News / Middle East

    Ex-al-Qaida Allies Ready to Fight for Morsi in Luxor

    Egyptians chant slogans during clashes between supporters and opponents of Egypt's president and his Muslim Brotherhood in Luxor, Egypt, June 19, 2013.
    Egyptians chant slogans during clashes between supporters and opponents of Egypt's president and his Muslim Brotherhood in Luxor, Egypt, June 19, 2013.
    Reuters
    When President Mohamed Morsi made a hardline Islamist governor of Luxor, it seemed his latest folly to many in this city, and across Egypt, who depend on tourists already scared off by unrest since the revolution.

    Yet nominating a member of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, remembered for a 1997 massacre of visitors in Luxor that some call “Egypt's 9/11,” showed the growing importance to the beleaguered Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood of a group whose leadership includes at least one unrepentant former associate of Osama bin Laden.

    That man, cleric Refai Taha, and other leaders of al-Gamaa and its parliamentary wing in Luxor told Reuters they renounced violence because Islamist rule had now been achieved, through elections - but they would take up arms again to defend Morsi and were committed eventually to establishing full Islamic law.

    “There is freedom now, so violence is not necessary,” Taha, 58, said in an interview last week at a hotel on the Nile. “The revolution changed the situation in Egypt in ways we wanted.”

    But like other senior figures in al-Gamaa he warned that anyone trying to force Morsi out - referring to the military that oppressed the Islamists for decades, or liberal opponents planning mass protests next Sunday - would be met with force.

    “Violence begets violence,” said Taha, recalling attacks on the old regime and its tourist industry which he, unlike others in al-Gamaa, went on advocating until Hosni Mubarak was ousted.

    Al-Gamaa gave in to the uproar in the tourist industry and resigned the Luxor governor's post on Sunday - for the national good - after failing to reassure angry hoteliers who feared it would immediately ban beer and bare flesh, killing their trade just as the gunning down of 58 foreigners had done 16 years ago.

    But its role is clearly expanding at the side of a president unable, or unwilling, to build a coalition beyond the Islamist camp. Such hardline allies may further polarize a still fragile state in ways that trouble the Western powers which abandoned Mubarak when Egyptians pushed him aside demanding democracy.

    Al-Gamaa supporters formed a vocal contingent at a rally in Cairo on Friday, organized by the Brotherhood to show Islamist strength ahead of protests the hitherto divided opposition plans on June 30, the first anniversary of Morsi's inauguration.

    Al-Gamaa leaders were among those giving veiled warnings of a violent response to any move against the elected leader; they included Tarek al-Zumar, jailed for life over the 1981 assassination of Mubarak's predecessor Anwar Sadat, and Assem Abdel Maged, who once shared a cell with Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian who has led al-Qaida since bin Laden was killed.

    Hardliners fear the end of the much bigger Brotherhood's hold on power would mean prison again for them, or death.

    Bin Laden

    In Luxor, Taha blames the United States for his “rendition” from Damascus in 2001 to a life in Mubarak's jails. He was in Syria after time in Afghanistan with bin Laden and Zawahri and was seen by Washington as an heir to “blind cleric” Omar Abdel Rahman, al-Gamaa al-Islamiya's spiritual leader now serving a life term for a 1993 attack on New York's World Trade Center.

    Until 2010, annual U.S. State Department lists of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” described Taha as “missing” since 2001. He is not mentioned by name in subsequent editions of the list.

    Freed when Mubarak fell, he denied a U.S. assertion that he signed a 1998 al-Qaida fatwa calling for attacks on the United States but he said its government was “oppressive just like our former regime” and said his main difference from Zawahri was in his aim of an Islamic state in Egypt, rather than global jihad.

    Sitting in the lobby of a tourist hotel, largely empty since the revolution, clad in a beige robe, the white-bearded sheik defined his goals and those of al-Qaida: “Sheik Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri see a need to administer justice all over the world. We demand justice be administered in Egypt.”

    Asked if that would mean banning alcohol or revealing clothing for tourists - something Morsi's government says it will not do - Taha said: “Just as you in America require Muslims to abide by American law when they enter your country, Americans who enter Egypt should abide by Egyptian law.”

    Were his ideas those of al-Qaida? “The same ideas,” he said. “When there is an oppressive regime. If there's an oppressive regime, we, like all people in the world, we fight oppression.”

    Organized movement

    After the Luxor massacre, Taha split with a faction in al-Gamaa which declared a ceasefire; the group now appears united and Taha, back in the southern home region where he helped found the movement in the 1970s, seems to command respect from leaders of the political party it set up in 2011 to contest elections.

    The Building and Development Party won 13 of 508 seats in the lower house of parliament, allied with the Brotherhood.

    A senior party official in Luxor, Hussein Ahmed Shmeet, echoed the concerns of Taha and other al-Gamaa leaders that it was ready to use force if had to protect Morsi: “If the nation is being destroyed, we must defend ourselves and protect the legitimate president and the state institutions,” he said.

    “If the army and police cannot protect state institutions and we see violence, the representatives of the Islamic groups must take to the streets to protect the state institutions,” Shmeet said, adding for emphasis: “We are very organized.”

    Opponents worry that Egypt's Islamists also intend to keep power by force, even if voters turn against them. Shmeet insisted, however, that the movement has embraced democracy.

    Al-Gamaa's numbers are unclear but its claims to be able to mobilize “popular committees” to fix problems locally were corroborated by Brotherhood officials who said Morsi choice for governor was prompted by its success in using local tribal and family structures to bring order where it once sowed chaos.

    “Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya members in Luxor were born here,” said local Building and Development Party leader Mohamed Bakry. “They know everyone in Luxor, they're cousins, friends, neighbors - our relations are very strong and so we can solve problems.”

    What the party did not do was force its new governor through the picket lines of angry tour guides and restaurateurs who set up barricades round the local administration building last week and painted the gate with a sign: “No entry for terrorists.”

    Its moderation toward the demonstrators, Bakry said, should reassure those who doubt it had put its militant past behind it.

    “Everything the media are saying is not true,” he said of alarmist headlines about Morsi's choice of “terrorist governor”.

    “Today is proof of that,” he said. “Because if we had wanted to, we could have done something... We were capable of it.”

    Fear and hostility

    Such veiled references to al-Gamaa's strength do little to appease the many of Luxor's half million people who depend on foreigners coming to see its 3,500-year-old temples and tombs.

    “Religion and violence is all they know,” said Walid Nowendi of the liberal opposition Dustour Party as protesters burned tires to form a barrier to the governor's office.

    Across the Nile, sweeping the same green swath through the desert that has nourished Egyptian civilization for millennia, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut stands as forlorn in the sunshine as it did in the months after it witnessed the horror of six gunmen methodically shooting down 62 people in November 1997.

    A lone tour bus and a handful of minivans sat under a baking sun in the parking lot. “You should have seen how crowded this place was before the revolution,” said Ahmed Hageb, 24, who works in the cafeteria. “For two years, we've suffered as we did after the 1997 attack... This is because of the Brotherhood.”

    Morsi, in a newspaper interview, assured Egyptians economic problems were being addressed and, defending his choice of Luxor governor, insisted there was nothing to fear from al-Gamaa - its party, he said, “operates within the rule of law.”

    You May Like

    Chechen Suspected in Istanbul Attack, but Questions Remain

    Turkish sources say North Caucasus militants involved in bombing at Ataturk airport, but name of at least one alleged attacker raises doubts

    With Johnson Out, Can a New ‘Margaret Thatcher’ Save Britain?

    Contest to replace David Cameron as Britain’s prime minister started in earnest Thursday with top candidates outlining strategy to deal with Brexit fallout

    US Finds Progress Slow Against Human Trafficking in Africa

    Africa continues to be a major source and destination for human trafficking of all kinds -- from forced labor to sexual slavery, says State Department report

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Eitheri
    X
    Jim Malone
    June 29, 2016 6:16 PM
    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Either

    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Slow Rebuilding Amid Boko Haram Destruction in Nigeria’s Northeast

    Military operations have chased Boko Haram out of towns and cities in Nigeria’s northeast since early last year. But it is only recently that people have begun returning to their homes in Adamawa state, near the border with Cameroon, to try to rebuild their lives. For VOA, Chris Stein traveled to the area and has this report.
    Video

    Video New US Ambassador to Somalia Faces Heavy Challenges

    The new U.S. envoy to Somalia, who was sworn into office Monday, will be the first American ambassador to that nation in 25 years. He will take up his post as Somalia faces a number of crucial issues, including insecurity, an upcoming election, and the potential closure of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. VOA’s Jill Craig asked Somalis living in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi how they feel about the U.S. finally installing a new ambassador.
    Video

    Video At National Zoo, Captivating Animal Sculptures Illustrate Tragedy of Ocean Pollution

    The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is home to about 1,800 animals, representing 300 species. But throughout the summer, visitors can also see other kinds of creatures there. They are larger-than-life animal sculptures that speak volumes about a global issue — the massive plastic pollution in our oceans. VOA's June Soh takes us to the zoo's special exhibit, called Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea.
    Video

    Video Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roar

    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Melting Pot of Immigrants Working to Restore US Capitol Dome

    The American Iron Works company is one of the firms working to renovate the iconic U.S. Capitol Dome. The company employs immigrants of many different cultural and national backgrounds. VOA’s Arman Tarjimanyan has more.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora