The number of jihadi publications on the Arab Spring is increasing dramatically as the months go by and my time has – as always – been very limited, hence my recent absence from Jihadica. I have several posts about al-Qaida’s advice to the Arab Spring lined up, however, including this one about Egypt.
When one thinks of Egypt and jihadis, the first person that comes to mind is probably Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Qaida’s leader has issued many a “letter of hope and good tidings to our people in Egypt” since the beginning of the Arab Spring and although that title may sound as if these epistles contain Christmas greetings to the country’s Coptic community, they offer nothing of the sort.
In part three of his series of letters to the Egyptian people, al-Zawahiri spends most of his time warning his countrymen about the supposedly evil intentions of the United States and their Arab henchmen (“the Arab Zionist rulers of injustice and betrayal”). The US, al-Zawahiri claims, conspires with the rulers of the Arab world to “wage war on Islam and its sharia”, expressed in banning the headscarf, spreading evil and besieging the people of Gaza. All of this happens, of course, under the guise of the “war on terrorism”, al-Zawahiri explains.
Such talk about strong ties between the US and Arab regimes sounds quite familiar, but al-Zawahiri needs it to make his point, which is that current events in Egypt are not going to give Egyptians what they really want: “These international powers and particularly the US”, al-Zawahiri writes, want to “change the old faces for new faces to deceive the people with some reforms and freedoms”. Such token gestures will give people the idea that things are changing but this will actually only serve “the interests of the world powers of arrogance and injustice”. Egypt, al-Zawahiri maintains, “will remain the basis of the Crusader attack and a founding partner in the American war on Islam”.
Al-Zawahiri thus offers nothing but the same old arguments. One could argue that his scepticism is somewhat understandable. Having grown up under the repressive regime of Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir (Nasser), whose revolution was als0 hailed as a liberation of Egypt at the time, having seen several Egyptian dictators come and go and having suffered from brutal torture in prisons in his own country, one could forgive him from not immediately jumping up and down with glee at seeing the first signs of a revolt. Al-Zawahiri has seen it all before and has been disappointed too many times to believe it all.
There may be some truth to the above. Reading the fourth part of his series of letters to the Egyptian people, however, should convince anyone that al-Zawahiri is not so much a sceptic, but rather someone with his own agenda aimed at claiming credit for overthrowing Mubarak. In this letter, he repeats the same stuff mentioned above and then claims that “your mujahidun brothers are with you fighting the same enemy and confronting America and its Western allies that have made [Egyptian President] Husni Mubarak rule over you”. America, he says, is now trying to reverse its previous policy of supporting dictators and currently wants to co-operate with the people. This policy change, he claims, “only came as a direct result of the blessed raids in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania”.
So apparently the Arab Spring came about as a direct result of 9/11 and the US is now on the people’s side. Yet doesn’t that last bit clash with his earlier statement that the US only cares about token reforms and “changing the old faces for new faces” while retaining its own interests? Yes it does, and al-Zawahiri is therefore quick to point out that this revised US policy is something that “is not enough and does not satisfy any noble and free Muslim”. In a seemingly reassuring way, he adds that “your mujahidun brothers [...] will continue to strike America and its partners and hurt them until they leave – with God’s permission – the lands of the Muslims and have had enough of supporting the tyrants in these countries”.
Al-Zawahiri pushes his own agenda a bit further by claiming that the problem with Egypt lies in the secularism of its state: “This was not the choice of the Egyptian people”, he states. “On the contrary, the Egyptian people have demanded and have repeated their demand numerous times to have the Islamic sharia as the source of laws and legislation so that Islam is the ruling system in Egypt.” This call for being ruled by Islamic law, al-Zawahiri claims, “is still and has been the demand of the overwhelming majority of the people of Egypt since the 1940s”.
Al-Zawahiri’s reasoning is obviously meant to show that the US, by waging a “war on Islam” is going against the will of Egyptians but that he and al-Qaida are actually on the people’s side. In this sense, al-Zawahiri appears to be the real supporter of democracy. He quickly dispels this idea, however, since he explicitly rejects the “democracy that America wants for us, a special democracy for the Third World in general and the Islamic world in particular”. Such American-sponsored democracy, al-Zawahiri states, could be seen in Algeria, when that country cancelled elections in the early 1990s after they had been won by Islamists, or in Gaza, when the world refused to deal with Hamas after it had won elections there.
Al-Zawahiri does not just object to democracy because he associates it with injustice, however. He also claims it is an idol that is worshipped by its followers since they blindly follow what the majority wants, irrespective of what religion says. The majority thus becomes the object of worship instead of religion. As an alternative, the current Egyptian regime should leave and the country should be ruled by a pious, Islamic regime instead. The people will have the right to choose their leaders, al-Zawahiri claims, but obviously within the bounds of the sharia. The misery of the people should be ended, the West should be confronted and the oppression should be lifted “in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and every corner of the world of Islam”. Jihad should therefore be continued until this goal has been achieved.
Unlike al-Zawahiri, who basically extends his old ideas to the new situation created by the Arab Spring, the Syrian-British jihadi scholar Abu Basir al-Tartusi actually comes up with something new. As we saw in my previous two posts in this series (here and here), Abu Basir is much more nuanced and practical than the likes of al-Zawahiri in what he has to say about the Arab Spring and his advice to Egyptians is no exception.
In a response to questions about political participation by radical Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt, Abu Basir states that Muslim youngsters should ensure that any participation in Egyptian politics should be in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunna as understood by the first three generations of Muslims (al-salaf al-salih). Establishing a political party is allowed, he says, but only if it does not fall into the trap of acting on behalf of party interests instead of those of the Muslim community as a whole. Such remarks may seem nothing special, but considering the widespread opposition to political participation among jihadis, such answers are quite remarkable.
Also worthy of note is Abu Basir’s advice to Egyptians to use peaceful methods, unlike al-Zawahiri who – as we have seen – actually calls for continued jihad. Abu Basir claims that the current circumstances in Egypt (and Tunisia) are dominated by freedom and tolerance and this calls for peaceful means, not violence. “As long as the conflict with others can be fought by words, communiqués and dialogue [...] we don’t have to resort to violence”. Abu Basir gives three reasons for this: firstly, he says, there is no need for violence; secondly, Muslims are the strongest in using words “because they posses the strongest arguments”; and thirdly, he claims, a kind approach is more likely to be accepted by others and yield results.
Abu Basir is by no means satisfied with the situation as it is in Egypt right now, but he states that at least everyone can agree that it is better than under the tyrants. Muslims should therefore make use of the possibilities that have opened up for them, as long as it accords with Islamic law. Interestingly, Abu Basir explicitly allows political acts of an executive or bureaucratic type and also believes that things that serve the people and society as a whole are permitted. He draws the line, however, at participating in legislation, since coming up with your own laws instead of leaving this to God is, in effect, polytheism by violating God’s absolute unity in the legislative sphere.
This latter bit is familiar ground for jihadis, but Abu Basir’s explicit endorsement of participation in other branches of politics than the legislative branch is quite astonishing. Without changing his earlier views, he reconsiders his beliefs in light of new circumstances and condemns only those things that he believes really need to be condemned, thereby going quite far in accommodating those Muslims who want to participate in politics after the Arab Spring. Abu Basir ends his epistle by saying: “Know that Islam has come for the protection of man and saving him. Its goal is man.” Although this remark should be read in the context of the rest of his epistle, whose contents do not differ all that much from what al-Zawahiri believes, the phrasing itself is quite different and almost makes Abu Basir sound like a humanist alternative to al-Qaida’s leader. Not bad for a jihadi!