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.
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

Germany Celebrates 25 Years of Unity

October 3 is a public holiday, marking the day in 1990 when East Germany and West Germany reunited More

Analysts: Russia's Syria Strikes Shake Regional Powers

If Moscow bolsters Assad, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries may feel obliged to step in More

Video Innovative Nano-Tech Water Filter Prevents Disease

It can absorb contaminants like copper, bacteria, viruses and pesticides, says Askwar Hilonga, who has been successfully trying out his product in Arusha More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs