Killers with work still to do

Violence in Egypt will recur unless the West accepts its own part in the country's problems
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Indy Lifestyle Online
After the Luxor tourist massacres last week, President Clinton insisted that the bloodbath showed the world that it must "redouble its efforts against terrorism" while the former French foreign minister Jean- Louis Debre urged support for the Mubarak regime in "eradicating [sic] terrorism." Even more vacuously, the Washington Post told its readers it would be "obscene" to ponder the motives of the Luxor attack - supposedly an attempt to take hostages in return for the freedom of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric imprisoned in America on bombing conspiracy charges.

But the reactions of Messrs Clinton and Debre and the media served only to distort the real lesson that the West might learn. It is a lesson that needs to be studied - because the assassins of Luxor, binding their red "martyrdom" bandanas to their foreheads amid the corpses, have produced a sinister new comparison in blood. After the slaughter of 58 tourists at Luxor, the total number of foreigners murdered by "Islamist" militants in Egypt now totals 98 in five years; in Algeria, only ten more foreigners - a total of 108 - have been killed in four years. Egypt's cull of foreigners is fast approaching that of its Arab neighbour. For this, the United States and Egypt are not blameless.

The comparison conceals another truth. Algeria's armed uprising began after the cancellation of democratic elections which the Islamic Salvation Front were sure to win. And the home-grown rebellion by the "Gema'a Islamiyah" has grown steadily more savage as democracy has disintegrated in Egypt. In both cases, the core of armed resistance has come from those Egyptians and Algerians who fought the Red Army in Afghanistan - with the active support of the United States, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. No wonder Messrs Mubarak and Clinton wish to distance themselves from last week's atrocity. No wonder the Washington Post urges us to ignore the reasons.

THE STORY of the Arabs who fought the Soviets - with immense courage and religious conviction - is famous throughout the Arab world, if not in the West. Many of them came from movements associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in the Egyptian city of Ishmailia in 1928 and which called upon Egypt's Muslims to forget parties and parliament and instead restore the original Islamic institutions to run the country - holy "shariah" law and the authority of religious leaders. The Saudis provided the "Afghani" Arabs with money, the Americans with missiles, the Pakistani secret service with intelligence information.

The sense of Islamic pride nurtured in the eventually victorious Afghan war remained long after the Russians had left. In the early days of the invasion, the Egyptian prelate Omar Abdul Rahman - now imprisoned in America - was urging his supporters to fight in Afghanistan; it was a CIA operative in Sudan who gave him his first visa to the United States. Many of those who travelled to Afghanistan never returned. But their most acclaimed "martyr" was Abdullah Azzam, who studied for a doctorate in Islamic theology in Cairo. The Saudis sent him to the Pakistani city of Peshawar where he opened a recruitment office for Arab "mujaheddin" (holy warriors) who wished to fight in Afghanistan. One of those recruits was Shawki al-Islambouli, who travelled to Karachi in 1983 to supervise the training of Egyptian "Afghanis". The Egyptian government knew and approved of these recruiting measures.

With money, guns and theology, Azzam was able to mediate between rival Afghan groups, but after the Soviet defeat he concluded that the United States and Pakistan had betrayed his fighters. His magazine Al Jihad argued that the Americans would turn against Islam once the Soviets had been defeated. It was an accurate prophecy. But Azzam had no chance to change his battlefront. On 24 November, 1989, he and his two sons were killed by a car bomb outside his house in Pakistan. His comrades blamed the CIA.

But they could not have been in much doubt about the cynicism of the United States nor of pro-American Arab governments. Way back in the Second World War, both the British occupiers of Egypt and Egyptian nationalists tried to co-opt the Brotherhood. After the 1952 revolution, the generals and then President Nasser crushed the Brotherhood as a threat to their socialist pan-Arab rule. Once President Sadat came to power, however, he encouraged the Brotherhood as part of his battle against socialism; now that he had turned Egypt towards the West - after his rapprochement with the United States and his peace treaty with Israel - he ignored even more radical groups that grew up around the Brotherhood. And it was an Egyptian army soldier in the "Takfir wa Hegira" (Exile and Redemption), one of the Islamic "satellite" movements that came to regard Sadat's change of policy as an equally wicked denial of Islam, who assassinated Sadat himself in 1981. The soldier's name was Khaled al-Islambouli - the brother of Shawki al-Islambouli, who was to become a hero in the Afghan war.

The moment Hosni Mubarak succeeded Sadat, he too decided to use the Islamic movements to counterbalance any opposition to his regime. The "Takfir" and other movements were ruthlessly suppressed. But the Brotherhood, while still theoretically illegal, was allowed to function. Religious "ullama" found their powers increased, their preachers given air time on state television, their foundations permitted to raise money for schools and mosques. Only when the "Gema'a" had killed dozens of policemen, Christian villagers and tourists - the current death toll is more than 1,100 - did Mubarak act against the Brotherhood, locking up hundreds of its peaceful members (they believed in parliamentary democracy) when his security police could not tame the smaller, militant groups.

The result was inevitable, described to me by a lawyer in Qena, only 40 miles from Luxor and home to hundreds of "Gema'a" supporters. "Before the Brotherhood men were locked up, people would go to them with their problems - housing problems, street lighting, money for schools," he told me. "The Brotherhood would take it up with the authorities. The people had a voice. But then the Brotherhood was banned and its members here arrested. So what happened? The people transferred their support to the only people left who still opposed the government - and they were men who had weapons, who took their inspiration from Afghanistan."

One of their adherents was Ali el-Rashidy, the Egyptian hero of Afghanistan. Fleeing Pakistan in 1993, he reportedly moved to Sudan but - as the Egyptian authorities sought to split the power of the "Gema'a" last year - he mysteriously died. A "drowning accident", his comrades said. Others insisted the Egyptian secret service had murdered him. Afghanistan had equally touched Algeria. Comrades of Abdullah Azzam marked the second anniversary of his murder in Pakistan, by attacking an Algerian frontier post at Guemar - the first assault by Islamists against the Algerian regime. Thus did the Afghan war bind both Egypt and Algeria in militancy.

The "Gema'a" did split, just as the Egyptian government wished. Its imprisoned members called for a ceasefire - the appeal was turned down by Mubarak's government and ignored by active members. Embittered and betrayed, those men still on the run saw Mubarak and the United States, the West in general - as traitors. Only Omar Abdul-Rahman appeared to have remained with their cause, from the fastness of his US prison. And to these people, amid the filth and squalor of their towns and with their lack of education, the West - symbolised by Egyptian government corruption, American political support for the regime and rich western tourists arriving in Egypt by the plane-load - came to be regarded as the prop to a regime that had smothered political opposition.

EGYPT is not a democracy. Mubarak won his last election with more than 90 per cent of the votes allegedly cast - a success of Saddam-like proportions - and his country, supported by the West because of its peace treaty with Israel, is maintained by a security police which has refined state torture to an art: electrical torture, forced sodomy in the prisons, extrajudicial executions in the cane fields of upper Egypt. Houses of families of suspected extremists - including Afghan veterans - are destroyed, Israeli-style, in the towns around Luxor. In this context, the tourist killings were almost inevitable.

Thus to "eradicate" enemies of the state - as Mr Debre suggests - or to "redouble efforts against terrorism" - as Mr Clinton advises - will lead only to the extension of Egypt's torture chambers. Mr Mubarak's appointment of Habib al-Adli, the harsh director of the state security police to the post of interior minister, makes it all too clear that this is what is going to happen. The only Arab leader to "eradicate" violent "Islamist" opposition to his regime was President Hafez Assad of Syria; in 1982, he suppressed the Muslim uprising at Hama when his security forces killed up to 20,000 people. Is that what Messrs Clinton and Debre are recommending? Certainly, democracy is not what they are urging upon Mr Mubarak - and there's the rub.

Because of this, the ferocity of the Afghan war is likely to redouble in Egypt - and yet more foreign tourists are inevitably going to find death on the Nile.