Abboud el-Zomor spent 30 years in Egyptian prisons in connection with the 1981 assassination of former President Anwar Sadat. On Thursday, he smiled as he carried a silver tray with long-stemmed glasses of 7 Up into his family’s living room in a run-down tower block in Giza. Two of his mop-headed grandchildren peered around corner from the hallway.
El-Zomor, 62, openly admits that, while serving as an officer in the Egyptian military intelligence in the 1980s, he was covertly a member of the Gama’a Islamiyya (Islamic Group) in charge of generating a plan to overthrow the government in 1984. He now claims he was against the Sadat assassination not because the killing was wrong, but because the timing was wrong.
But today, even has a new military-backed government barrels forward with a deadly crackdown on Islamists and other opponents, el-Zomor says he is totally opposed to a return to armed insurgency. The Gama’a Islamiyya began in the 1970s as a revolutionary alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood. While the Brothers engaged in peaceful social activism and participated in deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian political system, the Gama’a advocated the violent seizure of state power in order to bring about an Islamic state. In the late 1990s, buckling under a frontal assault from Egypt’s security forces, the group turned away from violence, but the organization continues to enjoy a sizable following, particularly in Upper Egypt, and el-Zomor is one of its most senior leaders.
There is widespread concern today that least some members of the Islamist camp, having recently lost hundreds of their comrades to government bullets, would return to the tactics of armed insurrection that the Gama’a and other groups embraced in the 1980s and 1990s. There are already indications that some of the government opponents have turned to insurgency. Early Monday it emerged that assailants massacred at least 24 police officers in the Sinai. Earlier, gunmen armed with rocket-propelled grenades reportedly killed 15 police at a police station in a village near the Pyramids. Also last week, a rash of attacks on churches took place, particularly in Upper Egypt, where the Gama’a has a significant presence.
Still, el-Zomor insists his organization has played no part in the violence. “I gave my orders to the Gama’a Islamiyya and the Building and Development Party [the group’s political arm],” he says, “that anyone who does not follow the peaceful way of protest, or participates in any attack on a government building or organization, or army, or police, or church and so on, will be dismissed from the Gama’a Islamiyya and the party.”
Egypt’s military deposed Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi in July following a wave of popular protests. Asserting it is fighting “terrorism,” a new government installed by the generals has declared a state of emergency and is waging a nationwide assault on Islamists and other opponents that claimed hundreds of lives last week when security forces obliterated protest camps set up by the military regime’s opponents. Early Tuesday morning, police detained top Brotherhood official Mohamed Badie on charges of murder and inciting violence.
However, if el-Zomor’s pronouncements are any indication, the state’s use of deadly force will not necessarily push Islamists to militarize their struggle on a larger scale. The Gama’a Islamiyya officially renounced violence while el-Zomor was still behind bars, and he has preached nonviolence ever since he was released from prison by a previous military government in 2011, following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, Sadat’s successor, in a popular uprising. El-Zomor studied law in prison, and since his release has helped guide the Gama’a’s political activities, including the formation of its Building and Development political party, which won 13 seats in the lower house of Egypt’s parliament and one in the upper house in the 2011-2012 elections.
“The Gama’a leaders don’t want to take on the state themselves. They don’t want to go back to prison. They’ve been there, done that. That’s something, the fact that these ex-militants of the most hardened variety are not pushing confrontation with the state,” says Michael Hanna, an analyst at the Century Foundation in New York City. “Which isn’t to say there’s not going to be fragmentation and diffuse kinds of violence and insurgency and terrorism against the state. There probably will be.”
Peering from behind wire-rimmed glasses and occasionally glancing at a pad of handwritten notes, el-Zomor says he stood against the burning of churches. “I have been firm in this position even in the times that I have been in prison, without anyone asking me,” he said. “I made a statement saying it is against Islamic law to attack houses of prayer, and it is also against the keeping of peace and harmony in society.”
Attacks on police are a different story, he said. “In my opinion, it is a natural reaction of the population against the centers of unfairness,” he said, referring to the police’s use of deadly force during last week’s crackdown on protest camps.
Does he foresee a scenario in which his group would ever return to violence? No. “This is a final decision,” he said. “We choose the peaceful political direction as our way, even in opposition. When we are now opposing the new, illegal government, we are going to oppose it with the tools of democracy.”
As for the government crackdown, he says “the use of live fire against people, killing people, will not resolve the problem. It will actually escalate the problem. It will fan the flames. This is not a way to end the issue. It’s a way to start new problems,”
Nevertheless, members of the Gama’a Islamiyya have faced heat from the government since the July 3 coup. According to state media, El-Zomor’s cousin, Tarek, who was jailed along with him over the Sadat killing, faces an open arrest warrant for allegedly inciting violence.
El-Zomor said he believed the incitement charges stemmed from his cousin’s remarks during a speech at a rally in June, when he said Islamists would “crush” the planned anti-Morsi demonstrations on June 30. “When he spoke about ‘crushing, he was not referring to the terms of force, of killing, but rather the numbers, that our numbers will be much higher.”
Regardless, Tarek is now laying low. “We ordered him not to appear in the media and to get out of the scene, in order not to give anyone a chance to use his words as an excuse for saying that he supports the use of force.” Another Gama’a leader, Assem Abdel Maged is also facing arrest for incitement. “He’s not allowed to move outside. It’s a way of keeping them safe.”
In spite of his past militancy, El-Zomor’s position on the current crisis is more moderate than that of the Muslim Brotherhood. “The Brotherhood were insisting on getting Morsi back. That wasn’t a point for us. We said, ‘this is not important, that Morsi come back,’ but rather we can find another way of reaching a solution.” As a way forward, he proposes a national referendum on the government-backed “roadmap,” which mandates new elections and a re-writing of the constitution.
As the interview was nearing a close, officials at Cairo’s Tora Prison were preparing to transfer Mubarak, the man whose regime extended El-Zomor’s in term the same prison, by helicopter to a military hospital. “My message to him is, ‘I’m not against your release, but after the lessons you learned in prison, you have tasted the bitter taste of prison, which we have tasted, the worst of it in your time. When you get out, do not try to bring back [Mubarak's political party].’”
“This is a time that passed that will never come back,” El-Zomor says.