After the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981, investigators determined that the attack had been carried out by Islamic militants who had infiltrated Egypt's armed forces. They arranged to participate in the annual military parade that commemorated the start of the 1973 war against Israel. Knowing that Sadat would be in a prominent position on the reviewing stand, soldiers armed with rifles and grenades emerged from a stopped truck and opened fire. Sadat was dead before reaching a hospital. Shortly afterward, political and intelligence analysts at the U.S. embassy in Cairo undertook an effort to understand the causes, extent and implications of the religious radicalism that had taken root in Egypt in the late 1970s. A year after Sadat's death, the embassy produced an extensive two-part report that was sent to the State Department and to other U.S. embassies in the Arab world. It was signed by Ambassador Alfred L. Atherton, but diplomatic dispatches are customarily sent out over the ambassador's signature. This was almost certainly a group effort. Now declassified, it was made available by the indefatigable researchers at the National Security Archive, an independent organization based at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Three decades after it was written, it is still a useful analysis of a phenomenon that has since spread across large parts of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Reformatted to eliminate the typographical peculiarities of State Department cables, it is published here for the first time.
—Thomas W. Lippman, The Middle East Institute
E.O. 12356: Decl: OADR
Subject: (c) Islam in Egypt, Part I: The Growth and Challenge of Islamic Fundamentalism and Extremism
R 021205z OCT 82
Fm: Amembassy Cairo
To: Secstate Washdc 2778
Info Amconsul Alexandria
Amembassy Tel Aviv
This is the first part of a two-part examination of aspects of Islam and the Islamic movement in Egypt.
At the beginning of the 1980s, as for the preceding 1300 years, Islam retains its central, preeminent position in the social, cultural, symbolic, and political life of Egypt. The state religion and faith of about 90 percent of the population, Islam, nevertheless, has felt the pressures of drastic social, economic, and political change.
Two competing themes have characterized modern Egyptian history: the pull of the desert and the push of the Mediterranean. The first suggests a shared destiny with other Muslim Arabs and fosters Pan-Arabism. The second theme is the product of Egypt's relatively early initiation into the nation-state system, dragged as she was into modernity in the early nineteenth century by Mohammed Ali, the first modernizing monarch of the Arab world. From that point onward, Islam — both as a doctrine and as a social institution — repeatedly has been challenged by foreign political dominance, Western cultural values, science and technology, and "alien" social theories.
For Muslims in Egypt and elsewhere, modernization has brought in its wake psychological and social disorientation on an ever-widening scale. At the same time, it has often failed to offer adequate substitutes for the ethical guides traditionally found in Islam. Kinship, village, tribal, and regional cohesion have tended to break down. As a result, people feel increasingly insecure, as the accustomed foundations for their personal, social, and moral identities erode.
As modernization and urbanization proceed, and populations are pushed from a smaller world into a larger one, from rural to urban settings, Egyptians find their strong primary sources of social identity fading. Yet promised or expected economic and social rewards for risking change of residence, occupation, and status often are less than anticipated. Individual men or families frequently are alone in large cities without social supports, keenly aware of both physical and financial deprivation. Moreover, old elites formerly admired for preserving traditional social values have been replaced by persons or institutions with newer ways which are not respected. The presence of large numbers of foreigners, often in supervisory roles and with alien habits, only adds to the perplexity. In such circumstances, when Egyptians find themselves confused and the future seems uncertain, Islam provides a link to a glorious tradition that can reduce their bewilderment. Islam is an element of identity that offers continuity and stable links to the past.
TRADITION AND STABILITY
Of all Middle Eastern countries, modernization has been under way the longest in Egypt. This by no means suggests that problems in Egypt associated with rapid modernization have ended, but Egypt's leadership draws on the strength of prolonged experience. While other Arabs might increasingly dispute the point, Egyptians have long regarded their country as the scientific, cultural and artistic center of the Arab world. In this century, the first "modernizing" Arab revolution took place in Egypt in 1952; it leaves many marks on Egyptian society today, including strong political commitments to economic equity and social justice.
In contrast with many other Arab, Islamic societies, Egypt finds deeper sources of strength and stability. Its society is remarkably homogenous, with 88 percent of the population being Muslims of the orthodox Sunni persuasion (about two percent are Shiites). Coptic Christians comprise Egypt's only significant minority, but Copts are found at every level of society, from rural villages to senior positions in the government.
Geographically, Egyptians traditionally have been a settled people with highly developed agriculture and large urban centers concentrated in the narrow band of the Nile river and delta. The sedentary nature of the society and its dependence on large irrigation networks linked to the Nile have been factors working in favor of long-term stability. Particularly notable is the contrast with other Middle Eastern societies with large nomadic tribal groups that customarily raided towns and agricultural areas in hard times. These factors — ethnic and religious homogeneity, and the settled state of Egypt's populace — are not found in a number of other Middle Eastern states (Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon, to name three examples).
With these basic societal strengths, Egypt has been able to avoid prolonged socio-political upheavals. Moreover, Egypt's leadership in this century has made determined efforts to lead the country through the process of reconciling a traditional Islamic society with a world in which power and status belong essentially to secular societies that have mastered the use of science and technology — areas where Islam has offered little guidance or to which its interpreters have been hostile. The reconciliation process has proceeded in fits and starts.
Principal among reformers who sought to give Egypt an alternative between strict traditionalism and total secularism was Shaykh Muhammad Abduh, the Grand Mufti of Egypt at the turn of the century. In a major departure from traditional Islamic thought, Abduh suggested that religious and political issues could be separated, thus opening the way for secular education and modern economic practices. Others sought to build on Abduh's ideas, which called into question the traditional belief that Islam provided answers for all situations and that every act was a religious act.
The 1952 revolution brought to power men who made both social and political policy and who made no claim to be religious leaders. Importantly, Nasser saw Islam as a tool in the cause of Egyptian nationalism and Arab socialism, rather than the government as an extension of Islam. Consequently, the religious establishment was bent to the needs of the regime. The formal authority of religion was markedly circumscribed. Religious courts were abolished in favor of civil courts, and the old religious institution of the waqf was reformed. Both moves reduced the power and income of the ulama. Other reforms included broadening the education offered at Al-Azhar, the Islamic world's center of religious education, and easing somewhat the constraints imposed on women by orthodox Islam.
Anwar Sadat in no way reversed the basic thrust of this secularization trend, although his public piety and his extolling of traditional village virtues eased relationships between the government and religious authorities. Sadat, moreover, encouraged the growth of the religious right as a counterweight to the political left in the early years of his presidency. From 1974 through 1979 — the period of his greatest popularity — Sadat was successful in bringing about a major reorientation of Egyptian domestic and foreign policies, much of it impinging on traditional Islamic values. He was able to do so because he understood the deeply felt yearnings of the Egyptian people for change, after four wars with Israel and almost twenty years of Nasser's rule. Sadat's grand design rested on a sufficiently broad (though never universal) national consensus that change should come, but not in such a way as to destroy national cohesion.
But, in the two years before his death, this consensus began to erode. While his government continued to have the support of its most important constituencies and was in no imminent danger of being toppled, his personal popularity was on the wane. He had promised far more than he could deliver; the impossibly optimistic expectations of the Egyptian people went unrealized; opposition to Sadat's policies grew. The government moved to a more authoritarian, repressive footing; disillusionment and malaise set in; and many Egyptians looked increasingly to Islam for relief from the "failed experiment" with Western economy and Western ideals.
THE "ISLAMIC PLOT"
Finally, in a landmark speech to the nation on September 5, 1981, Sadat laid bare what he saw as a broad, pervasive conspiracy among Islamic fundamentalist leaders and his secular political opponents to destroy Egyptian national unity and sabotage his government's domestic and foreign policies. After a decade's truce, marked by growing mutual distrust, Sadat declared open war on Egypt's fundamentalist movement and reaffirmed in the clearest possible terms his concept of a secular political system which demanded a rigid separation of religion and politics.
Thirty-one days later, Sadat was dead, slain by Islamic extremists who hoped that their act would trigger a series of internal upheavals that would lead to a "popular revolution" and set the stage for the eventual establishment of an "Islamic republic" in Egypt (see part II). In a remarkably smooth transfer of power amid national trauma, Husni Mubarak became Egypt's third president.
It may never be possible to piece together a coherent description, much less an accurate assessment, of the alleged radical "Islamic plot" which the government claimed underlay October's violence. Mubarak himself opened the floodgates on this line of speculation on October 23 when he described Sadat's assassination and the subsequent violence in Asyut as part of a wider plot to carry out a "Khomeini-style revolution" in Egypt. We know that the interrogation of dissidents snared in the government's dragnet produced some evidence of an underground extremist network — more, perhaps, than the government had expected. But we believe the assertion of an "Islamic plot" is an overstatement.
Ideologically, several of Egypt's extremist Islamic groups are pledged to the violent overthrow of the country's present social order. Their limited membership and popular support greatly reduce the likelihood of their succeeding in the present circumstances — especially in the absence of a common strategy and better organization. Nevertheless, the overstatement of the danger posed by such extremists has afforded Mubarak an advantage. He was under the gun to maintain unity of ranks within the political leadership, the military, and the security services. Together, the shock of Sadat's assassination, other outbursts of violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists, and the specter of a wider plot resulted in broad popular approval of Mubarak's invocation of emergency powers and the continuation of the crackdown begun by Sadat against Islamic extremists.
We do not mean to downplay the power of the Islamic right in Egypt today. To be sure, it is potentially the country's most politically explosive force, given sufficient motivation, cohesion and resolve on the part of its legions of adherents and sympathizers. The government is under no illusions as to its own limitations in this regard. Even so, the distinction must be drawn between Islamic fundamentalism generally and Islamic extremism.
FUNDAMENTALISM VERSUS EXTREMISM
The past decade has witnessed a remarkable resurgence of Islamic interest and activity on the part of Egyptians of virtually all backgrounds. The revival extends across the spectrum of Islamic life. It is evident in the increased participation of ordinary Egyptians in religious services and in the growing interest in Sufism, notably among educated professionals and the more socially sophisticated. But the turning away from secularism to Islam can be seen most dramatically in the growing activity and influence of Egypt's various Islamic fundamentalist organizations.
No doubt there are many sources for Egypt's Islamic resurgence, but the fact is that they remain theories. Certainly a pervasive element has been revulsion against western materialistic values. Egypt's defeat in the 1967 war also caused many Egyptians to turn inward and ask if this humiliation at the hands of Israel were not punishment for neglecting Islam. For many, the defeat symbolized the failure of Nasser's "Arab socialism" and its secularizing emphasis. Deteriorating economic and social conditions also undoubtedly played a role, particularly in the turn toward conservatism in public life. Among young people who despair of improving the material conditions of their life, the rejection of materialism and a turn to the asceticism of Islam may be a way of coping with their situation.
But above all, the Islamic revival in Egypt is a religious phenomenon. This is not to say that it lacks political importance because of the inseparability of secular and religious life, according to Islam. Indeed, the potential political power of the religious right is probably greater than that of any other group except the military. Nevertheless, examining Egypt's Islamic revival only in terms of its political significance leads to a distorted picture. In this regard as well, it should be mentioned that religious intolerance has been one of the recurring themes of most radical Islamic groups. Books and periodicals published by the Islamic right are frequently laden with disparaging references to both Christians and Jews. In a society where Copts constitute a significant minority of the population, these anti-Christian polemics have contributed to the rise in sectarian tensions in recent years. In general, however, Islamic radicals reserve their most vitriolic remarks for Jews and — in stark contrast to the secular left — rarely differentiate between Judaism as a religion and Zionism as a political philosophy.
Much confusion arises out of misuse of the terms "fundamentalism" and "fundamentalist." They have become catch-all labels applied to all manner of religiosity without regard for degree — from the Egyptian civil servant who interrupts his daily work routine to observe the call to prayer at noon, to the lower-class laborer who is revolted by the government's periodic forays into birth control, to the peasant walking the streets of Cairo in search of work who is scandalized by the sight of women in halter tops and hot pants, and to the "Al-Takfir W'Al-Hijra" member plotting the assassination of Egyptian officials to help usher in the "new Islamic order." Foreign observers tend to lump all such persons, without distinction, under the appellation of "fundamentalist."
But a fundamentalist Egyptian is not necessarily someone who advocates violence, much less overthrowing the government. More likely, he or she is interested in individual religious renewal and a reinforcement of religious precepts by the state. He/she will observe prayer-call more strictly, as will he/she adhere to ritual religious requirements and other less tangible manifestations of being a good Muslim. He/she probably favors a return to Islam for guidance in decisions on social life and possibly law, including the prohibition of alcohol, bans on dancing, and tough standards on what can be aired on television. The notion of a resurgent, politically militant Islam whose millions of adherents are fanatically resolved to sweep away secular, moderate rule in Egypt is far from the mark. The vast majority of Egyptians are not interested in doing away with the present social and economic order. They merely wish to see it prove more responsive to, and capable of meeting, their hopes for improvements in the quality of their lives.
ORGANIZED BUT NONVIOLENT FUNDAMENTALISM
Islamic fundamentalism also can take the form of a well-organized movement with a coherent set of attitudes. Here, a brief look at the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimin) is instructive. Founded in 1928, the Brotherhood is Egypt's oldest and largest fundamentalist group. As the powers of the religious community were being circumscribed, particularly in the first half of the century, some leaders sought to preserve the purity of Islam in public as well as private intercourse, and they organized the Brotherhood for this purpose.
The Muslim Brotherhood rejects all attempts to accommodate Islam solely to political objectives and denounces Egypt's official religious establishment for so doing. Its principles include the unity and perfection of the Islamic system, identification of the state with religion, a more equitable sharing of wealth, and implementation of the sharia as "the source" of national legislation.
In its earlier days, the Brotherhood's tactics included inciting mob violence and political assassination, notably attempts against President Nasser in 1954 and 1965. Nasser suppressed the movement, arrested its leaders, hanged six, and forced the organization underground. In 1971, Sadat granted amnesty to the Brotherhood's leadership as part of his program of political liberalization. Today, the Brotherhood suffers from the lack of an identifiable dynamic leadership, but it otherwise seems to be a relatively well-organized force, albeit one which has kept its claw withdrawn. It is still legally banned, but operates fairly openly. While opposing the government on many issues, it claims to have eschewed violence as a means of achieving its objectives.
Nevertheless, the Brotherhood continues to ask average Egyptians whether they feel they have benefited [from the] Western model of economic and social development. It matters little that the message is simplistic or that it is strong on criticism and weak on constructive proposals. It is a powerful and vibrant message to an increasingly large number of disaffected Egyptians.
VIOLENCE AND THE ISLAMIC FRINGE
In contrast to the Brotherhood's gradualist and nonviolent approach toward a new Islamic social order, there are a number of small groups out on the fringe of the religious right which seek the immediate overthrow of the existing order by any means. Here we find such groups as "Al-Takfir W'Al-Hijra" (Atonement and Holy Flight), "Al-Jihad Al-Jadid" (New Holy War), "Jund Allah" (Soldiers of God), "Shabab Muhammad" (Youth of Muhammad), "Tahrir" (Islamic Liberation Party), and others.
A serious challenge to the status quo is a built-in component of any militant Islamic ideology. The militants believe that it is the religious duty of the true believer to see to it that a genuine Islamic social order comes about. Such a belief sooner or later takes on an organizational form leading to an inevitable confrontation with the constituted government. The objective is either to force the government to conform to the precepts and edicts of Islam, or to step down, or to be overthrown. The extremists, however, have no broad popular following and no common vision of what should lie beyond the present social order, once it is overthrown. Moreover, the Egyptian public views extremists as a threat and has supported the government's move to emasculate them.
Our major conclusion is that the threat of Islamic fundamentalism to the Mubarak government is more potential than immediate, primarily because it lacks the organization and leadership to mount an effective challenge. Nevertheless, the latent power is there and the appeal of fundamentalism will grow as long as conditions persist of poverty, social inequality, corruption, and disillusionment with Western values, and a sense of humiliation and injustice in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The country is again yearning for change, this time from certain aspects of the Sadat era, and change there will have to be. The shock of Sadat's assassination and of other outbreaks of violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists has bought Mubarak some time. But criticism of the moral, social, and economic and political status quo — seen as a malevolent consequence of westernization — is bound to resurface, perhaps with greater resonance.
Beyond questions of style and of personalities, Mubarak faces three critical challenges. The first is whether he can suppress Islamic extremism with sufficient selectivity to avoid reversing the progress in recent years toward a more democratic political system and rousing fears of a return to the police state repression of the Nasser era. The second is whether his government is able to come to grips with the underlying frustrations on which radicalism and violence feed — frustrations which have their roots largely in the economic conditions in which most Egyptians live. And the third is whether he can manage Egypt's foreign relations in a way that preserves for Egyptians a sense of independence, rectitude and pride, without losing the benefits of ties with the West and peace with Israel.
Islam in Egypt, Part II: The Islamic Establishment and Its Competitors
As Islamic fundamentalism intrudes more forcefully into politics throughout the Middle East, the attitudes and power of the so-called "religious (fundamentalist) right" in Egypt take on critical importance. For the United States, the central question is whether conservative religious elements could, if they wished, cause a fundamental shift in Egypt's foreign policy or, worse, bring moderate rule in Egypt to an end. This message examines the power structure of, and the various gradations among, the Islamic establishment in Egypt, with particular attention to their interaction with each other, their relationships with the government and their influence among Egypt's 38 million Sunni Muslims — as well as their capacity for challenging or posing a possible alternative to secular rule in Egypt.
IMPORTANCE OF THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT
Aside from the armed forces, the religious right is potentially the strongest political force in Egypt. This latent power stems in large part from current social and economic conditions and religious attitudes, but it also has roots in modern Egyptian history. Most Egyptians take for granted Islam's involvement in politics (though this does not necessarily mean they approve of it) both by virtue of the lack of distinction between church and state in Islamic scripture and dogma and because of the central part played by religious figures in Egypt's struggle against colonialism. In the nearly 100 years spanned by Afghani, Banna and Qutb, religious and secular Egyptian nationalists cooperated closely for short-term objectives. Their alliances were fragile (spectacularly so in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Free Officers of 1952), but they had a common bond in their revulsion against alien Western rule and values. Today this bond is greatly weakened: there is very little shared philosophical ground between contemporary right-wing religious opponents of the regime and its critics on the left. Indeed, the lack of communication between secular and religious opposition elements is one of the strongest cards the government holds.
Now, as in the past, the fundamental strength of the religious right lies in the devoutness of the Egyptian people. The mass of Egyptians, rural and urban, look to Islam for all answers, in material as well as spiritual matters. An example of the close interrelationship between politics and religion is the Egyptian reaction to the defeat in the June 1967 War. Many Egyptians saw their country's humiliation as evidence of the failure of a Western-oriented, nationalist, secular state. The result, after 1967, was a resurgence of interest in Islam and in fundamentalist social and political groups (although the real revival of activity by the religious right occurred after Sadat assumed power and freed the jailed leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood). The deterioration of social and economic conditions over the past decade also undoubtedly shares responsibility for the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. In this respect, Egypt is no different from other countries where religious revivalism, fanaticism and radicalism have found fertile soil amid conditions of widespread poverty and social inequality.
THE STRUCTURE OF ISLAMIC AUTHORITY
The Islamic establishment in Egypt is widely based and lacks a formal hierarchical structure. Unlike Shiite Iran, no ecclesiastical power structure exists of the kind that enables a paramount Ayatollah to issue instructions with the certainty that they will be reflected in nearly every Friday sermon throughout the land. On the contrary, if any such power does exist it belongs to the Egyptian government. In Egypt, the most critical components of the Islamic establishment — those with authority and with functional lines of communication — not surprisingly, are the components dominated by the government.
THE LEGAL SHARERS OF POWER
There are essentially three sharers of power in the Egyptian Islamic establishment: the grand shaykh of Al-Azhar, the grand mufti, and the government (through the Ministry of Waqfs).
I. The Grand Shaykh of Al-Azhar — As rector of Al-Azhar University, regarded by most Sunni Muslims as the intellectual center of Islam, the grand shaykh in principle possesses very substantial authority. In theory, he could use the prestige of his position and the institution's resources to advocate extreme or fanatical interpretations of Islamic doctrine, in the certain expectation that his views would be reflected in the sermons preached at Al-Azhar and at other mosques and carried to the far parts of the Islamic world by Al-Azhar's students and graduates. In fact, the government has made certain that the incumbent lacks the independence and power base necessary to use this power effectively.
In the first instance, the shaykh is appointed by — and can be removed by — presidential decree. The practice has been for the head of state to select the shaykh from among the 50-member council of ulama connected with the university, but this procedure is not inflexible. The current incumbent, Shaykh Gad Al-haq Ali Gad al-Haq, held the post of Minister of State for Waqfs when he was appointed rector in March 1982 and is not a product of the university's "system." Inevitably, controversy arises out of the selection. Over the years, many have argued that the position should be filled by election rather than appointment. In the end, no procedure is likely which grants real independence to the incumbent or lessens the government's control.
Nevertheless, it is to this man and the ulama around him that most, though not all, of Egypt's imams turn for moral and spiritual guidance. Here, the fine line of distinction between what guidance is moral and spiritual and what guidance is political sometimes is difficult if not impossible to draw.
The grand shaykh's influence, however, does not extend to the many mosques owned by private individuals or endowed by the state. Direct authority over Al-Azhar aside, the shaykh can play an important role in shaping opinion through public statements, private persuasion, and the institutional influence of Al-Azhar with groups such as the Islamic societies and the Muslim Brotherhood. Whether he plays such a role depends on his personal inclinations and his willingness to risk confrontation with the government if there is a substantial divergence of view.
Gad al-Haq, a specialist in sharia law and reputedly one of the Islamic world's leading religious scholars, is considered by many observers to be a dogmatic and a strict constructionist in interpreting Islamic doctrine — notwithstanding his relatively lenient views on the issues of family planning and birth control. Many of Egypt's imams and shaykhs seem pleased with his appointment, anticipating that his "more faithful" adherence to Islamic principles, in contrast to fanatical versions embraced by the Islamic fringe, will revitalize the role and image of Egypt's official religious establishment. (In contrast, most young Egyptian Muslims consider Gad al-Haq and the rest of the country's senior religious leadership — with few exceptions — to be co-opted pawns of government policy.) At the same time, Gad al-Haq's more conservative orientation may help the Mubarak government generate greater appeal in the eyes of the bulk of Egypt's large fundamentalist Muslim community, most of whose members are by no means radicalized but who nevertheless have felt estranged from or dissatisfied with the official religious establishment in recent years.
II. The Grand Mufti — The grand mufti is the nation's highest authority on Islamic law. With the responsibility for determining whether national legislation is consistent with the sharia, he theoretically holds an important lever of power. In fact, his duties are largely ceremonial. He delivers fatwas (religious decrees) on various religious matters (after consultation with the government and the grand shaykh of Al-Azhar), officially announces the sighting of the moon on the occasion of religious festivals, certifies death sentences handed down by the courts against civilians, and officiates at various religious functions. Like the grand shaykh of Al-Azhar, the mufti is a religious scholar appointed by the government. Perhaps the mufti's most significant contribution to the religious power structure is a negative one. He adds to the diffuseness of authority by withholding from other, potentially more powerful figures the right to declare legislation inconsistent with Islamic law.
The current incumbent (also appointed in March 1982), Shaykh Abdul Latif Abdul Ghani Hamza (also known as Abd al-Latif Abd al-Ghani Hamza), is a middle-of-the-road Islamic moderate. Although a relatively obscure personality, Hamza's leading qualification seems to be his seniority among Islamic jurists. Most observers believe it is unlikely that Hamza has either the inclination or the ability to politicize the grand mufti's office, and they doubt he will issue fatwas which might prove embarrassing to the government.
III. The Ministry of Waqfs — Secularism means separation of church and state and the state's supremacy in civil affairs. It does not call for the state's control over the intimate details of religious observance and the teaching or the harnessing of religion to the purposes of the government. Nevertheless, the past thirty years have seen the Egyptian government increase its power over the religious establishment, with the goal of gaining greater influence over public attitudes and behavior. Much of this has been achieved in the name of "religious reform" and done through expanding the authority of the Ministry of Waqfs.
The ministry itself has a charter which, among other things, charges it with "(1) the diffusion of Islamic culture and the arousal of religious consciousness in the whole Arab nation in order to make Islam known among all peoples of the world, (2) the preservation of the Koran by its publication and the execution of its printing and distribution, and (3) the supervision of the affairs of mosques so that they may properly fulfill their mission in the spreading of Islam and in strengthening the spiritual and moral character of the Arab society." It is in this latter category that the Egyptian government over the years has taken advantage of opportunities to aggrandize the power of the state while reducing the autonomy of popular religious institutions and weakening the potential independence of the religious leadership.
As almost the only place where large numbers of people may gather freely and without specific official permission in advance, the mosque in Egypt necessarily assumes considerable importance (for example, 10-15,000 people participate in Friday's noon prayer service at the Al-Husayn mosque). Traditionally, the mosque has often been the scene of politically significant activities. This tradition gives the government precedent for using the mosque politically, but it also supplies precedent to those who want to resist or promote opposition to unpopular government policies. Thus, a government that is suspicious of the limited opportunity the mosque offers for expression of popular sentiment seeks to control what happens in the mosque rather than to prevent people from using it altogether. Accordingly, under the mandate of "improving the condition and services of the mosques," the Nasser and Sadat regimes brought them more securely within the institutional framework of government patronage and influence. Not only did the government over the years seek to increase the total number of mosques under its supervision; it also sought to influence — indeed, often to prescribe — the content of Friday sermons.
The details of how this state of affairs evolved over thirty years' time are less important than the mechanics of how the system actually works today. Briefly, however, the advent in 1952 of various land-reform measures, which abolished all waqfs (endowments) for private purposes and transferred to the Ministry of Waqfs the management of all charitable endowments, significantly extended the power of the government over the religious establishment's capital assets. Within its budgetary allowances, moreover, the government began in 1960 a program of converting "private" mosques into "public" ones. (The distinction between a "private" and a "public" mosque refers only to its origin and whether it is maintained by private persons or by the government. So far as the use of mosques by Muslims is concerned, all are "public" in the sense of being open to everyone.)
At various times during their presidencies, both Nasser and Sadat moved to tighten the government's control over the content of Islamic religious teachings, recognizing the potential challenge of dissenting views couched in religious terms as well as the significance of the mosque as a means of mobilizing a population devoted to its religious traditions behind government policies aimed at making sweeping political and social changes. At no time did either leader restore to the religious establishment any of the power divested of it. Thus, for thirty years, Egypt has witnessed a continuous process of the religious establishment losing ground, with the government gaining.
There are approximately 40,000 mosques — large and small — throughout Egypt. We have seen estimates as high as 60,000, but think that 40,000 is closer to the mark. The confusion here springs from the government's apparent ignorance of just exactly how many mosques exist today (the last comprehensive survey of which we are aware was done in the 1960s). In any case, Minister of Waqfs Shaykh Ibrahim El-Dessouki pegged the number at 40,000 in an April 1982 interview. Of the total number, Dessouki said only 5,650 are administered by the government. Thus, nearly 35,000 of Egypt's mosques are "private" — i.e., privately founded, privately endowed, and privately managed. For perspective, however, it is useful to keep in mind that the vast majority of Egypt's "key" urban mosques fall among the 5,650 administered by the government.
Through the Ministry of Waqfs, and specifically through the ministry's "Department of Sermons and Guidance," the government exercises its authority over the imams who serve these 5,650 mosques. Not surprisingly, control is tightest over the "key" mosques in each of Egypt's large cities. In Cairo, for example, "key" mosques include Al-Azhar, Al-Husayn and Sayyida Zaynib, while Alexandria's Mursi Abu Al-Abbas mosque and Tanta's Sayyid Al-Badawi mosque are also viewed as very important. Every Tuesday, the minister of waqfs sends a letter to the imams of these and other key mosques outlining the theme for the following Friday's sermon. If the sermon is to be televised or broadcast, the imam must submit the text to the minister of waqfs for editing, amendment and approval.
At this point, a digressional footnote is in order. In recent years, the Egyptian television service has all but stopped televising sermons "live from the mosque." Instead, the service constructed a mock mosque in one of its studios where sermons to be broadcast are taped. In this way, the government has absolute control over the subject matter of the sermon and avoids any embarrassment that might result from an imam deviating from his approved text during a live performance.
Selecting the subject matter for Friday sermons in key mosques is a collegial exercise in most instances. The minister of waqfs takes the lead; He and his assistants, in consultation with the grand shaykh of Al-Azhar, discuss a number of possible subjects, and from these discussions, the minister draws up a list of sermon topics that will be addressed during a particular month. In rare instances, the Egyptian cabinet will decide that a specific subject or theme would be appropriate. In this case, the president, prime minister, or minister of interior communicates the cabinet's decision to the minister of waqfs who incorporates it into the list.
Outside of the key mosques to which the GOE [Government of Egypt] provides specific guidance, the vast majority of government imams are free to speak on any religious topic they choose. It is understood by all that any commentary on political questions will not be tolerated, and imams in government mosques rarely break this stipulation. Imams are, after all, paid reasonably well by the government (175 to 225 [Egyptian pounds] per month) and are, in effect, civil servants. Importantly, their pensions would be in jeopardy if they were discharged for cause.
In a practical sense, there is no way the government can control what is said in the "private" mosques in the same fashion it applies to public mosques. Instead, it has had to take the route of disincentive. In September 1981, a presidential decree was issued that forbids anyone, including imams, from making speeches that arouse sectarian tension or disrupt social peace. Violators are subject to imprisonment and a fine of up to 500 [pounds]. Moreover, the Ministry of Interior maintains a network of informants who take notes during Friday services at both government and private mosques and report back. This is a rather crude system and has a few flaws — we understand that because not all of the informants are literate, inaccuracy is sometimes a problem in their reporting — but it generally works.
Among the various measures decreed by the late President Sadat in September 1981, with a view to ensuring the separation of religion and politics, was the stipulation that the government would require all persons delivering sermons in all Egyptian mosques to be licensed. We have seen scant evidence to date of any effective progress made in implementation of this decision. Our best sources of information claim there are only 3,000 so-called "government imams" who staff public mosques full-time. The government employs about 2,000 others (Al-Azhar graduates and graduate students, as well as retired professors) on a less than full-time basis to try to staff the rest of its 5,650 public mosques. We therefore have not noticed any "mass changeover" of imams in Egypt's "private" mosques. The possibility remains, however, that the government may yet move to exert its licensing power over thousands of existing imams at such mosques in an effort to exercise greater supervision over the contents of their sermons. Even so, it should be understood that anyone is entitled to preach at the mosque — as long as the congregation will listen to him. This is a rare occurrence at government mosques but much more common at those that are privately owned. Thus, even if the GOE makes its efforts to license imams more effective, this will not guarantee complete control over the content of the Friday sermons.
THE EXTRA-LEGAL ISLAMIC ESTABLISHMENT
Compared to a year ago, right-wing religious groups seem to be relatively quiescent. There have been no recent violent incidents on the scale of the October 1981 Asyut uprising when Islamic radicals attempted to take over the provincial government security headquarters and other buildings by armed force. Arrests of Islamic militants in September 1981 as part of Sadat's crackdown on sectarian strife and political dissent, and the further arrests that followed Sadat's assassination on October 6, 1981, have considerably thinned the ranks of known Islamic radicals and their sympathizers, although several hundred have now been released.
Indeed, for the first time in many years, there was no massive Muslim prayer service in Cairo's Abdin Square on July 21 to celebrate the end of Ramadan and the beginning of "Id al-Fitr." Last year's Abdin service was not only impressive for its size but ominous in its political implications. We had conservatively estimated participation at 50,000, although the government later admitted that over 100,000 people had taken part. Some sources even claimed double this number. Banners denouncing Camp David, Israel, the United States, and Christians and Jews festooned Abdin Square on that occasion, and a strongly worded tract was circulated which attacked almost every facet of President Sadat's foreign, security, economic, and sectarian policies.
This year, the square was virtually empty at dawn. The continued detention of many Islamic student leaders, the restrictions on assembly as a result of the state of emergency decrees which remain in force, and the banning of many radical Islamic groups last September appear to be the main reasons. We understand that attendance at other dawn prayer services in Cairo's mosques — including those frequented by Islamic extremists — was considerable, but that the services were generally religious and not political in tone.
Services at Abdin Square were originally organized by Egypt's religious establishment, but by the mid-1970s, they became rather openly sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood. In recent years, they have been organized by the "Islamic group" — a rather amorphous collection of Islamic societies (most with extremist leanings and many with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood) which have been very active on Egypt's university campuses.
The Muslim Brotherhood — We have only sketchy information on Egypt's "Ikhwan al-Muslimin," though it is the largest and most prominent of the fundamentalist groups active in the country. Although banned from functioning as a political party since 1954, the Brotherhood operates semi-openly and may have upwards of one million members and sympathizers. The Brotherhood's philosophy is uncomplicated and simply calls for the observance of conservative moral and ethical principles in society and government.
The titular leader and self-proclaimed spokesman of one faction of the Brotherhood, Shaykh Umar Al-Talmassani, has consistently emphasized the desire of the Ikhwan not to confront the government. Talmassani insists that his group's efforts are directed toward achieving Islamic goals through nonviolent means. Nevertheless, the Brotherhood's connection to other more radical fringe groups is well established, and Talmassani was among those imprisoned by Sadat in September 1981.
The Brotherhood's weakest point appears to be its lack of an identifiable, dynamic leadership. While there have been reports of efforts by the Brotherhood to re-establish its vaunted clandestine cell-structure, no sign has yet appeared of a more coherent, dynamic policy line. Some observers suggest it is organizing itself for the future. But the organization speaks with many voices and has no publicized, charismatic leadership. Indeed, Talmassani's own authority derives largely from his being one of the oldest of the senior members of the Brotherhood.
The government's attitude toward the Brotherhood has been a blend of determination to prevent the organization from reemerging as a threat to the regime and encouragement of moderate Brotherhood elements as a counterpoise to the leftist, secular opposition. This policy of non-confrontation and manipulation was spectacularly discarded by Sadat in September 1981. Nevertheless, the Mubarak regime appears to have decided to pursue much the same policy so long as the Brotherhood avoids politicizing its aims.
Student Islamic Societies — These originally began as a form of "youth wing" of the Muslim Brotherhood and subscribed to the same basic philosophy embraced by the older organization — the observance of conservative moral and ethical principles in society and government. Over the years, however, student Islamic societies have tended to move toward more extreme interpretations of Islamic doctrine, have become more political in orientation, and have served as the most fertile recruiting grounds for the extremist Islamic fringe. In student elections during the period 1974 through 1979, Islamic societies garnered, through proselytization and intimidation, the lion's share of representatives within the various faculties on many campuses — notably at Cairo, Alexandria, and Asyut universities. In so doing, they became far more political and vocal in their activities — emboldened increasingly to challenge the government's foreign and domestic policies, and to work at extending their influence and services into other sectors of Egyptian society.
After the September 1981 crackdown, almost all universities announced a ban on bearded males attending classes in white robes, as well as on coeds wearing veils. Access to the campuses was strictly controlled, faculty members were made responsible for student behavior, the carrying of weapons was prohibited, and "outsiders" were excluded from campus activities, especially those having religious significance. Today, small prayer sessions continue, but are fairly devoid of political content. Nevertheless, the universities are a significant potential source of trouble for the government. It is here that we believe the Muslim Brotherhood and other more fanatical Islamic groups would find their greatest public support in any serious attempt to bring down the government. In the wings, leftist students and their mentors stand ready to exploit such a situation by providing the violence, the street gangs, and the provocation, should the Islamic groups have any qualms in these areas.
The Islamic Fringe — Several Islamic extremist groups have resorted to violence to further their goals, the most notorious example being the assassination of President Sadat by members of the so-called "Al-Jihad Al-Jadid" (New Holy War). Some of these groups may be offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood, but there is little evidence to suggest that they retain ties to that organization. Other than the threat they pose to the lives of Egyptian and perhaps American officials, these groups do not at present pose a serious challenge to the government. The fact that they exist, however, and their readiness to resort to terrorism underscore the presence of a continuing current of opposition to some of the government's policies. Sadat's efforts to stifle or suppress domestic critics, moreover, doubtless contributed to the growth of such extremist elements within the Islamic fundamentalist movement.
[...] Islamic extremists planned and carried out the October 6, 1981, assassination of President Sadat and the subsequent violence in Asyut. What is less well understood is how many persons were involved in these events, who they were, and how they were organized. In many of its early comments on October's events, the Egyptian government tended to place the blame for both the assassination and the Asyut uprising on the well-known if infamous "Al-Takfir W'Al-Hijra" (Atonement and Holy Flight) society. Later, the government maintained that a single "terrorist organization" was responsible for October's events, giving the clear impression that this organization derived its adherents from several radical Islamic factions, including remnants of Takfir. In time, the government dubbed this "umbrella" organization "Al-Jihad Al-Jadid" because of the group's central premise that force must be used to establish a new Islamic order in Egypt.
Interest in forming some kind of radical "umbrella" organization apparently accelerated after 1978, in reaction to the government's harsh crackdown on both Takfir and Al-Jihad in the summer of 1977 (Takfir had kidnapped and murdered a prominent Egyptian ex-minister in 1977; Al-Jihad was accused in January 1980 of bombing a number of Coptic churches). Members of the two societies who had avoided the government's dragnet apparently decided it would be desirable to join with other, like-minded Muslim radicals to lay the basis for some future attempt to overthrow the regime. The Ministry of Interior has suggested that as many as five organizations joined forces in this common effort, although there may have been more or less. It was not until 1980, however, that the groups in Cairo and upper Egypt finally joined forces, in spite of considerable differences in doctrinal outlook. In the end, all these groups — those following a gradualist and nonviolent strategy and those convinced that jihad was the only course — allegedly put aside their doctrinal and personal differences to unite in an effort to overthrow the government by embarking on a program of violence aimed at fomenting escalating social unrest and public chaos.
We have no firm estimate of the actual size of this coalition. Over 2,500 persons were detained in the immediate aftermath of Sadat's assassination on October 6, but some of these were either leftists or religious fundamentalists who in all probability had no direct connection with the October conspirators. We think it probable that the actual number of hard-core members of Al-Jihad Al-Jadid does not exceed 200 to 300. The several hundred other religious detainees may be sympathetic to the "umbrella" organization's aims and have had contact with one or more of its components. It seems unlikely, however, that they were either privy to the October plot or active participants in it.
To date, there is no evidence that the October conspirators had anything but casual contact with the Muslim Brotherhood or the other Islamic societies that dominate the Islamic fundamentalist right. Although the leaders of these groups disagreed with Sadat on most aspects of his foreign and domestic policies and attacked his government with vitriolic gusto, none openly advocated the use of violence to overthrow his rule. Many of Sadat's religious critics were in jail at the time of his murder, having been among the 1,536 persons officially reported as detained during the September crackdown. Many have since been released, and some, like Shaykh Abd al-Hamid Kishk (one of Sadat's harshest opponents), have been quoted as condemning his assassination as "unIslamic." Shaykh Umar al-Talmassani, also released in January, said: ". . . Rash secret movements which do not obtain the support or beliefs of the people as a whole can only result in exhausting one's power, wasting one's effort, and delaying one's success."
As might be expected, the Al-Jihad "umbrella" organization attempted to recruit new members from among the student Islamic societies. These recruitment activities appear to have attracted a few radical adherents, but not to have aroused much interest among fundamentalist groups in general.
Sorting out the true intentions of the October conspirators is difficult, but a few tentative conclusions can be made.
• The October 6 attack was not meant to be an assassination only, although Sadat was the principal target. The assassination was viewed by the conspirators as an easy way to prepare the ground for a breakdown in public order which they hoped to exploit. The October 8 Asyut uprising is the best evidence that this was the case.
• The conspirators' plans were foiled in part because they did not have good communications and were not well organized, and in part because the Egyptian government quickly mobilized its greater resources to confront the emergency effectively.
• Although the conspirators eventually hoped to establish some kind of Islamic state, their purported plans to create a "Khomeini-style" regime as an immediate follow-on to the assassination were optimistic in the extreme. Even the most stalwart proponents of an Islamic state conceded it would require at least three years for the necessary "popular revolution" to take hold in Egypt as an important step toward this goal.
• The government gave more prominence to the conspirators' plans to establish an Iranian-style Islamic republic than the circumstances warranted. ... [Redacted.]
• It is evident that the Al-Jihad "umbrella" organization had succeeded to some degree in penetrating the armed forces. This said, the organization's influence and support within the armed forces appear to have been minimal. In the first instance, this is probably because Al-Jihad Al-Jadid did not attempt to recruit too many military men for fear of discovery by the authorities. In addition, most of the conspirators appear to have felt that their political aims could be accomplished only through a "popular revolution" and not by means of a coup d'état organized by supporters in the armed forces. In the second instance, even among the growing numbers of Islamic conservatives in the military, Al-Jihad Al-Jadid's emphasis on the need for violence to achieve its political aims was unacceptable.
• It would probably be a mistake to rule out completely the possibility of a foreign dimension to October's events. We want to underscore, however, that there has been no evidence of Libyan or other foreign government involvement in October's events. While it is possible that members of the "umbrella" organization were in touch with like-minded extremist groups in other Islamic countries, there is no conclusive evidence on this point.
The Egyptian government mounted an extensive and apparently effective security operation to root out supporters of the October conspiracy. Nevertheless, based on past experience, we think it doubtful that these operations have proven either all-inclusive or completely successful. The Al-Jihad "umbrella" organization may have been crushed, but some members of the extremist groups comprising it probably remain active underground. We also think it unlikely that the government has been able to uncover all the arms and ammunition caches carefully secreted in the months preceding the assassination. Accordingly, a resurgence of terrorist activity within the next two years would not be surprising. Such activities would not enjoy the support of the broad mass of Egyptians but, depending on the political and economic problems facing the government at the time, they could aggravate sectarian tensions and again test the regime's ability to maintain security, law and order.
As the October conspirators apparently had little contact with or significant support from the mainstream of the Islamic fundamentalist movement, the government's successful crackdown on the Al-Jihad "umbrella" organization in no way reduces the potential challenge posed to the regime by the Muslim Brotherhood and other large and controversial Islamic societies which dominate the Islamic right in Egypt. Now that some of the spokesmen for these groups have been released from jail after having been detained in Sadat's September round-up, they are beginning to enjoy some success in distancing their organizations from the Islamic extremists who killed Sadat.
Hence, the government is beginning to lose the advantages it enjoyed in the days following October 6, when the great majority of Egyptians seemed to have a confused image of who was doing what in conspiracy with whom on the Islamic right, and were willing to support strong security measures to stamp out extremism in general. Now, as October's events fade from public consciousness, many people are liable once again to accept a distinction between groups like the supposedly moderate (but still illegal) Muslim Brotherhood and the radical Al-Jihad Al-Jidad.
While "mainstream" fundamentalist organizations like the Brotherhood had no direct role in the assassination, many of their views are by no means moderate. Moreover, there are indications that members of the Al-Jihad "umbrella" organization (and certainly members of the assassination squad who admitted so at their trial) were influenced by the writings and sermons of prominent Egyptian Islamic figures who have now been released. From his many interviews after the assassination, President Mubarak appears to recognize the potential danger he faces from this quarter. Thus, it comes as no surprise that, while proposing a desire to maintain a "dialogue" with the Islamic right, he continues to keep in custody — using the emergency powers granted to him last October — several hundred persons suspected of affiliation with or sympathy toward radical Islamic groups, most of them either indicted or awaiting indictment on charges of being implicated, in one way or another, in the Al-Jihad "umbrella" conspiracy.
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