Nageh Ibrahim once spoke of slaying infidels and creating an Islamic state that would stretch from the Nile Delta to the vast deserts of Egypt’s south. Today he lives in a high-rise with a view of the Mediterranean Sea and has the soothing voice of a man who could lead a 12-step program on rejecting radicalism.
Ibrahim’s group, Gamaa al Islamiya, plotted notorious attacks, including the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat and the massacre at an ancient Luxor temple that killed 62 people, mostly tourists, in 1997. He spent 24 years in jail reading the Koran and tempering the rage of his youth.
“We were young and we took extreme measures. But now we’re old men and our time in prison has made us wiser,” he said. “Al Qaeda and Islamic militancy have lost their glamour. Look at what has happened. The young saw that violence didn’t bring change to Egypt, a peaceful revolution did.”
Ibrahim is one of an increasing number of ultraconservative and moderate Islamists seeking a political voice in a new Egypt. Since the downfall in February of President Hosni Mubarak, who for three decades kept religion far from the center of power, the Islamist message is unshackled. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition party, expects a strong showing in September’s parliamentary elections.
The secular reformers and twentysomething urbanites at the vanguard of the Jan. 25 revolution have found themselves eclipsed. They lack experience and grass-roots networks to compete with the Brotherhood and other religious groups that have quietly stoked their passions for this moment. In a sense, Mubarak’s obsession with both co-opting and crushing Islamists instilled in them the discipline and organization that now propels their political agendas.
Egypt has long been the touchstone of the Arab world. The protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that ended with Mubarak retiring to his villa on the Red Sea riveted the Middle East. That drama suggests that Egypt’s post-revolutionary era — its emerging blend of politics and Islam — will have tremendous influence on what evolves in coming generations across the region.
The political Islam popular in Egypt strikes more the tone of the moderate Muslim party running Turkey than the fundamentalist theocracies presiding over Saudi Arabia and Iran. Political parties based solely on religion are still illegal here, but the military council ruling the country has astounded many by permitting Islam a wider role. Analysts suggest this tolerance is calculated so that in coming months the army can hand over the nation to an elected parliament after assurances from the Brotherhood that it will not run a candidate for president.
Egypt is not the only nation where Islamic messages are whispering alongside the clamor of revolt. In Yemen, religious radicals are seeking to exploit anti-government protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a U.S. ally against Al Qaeda. In Syria, conservative Sunni Muslims more antagonistic toward Israel than President Bashar Assad could fill the vacuum if his government is toppled.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s calls for a relatively mainstream Islamic government appeals to its majority of educated and professional members. In Egypt’s first taste of true democracy, the Brotherhood and more fundamentalist Salafist organizations, however, told followers that it was their religious duty to vote to approve a referendum on constitutional amendments that benefited Islamists by speeding up elections.
One of Egypt’s leading ultraconservative sheiks, Mohamed Hussein Yacoub, influenced by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi strain of Islam, was quoted as saying after the referendum had passed: “That’s it. The country is ours.”
Such sentiment shows that in a span of weeks, age-old religion, not the enthusiasm and slogans of the Facebook generation, is likely to be a crucial factor in choosing a new Egyptian government. This swift change has surprised even the Brotherhood, which avoided references to Islam during an uprising that was not inspired by religion.
Emerging secularist parties may yet find support from those fearful that bearded men and the Islamic tenets of radical elements within the Brotherhood are hijacking the revolution. The military council’s decision to hold parliamentary elections in September instead of May will give nonreligious parties more time to win voters. But liberals and secularists have not regained the momentum they enjoyed in the early days of the revolt, even as extremist gangs recently attacked a cafe that sells alcohol and cut off the ear of a man accused of renting a flat to “indecent women.”
Nageh Ibrahim possesses the inured patience of a man still in prison, elucidating nuances, hands flowing in hours of conversation. He sees himself as part of a great, unfolding narrative. His decades-long arc from terrorist plotter to peaceful preacher embodies the history, danger and promise of the new Middle East and North Africa. He has written more than two dozen books on religion and travels the country warning against Islamic extremism and the cruel vestiges of Mubarak’s rule.
“Mubarak basically banned religion. There was always a crackdown,” he said. “But with this new freedom we will be able to explore Islam. The key is perpetuating moderate Islam. We have to be vigilant. Extremism could slip into our freedom. Radicals don’t need high numbers. Twenty men can make an Al Qaeda cell.”
Ibrahim was a young medical student specializing in dermatology when he embraced Gamaa al Islamiya. The group called for an Islamic caliphate and condemned Mubarak, whom it tried to assassinate, as an infidel. Ibrahim said 50,000 of its members were arrested, including at least 100 who were executed, during Mubarak’s reign.
Sadat’s assassination at the hands of radical Islamists, including Ibrahim and other members of Gamaa al Islamiya, had hardened the nation against religious conspirators. Mubarak took power and immediately imposed a state of emergency, essentially a war against Islamists and other political enemies that has lasted until today.
“Over the years,” said Ibrahim, “it became apparent that violence harmed us and the image of Islam. The state could always hit us back harder than we could hit them. It became practical to stop violence and look for a peaceful way. I discovered while studying Sharia law in prison that Islam didn’t entitle us to bloodshed.”
In 2005, four years after the government accepted Gamaa al Islamiya’s pledge to renounce violence, Ibrahim was released from prison. The Egypt he reentered was a different country. A young generation adept at the trappings of Western technology was restless for political expression and economic opportunity, not Islamic fanaticism.
“Today’s young grew up freer than we did. They did not develop the same rage that inspired us,” he said. “Even the Islamic movement is seeing things differently. It’s trying to speak to our current times. Before, we thought you could remove the infidel ruler only through force. Today, we see we can do it through peaceful protest and the ballot box.”
Critics regard reinvented Islamists such as Ibrahim as opportunists promising moderation while remaining privately committed to dangerous, ultraconservative ideals. He has denied in recent years that radicals in his group are sympathetic to Al Qaeda. The 30,000 members, he said, support pluralism, including allowing Christian Copts to join a political wing that Gamaa al Islamiya plans to establish.
Despite his eloquent phrases, however, Ibrahim, the unruly beard of his youth now threaded with gray, has limits on his vision of democracy. Similar to the beliefs held by the Muslim Brotherhood, he would not support a woman or a Copt as president, and he thinks the new constitution, like the existing one, must be rooted in Islamic law.
“A Copt could run as president, but Egypt is a Muslim nation, and a Christian president would escalate tensions. Does France have a Muslim president?” he said. “I don’t think a woman should be president. The Middle East is too complicated.”
He is dismissive, with a smile. He’s also sure that the new Egypt shouldn’t be as accommodating as Mubarak to the wishes of Washington.
“What we really want is for Egypt not to be a shadow of the U.S. or the West, or a policeman on Israel’s behalf,” he wrote recently in the Arab media. “We want to have balanced diplomatic relations with everyone, and for the interests of the [Arab] countries to be our No. 1 priority.”
Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo bureau contributed to this report.