CAIRO: It is difficult to imagine the atmosphere in Tora Prison these days. For years the notorious penitentiary south of Cairo has confined many Islamists with known links to violence. More recently, however, the number of those within the prison walls propagating violence in the name of Islam has sharply declined. One time Jihadists are renouncing their former methods as never before.
Since 2003 the Egyptian government has released thousands of members of banned Islamist groups on condition of such renunciations – many of whom were imprisoned for as long as 25 years. Just last month, 130 members of Islamic Jihad walked free.
But it is the identity of the latest inmate to renounce violence that has caused a stir amongst analysts, authorities, and the public alike. Sayed Imam Abdul-Aziz El-Sherif, who founded the ‘Islamic Jihad’ organization, which aimed to overthrow the Egyptian government, is now speaking out against his old ways, and many of his former colleagues.
In a 100-page manual entitled “Advice Regarding the Conduct of Jihadist Action in Egypt and the World – due to be published in the coming months – El-Sherif deconstructs the theological justifications for violence used by Jihadist revolutionaries.
The Quranic citation, Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress the limits, for God loveth not transgressors, was in an excerpt he sent by fax to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in London. In the excerpt, he continued to speak out strongly against the murder of innocent civilians, and condemned other theological motives for violence. It is believed that up to 5,000 former members of Islamic Jihad will be released from prison following the publication’s release.
This will not be El-Sherif’s first published work. He infamously authored Foundations of Preparation for Holy War, which has functioned as a handbook for Jihadists from Egypt to Afghanistan. That was back when he fought alongside Ayman Al-Zawahri, before the latter became Osama Bin Laden’s ‘second in command’ at Al-Qaeda.
For a number of years, Islamic Jihad, along with other organizations like ‘Gamaa Al-Islamiya’ (Islamic Group) – the armed group implicated along with Islamic Jihad in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 – fought a bloody battle with Egypt’s security forces, resulting in over 1,000 deaths. The group’s leaders renounced violence en masse in 1998, and now it seems it is the turn of the group El-Sherif founded.
“This is an extremely positive development, says Diaa Rashwan, researcher at the Al Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies. “It will be a major blow to Al-Zawahri, because it is coming from the inside, not from the US or Britain.
Rashwan believes that the high esteem in which younger generations hold El-Sherif, could dissuade them from joining militant organizations. “The younger generation does not have the faculties or facilities to learn like the older guys did. They get their ideas from people like El-Sherif, and his book will get them to question what they are doing.
Some however, not least Al-Zawahri, have raised doubts about the sincerity of El-Sherif’s words, and the circumstances under which they have emerged. “Do they now have fax machines in jail cells? the Al-Qaeda deputy joked in a recently released video.
Yet history stands El-Sherif’s revision in good stead. Gamaa Al-Islamiya has not committed an act of violence since their mass renunciation in 1998, during which time over 2,000 of their members have been released.
“As well as that, says Rashwan, “the majority of Jihadists are with this initiative. They have expressed their solidarity with El-Sherif.
Others argue that groups like Islamic Jihad and Gamaa Al-Islamiya were born out of poverty, oppression, and a lack of education; and although the effects of these groups may be cured, their causes remain.
“Terrorism in Egypt arrived with Nasser, says Gamal Al Banna, Islamic thinker, and brother of the late Hassan Al Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood. “The psychology of Jihadism is a reaction to the torture Nasser brought.
Al Banna points to the period from 1923-1952 as the golden age of liberalism in Egypt. “The country flourished because we had freedom, he says. “Egypt had many great singers and writers; we built universities and other important places.
“Terrorism arrived when that freedom disappeared. The ideas of thinkers like [Sayyid] Qutb and [Abul Ala] Maududi were never popular in Islamic thought before that; but they became popular under oppression, he continues.
“El-Sherif’s book is good news. But only real freedom will bring about r