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

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

Alaskans experiencing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more frequent and extensive wildfires, deteriorating glaciers, and swift shoreline erosion More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs