Monday, June 20, 2011

An about-face for Egypt's jihadists

Egyptian papers reported today that al-Jama'a al-Islamiya, a jihadist group that waged violent warfare against Egyptian society and state during the 1980s and 1990s, is forming a political party. This is a remarkable about-face, if contextualized.

During its violent years, the group claimed that because the Egyptian government did not rule in 100% accordance with Islam, it could be considered an infidel regime. The state was not only illegitimate, but an enemy of Islam- thus, any means of violence was sanctioned against it.

The group's leaders had a change of heart while imprisoned ... in short, al-Jama'a figures decided that they could embrace a government that deviates from Islam. They would still object to said government and try to Islamicize it, but would consider themselves bound to it nevertheless. Al-Jama'a also started to adopt ideas of pluralism and peaceful participation in politics during this period. However, the Mubarak regime had no intention of letting them participate in the political system; the group's commitment remained untested.

This changes now. Al-Jama'a is free to organize, and it has in fact gone in the direction of party politics. They are not only condoning, but choosing to be a part of the system they so vehemently rejected only 20 years ago.  Being totally inexperienced in politics, they will likely not have a significant impact upon the Egyptian scene... no real need to worry whether Egyptians will be subjected to religious police in 2012.

However, their opportunity to translate jihadi revisionism into action may have important implications for the group itself. The decision of political participation has been known to fracture Islamist movements (the Muslim Brotherhood being the most notable example). It will also likely have implications for the Islamist spectrum,with violent elements being very marginalized at this point.

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