Ahmed El-Darawi: From parliamentary hopeful to Islamic State commander

Zeinab El-Gundy , Monday 2 Feb 2015

Ahram Online republishes the story of the former police officer and activist who was reported dead in May after which the the Islamic State group said he had died in Syria - and was a field commander.

Ahmed El-Darawi
Ahmed El-Darawi

Very few knew the truth about how ex-police officer and parliamentarian hopeful Ahmed El-Darawi really died in May, including his family.

So it was a shock for many when he appeared in online photos as a field commander for the Islamic State (IS), dressed in Afghani robes and carrying guns in Iraq and Syria in October.

Pro-IS forums said that El-Darawi had joined the militant group's self-proclaimed Islamist caliphate and had died in a suicide attack.

The news of his death varied. First it was said that he died in Turkey, some more recent accounts said he died in Iraq, while others said he died in Syria.

In May 2014 many activists from the 2011 uprising were sad over his alleged death. For them, El-Darawi was a public relations executive, as well as a moderate Islamist full of hope.

But then came the big surprise for them this October. The reformist ex-policeman – who was known to many in Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolt – died as a member of IS, after joining the group in Syria.

The man with a long beard, medieval clothes and automatic guns was also a reformist police officer who quit the force under the regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

After Mubarak was ousted in 2011, El-Darawi joined a group of retired police officers to advocate for the reform of the interior ministry, widely criticised during Mubarak's reign for being corrupt and heavy handed.

In the parliamentary elections of 2012, El-Darawi ran independently against the pro-military MP Mostafa Bakry in the south Cairo districts of Maadi and Helwan, earning the support of young revolutionary supporters as well as the Salafist Nour Party. He lost the elections, but his name became known to many more.

PR exec to jihadist

Ahram Online tried to contact El-Darawi's political friends from after the 2011 uprising, but most of them refused to speak publicly, saying only that the El-Darawi they knew in Egypt was polite and decent.

Sherif Hassan, a sports journalist, remembers his last meeting with El-Darawi on 16 June 2013, a year before his death.

"I was on board a flight heading to Turkey and I found El-Darawi sitting behind me on the plane. We chatted and spoke about current issues in Egypt. He was not that optimistic," said Hassan.

Hassan knew El-Darawi from his work, as the latter used to be responsible for football championship sponsorship in Egypt at Etisalat's public relations department – a job, according to Hassan, that grants anyone a wide range of contacts.

“It was mid-June 2013 and the whole country was looking forward to 30 June and what was going to happen. El-Darawi was not that optimistic, accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of being weak," Hassan said, adding that El-Darawi believed there was a conspiracy being plotted against the Islamists and the revolution in general.

On 30 June, Egypt's opposition forces, led by the Tamarod movement, led a campaign to oust president Mohamed Morsi. He was removed by the army on 3 July.

"This was the last time I saw him and I don't know what happened when he arrived in Turkey or afterwards," added Hassan.

Interestingly, Hassan remembers that he saw on that same flight Safwat Hegazy, a famous Muslim Brotherhood Islamist preacher whose name always pops up as a facilitator whenever the subject of Egyptian fighters and jihadists in Syria has been opened in the past three years.

It is unclear if there is a connection between the travels of the two men to Turkey at that time, but for Hassan there could be a connection, especially as it came weeks after the Egyptian Islamist parties' public conference to support Syria in Cairo, attended by Morsi at the time.

During that controversial conference, which many consider as a turning point for Morsi's reign, ultra-conservative Islamist groups called for jihadists to volunteer to fight Bashar Al-Assad's regime in Syria.

Hegazy is currently serving several jail sentences, including two life sentences for torture, incitement to murder and joining a banned organisation – the Brotherhood.

In the year after Morsi's ouster, El-Darawi stopped tweeting for several months on his official twitter account, @Darawy1, leaving it for automated religious tweets.

His last activity on Twitter goes back to 11 February and 25 January of this year, when he tweeted about Morsi supporters protesting against what he describes as a military coup, while blaming the Salafists – especially the Nour Party – for double-crossing the rest of the Islamists, including the Brotherhood.

A quick look to older tweets will find ones about IS and jihadists in Syria and Iraq, where he praised the IS's operations against the "Iraqi Shi'a army" backed by Iran.

According to the Twitter account of Haitham El-Darawi, the brother of late Ahmed, his family got the news of his brother's death without further details in May from Turkey. From a year ago the father of two young boys told them that he was sick and would head to Turkey for treatment, keeping them in the dark regarding his plans to join IS.

A source close to El-Darawi's family told Ahram Online that the ex-police officer suffered from a neurological disease whose treatment was not available in Egypt. He was treated a couple of years ago in the US, which would mean there was nothing suspicious about his travel to Turkey for alleged treatment, the source said.

In a set of tweets, Haitham spoke more about how the family received the news in May. "No one in the family knew that he had joined IS. He told us he would continue his treatment in Turkey, but we found it so hard to communicate with him there," said Haitham, hinting that his brother was constantly changing his phone number.

Days later, after knowing that their son reportedly died in Turkey, pro-IS social media accounts shared El-Darawi's photos, introducing him as IS field commander Abu-Moaz El-Masry.

"We tried to contact those people to know more information about the photos but we failed," his brother said on Twitter.

El-Darawi, who is believed to be Abu-Moaz El-Masry, as introduced by pro-IS Twitter accounts, apparently had another Twitter account under that name through which he shared the news of IS and the fight in Iraq and Syria. Interestingly, the account shared news of Egyptian fighters in IS.

Nevertheless, it is hard to confirm whether this account was actually El-Darawi's. Until now, the family does not know what happened.

Not the only one

El-Darawi was not the only Egyptian that joined IS in the Levant, but he is so far the most controversial, considering his police background and political activism.

There are also other Egyptians who joined the militant organisation, which is currently being fought against by an international alliance led by the US.

Several months ago, Islam Yakan, a 20-something French school graduate, made headlines worldwide as a "hipster" jihadist who was among IS spokespersons on Twitter, before his Twitter accounts were closed.

Yakan, who once voted for leftist Khaled Ali in 2012's presidential elections, left Egypt to join IS in Iraq, publishing photos of beheaded victims and claiming that democracy was no use, citing what happened in Egypt in July 2013 – Morsi's ouster – as an example.

Saad El-Din Ibrahim, a well known sociologist, sees parallels between Egypt's current political environment and Yakan and El-Dawari's jihadist conversion.

"Without going into the personal circumstances of El-Darawi and Yaken, this radical shift or rather radicalisation usually happens to people in radical social times like in revolutions," Ibrahim said.
"People like El-Darawi and Yakan usually start to have high expectations in these times, but those hopes turn into high frustrations as things do not go as they wish. Extremely frustrated, they become radicalised in their reactions."

Ibrahim, the director of Ibn Khaldoun Centre, was among the first sociologists in Egypt to do extensive social research about radical Islamist groups in the 1980s and 1990s, their prime time in Egypt.

Ibrahim recalls how the 1970s and 1980s in Egypt witnessed radical political and economic changes – a peace agreement with Israel, adopting an open market economy and a rise in Islamist militant movements, which reached their peak in the 1990s.

In 1981 president Anwar Sadat was assassinated during a military parade by a group of ex-army officers who joined Egyptian Islamic Jihad for signing the peace agreement with Israel. It was also an attempt to replace the regime with an Islamist one like in Iran.

"People forget that Ayman El-Zawahiri, the upper-middle-class physician who comes from a famous family, joined Muslim Brotherhood and then got radicalised and joined Islamic Jihad in the 1970s," Ibrahim said. El-Zawahiri is the current head of Al-Qaeda and is in exile.

"Interestingly, in the late 1980s, a police officer and prison warden, Halim Hasham, was expelled from the police force in Egypt for embracing radical Islamist thought. By writing dozens of books about the revival of the Islamist caliphate and becoming a sheikh among jihadists, Hasham has become one of the men who shaped the Islamic State's current ideology," added Ibrahim.

"El-Darawi is not an exception," he said.

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