The Egyptian approach to addressing regional threats holds that the Palestinian question is at the root of the region’s problems and that any serious attempt to resolve it must treat it as such and avoid using other priorities, such as the Iranian threat, to circumvent it.
This does not affect the fact that Egypt opposes Iran’s regional behaviour, however. Tehran’s support for and utilisation as proxies of extremist groups such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Hamas, Hizbullah, the Houthi Movement in Yemen, and a long list of militias in Iraq cannot be condoned.
Egypt remains as committed as ever to the fight against terrorism, as was exemplified just last week with the Egyptian army’s elimination of an Islamic State (IS) group-affiliated terrorist cell and its leader Hamza Al-Zamli, aka Abu Kazem Al-Maqdisi, in Gelbana near the Suez Canal.
Al-Zamli, a Palestinian from Gaza, was responsible for the terrorist attack against the Al-Rawda Mosque in North Sinai in November 2017, killing 305 worshippers during Friday prayers. This horrific incident triggered the launch of the largest ever counterterrorist campaign in Sinai, Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 (COS2018).
Al-Zamli started out working for a liquor distillery in the Israeli settlement of Yad Mordechai where he was reportedly something of a philanderer. This signifies that he rebelled against the rising tide of religious conservatism in Gaza. With the unilateral Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005, he was forced to return to the Strip. Not long after Hamas seized control of Gaza, it blacklisted him as an Israeli agent, causing him to turn to theft. He fled to Sinai through one of the many tunnels that existed at the time, and in 2017 he resurfaced as the mufti of the so-called IS Sinai Province and then the commander of its military wing.
He acquired followers, most of whom hailed from extreme factions in the Gaza side of Rafah, such as the Salafi jihadist Ansar Jundallah, which, in a clash with Hamas in August 2009, lost its leader Moussa Abdel-Latif, aka Abul-Nur Al-Maqdisi, a follower of prominent jihadist Abu Qassem Al-Maqdisi whose ideas have strongly influenced IS discourse.
Al-Zamli would also have been influenced by Abu Mohamed Al-Maqdisi, who held that Hamas had undermined IS in Sinai because of political rivalry. It is clearly no coincidence that Al-Zamli adopted the same nom de guerre and made it his priority to prove himself to the mother IS organisation by staging gruesome attacks and massacres.
The Al-Zamli case reveals much about the identity dimensions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the cumulative human damage due to its perpetuation. It reminds us of the continued Israeli refusal to take a peace process seriously and of a Palestinian environment in Gaza that has produced generations of Al-Zamlis.
These are among the reasons why Egypt prioritises a solution to the Palestinian question. Its repercussions have been a national security concern for some time, especially after the Palestinian national cause was given a religious mantle and religious slogans were attached to guns in the way that holy scriptures were blazoned on the tips of spears during the schismatic battles in early Islamic history that have bequeathed rifts and tensions to the present day.
Hamas, the PIJ, and similar militant Islamist groups are difficult variables in this equation. They originated as instruments, supported by Israel, to sow division in Palestinian ranks and serve as an alternative to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), universally recognised as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and which ultimately accepted the political settlement that gave rise to the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Gaza had begun to export terrorism to Sinai even before the appearance of Al-Qaeda and the IS franchises. Hamas is a chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood’s relationship with this and other such groups generated a network of mutual interests. However, extremists exist everywhere: as long as Israel harbours fanatical religious trends, the same thing will happen on the Palestinian side and vice versa.
Remedying the social causes of extremism starts with political solutions. These, not warfare, will eradicate the breeding grounds of extremism. The Egyptian experience offers a case worth emulating in this regard.
Egypt has launched two major battles in Sinai. One is the unprecedented battle for development, which aims to eliminate the sociocultural incubators of fanaticism and extremism. The second battle engages military force to uproot the terrorist groups that have sprouted from the same seed, that of sectarian intolerance and violence which thrives on the blood of innocent people in the Middle East, from Palestine to Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan.
However, force accounts for no more than a fifth of the counterterrorist tools used in Sinai, the vast majority of them relating to the battle for development. The same principles could be tried in Gaza, where Egypt has already begun to carry out reconstruction. For this to work, it must include building both schools and the education system. In other words, it is important to take reconstruction beyond infrastructure to dry up the sources of extremist thought. Needless to say, Israel must also change its policies, with this being a main prerequisite.
This brings us to the common interests between some Western governments and the Islamists, a phenomenon that reached its peak during the Arab Spring. What it yielded was the production of chaos in the name of democratisation, abbreviated to the participation of so-called “moderate political Islam.”
This experiment proved to be a disaster wherever it was applied. Just this week, the French magazine Jeune Afrique published an interview with Seif Al-Qaddafi, son of former Libyan leader Muammar Al-Qaddafi, who said that he had turned himself over to the armed revolutionary groups that had been working with NATO to overthrow his father during the Libyan uprising in 2011.
He believed that since he was Al-Qaddafi’s son his surrender would end the fighting, but instead the country was pulled into a vortex of extremism. Before long, Libya seemed irretrievably torn, as has occurred in Iraq under its ethnic/sectarian quota system and in Yemen where the Iranian-backed Ansarullah (Houthi) Movement continues its programme to establish a theocratic statelet in the north.
Despite this bleak record, the Muslim Brothers and like-minded Islamists continue to enjoy some support and sympathy abroad for their drive to return to power. They may be involved in some sort of process of introspection in order to identify what mistakes they made while in power and what drove the masses to overthrow them in Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan. But it is unlikely that they will engage in genuine ideological revision.
We know this from previous processes of ideological revision undertaken by other groups that have emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood fold, such as the Jamaa Islamiya. In some cases, instead of becoming moderate, they signed up with Al-Qaeda, as was the case with former Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who had belonged to the Qutbist camp of the Muslim Brotherhood and was inspired by the writings of Brotherhood ideologist Sayyid Qutb.
In other cases, they may have renounced violence but have still continued to serve the Muslim Brotherhood’s project in Egypt, as was the case with Assem Abdel-Maged and other members of the Jamaa Islamiya. Naturally, the Muslim Brotherhood has treated them with its usual cynicism, nurturing its relations with them as potential weapons it could draw on in time of need.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.