An Islamist Fugitive in Post-Mursi Egypt – A Profile of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya’s Aboud al-Zomor

Andrew McGregor

September 30, 2013

Like many of the former and current Egyptian leaders of jihadi organizations, Aboud al-Zomor is a well-educated professional and, in this case, the product of a wealthy family in Egypt’s Giza governorate.  Al-Zomor’s career has followed a trajectory that has taken him from senior army officer to radical jihadist to reformed militant. Despite the apparent sincerity of his renunciation of political violence following a three-decade stretch in prison, there are those in Egypt who fear who has secretly retained his earlier dedication to political violence, including the Egyptian military, which is currently seeking al-Zomor to face charges of inciting Islamist violence following the overthrow of President Muhammad Mursi, a leading member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Zomor 1Aboud al-Zomor

Background

Al-Zomor was a colonel in Egypt’s military intelligence, a useful background for clandestine work in Egypt’s militant Islamist underground. The young intelligence officer was already a member of the radical Islamic Jihad and later the Gama’a al-Islamiya militant group and was in touch with the disaffected Islamist Egyptian Army officers and militants involved in the plot against Anwar al-Sadat following the latter’s signing of the Camp David Accords establishing a long-term peace with Israel. After the Muslim Brotherhood abandoned attempts at a violent overthrow of the Egyptian government following the failure of Sayyid Qutb to seize power in 1954, al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI) filled the militant void, offering an aggressive alternative to the Brotherhood’s new emphasis on social activism.

Assassination of Sadat

Al-Zomor was deeply implicated in the investigation into the radical Islamist plot that resulted in the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. Ultimately, Sadat’s killing proved calamitous for the Islamist movement in Egypt, with as many as 30,000 suspected militants thrown into Egyptian jails and prisons. In the comprehensive sweeps that followed the assassination, beards (often interpreted by security services as an indicator of Salafist sympathies) disappeared from Cairo streets. Reflecting on these events, al-Zomor says the decision to kill Sadat seemed to be right at the time:

Since circumstances have changed, we can now try to judge whether the decision was right or wrong. But at that time, without knowing the results, it seemed that what happened was the right thing. But I have to admit I did not support the assassination of Sadat. I thought that we should wait until everything was ready in 1984, according to our plan. We were planning for a change of regime and were able to attract numerous supporters at the time. But after Sadat signed the Camp David peace accords with Israel, and after the arrest campaign in September 1981 which saw politicians from across the political spectrum rounded up, eliminating the man [Sadat] seemed the only way out to many members of the group (Ahram Online, October 6).

Al-Zomor believes the mistake lay not in killing Sadat, but in killing only Sadat only rather than taking out the entire Egyptian leadership as planned in 1984. Though he went along with the majority sentiment, al-Zomor’s fears were played out in the repercussions that followed Sadat’s murder. Worst of all was the succession as president of Hosni Mubarak, another military man whose efforts to eliminate the Islamist movement made Sadat’s efforts pale in comparison, a development that drew a late apology by al-Zomor on behalf of the GI: “I’m only sorry that getting rid of Sadat brought an even worse ruler to power, and that the people had to suffer under his tyrannical rule for an additional 30 years” (Ahram Online [Cairo], October 6, 2011; Shorouk News [Cairo], October 8, 2011).

Thirty Years in Prison

Three decades of confinement in some of Egypt’s hardest prisons gave al-Zomor the opportunity to study law and to reflect on the causes of his incarceration and the validity of the political approach that brought him there.

The most important product of al-Zomor’s long imprisonment was a document he produced with his cousin Tariq entitled Al-Badil al-Thalith bayna al-Istibad wa’l-Istislam (The Third Alternative between Tyranny and Submission). This work formed a contribution to a type of prison-generated Islamist literature known as muraja‘at, or “revisions,” these basically consisting of re-examinations of the political and sectarian violence that landed their authors behind bars with lengthy sentences. Produced in several Muslim countries, these works were always subject to legitimate questions regarding their true purpose, given that these works could also be produced as the result of corruption or a desire to please authorities in order to obtain a release from prison. Compared to similar but more compliant works by Dr. Fadl (a.k.a. Sayyid Imam al-Sharif), an imprisoned colleague of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the document produced by Aboud and Tariq al-Zomor gained little attention, likely because it did not meet the approval of the government through its insistence on opening up the regime to peaceful political change and its refusal to issue an absolute condemnation of the activities of al-Qaeda. [1]

During his time in prison, al-Zomor says the Mubarak regime made three offers of release with conditions beginning in the 1980s. The first offer was conditional on acceptance of the National Democratic Party (dissolved since the revolution); the second was made on the condition that Aboud al-Zomor and his cousin Tariq refrain from talking about politics; the last offer, made only weeks before the revolution, was conditional on the two cousins accepting a dynastic succession in which the presidency would be passed from Hosni Mubarak to his son Gamal. All three offers were refused, with Aboud telling his jailers in the last case that accepting the allegedly corrupt Gamal Mubarak as ruler would make them “traitors to God, his prophet and the Muslim people.” Al-Zomor insists that his eventual release was made “without any negotiations or conditions” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 28, 2012).

Release from Prison

The revolution that consumed Egypt in January 2011 was of enormous benefit to the GI despite the fact its membership played virtually no role in these momentous events. Aboud and Tariq were both freed in March 2011 by order of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that took power after Hosni Mubarak was deposed as president. The two were part of a larger release of some 60 Islamist prisoners who had already served at least 15 years of their term. Technically, both Aboud and Tariq had already finished their sentences and were eligible for release, but continued to be detained by the former regime’s practice of allowing the Interior Ministry to continue to hold prisoners for an additional five years on security grounds. Many more GI members were later freed with pardons by President Muhammad Mursi after years in high security institutions like Tora Prison in what the movement described as “a miracle” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], July 30).

Shortly after his release, al-Zomor was viewed by some Islamists as a possible presidential candidate, but declared he would not run: “There are many others better than me” (Egypt Independent, March 13). Though many Islamists were vocal in their opposition to military rule by SCAF, al-Zomor suggested that the military council was taking “corrective steps” and at least were not acting “in bad faith, unlike Mubarak” (Shorouk News [Cairo], October 8, 2011). Al-Zomor eventually supported the brief candidacy of Muslim Brotherhood deputy leader Khayrat al-Shater for president in early 2012 before al-Shater’s disqualification, describing him as “a patriotic capitalist” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], February 5, 2012; for al-Shater, see Militant Leadership Monitor, July 2013).

Al-Zomor on Relations with Israel

Egypt’s relations with Israel have been an irritant for many years for many in Egypt’s Islamist community, which still feels strongly about the Palestinian cause and Islamic solidarity. Al-Zomor does not urge an end to the peace treaty with Israel, but takes issue with the cooperation between the two nations called for in the Camp David Accords. In al-Zomor’s view, relations between Egypt and Israel should be peaceful, but minimal in all other regards:

There’s a difference between the peace treaty and the Camp David accords. The treaty stipulates that we will not go to war with Israel, and this is something that must be respected and approved, whether or not we – or any other political party – come to power. This has to do with respecting the international community, which is considered a part of the treaty. Camp David, on the other hand, includes measures aimed at normalizing Egyptian relations with Israel through economic and other fields of cooperation. This should be reviewed.

Al-Zomor opposes the export of Egyptian natural gas to Israel, a main point of contention for Sinai-based militants who have repeatedly blown the lines carrying gas to Israel.

On the Use of Political Violence

Unlike a number of Libyan Islamist militants who renounced political violence while in prison only to take command of armed militias during the Libyan Revolution, al-Zomor has insisted that times have changed and the political opposition has unprecedented tools available to it as effective alternatives to violence, including the ability to stage mass demonstrations, new means of mobilizing such as social media and the presence of international media coverage, which helps serve as a shield to mass movements from regime oppression:

In light of this, it’s not possible for a new dictator to come to power, and, if he does, the people can get rid of him using peaceful means. When you have all this, you don’t need to use violence – even if this violence is simply a reaction to regime oppression. Violence now cannot be justified. This door is closed (Ahram Online, October 6, 2011).

Al-Zomor also fails to reject democracy as “un-Islamic” as many of his Salafist contemporaries do:

In the 1980s, when we refused to participate in parliamentary elections, it wasn’t a religious stand against democracy. We just thought that, under the former regime, the whole thing was a waste of time and effort. But now, like I said, it’s a totally different situation… [We seek] a modern democratic [rule] that respects the rights of minorities and freedom of trade. We want an Islamic state that would be respected – not feared – by the whole world” (Ahram Online, October 6, 2011).

Though Gama’a al-Islamiya has officially left the field of armed jihad, al-Zomor has indicated that he would have “no problem” with Egyptian al-Qaeda leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri “returning to his country in safety and with honor. We would welcome his return with our heads held high, after the end of the battle with the Mubarak regime; there is one problem which is that the U.S. will not accept this [al-Zawahiri’s return] and will exert pressure on Egypt not to accept his return.” (al-Sharq al-Aswat, January 28, 2012).

Zomor 2Mahmud Sha’aban

When a Salafist television preacher named Mahmud Sha’aban issued a fatwa (religious ruling) that said secular political leaders of the National Salvation Front (including Muhammad al-Baradei, Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Moussa) “must be killed according to the law of God” for their political opposition to the Muslim Brothers, al-Zomor reacted quickly despite believing the NSF was “a destructive force” in Egypt, saying “It is not acceptable to deal with political opponents with arms… Whoever resorts to assassination is using a weak pretense” (As-Safir [Beirut], February 8). Al-Zomor added that the 2011 revolution had made it possible for all factions to engage in peaceful political activity, noting that the cost of more forceful means of political expression had to be borne by the Egyptian people (Aswat Masriya [Cairo], February 7).

Al-Zomor and Shaykh Omar Abd al-Rahman

Aboud attended a protest by hundreds of GI members outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on April 21, 2011 to demand the release of former GI spiritual leader Shaykh Omar Abd al-Rahman from an American prison (Middle East News Agency [Cairo], April 21, 2011). The so-called “Blind Shaykh” was handed a life sentence in 1995 for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

During a press conference held by the shaykh’s family in late July at which the shaykh’s son, Abdallah Abd al-Rahman, threatened to organize an occupation of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, al-Zomor described the shaykh as “a wronged man whose case has been fabricated, and he should be retried because some witnesses retracted their statements, which they made because of pressure from the former [Mubarak] regime” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], July 27).

Al-Zomor once described the release of Shaykh Omar as the second priority for GI parliamentarians after obtaining the release of political prisoners imprisoned during the Mubarak era (Shorouk [Cairo], October 8, 2011). Shaykh Omar’s case was eventually taken up by President Mursi, who was in negotiations with the United States regarding the shaykh’s transfer to an Egyptian prison before his overthrow.

Al-Zomor on the Coptic Christian Community

Egypt’s Coptic Christian community has suffered a great deal from the turmoil of recent years, with many of its churches being attacked by mobs led by Salafist preachers and organizers seeking to drive “infidels” from Egypt, regardless of their historical legitimacy as the pre-Muslim indigenous population of Egypt. Al-Zomor has taken a public stand on the issue that differs greatly from some of his Salafist contemporaries: “I have been firm in this position even in the times that I have been in prison, without anyone asking me. I made a statement saying it is against Islamic law to attack houses of prayer, and it is also against the keeping of peace and harmony in society” (Ahram Online, August 24).

Elsewhere, al-Zomor claims he has no problems with Copts in government up and including the ministerial level, but suggests that discussion of whether Copts could have higher positions than that are largely moot as Coptic politicians would never have that kind of success “in a Muslim country” (Shorouk [Cairo], October 8, 2011).

The Pursuit

On the eve of the popular demonstrations that led to the Army’s expulsion of President Mursi and his Muslim Brother colleagues from government, GI spokesmen were insisting that Egyptians must abandon their protests and wait for a peaceful, constitutional and democratic handover of power in the scheduled three years’ time (Daily News Egypt, June 28).

The overthrow of President Mursi and the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood was at least as momentous a change for the GI movement as the January 25 Egyptian Revolution. Despite political and ideological differences between the GI and the Brotherhood, Mursi has basically acted as a patron to the GI, which often figured prominently when presidential appointments were announced. An association which had benefited the movement suddenly threatened it, and the GI was quick to disassociate itself from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The GI’s position on the coup that overthrew President Mursi has been misunderstood, according to al-Zomor, who claims that the movement’s presence at the pro-Mursi demonstrations in Raba’a al-Adawiya and al-Nahda Square was solely intended to support democratic legitimacy (al-Nahar TV [Cairo], September 4). Al-Zomor insists that Mursi’s return was never an objective of the GI, only the Muslim Brotherhood.

Until recently, al-Zomor made significant public efforts to stay on the right side of Egypt’s new and powerful military ruler, General Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi, who he praised for his patriotism and his “correct decision” to depose ex-president Mursi, who al-Zomor described as “not the right man for the stage” and a man who had failed to listen to the opposition or take into account the majority that opposed his rule (al-Nahar TV [Cairo], September 4). Nonetheless, al-Zomor said earlier that he opposes the “Turkish model” that gives the army a “perpetual role in governance” as protectors of the constitution (Ahram Online, October 6, 2011). The GI and its political wing, Hizb al-Bena’a wa’l-Tanmiya (HBT – Building and Development Party) continued to try to separate themselves from the ongoing violence by announcing their “great concern” over attacks on Egyptian military personnel in the Nile Delta and the Sinai, saying such assaults were merely an effort to provoke confrontations between the military and Egypt’s Islamists (Ahram Online [Cairo], September 18).

Other GI leaders, including Tariq al-Zomor and Assam Abd al-Majid, are being sought by security forces after they did not turn up during security operations in the Giza villages of Kerdasa and Nahia, though the operations did yield roughly 170 Islamist detainees (Daily News Egypt, September 22).  The entry of security forces into the densely populated villages was at times stiffly opposed by Islamist gunmen. Ala’a Abu al-Nasr, the former secretary general of the HBT, has criticized the army’s “criminal” operations in Kerdasa, saying they would only “add to the intensity of the situation.” HBT spokesman Muhammad Hassan, added that fugitive party leaders Tariq al-Zomor and Assam Abd al-Majid had taken no part in the recent attack on the local police department that ended with 11 officers being killed and mutilated, an action that built immediate support for further security operations against the Islamists (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], September 19).

Conclusion

For all his advocacy of non-violent political action, Aboud al-Zomor is (at the time of writing) a fugitive sought on charges of inciting violence by Egypt’s military-led interim government.  Gama’a al-Islamiya’s support for the military and general opposition to the political program of former president Mursi has likewise meant little when the advocacy of political legitimacy is instantly equated as being aligned with the “terrorist” Muslim Brotherhood. In this highly polarized atmosphere it is entirely possible that al-Zomor and his cousin may soon be returned to the prisons that were their home for three decades unless they succeed in escaping the country.

Note

  1. The full document is available here: http://www.jihadica.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/abbud-al-zumur-the-third-alternative.pdf

This article first appeared in the September 30, 2013 issue of the Militant Leadership Monitor.