Tarek El Zomor, a founding member of Gama’a Islamiyya, says an Egyptian government based on Sharia law is the goal but providing a better quality of life comes first.
Egypt's Islamists: a troubled path from violence to peaceful politics
CAIRO // In the early days of Gama'a Islamiyya in the 1970s and 1980s, its young Islamist members operated in the shadows to plot the violent overthrow of the Egyptian state. They used code words to hide their plans and met clandestinely in private apartments or mosques.
In today's Egypt, the ciphers have been replaced with campaign posters and secret meetings with political rallies in massive hotel conference halls.
For Gama'a Islamiyya and other Islamist organisations in Egypt, it is a new dawn. What lies ahead, however, is far from clear.
On the one hand, the emergence of these once-banned groups and their move into electoral politics has the potential to dilute the strains of violent, Islamist extremism that have haunted the world for decades.
On the other hand, questions persist about how these Islamist groups envision the future of Egypt - to whit, whether they will use their new-found political power to do away with any semblance of pluralist government and instead use it to establish the Islamic state they have fought for decades to create.
Tarek El Zomor, a founding member of Gama'a Islamiyya and now a top official in its affiliated party, Construction and Development, is keen to reassure any listener that he and most other Islamists have turned over a new leaf.
"When the situation changes, the tools also change," Mr El Zomor said in a recent interview. "Our first goal was to break the dictatorial regime of Egypt and now that this has happened, we are preparing for the general revival of Egypt."
Mr El Zomor was one of hundreds of Islamists arrested after the weeks following the October 6, 1981, assassination of President Anwar Sadat, whose secular regime and peace treaty with Israel they opposed.
He admitted that he gave his approval to Khalid Islambouli to carry out the attack against Sadat. Islambouli, an Egyptian military officer, was later convicted for his role in the killing and executed by a firing squad.
Mr El Zomor was sentenced to 30 years in prison for attempting to overthrow the regime by force. Even after his long imprisonment, he said he has no regrets about giving a nod to Sadat's murder.
The Egyptian leader "didn't allow anyone to be a part of the political process, so he was the author of his own demise," he said.
Mr El Zomor had no reprieve until President Hosni Mubarak was forced from office in February 2011. Within weeks, Egypt's military rulers issued an order freeing him and hundreds of other Islamists from jail.
For Mr El Zomor, the difficult task of surviving Egypt's prisons now has been replaced by the challenge of persuading Egyptians that he and other Islamists can govern and improve their standard of living.
They must prove, he said, that they can address the "essential needs" of Egyptians by increasing wages, curbing corruption and providing a better quality of life.
Only then can the larger task of making Egypt a "truly Islamic country" take place, he added.
While an Egyptian government based on Sharia is the ultimate goal, coercion is out of the question, Mr El Zomor insisted.
"There is a lot of debate within the different Islamic groups about how quickly we can apply Sharia," he said. "We believe you can never impose laws on people that they don't want. We must apply them in stages, in coordination with preaching Islam in society and achieving freedom and justice in the country… The task is to convince [people] that there is a better way to live."
Mr El Zomor's assertion that civil law must not be discounted represents a far cry from the views of Gama'a Islamiyya in the 1970s and 1980s, when it argued that sovereignty belongs to Allah and man-made laws were illegitimate because they usurped the divine's jurisdiction.
If the evolution of Gama'a Islamiyya's views on jurisprudence is an eyebrow raiser, its perspective on electoral politics has been nothing less than jaw-dropping.
Gama'a Islamiyya's political party, Construction and Development, won 15 seats in recent parliamentary elections. It plans in two years to spin off an Islamic organisation that helps communities and provides religious education to the wider Egyptian public.
For now, however, the movement is devoting its energies to party politics - a stunning turnaround for a movement that has been accused of involvement in among many acts of violence, the Luxor massacre in 1997 in which 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians were machine-gunned and hacked to death with knives.
The creation of a political party alone "is not something its members could have ever conceived of in the 1980s", said John Calvert, the author of a biography of Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist thinker whose ideas inspired generations of violent extremists.
Mr Calvert, a professor of history at Creighton University in the United States, praises the development because it gives a legitimate avenue for expression to groups who lacking it responded to repression with their own brand of violence.
"There is every reason to believe that if the electoral process in Egypt succeeds, political involvement and accountability will continue to move in a democratic direction," Mr Calvert said.
"To be sure, Gama'a Islamiyya still has some vociferous and angry elements in its ranks, but the Arab Spring has proven to all of its members that peaceful protests in cooperation with other groups within society pays potential dividends, whereas militancy almost certainly leads to prison, possibly the gallows, and social and political instability."
So far, most Islamist groups in Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa have adopted the same political script and refrained from pushing a radical agenda with their new-found political clout.
That is why the outcome of Gama'a Islamiyya's venture into party politics is a bellwether, analysts said.
Decades after the more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence, Gama'a Islamiyya still advocated armed resistance, not abandoning it until 2003.
Consequently, its rank-and-file tends to have a more radical world view. If its turn towards retail politics is now vindicated, it will send an important signal to anyone who believes violence is still a viable strategy for political change.
So far, the trend away from violence is holding, said Osama Rushdi, a former member of Gama'a Islamiyya who visited Egypt last year for the first time after more than 23 years in exile
"You may have individual cases but not organised groups in Egypt pushing for violence," Rushdi said in a telephone interview .
Although Gama'a Islamiyya's change of course has gained a measure of public acceptance in Egypt, the movement is still considered a "terrorist group" by several countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.
To some in Egypt and elsewhere, there is also the dismaying refusal of some Egyptian Islamists to condemn violence across the board.
Magdy Salem, a former senior member of Al Jihad who was released after 18 years imprisonment last year, said that the nature of waging "jihad" has changed for Egyptians because they have political freedom.
However, armed struggle was still legitimate for people in occupied countries such as Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories, and for fighting corrupt leaders in places like Syria, Salem said.
"The jihad now in Egypt is returning to God and developing the country," he said. "Our jihad against the government before was part of a historical moment. They suppressed us and arrested our members, and we responded."
For now, El Zomor, whose two phones constantly ring with calls from his party's MPs, is preoccupied with proving that Islamic principles can solve societal problems and dispelling fears about Islamists like him.
"All the fears that people had of us in the past had no basis in reality," he said. "They were planted by the old regime to disparage the Islamists."
This is part three of a three-part series on Islamists Rising in Egypt. Wednesday’s first part - Eight men freed in one more milestone for Egypt’s Islamists and on Thursday - Long-time Islamist prisoner faces a whole new Egypt