After 30 years behind bars for his role in the assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, 64-year-old Aboud El-Zomor was released from prison this week, thanks largely to a revolution that neither he nor his followers participated in.
Following his release, El-Zomor - who was first emir of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad movement before joining the Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya group - has been feted by some as a respected political figure. Others, however, see him as a murderer who now receives more attention than he deserves.
Ahram Online visited the former military-intelligence colonel at his Giza residence, where he talked about both the present and past with high expectations and little remorse.
Ahram Online: If you could turn back the clock, would you get involved again in Sadat’s assassination?
Aboud El-Zomor: Time can never go back - this is a fact that we must live with. What’s more, every era has different circumstances. The situation in 1981 was very different than the situation in 2011.
Since circumstances have changed, we can now try to judge whether the decision was right or wrong. But at that time, without knowing the results, it seemed that what happened was the right thing.
But I have to admit I did not support the assassination of Sadat. I thought that we should wait until everything was ready in 1984, according to our plan. We were planning for a change of regime and were able to attract numerous supporters at the time.
But after Sadat signed the Camp David peace accords with Israel, and after the arrest campaign in September 1981 which saw politicians from across the political spectrum rounded up, eliminating the man [Sadat] seemed the only way out to many members of the group.
AO: But wasn’t this also the case with recently-ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak? At a certain point, getting rid of Mubarak seemed like the only choice for the millions of Egyptians who hit the streets on 25 January. How do you see the situation as different?
AZ: Today, there are new means of effecting change. For example, in 1981 it was not possible to stage huge peaceful demonstrations. Also, we now have different means of mobilising, like the internet. Also, international media coverage serves to shield mass movements from regime oppression.
In light of this, it’s not possible for a new dictator to come to power, and, if he does, the people can get rid of him using peaceful means. When you have all this, you don't need to use violence - even if this violence is simply a reaction to regime oppression. Violence now cannot be justified. This door is closed.
AO: You had hoped that the elimination of Sadat would trigger an Islamic uprising, or, at the very least, regime change. But time proved you wrong, and Sadat’s removal did not result in new policies or greater democracy. In fact, Islamists ended up paying an enormous price, with more than 30,000 of your members jailed and hundreds of others killed in the war with the Mubarak regime. How do you know that the same thing won’t happen now?
AZ:I agree that the regime didn’t change. The structure of the old regime is still there and its institutions are still functioning, with much of its corrupt leadership and policies intact. The revolution still has a long way to go.
But there’s a huge difference between what happened in 1981 and now. After Sadat's assassination came Mubarak, who followed in the steps of Sadat and was even worse than him. Under his rule, Egypt moved backward.
Now, by contrast, the revolution is moving us forward. Now we have a vision of what we want for our future, and whoever doesn’t abide by this vision will be refuted by the people. While much has been achieved on the ground, it’s still not enough relative to our aspirations.
Who would have imagined that Mubarak and his cronies would be put on trial and that his ruling National Democratic Party would be dismantled?
AO:And who would have imagined that, after Mubarak’s departure, the emergency law would be reactivated; that civilians would continue to be tried in military courts; and that the Islamist groups that suffered the most under these measures would fail to stand up to them alongside other political forces by refusing to participate in protests against them? Isn't that ironic?
AZ: No, not at all. The fact that the group refused to participate in certain protests against military trials or emergency laws doesn’t mean that we accept these measures.
After Mubarak’s ouster, the revolutionaries - who lacked a united leadership - didn’t come to power. The right thing at the time wasn’t to accept the army as the sole interim ruler, but to have a civil authority ruling the country and telling the army what to do. But this didn’t happen.
Now, with all the fissures that appeared after [Mubarak’s ouster on] 11 February between different political groups, we have a politically-inexperienced Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) running the transitional period. Therefore, it’s only natural that such inappropriate measures would be adopted.
The best way out of all this is for the SCAF to hand power over to a civilian authority as soon as possible. That’s why I’m trying to play a role in uniting different political groups under a common umbrella of demands.
AO: Are you satisfied with Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya’s current political role? Aren’t you getting involved in the same kind of politics that you rejected in the past?
AZ: Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya is now only taking its first steps into politics, since most of its leaders were in prison before the revolution. Now we’re establishing a political party, preparing to participate in upcoming parliamentary elections, and partnering with different political forces. I see this as a good start.
AO: But isn’t this just the kind of politics that you had rejected for years?
AZ: In the 1980s, when we refused to participate in parliamentary elections, it wasn’t a religious stand against democracy. We just thought that, under the former regime, the whole thing was a waste of time and effort. But now, like I said, it’s a totally different situation.
A voice in parliament can be effective in deciding the future of the country, and we hope to play a role with others in planning for a better future.
AO: What if this kind of democracy contradicts Islamic Law?
AZ: Sure, this could happen, in which case we will oppose it peacefully, and the people will be the final judge. Isn’t this democracy? We believe that if we’re allowed to work with the people freely, like all other political parties, the people will choose Islam and Islamic principles.
But if this doesn’t happen, our role will be to advocate for Islamic principles and convince the people that this is best for them. In the past, we were denied the right to propagate our ideas, but now we can function like any other opposition group in a peaceful way.
AO: Exactly what kind of Islamic rule are you talking about?
AZ: A modern, democratic one that respects the rights of minorities and the freedom of trade. We want an Islamic state that would be respected - not feared - by the whole world.
AO: Yet you have staunchly opposed the ‘supra-constitutional principles’ proposed by secular and liberal forces, while many of your leaders talk about applying Hedoud, or Islamic penalties.
AZ: We oppose the supra-constitutional principles because this promotes the so-called ‘Turkish model,’ which grants the army a perpetual role in governance. We refuse to open the door for the army to come back to power as a ‘defender’ of the supra-constitutional principles.
Secondly, the people - through their representatives in parliament - should have the right to write and vote for their constitution without anyone imposing anything on them. The secular trend wants the supra-constitutional principles because it’s afraid the Islamists will come to power. But if this were to come to pass through the votes of the majority, isn't this the democracy that we all want?
As for the Hedoud, this is only one aspect of the Islamic system. You can’t look at a legal system without also looking at economy, justice, politics, etc. If, at a certain point and under certain conditions, the people choose to apply Hedoud, that will be the people's choice.
AO: What about your position regarding peace with Israel? The Camp David peace accord was one of the reasons you assassinated Sadat, yet when Egyptian protesters stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo last month, you criticised them.
AZ: There’s a difference between the peace treaty and the Camp David accords. The treaty stipulates that we will not go to war with Israel, and this is something that must be respected and approved, whether or not we - or any other political party - come to power. This has to do with respecting the international community, which is considered a part of the treaty.
Camp David, on the other hand, includes measures aimed at normalising Egyptian relations with Israel through economic and other fields of cooperation. This should be reviewed.
But all this should happen within the framework of supporting the rights of the Palestinians. Palestinian prisoners must be released, the siege on Gaza lifted, and the Palestinians must be granted all of their rights.
AO: Would you consider going to war with Israel if these demands aren’t met?
AZ: As I said, the peace treaty should be respected. And there are numerous political measures that can be taken to pressure Israel to abide by international law.
AO: Your group’s relationship with Saudi Arabia remains unclear. According to some reports, you receive funding from Saudi - along with other gulf states - to push a particular political agenda.
AZ: I, as Aboud El-Zomor, have not received a penny from anyone since I was released from prison. I hail from a wealthy family, and, during my years in prison, I sold a number of my assets.
As for Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya, we receive donations from different people through our charity programs, but no one can ever influence us to adopt certain political stands simply by giving us money.
AO: How, then, do you fund the group?
AZ: Through members’ donations. We collect donations from our members whenever we organise an event or print anything.
AO: What is your relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood?
AZ: Our relationship with the brotherhood is very good at this stage. We’re coordinating with them in advance of elections - not only parliamentary polls, but also upcoming elections for local councils and professional syndicates.
Much of the past tension between us and the brotherhood had been due to the fact that political forces were not allowed to work openly under Mubarak. But now, the ability to work openly with the brotherhood has allowed us to bridge any gaps that had existed between us in recent years.
AO: You were released from prison immediately after Mubarak’s ouster. Did the ruling military council attach any conditions to your release?
AZ: No, not at all.
AO: Would you consider running for the presidency or parliament?
AZ: No, I wouldn’t. I have other things to focus on now, such as propagating the movement’s ideas through social work.
AO: Do you have any regrets after spending three decades in prison?
AZ: I’m only sorry that getting rid of Sadat brought an even worse ruler to power, and that the people had to suffer under his tyrannical rule for an additional 30 years.