Moderating Islamism

10.16.13

Egypt's Army and Muslim Brotherhood Are Negotiating, Says Islamist Leader

CAIRO—From a life in prison to freedom and a pivotal role in brokering a solution to the ongoing military crackdown, Aboud El Zomor, 66, has seen his life’s trajectory transformed by Egypt's January 25, 2011 revolution.

Jailed in 1981 after authorities implicated him in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, El Zomor is the leader of Gama’a Islamiyya, a radical Islamist group that some claim is linked to Al Qaeda. He was released from prison in March 2011.

“Mubarak had a vision that I would only leave in a coffin,” he said, referring to the ousted authoritarian ruler's refusal to release him after he had served his 25 year sentence. “Without the revolution I would have never been released from prison,” he added.

Since gaining his freedom, El Zomor has taken a central role in founding Gama’a Islamiyya’s political wing, the Construction and Development Party, and in building the influence of the Islamist camp. He now plays a leading role in the Committee to Restore Legitimacy and is a key communication broker between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army.

Speaking to the Daily Beast at his home in Giza on Saturday, he said both the army and the Muslim Brotherhood have realized that neither is able to break the other. As a result, there was potential for a political breakthrough.

"The street is hot with protests while the army has firm control. The government has started to realize it has a problem," he said. Protests against the army's July 3 ouster of Morsi have continued despite a bloody crackdown that killed hundreds of protesters. "The situation now is that no one can force their conditions. Neither the Brotherhood nor SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] can do this, so they are prepared for dialogue." A plan for political resolution is to be released after the Eid al Adha holiday, which ended yesterday.

El Zomor said his attempts to re-ignite talks between the army and the Brotherhood showed signs of progress.

Negotiations had been suspended over the Islamist party's refusal to compromise on returning Morsi to power and re-implementing his party's 2012 constitution. But the Brotherhood is now focused on ending the military crackdown and obtaining the release of its 2,000 members currently in prison. El Zomor said the Islamists had become more flexible on key issues and that mediated communication with the army is ongoing.

“Of course we are working in the backrooms,” he said.

The entrance to El Zomor’s apartment building, located in a working class, conservative neighborhood, was adorned with the distinctive symbol of the anti-army, pro-Morsi opposition. But he expressed sympathy for the army's position and refused to call the ousting of Morsi a coup.

"The army did things with good intentions, they wanted to avoid any kind of division or civil war,” he said. El Zomor's movement originally split from the Brotherhood over the Gama'a Islamiyya's advocacy of armed struggle, which the Muslim Brotherhood opposed. But the two Islamist movements maintained close ties even after the ideological split.

El Zomor was once employed by army intelligence, even as he remained clandestinely active in Gama’a Islamiyya. Today, he is pragmatic on the role of Egypt's generals.

“My position on the army [is] rational, not emotional,” he said, as he sat in his living room wearing sandals and a silk galabiya. He said he had disavowed armed insurgency tactics and believed Egypt needed a pluralistic, democratic governing system. El Zomor added that the followers of his movement had shared the army's frustration at Morsi’s inability to stabilize Egypt's economic and political crises.

But he opposed the army's recent crackdown on dissent, arguing that the legitimacy of popular governance needed to be restored.

“For sure there is a lot of dangers to the freedom and goals of the revolution,” he said. “Many Islamist currents feel it’s not a transition but a period for revenge,” he added.

On the other hand, El Zomor expressed pride in the legacy of the army and equated its military successes with the uprising that freed him.

“I equate the January revolution to the 6 of October [1973] war. On the 6 of October we got our land back, in January 2011 we got our free will back,” he said.

For El Zomor, the January 25 revolution's main result was a shift in the balance of power power between the army and Islamist politics.

“Before January 25, Islamist [political] activity was banned,” he said. “After, we got our freedom from prison without condition. We had the freedom to construct our own parties and to freely [organize].”

Despite the ongoing curfew and state of emergency laws, El Zomor said he was confident that negotiations with the army would result in the re-emergence of political process in Egypt.