- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002

CAIRO In Egypt and Algeria, government battles for the heart of Islam and the war on terrorism are one in the same.

When the Muslim faithful flock to Friday prayers, authorities listen to every word. Preachers are vetted by the government.

Those who teach an Islam of tolerance and peace can expect to prosper.

Those who teach the version of Islam espoused by Osama bin Laden wind up in jail, in hiding or waging their wars of terror somewhere else, perhaps in the United States or Europe.

"Sermons at mosques are censored," said a Western diplomat in Cairo. "Anti-Israeli sermons are allowed. But you know you can't go too far people know what the red lines are.

"You don't criticize the government in sermons. The government is concerned about stability above all else."

Following September 11, officials in Egypt and Algeria face far less criticism from the West as human rights abusers than before the war on terrorism.

Some now speak with pride of how they have battled hard especially during the last decade to protect their nations from the growth of Muslim militancy.

"We managed to arrest the terrorist leaders and brought preachers to jail to speak to them," a senior Egyptian security official told The Washington Times during a recent interview in Cairo.

"Those who were in the middle of the violent way repented. Those outside got a dialogue through the media and priests' sermons that revealed to them how to think and block new people from violence.

"The whole structure of the [militant] organizations became fragile and collapsed. When the leaders declared they rejected violence, many others handed themselves in."

Egypt's two main militant groups, Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Islamic Group (Gamaa al-Islamiya) said in the late 1990s, in formal announcements, that they had abandoned armed struggle.

The leader of Islamic Group said in a prison interview in June that he had been convinced by pro-government clerics and scholars that the violent road to an Islamic state was wrong.

"In the era of [the late Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat we were young and frustrated, and decided to approve the decision to kill Sadat," said Karam Zohdy in the Tura Jail outside Cairo, in his first news interview since his arrest 20 years ago.

Today, Mr. Zohdy says he is a changed man, his views moderated by a decade of prayer and study.

Sitting in the Interior Ministry downtown, a released Islamic Group member, Hamid Abdel Rahman, explained their gradual conversion while behind bars.

"We revised our opinion after we got new studies and published our new point of view," he said.

"We are forbidden [now] to go against the government with arms or weapons and attack tourists. It is a sin to attack any civilians."

Abdel Rahman pointed to a set of Islamic books he had written while in prison. He said they aim to teach the younger generation so "they don't make the same mistakes we did."

No one in Egypt is ready to declare victory. By the time Islamic Jihad declared its cease-fire, following a 1997 massacre of tourists near Luxor, its most militant members had fled the country and joined up with al Qaeda.

They include Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden's No. 2 man.

Algeria has gone through a particularly violent battle with Muslim militants in the past decade, with more than 100,000 civilians having been massacred.

Islamist ideology was imported into Algeria by Arab teachers from the Persian Gulf hired to shift the educational curriculum from the colonial language, French, to Arabic in the 1980s.

Then, hundreds of Algerian volunteers who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union from 1980 to 1990 returned home, inspired by bin Laden's call to overthrow Arab governments.

"They burned mosques, tombs of saints it was a horror," Justice Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said in a recent interview.

"Girls told of being raped by 50 or 60 men. They say in jihad, destroying the goods of an enemy is just, killing the baby of an enemy is just. We have centers for 20,000 orphans who lost both parents," Mr. Ouyahia said.

Algeria and Egypt used the well-known weapons of authoritarian governments massive roundups, search-and-destroy patrols, intelligence gathering, wiretaps and rigorous interrogation techniques including torture.

Both countries were chastised by human rights advocates in Europe and the United States, where in some cases militants wanted by Algeria and Egypt were granted asylum and allowed to recruit followers and raise money.

Without openly gloating, Arab officials are saying in so many words, "I told you so."

They know what it is like to live with assassins stalking their leaders, police, foreign tourists, journalists and anyone else they don't like.

Egypt and Algeria remain heavily armed, with states of emergency in place and secret police monitoring activities of anyone suspected of militant Islamic activities.

Troops and armored cars bake in the sun outside Cairo's television building, home of the government press office as well as the government-run broadcast facilities.

Algeria's public buildings are ringed by walls, locked and fortified doors, and barbed-wire enclosures with armed guards at the corners.

Foreign reporters invited to Algeria's May elections were required to stay at the El Aurassi hotel "for your protection," said an official. And they were not permitted to leave the hotel without armed bodyguards.

But both Egypt and Algeria also held out carrots an offer of amnesty or reduced prison time for those who surrendered and had not yet killed anyone. The offer led thousands of extremists to come in from the cold.

Egypt's Islamic Group tried and failed in 1995 to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak during a visit to Ethiopia.

It slaughtered 16 Greek tourists a year later at a Cairo hotel.

In 1997, Islamic Group killed 56 foreign, mainly Swiss, tourists and 14 Egyptians at the archaeological ruins of Luxor.

In Algeria, during the 1990s, more than 100,000 people died as Islamist terrorists, many of them trained in Afghanistan during the 1979-1989 war against the Soviet Union, sought to establish an Islamic state.

After the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front won the first round of 1991 elections, the Algerian army suspended the voting.

That unleashed a decade of massacres by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, a smaller radical group. Both are on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

The GIA fielded up to 8,000 fighters in the middle 1990s, said Algerian security officials.

Hiding out in rugged mountains south of the densely inhabited coastal belt, and sheltered by sympathetic or terrorized villagers, the Islamists successfully resisted the Algerian army efforts to control or eradicate them.

The GIA and the Salafists method of killing was indeed terrifying. They would enter a village or apartment block, seize everyone they could find and then methodically slit their throats, one by one.

An Algerian official said the Islamists believe that anyone who is not with them deserves to die, along with their families.

A recent GIA statement by its head, as quoted by Agence France-Presse in June, followed a massacre of 24 peasants:

"We will continue to destroy their harvests, to take their goods, to rape their women, to decapitate them in the cities, the villages and the deserts.

"Neither truce, nor dialogue, nor reconciliation, nor security, but blood, blood, destruction, destruction."

Algerian government leaders, while largely secular, realized they could not allow themselves to be painted as "anti-Islamic."

So they, too, began the cultural battle to outlaw radical preaching in mosques.

"In 1996, we adopted a constitution that said you cannot use Islam for political gain," Mr. Ouyahia said.

The three Islamic parties who ran candidates in Algeria's May parliamentary elections all carefully avoided calling for violence to install Islamic values.

Today, militants in Algeria continue to kill about 100 civilians a month, but officials consider that progress, citing a death toll of more than 1,000 a month in the mid-1990s.

The battle of Egypt and Algeria has been made more difficult by charges of human rights abuses in the West.

Europe and the United States have given visas, political asylum or residency permits to Islamist leaders that Egyptian and Algerian officials sought as terrorists.

For example, blind preacher Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a founder of both Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Islamic Group, was allowed into the United States despite Egyptian calls for his extradition.

He was arrested and jailed for life in 1996 for plotting to kill Mr. Mubarak and for plotting to blow up the World Trade Center, United Nations and other New York landmarks.

His followers were convicted of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed six persons.

September 11 hijack leader Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian, entered the United States on a student visa.

Just last week, as Egypt pondered the wisdom of releasing Islamic Group terrorists, the Bush administration threatened to block new U.S. foreign aid unless Egyptian-American sociologist and political activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim was freed from the same Tura Jail that houses the Islamists.

U.S. officials and human rights groups question the seven-year sentence Mr. Ibrahim was given for accepting European foundation grants and for the "defamation" of Egypt through criticism of the political system.

But if Egypt releases Mr. Ibrahim, it will find it harder to keep Islamic Jihad, Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists in jail, say Egyptian analysts.

Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam, arrested while crossing into the United States from Canada in December 1999 with a carload of explosives to attack Los Angeles International Airport and Seattle's millennium celebration, had used lax Canadian asylum laws to obtain a Canadian passport.

Signs of the fight against terrorism still appear around Algiers. Foudil Brahimi, editorial chief of the Arabic language Algerian daily Khadar, sits at his desk below a photograph of a youngish man, framed in black.

"That's Omar Outilene, who was editor before me," said Mr. Brahimi. "He was killed 200 meters from the Maison de la Presse," a heavily guarded compound where journalists worked and lived for years, fearing assassination if they tried to go home.

But the battle with terror has changed minds in Algeria and voters who once chose Islamic militants no longer do so.

May 30 parliamentary elections in Algeria saw the Islamic parties lose about 20 percent of their seats, leaving secular parties with an absolute and overwhelming majority.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide