Egypt’s largest Islamist militant group, the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya, has announced several new initiatives as part of its effort to switch from violent opposition to the government to a legal alternative, its lawyers said.
"The group will continue to call for the application of Islamic Sharia [law] and has espoused three political methods towards that end," said Saad Hassaballah, a defense lawyer for several militant Islamic factions, referring to the March 25 end-of-violence initiative by the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya.
"The group will first present law bills to the People’s Assembly," Hassaballah told the Middle East Times. "Second, they will air their views in the media. Thirdly, they will continue their religious solicitation and spread the word of Islam peacefully and non-violently in mosques and elsewhere."
Hassaballah, who last defended 107 militants in April, did not give details of how the outlawed group might be able to carry out their intended political agenda but said both exiled and imprisoned leaders of the organization were firmly behind the peace initiative.
The group’s website (www.almurabeton.org), perhaps its only unintercepted channel with the public, has been upgraded to encourage interactive contact with Egyptians.
Montasser Al-Zayat, the de facto spokesperson of the group, said the group’s political endeavor would take a few years before it could bear fruit.
"We hope the government will understand and let the Gamaa operate without bloodshed," Zayat said.
Violence between the Gamaa and President Hosni Mubarak’s regime has resulted in the death of some 1,250 people since 1992. Independent militant elements in the Gamaa carried out the November 1997 massacre of 58 tourists and four Egyptians in broad daylight at a Luxor temple in Upper Egypt.
The government does not allow the formation of political parties on religious basis and it is not yet clear how the group can legally practice politics or follow up on their three declared strategies.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest Islamic group is not allowed to operate politically and has formed alliances with political parties, but never worked independently.
Officials and pro-government writers classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group although its members have run for parliament and for board seats of most of the country’s professional syndicates. The organization renounced violence many years ago.
The possible creation of a rival legal Islamist group, however, does not seem to faze the Brotherhood. A spokesman for the organization claimed that the Gamaa’s announcements were good news.
"The Muslim Brotherhood welcomes competition by other political organizations as long as we all practice politics in a democratic way and there are no reasons for the Brotherhood to fear competition from the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya," said Muhammad Badr of the Brotherhood.
On the other hand, the attempt by renegade members of the Brotherhood to form their own moderate Islamist party called Al-Wasat a few years ago, provoked a negative reaction from the Brethren.
The point may be moot, however, since in the past the government has called attempts by the Gamaa to lay down their arms as merely the tactics of a defeated movement hoping to regroup.
"The end-to-violence initiative launched by the Gamaa is a strategic as opposed to a tactical move," Hassaballah said. "There is no turning back.
The government should find outlets for them to air their views and express their thoughts."
But police sources insist it is impossible for the government to deal with the group which it still labels illegal. The authorities denied that an April mass-release of around 1,000 suspected militants was in return for the end of violence call.
The official Al-Ahram newspaper quoted Interior Minister Habib Al-Adly last week as saying the group was made of "criminals" and the government could not deal with them.
"That was a measure we usually use with those who go back on their [violent] ideas," Adly said. "The security stability is an outcome of a lot of police efforts. There is no deal. How can we make a deal with thugs. Nobody can impose their conditions on us."
Former Interior Minister Nabawy Ismail, often credited with outlining the principles the police usually use to deal with guerrilla organizations, said the authorities’ policy has always been to reward those give up their militant ideas, but not necessarily through agreements.
"The criterion for judging whether the authorities can deal with them [militants] is how much they adhere to legitimacy and to the law," Ismail told the Middle East Times.
Observers agree that it is almost certain that the government will not allow the group to set up political parties, or present bills to the legislative house nor publish their views in the local newspapers.
"The state has a clear-cut principle," said Dia Rashwan, a researcher with the government-funded Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, "That is a big ’no’ to an Islamic party."