The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

New ARB site, Tammam on recanted jihadis

Be sure to check out the revamped website of the Arab Reform Bulletin, which now aims to be a continuously updated site with news as well as the monthly analysis we've come to know and love.

Of particular interest in the current issue is an article by Hossam Tammam, a leading Egyptian analyst of Islamist movements (once close to the Muslim Brothers, he wrote a trenchant book-length critique of the stagnation of the movement in 2004). In this article Tammam discusses the trend in the past decade, for imprisoned Islamists from the Gamaa Islamiya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad to abandon their old belief in the use of violence. While of course the long experience of prison was a determining factor in getting this result, Tammam argues that these ex-prisoners just want to get on with their lives and in many cases regret their youthful activism.

For the 20,000 to 30,000 Islamists who were released over the past decade (there are no clear numbers, it might be less if you consider that a good part of that number could be people who were never involved in any violent incidents or even espoused violence ideologically, since the methods of state security tend to cast a wide net), a return to what remains of their lives is the priority. Some, notably from the Gamaa Islamiya, have revamped their organization's ideology and are trying to "mainstream" it, making a tentative return to politics and a u-turn on previous political attitudes, notably embracing Nasser and Sadat. But it's unlikely they will return to violence, despite their lack of opportunities and wasted lives:

Despite the political, economic, and social frustrations they face, Jihadists have not rescinded their repentance or returned to violence. Skeptics question their sincerity and argue that the despair brought on by current political conditions in Egypt will drive jihadists back to violence, but this is extremely unlikely. Most penitent jihadists are over the age of 50. Having spent twenty years or more in prison, they lack the ability to communicate with members of the young generation who would take up arms in any confrontations with the regime.

I am reminded of an anecdote Saad Eddin Ibrahim told me a few years ago. Ibrahim shared a ward of Tora prison with some of these Islamists when he was imprisoned between 2000 and 2002. He said each Islamist group had taken up a profession in the prison -- cooking, washing clothes, etc. -- through which they earned money from other prisoners, especially from the VIP section where wealthier convicts (such as former officials caught on corruption charges) serve their time. One former Gamaa Islamiya member he knew ran a lucrative fried fish business, using various prisoners' right to have food delivered by their families to secure daily supply of fresh fish. He earned enough money to take care of several of his fellow prisoners and send money home to his family.

When that prisoner came to repent and was about to be released, around 2004, Ibrahim had already left the prison. One day he received a visit from that prisoner's mother. She had a dilemma on her hand. She wanted her son to come home, but was worried that outside of jail he would not find the same money-making opportunities. Tacitly, she was asking Ibrahim (who kept in touch with these prisoners) to convince him to stay a little bit longer, at least until some younger siblings of his were married and had a stable job. In the end, the prisoner did as his mother wished (although I recall he later got out and set up his own food cart in Alexandria).

The anecdote is not unlike the experience Morgan Freeman's character has after being released from prison after several decades in "The Shawshank Redemption". These prisoners are returning to an Egypt with few opportunities, but also a radically different Islamist environment. They are out of sync in more than one ways, and discredited (in the eyes on younger potential jihadis) because of their very public recantation. Since it's quite plausible some of them are sincere about their involvement in violent acts, it's a shame they are not put to good use to dissuade younger Islamists from going down that path.

One important difference Tammam highlights is the lack of large-scale organization among contemporary radical Islamist groups in Egypt:

Beyond the question of violence, the changing nature of religiosity in Egypt also diminishes the jihadists’ current relevance. Until the mid-1990s, belonging to a particular organization was a cornerstone of Islamist activism. Now, religiosity has taken on a remarkably individualized form. This model is based on a sort of free-market of religious ideas, which offers a broader array of choices, none of which is necessarily binding. Unlike the religious commitment (peaceful or violent) of the past, which required organizational affiliation, today's religious commitment does not require any direct connection with Islamist organizations or a particular ideological framework.

Understanding these dynamics makes clear why there is no reason to fear that released jihadists will reorganize and return to violence. Individual disgruntled activists might resort to violence in response to a certain feeling of despair—despair about social conditions in Egypt and U.S. policies that push religious and nationalist sentiments to the limit. But any such violence would be diffused and limited to small cells linked by social or occupational interests, unlike the organized jihadi violence of the past. That sort of violence also is more likely to be fueled by the desperate social conditions that Egypt is witnessing than by an Islamist ideology.

I've long been pretty skeptical on the poverty-breeds-violence explanation of jihadist terrorism. While it certainly makes recruitment easier (as does the current general disgust with the state one hears everywhere in Egypt), the decisive factor is going to be the ability of even loose extremist movements like al-Qaeda to recruit, train and fund. We've heard little about this in Egypt, but the experience of other countries suggests that just because we haven't heard about it does not mean it's not there.