries” can be used to provide housing to Egyptians with interest-free and affordable payments.
  • Working from the axiom that people who do not have guns do not have freedom, Egypt should abandon military assistance from the United States “which it does not need” and instead focus on becoming self-sufficient in arms production, even if this means an immediate decline in the quality of available arms. Abd al-Raouf points to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as proof that “miracles” can be achieved with even backwards arms and limited ammunition against the most powerful military forces if Egyptians “put their trust in God.” The state must become militarized in preparation for the “epic battles” to come between Muslims and infidels, with military service binding on “every sane adult.” As Islam does not acknowledge only defensive jihad, but must sometimes attack in a pre-emptive war “to nip aggression in the bud,” the responsible government department must change its name from “the Ministry of Defense.”

While new Egyptian President Muhammad al-Mursi is likely to take his advice from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau rather than al-Qaeda, the document is nevertheless interesting as a detailed proposal of how an Islamist state should be formed and organized according to al-Qaeda, which has been especially weak in dealing with such issues in the past, preferring to devote most of its ideological production to the conduct, aims and methods of global jihad.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Reformation

Shaykh Ibrahim Munir, the Secretary General of the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood (and a close friend of al-Mursi) has identified Egypt’s entrenched bureaucracy and the still extant “deep state” power structure as major obstacles to the new president’s reform mission:

Ibrahim MunirShaykh Ibrahim Munir

President Mursi has to overcome obstacles, obstructions, and corrupt concepts that have accumulated during decades of individual pharaoh rule during which loyalty for the person of the ruler was put before loyalty to the country and the people. Thus, what are now called “deep state” practices, which do not distinguish between what is allowed and what is prohibited in dealing with the money, honor, or blood of the subjects, have been formed together with a terrifying backward bureaucracy that destroys any progress and efficiency, and that does not know the meaning of transparency, and regression has taken place in all the state institutions and their cultural, financial, medical, educational, services, and foreign policy actions that are related to the independence and interests of the country (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 11).

To overcome these obstacles, Shaykh Ibrahim suggests al-Mursi must do three things – surround himself with “a good entourage,” overcome the bureaucracy by correcting the culture of those working in it and subject every member of the government at every level to the statutes of the law and constitution.

Internal Dissent

As Egypt’s new leaders struggle to form a government, a vast post-revolutionary social upheaval continues. Labor strife persists; the 870 protests and strikes on the nation’s railway system alone have cost the state an estimated $120 million (al-Masry al-Youm, August 2).

Al-Mursi  will also have to deal with different visions of the New Egypt even within the Muslim Brotherhood movement, whether from “liberal” Islamists like Dr. Abd al-Moneim Aboul Fotouh (a former member of the movement’s Guidance Bureau who resigned to contest the presidential election) or voices like former Brotherhood spokesman Kamal al-Halbawi, who denounced al-Mursi’s July 12 visit to Saudi Arabia (his first official visit abroad as president), which he described as “an enemy of the Egyptian Revolution” (El-Balad TV, July 31; Fars News Agency [Tehran], July 31).

Al-Mursi, who taught at California State University in the 1980s, is often regarded as a protégé of Khairat al-Shater, the wealthy chief strategist of the Muslim Brotherhood, who sponsored his rise through the ranks of the Brotherhood. His detractors regard al-Mursi as a stand-in for al-Shater, who promoted al-Mursi as a presidential candidate only after his own candidacy was disqualified by the military in April on the grounds that he had recently been in prison, a violation of the election rule that a candidate must not have been imprisoned in the previous six years (Egypt Independent, June 22).


With the vital tourism industry off by a third since the revolution, Egypt is scrambling for ways to restore the nearly 15 million visitors it hosted in 2010. Important tombs of the ancient period that have not been open to visitors for decades are being made available to tourists and a new Egyptian Museum is scheduled to open in 2014. Though the Muslim Brotherhood appears to understand the importance of Egypt’s ancient monuments to the national economy as a source of foreign currency, Egypt’s Salafists regard all such sites as products of the pre-Islamic jahiliya (time of ignorance) and would just as soon eliminate “idolatrous” visits to Egypt’s ancient monuments (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, December 22, 2011). Fortunately for the industry, Salafist efforts to obtain the post of Minister of Tourism were unsuccessful, with the post going to an experienced technocrat, Hisham Za’azou. Nevertheless, efforts are underway by Islamist businessmen to promote Egypt as a center of “Halal Tourism” for families “committed to Shari’a.”  Approved hotels and tourist facilities would not serve alcohol, would provide halal meat and offer segregated facilities for men and women[1]


Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta, an institution responsible for issuing fatwa-s [religious rulings] under the supervision of Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Ali Goma’a, issued a fatwa earlier this month declaring it was unacceptable for Muslims to eat or drink in public during Ramadan, calling such activity “a violation of public decency” (Daily News Egypt, August 2; Bikya Masr, August 2). Should the government decide to enforce the fatwa it will mark a major change in Egyptian society, where restaurants and cafés typically remain open during Ramadan.

On July 30, al-Mursi released and pardoned over a dozen Islamists imprisoned for trying to kill leading Egyptian officials (Ahram Online, August 1). Al-Mursi has pledged to obtain the release of Shaykh Omar Abd al-Rahman from an American prison, where he is serving a life sentence for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  Egypt has also asked for the release of Egyptian jihadi Tariq al-Sawah, who has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay since he was captured in the battle for Tora Bora (AFP, August 2).

Egypt’s New Cabinet

The composition of the new cabinet reveals that several of the most important ministries remain in the hands of the pre-revolution power structure. In the Interior Ministry, responsible for internal security, Major General Ahmad Gamal al-Din has been appointed as minister despite being a former aide to the previous and much criticized interior minister, Muhammad Ibrahim (Ahram Online, August 1). The general will have to deal not only with an internal security service that has largely collapsed since the revolution, but one that has been trained for decades to regard Islamism as a major internal security threat to Egypt.

The Nour Party, the most successful of the Salafist groups to take part in the parliamentary elections, has refused to join the new cabinet, rejecting new Prime Minister Hisham Qandil’s offer of the Environment Ministry as being “unworthy” of the party (Ahram Online, August 2; al-Masry al-Youm, August 1). Until parliament is reconvened or new elections are held, this effectively leaves the Salafists on the outside of the new government, a situation they are unlikely to tolerate for long. Al-Nour had sought the Ministry of Public Enterprise, which would have given it effective control of nearly 150 state-owned corporations.

Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein al-Tantawi will retain the post of defense minister, which he has held since 1991, thus ensuring there will be little civilian oversight of the armed forces. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has suggested creating a National Defense Council that would include both military and civilian leaders to work out legislation regarding the military and its budget before its presentation to parliament. The president would only have the power to declare war after obtaining the approval of the National Defense Council and parliament, effectively limiting the president’s ability to control foreign policy and command the national armed forces (Egypt Independent, August 2).

Muhammad Yusri IbrahimMuhammad Yusri Ibrahim

Reports that Muhammad Yousri Ibrahim, a leading Salafist and failed parliamentary candidate for the Salafist al-Asala Party, was al-Musri’s choice to take over the role of Ministry of Religious Endowments created immediate controversy at all levels in Egypt. Though educated at al-Azhar University, Muhammad Yousri is a noted critic of the institution and his candidacy was quickly opposed by the Grand Shaykh of the Islamic university, Ahmad al-Tayeb, on the grounds that the Minister of Endowments is traditionally chosen by the Grand Shaykh (Daily News Egypt, August 2).  Muhammad Yousri is a close associate of Khairat al-Shater and it seems likely that the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood was behind the appointment. The ministry is central to the religious direction of the nation as it is responsible for mosques, licensing imams and regulating the substantial endowments of property that fund the religious establishment. The announcement was widely condemned as a sign that Saudi-style Salafism had arrived with the approval of the Muslim Brotherhood and was loudly opposed by the nation’s still influential Sufi leadership, which has endured attacks on its shrines from Salafists since the Revolution (Egypt Independent, May 17; al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 30, 2011).  Muhammad Yousri is also well-known for leading demonstrations against the Coptic Church. Amidst a deluge of criticism, al-Musri’s decision was quickly reversed and the ministry given into the hands of Osama al-Abd, the vice-chancellor of al-Azhar.

The Coptic Question

Despite early protestations of Coptic-Muslim cooperation in the early days of the Revolution, tensions between the Coptic and Muslim communities are now at an all-time high, requiring only a tiny spark to set off street violence that security forces show little interest in controlling. Most recently, major clashes erupted in the Dashour district of the Giza Governorate after a Coptic launderer accidentally burned a Muslim customer’s shirt with his iron. The incident soon developed into street riots, looting of Coptic-owned shops and even the attempted arson of the Mary Guirguis Church, which was only narrowly prevented by security forces using tear gas (Ahram Online, August 2; al-Masry al-Youm, August 2; Bikya Masr, August 2). As many as 150 Coptic families may have fled the district. Following the clashes, Christian demonstrators who claim sectarian violence has intensified since al-Mursi became president appeared outside the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis bearing signs that said “Down with the rule of the Supreme Guide [i.e. of the Muslim Brotherhood]” (Ahram Online, August 2).

The interim leader of the Coptic Church, Bishop Pachomius, was critical of the cabinet appointments, which included only one Copt in the Ministry of Scientific Research, which Pachomius referred to as “a semi-ministry.” The Bishop, who is filling in as leader until a new Pope can be elected after the death of Shenouda III, also denounced the security services for standing by “with arms crossed” during the sectarian riots in Dahshour (AFP, August 4).


The election of al-Mursi is just the beginning phase of the Brotherhood’s 25-year Renaissance Project, a comprehensive effort to bring Egypt’s administration, business sector and society in line with Islamic values. The chairman of the project’s steering committee is Khairat al-Shater, who appears to be emerging as the real power behind the Egyptian throne.

The Brotherhood’s Renaissance Project will inevitably collide with the interests of SCAF and the rest of Egypt’s “Deep State” apparatus, which will be exceedingly difficult to dislodge. SCAF still holds supreme power in Egypt and controls all decisions regarding the military. The determination of the Renaissance Project to make the military’s large share of the Egyptian economy abide by free-market rules rather than continuing to use free labor (military conscripts) and free natural resources in its industries is certain to create friction (Egypt Independent, July 31). An antagonistic relationship was worsened in mid-June with the implementation of the Supplement to the Constitutional Declaration, which limited the president’s powers and increased those of SCAF, including the right to intervene in the drafting of the new constitution (Egypt Independent, August 1). The ongoing political struggle has convinced many experienced technocrats and secular politicians to turn down government appointments, leaving al-Mursi with an inexperienced Prime Minister, no parliament, no vice-president, no power over the military and a corps of advisors with ties to Khairat al-Shater. Control of the most important ministries (Defense, Justice, Finance) remain outside the hands of the Brotherhood and promises of greater representation in the cabinet for women and Christians have been thoroughly dashed. The secular and progressive forces that filled Tahrir Square 18 months ago see too many familiar faces from the old regime in the “new” government and are unlikely to be inspired by the relative unknowns who are new appointments. Though al-Shater denies exerting influence over al-Mursi, Egypt’s new president has so far made some questionable decisions in forming his new government and has generally been unable to attract Egypt’s most talented and experienced leaders to the new regime. Further decisions of this type risk alienating large numbers of Egyptians, which could make a repeat of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary victory earlier this year difficult when Egyptians return to the polls, possibly in December.


1. See, for example:

This article first appeared in the August 10 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Egypt’s Former Intelligence Chief Warns of Possible Civil War

Andrew McGregor

May 31, 2012

As the presidential choice for Egyptian voters is narrowed down to an uncertain Islamist future under Muslim Brotherhood candidate Dr. Muhammad al-Mursi or a return to quasi-military rule under Air Marshal Ahmed Shafiq, former Egyptian intelligence chief Major General Umar Sulayman has warned of a potential confrontation between the two political trends that could  lead to civil war. General Sulayman, whose own candidacy for the presidential post was nullified by an act of parliament earlier this year, made the remarks in a recent two-part interview with a pan-Arab daily (al-Hayat, May 22).

Egyptians “Rally” in Support of Umar Sulayman’s Presidential Candidacy

As Egypt’s intelligence chief, Sulayman earned an unwelcome reputation for his broad and consistent application of torture as an instrument of state, supervision of a domestic intelligence network that permeated Egyptian society and as Mubarak’s point-man on Egyptian-Israeli relations. None of these roles endeared him to Egyptian voters and his claims that he was running for president only in response to wide popular appeals appeared as contrived as the small demonstration of sign-waving supporters that appeared on cue to back the announcement of his candidacy (see al-Akhbar [Cairo], April 9). Nonetheless, by means both fair and foul, Sulayman has over several decades compiled a detailed knowledge of Egypt’s politics and political leaders that is frequently described as encyclopedic.

General Sulayman hands-on leadership of an often brutal campaign to quell the growing influence of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has naturally placed him at odds with the movement, which successfully manipulated a largely secular revolution to become the dominant party in Egypt’s new parliament. Sulayman claims his own abortive run at the presidency was accompanied by repeated death threats from Islamist militants and the law that quickly disqualified ten candidates fromrunning for president was so clearly directed at the ex-intelligence chief that it was nicknamed “the Umar Sulayman law”  (al-Akhbar, April 9; al-Hayat, May 22; Ahram Online [Cairo], April 14).

In this context, it is unsurprising that Sulayman warns that the Islamists do not possess the trained personnel capable of administering state institutions and that an Islamist victory would roll back women’s rights, make decisions based on religious considerations rather than the needs of society, disrupt relations with the West and open up Egypt to a return of Islamist militant groups such as al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad and Takfir wa’l-Hijrah. The general further suggests that good relations with the United States are essential for the stability of Egypt, and if these relations are allowed to deteriorate to score political points for the Muslim Brotherhood, “We will become worse than Pakistan and Afghanistan, and we will be considered as a country that exports terrorism… Thus Egypt will lose its role, its army – whose U.S. weapons constitute 70% of its arms – will lose, and its economy will be hit.” Sulayman suggests that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been deceived by the Brotherhood’s conciliatory tone, made possible by the strict discipline enforced within the movement. According to the former intelligence chief, SCAF’s biggest mistake has been to allow the Muslim Brothers to assume important roles in the all-important constitution committee that will determine the political and social future of the Arab world’s largest nation.

When asked directly by al-Hayat if a military coup was possible to prevent the establishment of an Islamist government in Egypt, Sulayman replied: “It is possible, quite possible. However, the Muslim Brotherhood Group is not foolish, and hence it is preparing itself militarily, and within two or three years it will have a revolutionary guard to fight the army, and Egypt will face a civil war, like Iraq.”

Despite his description of the dangers of a president drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood, Sulayman has elsewhere expressed his rejection of any attempts to diminish the near-dictatorial powers of the Egyptian presidency: “The head of the state must enjoy real powers. And I think that the country needs a powerful president who restores stability and protects the country’s security. It does not need the sort of fighting and power sharing that leads to further anarchy” (al-Akhbar, April 9).

This article first appeared in the May 31, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Gaza’s HAMAS Enters Rocky Relationship with Egypt as it Tries to Reshape Alliances

Andrew McGregor

March 8, 2012

With geopolitical realities surrounding Gaza in flux due to the rise of Sunni political parties in the Middle East, the Syrian meltdown and the Iranian nuclear crisis, Ismail Haniyeh and the rest of the Hamas leadership are in the midst of a strategic reassessment of their alliance with Syria and Iran in favor of stronger ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere. However, Hamas’ historical ties to Shiite and Alawite political movements have led to sharp condemnation by Egypt’s Salafists.

While in Cairo on a recent visit, Haniyeh was roundly denounced in a February 24 statement issued by Egypt’s largest Salafist group, al-Da’wa al-Salafiya (The Salafist Call) that also condemned the Muslim Brotherhood for arranging his visit to Egypt in the first place:

We reject Haniyeh leading the prayer in Egypt’s largext Sunni mosque after he shook hands with the Shiites. Egypt is the country of the Sunni al-Azhar [the world’s preeminent Islamic university] and we do not accept a man who put his hand into the hand that kills Sunnis in Iraq and Syria… What is the difference between Jews, Hezbollah and Iran when they are all gathered in going against God’s word and wish to break down Islam? (Bikya Masr [Cairo], February 25).

During his visit to al-Azhar, Haniyeh declared that his movement’s resistance to Israel so long as that nation persisted in aggressive policies and the occupation of the Palestinian territories (Egyptian Gazette, February 25). The Hamas leader was speaking at an event held in response to recent attacks on Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque by Israeli settlers under police protection (Ahram Online, February 24; al-Jazeera, February 19).

Egypt is in the middle of a somewhat chaotic reassessment of its relationship with the United States that will ultimately have a great deal to do with its approach to Hamas. Some Egyptian Islamists are considering revising Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in the face of American pressure to release 18 American nationals accused of using foreign funds to instigate unrest in Egypt, allegedly under the guise of operating “civil society” NGOs. Washington is threatening to halt its annual contribution of $1.5 billion to Egypt ($1.3 billion of which is earmarked for military aid) unless the detainees are freed. Though the Egyptian leadership is no longer as pliable as it was under Mubarak and his cronies, they have yet to come up with a practical and viable replacement for these funds, which are generally regarded in Egypt as a payoff for maintaining peace with Israel.

Shaykh Muhammad Hassan

Salafist preacher Muhammad Hassan responded to the American “humiliation” of Egypt by introducing an initiative to replace the American aid with local donations: “If America wants to cut military aid, very well; Egypt isn’t less than Iran which is self-dependent when it comes to producing its own military equipment… The Egyptian people will not be broken anymore” (El Nahar TV, February 11; Ahram Online, February 15). Egyptian prime minister Kamal el-Ganzouri and the Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyeb, have both come out in support of Hassan’s initiative (Egypt State Information Service, February 17). However, Hassan’s projection of $1 million in private donations will leave a significant shortfall in making up the lost $1.5 billion in U.S. aid.

Hamas has met unexpected criticism elsewhere in Egypt. On February 22, Egypt’s former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, claimed in court that Hamas and Hezbollah had sent infiltrators into Egypt last year to foment political discontent and manipulate the Egyptian uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. Haniyeh responded to the charges immediately: “Hamas did not interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs, either before the revolution or after” (MENA, February 22; AFP, February 22).