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Jihad on the Nile

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Egypt “was on the verge of a popular Islamist uprising. The population had increasingly demonstrated a genuine desire for an Islamic regime of some sort,” wrote in 1999 Yossef Bodansky. As this then-director of the House Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare discussed in his book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, Egypt occupies a central role in the history of jihad.

Following 9/11, much discussion of global jihad focused on Saudi Arabia, from which 15 of the 19 Al Qaeda hijackers came, a myopia that improperly excludes other key countries such as Egypt. Egypt as well has always had a leading role in the history of jihad, particularly as the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Egypt is not just the most populous Arab country, but also a longtime center of Arabic culture and religio-political trendsetter in the Arab world.

Bodansky noted that the

Islamist fundamentalist movement in Egypt was rejuvenated in the mid-1970s by young activists with Western—mainly secular and technical—educations who gave up their attempt to define their communal place in a world dominated by the West and its values. Intellectually active and curious, they produced high-quality literature that was widely circulated among the young Arab elite.

Anwar Sadat, who became Egypt’s president in 1970, became a flashpoint amidst this rising piety. He reversed the socialist policies of his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and introduced Egypt’s alignment with the United States. Sadat particularly introduced free trade reforms under his Intifah or Open Door economic policies, but Egypt’s regulatory, bureaucratic state often deterred foreign investment, and Egypt experienced riots in 1977 after food subsidy cuts.

Sadat ran a dangerous course among the Islamic faithful, Bodansky noted:

In the process of courting the United States, Sadat’s image changed from that of a traditional village leader to that of a thoroughly Westernized world leader. The personality cult that Sadat developed domestically only alienated the educated elite, whose knowledge of and firsthand experience with the West caused them to fear its adverse impact on the traditional values of Muslim society.

Discontent spread beyond this elite, Bodansky added:

The grassroots rejection of the president-turned-pharaoh mobilized scores of youth throughout all of Egyptian society—from the affluent and educated to the poor villagers and slum dwellers, from members of the security services to outcasts in the desert—to seek Islamist solutions to the profound crises afflicting Egypt.

Sadat’s foreign policy fanned the flames even more. He notably made a surprise visit to Israel’s capital Jerusalem on November 19-20, 1977, beginning a journey that would end with the March 26, 1979, Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. “Sadat’s recognition of Israel was the first overt breaking of the ‘taboo’ the Jewish state constitutes—the widest common denominator in the Arab world other than Islam,” Bodansky observed.

Almost simultaneously, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled Iran on January 16, 1979, as the country’s Islamic revolution overthrew his monarchy. The shah flew to Egypt, where he ultimately received refuge and died on July 27, 1980. These events strongly influenced Egypt, Bodansky wrote, for the

Islamic Revolution became a source of pride and envy to all Muslims, as well as living proof that local rulers could be overthrown by Islamist forces. The impact of Iran was strong in Egypt because Sadat invited the deposed shah to take shelter there, a flagrant affront to the sentiments of most of the population.

Egypt’s Islamic Jihad therefore exacted revenge by assassinating Sadat for his multiple infidel sins on October 6, 1981, but sharia agendas continued under his successor, Hosni Mubarak. The “Egypt-born British journalist and Middle East expert Adel Darwish,” Bodansky wrote, has examined

“Islamization by stealth”—a gradual domination of society while conditioning the population to an Islamic regime. The Egyptian population, who had lost faith in the ability of Mubarak’s Cairo to resolve its economic plight and reverse the overall deterioration of the sociopolitical situation in the nation, was ready for imposition of Sharia as a cure-all panacea.

Significantly for Bodansky, “Egyptian state institutions, most notably the court system, have increasingly and rigidly applied the Sharia instead of the civil law, even in cases where only Westernized and secular matters are involved.” He cited the 1995 case of Arabic literature professor Nasr Abu Zeid, whom a Cairo court had condemned as apostate based on his writings. Accordingly, under Islamic law this non-Muslim could no longer stay married to his Muslim wife and had to divorce.

Perhaps nothing less could be expected from Egypt, home to Al Azhar University in Cairo. As Bodansky explained, Al Azhar

university is considered the most important and prestigious institute of higher learning in the Muslim world. Although its faculty leans toward Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood theological interpretations of Islam, al-Azhar does not confront the government in Cairo or challenge Egypt’s policies.

Correspondingly, when the United States militarily confronted in 1998 Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for his threatening behavior, Al Azhar become a hotspot of anti-American animus. On February 13, 1998, Bodansky noted,

about 7,000 people, not just students, gathered at al-Azhar University, the bastion of militant Islam, to demand that Muslims enact jihad against the United States because of its threats to Iraq. The protest erupted in the aftermath of the afternoon prayers led by the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Muhammad Sayid al-Tantawi, a supporter of Mubarak’s who stressed the need for unified Arab support of Iraq.

Despite initiatives of Egypt’s current dictatorial president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to moderate Al Azhar’s character, the university still remains fundamentally extremist by any reasonable definition. Particularly Tantawi’s equally radical successor, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, personifies Al Azhar’s enduring incorrigibility. Al Azhar will therefore continue to have a role in Egypt’s ongoing religio-political controversies, tumults that extend into the wider Islamic world, as the next article in this series will show.

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