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Former insurgent Islamist leader's take on IS in Sinai

In an interview with Al-Monitor, former Gamaa Islamiya leader Nageh Ibrahim says the Muslim Brotherhood ought to reach a reconciliation with the state.

Egypt witnessed a severe wave of violence and terrorism led by Gamaa Islamiya under former President Hosni Mubarak in the 1990s. These terrorist acts ended when the group’s leaders proposed an initiative in 1997 to put an end to violence and revise its ideology, whereby it announced that it had made a mistake when it called others infidels and targeted the police.

The state welcomed the initiative and released all the group’s members from prison — whose number had reached 12,000 — in addition to all the historical figures of Gamaa Islamiya.

Islamic thinker and former leader in Gamaa Islamiya Nageh Ibrahim led those revisions and organized several lectures in prisons for members of extremist groups.

Al-Monitor spoke to Ibrahim about the possibility of the 1990s scenario repeating itself and whether the extremist groups in the Sinai Peninsula and the Muslim Brotherhood would agree to ideological revisions to stop violence as Gamaa Islamiya did under Mubarak, and whether we should expect further targeting of tourist sites after the Karnak suicide attack June 10 or of foreign embassies after the bombing of the Italian Consulate on July 11. The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for both attacks.

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  Who ended the wave of violence in the 1990s? Are there any useful lessons the government can apply this time?

Ibrahim:  The leadership of Gamaa Islamiya — which was responsible for most acts of violence in the 1990s — had proposed initiatives for reconciliation from within the prisons. Maj. Gen. Ahmed Raafat, who was responsible for the movement’s file at the State Security Service, supported this initiative, and the state would not have encouraged it if it weren’t for him. Thus, we started developing the ideological revisions and ordered the end of all operations against the state. In return, we asked for easing the grip imposed on Gamaa Islamiya’s members. I had to face insults and humiliation because of its call for reconciliation, whose [success] required courageous and strict leaders. And this is what happened: Those who rejected the reconciliation were expelled from the group. It was a collective decision that should be applied to all.

The Muslim Brotherhood ought to propose an initiative for reconciliation to embarrass the state, while the state ought to take advantage of some Brotherhood members’ calls for reconciliation — even if these calls are not explicit. The state also ought to open the door for negotiations during the current battle with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Monitor:  What was the objective behind the Italian Consulate bombing?

Ibrahim:  The incident is linked to the opening of the Suez Canal in August. The objective was to deal a blow to the current regime that would affect it on the domestic level.

Al-Monitor:  Should we expect similar bombings targeting other foreign embassies or tourist sites, especially after the Karnak attack?

Ibrahim:  In a fight with extremist groups, one should expect anything. Embassies and tourist sites are sensitive spots that [if targeted] could affect the state negatively. They are easy targets compared with security headquarters affiliated with the army or the police.

Al-Monitor:  Based on your follow-up on the ambushes operation by Wilayat Sinai in North Sinai, how do you see the future of the region?

Ibrahim:  The largest organization engaged in violence in North Sinai is Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis [the former name of Wilayat Sinai], which is an extension of Jamaat al-Tawhid wal Jihad that was behind the Nuweiba bombing in 2004 and Dahab bombing in 2006 during the reign of former President Mubarak. The latter succeeded in eliminating Jamaat al-Tawhid wal Jihad in 2005, but its leaders escaped Jan. 28 from prison with the Jundallah organization to North Sinai after the January 25 Revolution.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis was [thus] founded in 2011 and started implementing its plan to form the Islamic Emirate of Sinai in the Rafah-Sheikh Zuweid-el-Arish triangle. I met with members of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in prisons, who hail from North Sinai, and organized 30 prison lectures during Mubarak’s era to correct their ideas and persuade them not to call others infidels; some were convinced but others were not.

The number of victims of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis reached 600 since its inception in 2011. This organization expanded to become a regular army. It took advantage of the border insecurity with the Gaza Strip and the four-year security deterioration, believing its battle with the current [Egyptian] regime is a matter of life or death. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis was affiliated with al-Qaeda but split from it and pledged allegiance to IS in 2014. Thus their crimes and brutal practices became similar. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis was the first to kill a woman for cooperating with the Egyptian army, which is contrary to the norms and traditions of the Sinai tribes. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the history of this organization in order to understand the future of Sinai.

Al-Monitor:  Some fear these extremist groups will take control of Sinai and declare it an Islamic state. Would this be possible?

Ibrahim:  This is not possible. Whoever reads history knows well that extremist groups cannot establish a state. The Islamic state in Mosul is temporary, just like the state of the Taliban, which lasted three years before collapsing for several reasons. The first is that the ideology of these groups is based on accusing others of apostasy and bombing whoever is different. Extremism excludes other parties, while part of the composition of the state is dealing with other parties and accepting them. The second reason is that these groups resort to weapons to settle differences, even among themselves. The third reason is that the members of Wilayat Sinai are cruel, rude and brutal.

I met Mohammed al-Zawahri and his brother, the emir of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, in prison, and I asked them about their readiness to manage a state and form an Islamic emirate in Sinai. Their understanding of the concept of state was superficial and naive. We must examine the model of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which failed to deal with other parties and was only recognized by three countries: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. After the events of Sept. 11, those ties were cut. An Islamic emirate or state can never be established in North Sinai, as extremist groups have no understanding of the state concepts.

Al-Monitor:  What is the position of North Sinai residents as to the bloody confrontation between the Egyptian army and extremist groups?

Ibrahim:  The North Sinai residents are torn between two options. The state does not care about them. They have no development or economic development projects and health services, and sometimes the Egyptian army kills a number of them by accident. The state also destroyed the most important facility for these residents by closing illegal tunnels with Gaza, which caused them substantial damage. The workers digging those tunnels received a salary of up to $1,000 [by drug or arms dealers, members of extremist groups as well as fugitives from Gaza]. This is in addition to the decision of the curfew imposed by the armed forces in North Sinai, which kill life in this region. The fear of being killed accidentally by the army or deliberately by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis haunts the residents of North Sinai. In addition, these residents refuse to cooperate with Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis because of its crimes. For example, members of this group have so far slaughtered 45 young men from the tribes for cooperating with the Israeli or Egyptian armies.

The North Sinai residents are torn between the Egyptian state that wants to take everything from them and give them nothing, and a brutal and merciless organization. How can we ask the residents of North Sinai to support the army without giving them anything or any development [project] in return and how can we ask them to stand up against Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which turned into a regular army whose members are trained in Syria, Afghanistan and Gaza? In the end, North Sinai residents want to be on the side of the state, but the latter must be on their side too.

Al-Monitor:  In May 2015, the Sinai Tribal Union issued a statement to announce the formation of groups of young people who will participate with the army in eliminating hotbeds of extremism under the banner of the Sinai Tribal Union. Will the tribes assist the army on the ground in its war against extremist groups?

Ibrahim:  Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis committed crimes against the tribes, such as killing women and children, and bombing their homes. This has forced them to form a front and declare war on it. These tribes know everything about Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and anticipate its future attacks, because its members are members of these tribes, and some of them have derailed from it. The tribes have an active role, but they are not as armed as the army and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. This is why they asked for being armed. Yet the army fears that the front becomes a parallel armed army. Therefore, these tribes will have no influence until after they are armed and financially compensated for losing their lands. The role of the tribes’ front at present is limited to the provision of information to the army.

Al-Monitor:  Do the recent ambushes in Sheikh Zuweid reflect the cooperation and coordination between extremist groups and North Sinai residents?

Ibrahim:  The tribes hate Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and extremist groups since these have killed their leaders and women. Those who cooperate with this organization are drug dealers, in whose interest it is that illegal tunnels be used with Gaza; the families of the victims who were accidentally killed by the army, because they want to revenge the state; and the fugitives and wanted in criminal convictions.

Al-Monitor:  Do you support the remarks July 3 of Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the Israeli coordinator of government activities in the territories, that Hamas provided Wilayat Sinai with support during the latest incidents?

Ibrahim:  I have a completely different opinion. There are three groups in the Gaza Strip, namely Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip; Islamic Jihad, which has a tendency towards Iran and is armed by Iran; and other conflicting extremist organizations, some of which deem Hamas as an apostate [movement]. These extremist organizations are the ones that participated in the founding of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. Hamas is hostile to these groups as they obstruct its attempts to establish a state in Gaza. I do not think that Hamas supports them directly, and if there is support for extremist groups in North Sinai, it is secret and provided through extremist and military factions within it, which are out of the leaders’ control. Hamas, as a group in general, knows better than to support organizations that may destabilize its ties with Egypt and strengthen the position of extremist groups in Gaza.

Al-Monitor:  How do you view the proposal by a number of military experts to fully evacuate the population from the battle zones in North Sinai in order not to obstruct the army in its war and decrease casualties among civilians?

Ibrahim:  It should be implemented. This idea was put on the table in the era of former President Mohammed Morsi. Yet, the political leadership at the time refused to build the new town of Rafah, to replace Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and el-Arish. The solution now is logical. Building a place that is equipped, where all services are available and to which the residents are moved from the battle areas allows the army to confront extremist groups without harming the civilians.

Al-Monitor:  Does the reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood guarantee the cessation of armed confrontation between the army and extremist groups in Sinai?

Ibrahim:  The Brotherhood does not control any jihadist organizations, except for Soldiers of Egypt [Ajnad Misr] and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. The reconciliation will consist of a crushing blow to these extremist armed groups, because it will deprive their crimes from any legitimacy. These organizations have announced after every terrorist attack that they had carried out these operations out of revenge for the state, because of the unacceptable security practices against some of the Brotherhood members, or following the issuance of death sentences against the Brotherhood leaders and members. There are obstacles to the reconciliation from the part of the Brotherhood, because of their divided decision as a result of its leaders’ arrest and dispersal, and the absence of a courageous leader who can assume the responsibility for the decision to reconcile and for subsequent attacks and insults. Another reason is the Brotherhood’s link to some countries, such as Turkey and Qatar, which requires it to have the consent of these states on the decision to reconcile.

The state is making a mistake by treating the Muslim Brotherhood members similarly to the way it treats takfiris and members of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. There is a difference between the practices of some terrorist Brotherhood members and the crimes of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood’s crimes are limited to burning electricity poles and trains, but the operations of the takfiri organizations are larger and uglier. There is also another obstacle to reconciliation, namely secular parties, which recognize that the return of the Muslim Brotherhood is not in their interest given that it is a strong competitor, not to mention that these parties always oppose reconciliation. Moreover, frequent bombings put the state in an awkward position that prevents it from calling for reconciliation. In other words, the Muslim Brotherhood must proceed with reconciliation as Gamaa Islamiya did under former President Mubarak. This is called the peace offensive aimed at embarrassing the state before citizens.

Al-Monitor:  The two parties to the conflict — the army and extremist groups — exchange pictures of bodies whenever a battle between the two is over. What is the impact of such practices on the citizens of different affiliations?

Ibrahim:  These dangerous practices are committed by the blood media, and the exchange of pictures of bodies is part of the culture of this media. The fact is that encouraging revenge gets individuals in trouble, especially when reconciliation is at stake. Revenge leads to self-destruction prior to the destruction of the enemy. In the end, reconciliation will take place, but those bad practices prolong the duration of the battles and increase the number of victims.

Al-Monitor:  The assassination of Attorney General Hisham Barakat June 29 was the first assassination of an Egyptian official; will the next phase witness a series of assassinations of politicians and journalists, or will assassinations be limited to judges, policemen and the military?

Ibrahim:  I do not think they will kill politicians or journalists as conditions are not favorable to them. The assassination of the attorney general came in response to the death sentence of the Soldiers of Egypt leaders and the death of jihadist Nabil al-Maghribi. Each attack has its causes and objectives.

Al-Monitor:  Following the intensification of the clash, the assassination of the attorney general and the recent Sinai events, have prospects for reconciliation become grim?

Ibrahim:  Whenever takfiri groups carry out bomb attacks and whenever the judiciary issues a death sentence against Brotherhood leaders, reconciliation becomes more difficult. The state’s duty in its battle against terrorism is to move the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and Gamaa Islamiya away from that battle and take advantage of reconciliation calls made by some of the Brotherhood leaders. Negotiations are part of the battles.

Al-Monitor:  The clash between former President Mubarak and Gamaa Islamiya led to ideological revisions, so how does the state force extremist groups to proceed with doctrinal revisions as Mubarak did with you?

Ibrahim:  Members of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis will not go for revisions because they are stupid, and their ideology is deviant and random. But the Brotherhood needs ideological revisions because it is big, has worked in politics and has flexibility of thought, and this is possible.

Al-Monitor:  President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stressed during his meeting May 28 with the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, the need for the renewal of religious discourse to confront extremist ideas. Has the state succeeded in that?

Ibrahim:  The state will not succeed in renewing the religious discourse under negative circumstances plagued by the deterioration of the economy and the investment opportunities, the spread of hopelessness among youths, severe political polarization and shrinking political and personal freedoms. These are all factors that do not help when it comes to renewing religious discourse, especially knowing that some are angry at religious institutions, such as Al-Azhar and Dar al-Ifta, regarding some of their positions. So how would those institutions renew their religious discourse?