Top Egypt Islamist says he 'fully supports' reconciliation with state

Abboud el-Zumar, a prominent leader in Egypt's Gamaa Islamiya, told Al-Monitor in an interview that he supports a full reconciliation with the state and that the Brotherhood is not fit to negotiate on behalf of Islamists.

al-monitor Abboud el-Zumar speaks during an interview with Reuters in his home after his release from Liman Tora Prison at Helwan, south of Cairo, March 17, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany.

Topics covered

mohammed morsi, gamaa islamiya, egyptian revolution, egyptian muslim brotherhood, egyptian islamists, abdel fattah al-sisi

Jul 4, 2016

CAIRO — Recent days have witnessed a new cycle of conflict pitting the Muslim Brotherhood against Gamaa Islamiya. The latter was the Brotherhood’s foremost ally following its fall from power on July 3, 2013. Yet Ibrahim Munir, the Brotherhood’s deputy supreme guide, accused Gamaa Islamiya of responsibility for the violence that broke out during the period of former President Hosni Mubarak’s rule. His accusation drove Abboud el-Zumar, a prominent leader and member of the Gamaa Islamiya’s Shura Council, to demand that ties between the two groups be frozen.

Gamaa Islamiya was not just another member of the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, which was founded in 2013 following the Brotherhood’s ouster. It was the alliance’s largest partner after the Brotherhood and participated in protests and sit-ins across Egypt’s various squares. It paid much in the blood of its members to defend the Brotherhood.

To fully understand the extent of the current conflict between Gamaa Islamiya and the Brotherhood and the degree to which it has impacted the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, as well as the much-discussed potential reconciliation between the Islamist movement and the state, Al-Monitor held a wide-ranging interview with Zumar, a prominent leader in Gamaa Islamiya considered not only one of its most important figures but its mastermind. He was an officer in Egypt's military intelligence before being imprisoned in 1981 on charges of assassinating former President Anwar Sadat. He was subsequently released from prison in 2011, following the January 25 Revolution, after becoming the oldest political prisoner in Egypt.

In the course of his interview with Al-Monitor, Zumar addressed many topics, foremost among them the issue of reconciliation with the state. He stressed Gamaa Islamiya’s support for the notion of a comprehensive reconciliation with the state to end the state of perpetual conflict, and the belief that the nation is in need of someone to lead it out of its ordeal. He also expressed his view that the fall of the state at the present time would lead to destruction and chaos.

Zumar harshly criticized the current leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, saying that it "has exhausted its allies," failing to heed Gamaa Islamiya's advice and "driving us into a brick wall." He said its platform is characterized by "condescension toward its comrades and excluding others" and it is "not fit to represent the other factions in any potential political negotiations.”

Concerning the Muslim Brotherhood conditioning any reconciliation with the state on the return to power of President Mohammed Morsi, Zumar said that if the Brotherhood "sticks with the condition of Morsi’s return to power once again, then there is no point in entering into any negotiations with the state." He added, "It doesn’t make sense that Morsi is now wearing a red prison jumpsuit, while a faction of the Brotherhood is still demanding his return to power.”

Zumar said that carrying out the execution orders being issued against a number of Brotherhood leaders only sharpens the ongoing struggle and opens up the gateways to evil while foreclosing any attempts at reconciliation, out of the belief that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s popularity has clearly declined since he assumed power.

The full text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  The National Alliance to Support Legitimacy was launched immediately after the Brotherhood fell from power with the goal of returning former President Mohammed Morsi to power once again. After the passage of nearly three years, where does the alliance stand?

Zumar:  It is true, albeit very unfortunate, that the Muslim Brotherhood has slipped out of the alliance and effectively moved to the so-called Revolutionary Council. Its presence in the alliance is now very marginal, having failed to attend many of [our] meetings and downgraded its representation there. This has had a negative impact on the alliance.

I believe that the Brotherhood found what it was looking for in the Revolutionary Council, and therefore no longer cares about its partners in the Alliance to Support Legitimacy.

Al-Monitor:  The recent past has witnessed a great deal of back and forth between the Muslim Brotherhood and Gamaa Islamiya, particularly following the statements of the Brotherhood’s deputy guide who charged Gamaa Islamiya with responsibility for violence during the term of former President Hosni Mubarak. Why have relations between the Brotherhood and Gamaa Islamiya deteriorated in this fashion?

Zumar:  Unfortunately, the current Brotherhood leadership’s attack on Gamaa Islamiya was not the first of its kind. A few other Brotherhood leaders had previously attacked Gamaa Islamiya, and the latest attack by the deputy general guide of the Brotherhood, Ibrahim Munir, in the British House of Commons sought to lay blame on Gamaa Islamiya and disassociate themselves [from that violence]. It was unacceptable and unjustified. It confirmed that the Brotherhood’s current leadership is not fit to represent the other [Islamist] factions in any potential political negotiations.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s current leadership has exhausted its allies. It has not heeded our counsel, and it has insisted on driving us into a brick wall, despite our advice having proven sound time and again. The core problem lies in the fact that the Brotherhood’s program is built on condescension toward its comrades and excluding others. I believe that this is one of the main reasons that prompted their fall from power so quickly.

Al-Monitor:  You demanded that relations be frozen with the Brotherhood’s present leadership due to this covert and overt attack on Gamaa Islamiya, so that sound relations could be re-established between you. What mechanisms are there for building strong ties with the Brotherhood? What conditions does Gamaa Islamiya have for establishing those relations?

Zumar:  I did, in fact, propose that Gamaa Islamiya freeze relations with the current leadership of the Brotherhood because of what you mentioned earlier: the attack by Brotherhood leaders, both covert and overt, on Gamaa Islamiya, as well as their condescension and their desire to remain within the "Revolutionary Council Camp" while still [receiving] aid for their oppressed political activists, whom we are defending, among others.

The best evidence for the Brotherhood’s condescension toward their comrades is that they would not apologize for the words that Ibrahim Munir let slip until after [we] called to freeze ties with them.

This proposal touched on the core of my convictions, that the Brotherhood's present leadership has failed to lead during this stage, and refused to evaluate its past experience at ruling Egypt. It has refused even to disclose to its allies what its future vision is concerning its crisis in Egypt. That is, if it really has any vision. It doesn't make sense for us to follow a leadership without knowing what its plan for the future is. This caused me to present this proposal to the council, which is concerned with the vision and decision-making.

I reiterate to you that sound relations cannot be built between Gamaa Islamiya and the Brotherhood in the shadow of these crises. If Gamaa Islamiya defeats it — and I think that it cannot — then we will have to think about how to deal with it.

Al-Monitor:  How do you view the conflicts within the Brotherhood itself? Has the Brotherhood failed in developing itself and altering its operating mechanisms following its fall on July 3, 2013?

Zumar:  The disputes within the Brotherhood have become clear to all. And, unfortunately, these conflicts have been reflected in the alliance. They have had a major influence on the alliance, weakening its performance. I believe that the reason for these internal conflicts racking the Brotherhood returns to the failure of the current leadership in achieving its goals — returning to power — and to their collision with reality, to their refusal to engage in self-examination or to accept any solutions to bridge the gap, particularly those solutions that have been proposed by some prominent religious scholars, such as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars. He launched an initiative in which he called on the Brotherhood to reconstitute the Brotherhood’s [Leadership] Council and [Guidance] Office.

The best evidence for the existence of fundamental disputes within the Brotherhood is that the condition that Morsi return to power is not fully agreed upon internally even now, despite the gravity of that position. Indeed, it doesn’t make sense that Morsi is now wearing a red prison jumpsuit, while a faction of the Brotherhood is still demanding his return to power, and discussing him serving out three more years of his term!

Al-Monitor:  Some websites affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood have accused Gamaa Islamiya of making deals with the present regime to abandon it and withdraw from the alliance. What truth is there to this?

Zumar:  This accusation is baseless, and there isn’t a shred of truth to it. We, Gamaa Islamiya, have borne [the consequences of] the Brotherhood’s failure despite our disagreement with them as to how best to govern the state, during Morsi’s administration. We advised them to be faithful, but they did not listen. It should be enough to show the falsity of this accusation to note that Sheikh Issam Darbalah died in prison, as did some of Gamaa Islamiya's leaders, including Sheikh Izzat al-Salamuni. Many of our leaders remain in prison, including Dr. Safwat Abd al-Ghanni, Sheikh Mustafa Hamzah, Sheikh Alaa Abu an-Nasr and others. For the last four straight years, the Egyptian authorities have not even permitted me to travel to perform the religious obligations of the hajj or the umrah. Put simply, any talk about deals with the state is categorically untrue.

Al-Monitor:  Various political forces and members of the House of Representatives have called for reconciliation with the Islamist movement, for reintegrating it into society once again. Does Gamaa Islamiya support reconciliation with the state? What conditions does it have?

Zumar:  We fully support the notion of a comprehensive reconciliation with the state, a reconciliation that will end once and for all this state of perpetual conflict, for the simple reason that the country needs someone to take it by the hand, lead it out of its ordeal and into future horizons of popular harmony and consensus.

Furthermore, we must distinguish fully between the Egyptian state and ruling regimes that come and go. This distinction demands that we stand alongside the Egyptian state and its institutions in order to prevent its collapse. Even if that means that an "undesirable" political regime would remain in power until reforms can be brought about through legitimate mechanisms, guaranteeing the enforcement of the popular will through the ballot box. For the fall of the state would, at the present time, mean chaos and destruction that would lay waste to [our] rights, shed blood in vain and cost lives without justification.

We as Gamaa Islamiya support any just political solution that is premised upon doing right by all the oppressed sons of this nation, whether they be members of the Muslim Brotherhood, members of the police, the army or civilians, along with the participation of all in building their country without marginalization and in accordance with a clearly delineated vision of the future.

Al-Monitor:  Does Gamaa Islamiya set the return of Morsi as a condition for this reconciliation?

Zumar:  In my personal estimation, Morsi’s term ended with his ouster on July 3, 2013, and the Egyptian state entered a new phase. Even the group that believes that Morsi must complete his term in office in its entirety [should acknowledge that] this period also came to an end on June 30 of the same year.

What concerns us now is how to get Morsi out of prison and dismiss all the charges against him. I believe this is a fundamental condition for any reconciliation with the state.

Al-Monitor:  What will Gamaa Islamiya do if the Brotherhood sets Morsi’s return to power as a condition for reconciliation?

Zumar:  The Brotherhood must know well that if it sticks with the condition of Morsi’s return to power again, then there is no point in entering any future negotiations with the state. Gamaa Islamiya, in making its decisions, will rely upon the Shura Council and General Council only.

Al-Monitor:  Some have spoken about an impending initiative of Gamaa Islamiya with the present regime that would require the release of all its leaders from prison and returning them to political participation in exchange for withdrawing from the Brotherhood-led National Alliance to Support Legitimacy. Is Gamaa Islamiya ready to launch an initiative with the current regime?

Zumar:  There are no initiatives with the state. These are merely rumors, and absolutely baseless ones.

Al-Monitor:  What truth is there to the [reports of] conflicts within Gamaa Islamiya, especially after Sheikh Asim Abd al-Magid proposed founding the "Alliance of the Virtuous," which did not place the return of Morsi to power at the top of its list of priorities?

Zumar:  There is no truth to [reports of] any conflicts within Gamaa Islamiya. Disagreement is a natural thing and a sign of [internal] democracy. Gamaa Islamiya has its institutions, the Shura Council and the General Council. The Development and Building Party has independent institutions of its own as well: the political office, the supreme council, the General Secretariat, the General Council. If a member of Gamaa Islamiya or the party presents a proposal, it will be discussed before the relevant body for a decision to be made. If it is agreed upon, then that proposal becomes the official position of the party or Gamaa Islamiya. If, however, it does not meet with acceptance, then it remains the personal opinion of the one who proposed it. We don’t have any problem with proposing political opinions or proposals, whether inside Gamaa Islamiya or the party, since everyone abides by the final decisions reached by either the party or Gamaa Islamiya.

Al-Monitor:  Gamaa Islamiya was founded with the goal of waging armed jihad in the 1970s. Then it undertook a number of revisions and announced that it had embarked on a peaceful course since the January 25 Revolution in order to achieve its goals through political participation. What are these revisions, and why did Gamaa Islamiya renounce violence?

Zumar:  Gamaa Islamiya did not "renounce" violence, because violence has never been an integral part of its program. Not since day one. Gamaa Islamiya strives for peaceful preaching, but we were subjected to manifest repression in the era of President Mubarak. Many of our leaders were assassinated, many of our members were arrested, our mosques were assaulted, the sanctities of our members' homes were violated, pushing some of our members to taking up arms. But this was an exception to the rule.

Nevertheless, after a period of conflict, exploited by the Mubarak regime to tarnish the image of Islam and stigmatize it as [supporting] terrorism — of which it is innocent — the historic leaders of Gamaa Islamiya launched an initiative from a Sharia premise and a realistic vision. They launched a cease-fire initiative in 1997, until Gamaa Islamiya returned to its natural state of peaceful preaching, as it had been before. And after the revolution of Jan. 25, 2011, Gamaa Islamiya turned toward establishing a political party bearing the name “Construction and Development.” It received a license by judicial ruling, and began building the institutions of a party and choosing its leaders through free and transparent elections so that it might fulfill its role through a political vision characterized by wisdom, objectivity and awareness of the course of events, all within the framework of the constitution and the law.

Al-Monitor:  Why did Gamaa Islamiya’s leadership not take the initiative by proposing an initiative to the state, as happened in the 1990s?

Zumar:  As I said, we might support any initiative, or accept any initiative aimed at reconciliation with the state. We are totally ready for this.

Al-Monitor:  The state has faced a number of challenges, foremost among them armed groups in the Sinai Peninsula that have declared open season on members of the army, police forces and civilians. What’s your view of this?

Zumar:  During the administration of Morsi, there was a real opportunity to effect a comprehensive resolution of Sinai’s problems, a resolution not limited to the security aspect alone, but one that would have relied on social development, putting an end to the problem of the marginalization of Sinai's inhabitants, who have been deprived of the right to own lands, the right to be appointed to important positions like that of an officer in the army, police or judiciary. These matters are very important. Indeed, they are no less important than security solutions.

In truth, the current political regime has recently begun to take an interest in solving Sinai’s problems and establishing development projects. But at least so far, these efforts have not borne any fruit on the [political] level.

Al-Monitor:  Are those groups supported by the Brotherhood or any foreign entities?

Zumar:  That is a question to be decided by the Egyptian judiciary alone, in the investigations that are currently ongoing on this matter.

Al-Monitor:  Do you believe that the movement of political Islam, and in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, has lost its popularity on the Egyptian street?

Zumar:  The Muslim Brotherhood is a large group and has undertaken massive efforts in the realm of charitable work. No one can deny this. Egyptian society now feels a vacuum following the cessation of its charitable activities. It suffices for me to say that the so-called Ramadan bags, which the Brotherhood used to put together to support the poor, have been greatly affected. Even some of the state’s institutions have hastened, in an attempt on their part to fill this void, to distribute large quantities of this support to citizens in poor areas.

As I said, I reject the idea that members of the Brotherhood or the broader movement of political Islam be removed from state institutions. That would constitute an act of injustice and an irreparable breach. Unless this principle is adopted, every faction that rises to power will exclude all others from institutions of state, and this must not happen.

Al-Monitor:  Do you believe that the state will carry out sentences of execution against leaders of the Brotherhood after the stages of litigation conclude?

Zumar:  In my view, the sentences of execution in and of themselves represent a problem confronting the government, insofar as [carrying them out] would create martyrs and open wide the gates of evil and conflict, as well as shut the door to [possible] resolution of these crises. Moreover, I imagine that the Court of Cassation, with its legal understanding, judicial wisdom and realistic view, can deliver the state from this awkward situation and cancel any orders of execution on its own. Especially if most of the charges are [some form of] incitement to violence, something that, in truth, does not comport with the Brotherhood’s program.

Al-Monitor:  After the passage of three years since the fall of the Brotherhood’s rule, how do you view the term of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi? Do you believe that he still enjoys the same popularity that he did when he came to power?

Zumar:  I believe that this period is a very sensitive and delicate one. The difficulties and problems are growing, even despite the massive efforts being taken to resolve them. Egyptians have seen the launch of many giant projects, but ones flawed by their inability to show any direct return for them. It would have been sounder had the first effort been focused on small and medium projects with a quick return for the average citizen’s income [at a time when] many are suffering from rising costs of living and don’t believe that their hopes for improved incomes, hopes which have been promised to them by the president over two years ago, have been realized.

I recently wrote an article under the headline "Popularity doesn’t last," in which I warned against being deceived by popularity, for it cannot be reconciled with [political] practice. This is what has happened with the popularity of President Sisi. It has clearly diminished, as many of his supporters have moved over to the opposition camp.

Yet he still has a ripe opportunity before him in what remains of his term. He can rearrange the priorities so that effecting a truce with God will stand at the top of the list. Such a truce would include dealing justly with the oppressed, establishing justice and bringing the corrupt to account. And, as I mentioned earlier, I believe in the importance of acting to convene a national reconciliation and restoring cohesion to the various divisions of the people so that they can truly act as one hand, as they did on Jan. 25. In such a way, they can finally secure the aspirations and goals of this revolution, as represented in providing a decent living, guaranteeing freedom and social justice. There is no doubt that this is possible if intentions are sincere and if we all resolve together to raise this country up into the ranks of the great nations.

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