Tag Archives: Egypt

Ayman al Zawahiri’s New Video Messages

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri released a new two-part installment of his video series focusing on Egypt, which was posted on Oct. 24. It seems there was a delay in releasing this installment, as Zawahiri apologizes for the delay of the release, and blames “the vicious war” that has been waged by “the Crusader alliance in Afghanistan and Pakistan against the mujahedin.” Thus far these messages have not generated much reaction on jihadi web forums.

In this entry, I analyze the first part of Zawahiri’s new installment, which seems to have been recorded in the run-up to Egypt’s presidential election. It features not only Zawahiri’s speech, but is also spliced with footage of other figures. The italicized texts below are either excerpts from Zawahiri’s characteristically long speech (based on a translation I obtained) or else descriptions of footage of other figures. If Zawahiri is speaking, rather than the italicized portion being a description of other footage, I enclose his words in quotations. My commentary follows each excerpt.

The video features footage of the son of the recently deceased extremist scholar Shaykh Rifa’i Surur speaking on his father’s position regarding the Egyptian elections. He states that Surur “saw the invalidity of democracy,” as democracy ceded the right of legislation to humanity rather than God. Any results from such a foundation would inevitably “not be respected and not be the result of good.”

Within the first year of salafi jihadi reactions to the events of the “Arab Spring,” there still wasn’t a clearly delineated position throughout the movement’s major organs on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of elections. The position being expressed by Rifa’i Surur’s son, and attributed to Surur, is representative of traditional salafi jihadi position. However, as Will McCants has noted, Islamist parliamentarians pose challenges to both the salafi jihadi outlook, and also al Qaeda’s outlook specifically.

“I urge Muslims everywhere, and especially those in countries neighboring Syria, to rise up to support their Syrian brethren in every way possible. I urge them not to deprive these Syrians of anything which they might have to offer, should it help rid the Syrians of this criminal and cancerous regime which has safeguarded Israel’s borders for nearly forty years.”

Syria is a frequent theme in jihadi propaganda. In this release, Zawahiri is particularly interested in the impact of regime change on Israel, arguing that “Cairo and Damascus are the two gates to Jerusalem.” I recently conducted a review of salafi jihadi perceptions of the Arab Spring in the first year of the revolutionary events that will be published in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism in November, and not surprisingly found that harm to Israel was a recurring theme. Due to the longstanding Egyptian peace treaty with Israel, jihadis perceived the fall of Hosni Mubarak as a significant strategic setback for the Jewish state (as Zawahiri noted, Cairo is seen as one of the gates to Jerusalem).

Malcolm X makes three appearances in the video, and is identified on-screen as “The martyred preacher, as we consider him, Haj Malik al Shabazz (Malcolm X), may God have mercy on him.”

Malcolm X has previously been featured in Zawahiri’s releases. This indicates that al Qaeda likely thinks that African-Americans are a promising demographic for recruitment. One interesting question is whether the idea to use Malcolm X has been promoted by a particular Zawahiri media adviser (my guess), or whether it was done on Zawahiri’s own initiative. If it was pushed by a media adviser, that decision could well reflect the particular interests and outlook of the adviser.

“I am seizing this opportunity to repeat and affirm our support for our people in Syria and their sons, the lions of the Levant and Islam, who have thrown themselves into Islam’s battle against the forces of secularism, corruption, and injustice in the Levant of the frontline and jihad.”

Zawahiri and other salafi jihadi ideologues have a particular way of framing revolutionary events in the region. When explaining what the people are rebelling against, secularism is always at the top of their list. Indeed, in the fourth episode of his ongoing series on Egypt (posted on March 4, 2011), Zawahiri explained at length that the Egyptian people have “repeatedly demanded that the Islamic sharia be the source for laws and legislation.” Secularism, Zawahiri argues, was forcibly imposed: the Egyptian people themselves never chose it. (It goes without saying that if you were to compile the major grievances that Syrians had against the Assad regime, secularism would not be their top problem.)

“I think that our father and shaykh, Shaykh Hafiz Salamah, learned from me of the maneuvers that were being undertaken so that sharia would not be established in Egypt. Among the examples of these maneuvers were the games played by the Military Council in the presidential elections. Guided by the Military Council, the committee overseeing the presidential elections brought about the disqualification of Hazim Salah Abu-Isma’il, despite a ruling from the judges in his favor, while they affirmed Ahmad Shafiq, despite a judicial ruling against him. The disqualification of Hazim Salah Abu-Isma’il is a lesson for every Muslim who thinks that sharia can be established in Egypt by way of secular constitutions that give sovereignty to the people, whereas in Islam, this right goes to God alone.”

A significant portion of Zawahiri’s speech focuses on how Egypt’s implementation of sharia will be watered down. He speaks, for example, of the inadequacy of constitutional provisions stating that sharia is the principle source of legislation, saying that “resorting to texts like these, so full of holes, will not achieve sharia rule.” Among other things, the inadequacy of Egypt’s sharia provides an ongoing justification for opposing the Egyptian state.

The video also features footage of several Egyptian jihadi clerics whom Zawahiri endorses. These include Ahmad Ashush and Abd al Hakim Hassan (a.k.a. Mujran Salim).

Ashush is one of several salafi jihadi figures who have given interviews to Arab television stations over the past few months; Muhammad al Zawahiri is another. When he appeared on Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr (Al Jazeera Egypt Live) in July, Muhammad al Zawahiri said that it was “the first time I have been allowed — not me as a person but we as a trend — to speak about ourselves.” He continued, “We were the only trend prevented from airing our views. The media always paint us in a false and brutal light, so that America’s aims of tarnishing the image of Islamic jihadist trend are achieved.” Though Muhammad al Zawahiri’s appearance did not go particularly well, it will be worth watching the long-term impact of having salafi jihadi figures represent their movement on television, if it continues.

In the footage of Ahmad Ashush featured on Ayman al Zawahiri’s new release, he also adopts an anti-election posture, warning his audience against being drawn into “the political process,” such that the elections would become “the alternative to the revolution.”

“The battle in Egypt is crystal clear… It is a battle between the secular minority that is allied with the Church and is supported by the junta — the product of Mubarak and the Americans, and supported by America and the West — and between the Muslim ummah in Egypt that is striving to implement sharia, liberate itself from subordination, liberate Palestine and the lands of Muslims, achieve social justice, and fight financial and moral corruption. This is the reality of the battle, and the enemies of Islam possess the military might, the security apparatuses, the corrupt judicial system, and the money that corrupts politics and media.”

This is also a common jihadi framing: that the overarching conflict is between Islam and secularism. Note that if the post-Mubarak Egyptian government is anything less than perfect — and surely it will be — Zawahiri’s framing blames secularism for corruption, social injustice, etc. In this regard, Zawahiri’s speech has much in common with other utopian ideologies that hold the change they advocate will sweep away all that is wrong with the world.

There is footage of Ahmad Ashush sitting with other men in Tahrir Square. He criticizes the constitutional court that issued rulings legalizing “fornication, alcohol, sodomy, and gambling,” and calls for changing the “security, judicial, and cultural institutions” built on “secularism.”

This footage is used by Zawahiri to point to the constitutional court as “an idol that is imposed on us.” Its rulings on these social issues, to Zawahiri, demonstrate how it is subordinating Islamic law and allowing immorality. I am currently working on a larger project about how academics understand religion in the context of the salafi jihadi movement. A number of prominent commentators have held that religious ideas are essentially irrelevant to this movement, but instead it is motivated almost exclusively by politics — a position that was always difficult to sustain, but is becoming increasingly so. In that regard, Ashush’s listing of these constitutional court rulings, and the fact that they made their way into an al Qaeda video, is a data point worth noting. To Zawahiri, the constitutional court “is a secular court whose religion is secularism,” and its only legitimacy “is the legitimacy of wolves and thieves.”

“The battle has not ended, but it has started, and it is incumbent upon Shaykh Hazim, his supporters, and all the sincere people in Egypt to wage a popular campaign of incitement and dawa to complete the revolution that has been aborted, and whose gains have been compromised. They must do that to realize the aspirations of sharia implementation, as well as honor, justice, freedom, and dignity for the mujahid, Muslim, and steadfast people of Egypt, and to compel the corrupt forces in Egypt to submit to the demands of the people through the popular, revolutionary work of incitement and dawa.”

Note that Ayman al Zawahiri’s immediate call is not to violence, but rather to “incitement and dawa.” As noted earlier, Muhammad al Zawahiri said that his television appearance represented the first time that the jihadi current was allowed to speak for itself. Beyond that, some of the changes in the new Middle East — regardless of whether this process of opening up is on the whole good for these societies — provide jihadis with the opportunity to undertake more intense dawa efforts than they have before, in an effort to draw others toward their understanding of Islam. This advocacy of undertaking dawa in the wake of the revolutions is widespread among jihadi observers, including Hamzah bin Muhammad al Bassam, Abu al Mundhir al Shinqiti, and Ayman al Zawahiri himself. One should not conclude, however, that intensified dawa efforts mean a repudiation of violence. Thinkers such as Ayman al Zawahiri see the salafi jihadi response to the “Arab Spring” as moving in stages, and a current dawa strategy will in Zawahiri’s view give way to a stage of jihad. Bassam has argued that dawa efforts need to eventually produce “real and open existence for jihad,” which will in his view produce a true implementation of sharia. Without violence, Bassam asserted, the efforts of Islamists will have no results “other than gathering and dispersion,” because a number of different “intellectual trends” will be competing for power.

“The second condolence goes to the enduring and steadfast shaykh of the mujahedin, the revered Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, may God release him from captivity, and his son Muhammad, better known as the lion, and to his honorable family, for the martyrdom of their son Ahmad Bin-Umar Abd al-Rahman, may God have mercy on him, in an American bombardment in the pure land of Khorasan [Afghanistan]. May God grant expansive mercy upon him and accept him and the jihad he waged and the emigration he undertook. May He provide for this noble family that has remained steadfast and patient for God despite afflictions. Let me emphasize to our noble shaykh, Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, to his sons, and all the other Muslim prisoners and their families, that we will spare no effort, with the aid and support of God, until we liberate every prisoner in infidel hands, or we will die trying.”

Zawahiri is of course referring to the “Blind Sheikh,” imprisoned in the U.S., whom Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi has also said he would work to free.

There is an excerpt of a video interview with Julian Assange with Arabic subtitles, in which he explains his views on the “military-intelligence complex,” Guantanamo, and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Colombia. Al-Zawahiri continues: “This is what America fears about al Qaeda. It knows that this message and that call portends its demise and destruction, God permitting. Therefore, America and its allies and rabble seek to eliminate the leadership of al Qaeda both morally and materially. But by the grace and power of God, this shall never, ever happen.”

Individuals have little control over whether organizations like al Qaeda use their words and ideas for propaganda purposes, but it is interesting to see Assange used as a propaganda piece in this video.

There is footage of Malcolm X predicting worldwide revolution against “the international power structure” set against signs from the Egyptian revolution. Zawahiri continues: “What is encouraging is that these regimes began to collapse and crumble before the American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, whereas the Soviet-supported regimes of the Warsaw Pact did not begin to collapse until after the Russians left Afghanistan. This indicates that America is in a state of profound weakness that may surpass that of the Soviet Union in its final days, and that the coming change will be even greater, God permitting.”

Two aspects of this are worth noting. One is that a continual feature of bin Laden’s rhetoric was the idea that he and other Arab mujahedin had caused the Soviet Union to collapse — and that by bleeding the U.S. economically, al Qaeda was doing the same to America. (Bin Laden’s October 2004 speech is most prominent in this regard, but he made similar claims in other addresses, such as a September 2007 video.) Zawahiri is hitting the same theme in this speech. Among other things, this framing places al Qaeda as a key cause behind the Arab Spring through the damage it did to America, even though it played little role in the actual revolutions. The second thing worth noting is the way the Malcolm X clip is being used. Malcolm X wasn’t predicting an Islamist or jihadi revolution, but rather a more widespread revolution against the “power structure.” Throughout this tape, Zawahiri positions al Qaeda as a kind of ecumenical organization that can fulfill the revolutionary aspirations of many disparate groups.

“Obama should admit that he was defeated in Iraq and that he withdrew from it, and that he is being defeated in Afghanistan and has decided to withdraw from it. He was defeated in Tunisia when he lost Zine El Abidine, and defeated in Egypt when he lost Mubarak. He was defeated in Libya when he lost Al-Qadhafi, who handed him his nuclear program and cooperated with him in the torture of the detainees in the war on Islam under the pretext of terrorism.”

The claim that Obama was defeated in Libya when he lost Qaddafi is a bit difficult to sustain, isn’t it?

There is a still image of Malcolm X with Arabic subtitles of his statement: “The slave master took Tom and dressed him well, and fed him well, and even gave him a little education. A little education. Gave him a long coat, and a top hat, and made all the other slaves look up to him. They used Tom to control them. The same strategy that was used in those days is used today by the same white man. He take a negro or so-called negro and make him prominent. Build him up, publicize him, make him a celebrity, and then he becomes a spokesman for negro, and a negro leader.” Zawahiri continues by saying that Obama “was brought in as the progeny of a Muslim father and from African origins to continue the system of aggression against Muslims and the vulnerable others, which exploits and robs them.”

This is not the first time that Zawahiri has referred to Obama as a “house negro” or an “Uncle Tom.” He has in the past also relied on Malcolm X to make this claim. Zawahiri’s new tape similarly uses footage of Cynthia McKinney as a propaganda piece for this racialized claim, in which McKinney says that “these wars are being carried out in black face.”

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Terry Jones and U.S. Foreign Policy

Today, a lot of attention was devoted to an anti-Islam film that may have played a causal role in recent anti-U.S. protests in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia. For the record, I am skeptical that this film actually motivated the attack in Libya, which seems to have been planned in advance, but its role in motivating the Egypt and Tunisia protests is more plausible. The U.S. military is taking the anti-Islam film seriously enough that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Florida pastor Terry Jones on Wednesday and “asked him to withdraw his support” for the film. Jones didn’t serve as the film’s producer, as was erroneously reported early on, but had planned to show it on his website. Dempsey’s major concern is the possibility for the film provoking violence in Afghanistan: when Jones was responsible for the burning of a Qur’an in March 2011, it caused deaths at a U.N. compound in Mazar-e Sharif.

It’s unclear if Jones will withdraw his support for the film. However, it is clear that one otherwise inconsequential man holding American foreign policy hostage (albeit to a small yet deadly degree) through his actions is going to be an ongoing part of twenty-first century diplomacy, something that has been enabled through advances in communication technology. I wrote about Jones, and his previous stunt, in Bin Laden’s Legacy. My analysis there remains applicable in light of this new incident:

There are, of course, many clear advantages to advances in communication technology. Important voices that would have been marginalized or ignored two decades ago have been able to play a role in public debates. At its best, access to numerous competing sources of information can produce instantaneous fact-checking and expose one to a diversity of perspectives, thus producing more accurate and nuanced analysis. But there is also a clear dark side to these advances. They not only empower deserving voices that illuminate otherwise neglected aspects of an issue, they can also empower the voices of those who don’t really deserve a podium: the bigots, the demagogues, and the charlatans.

Even one individual can hold America’s foreign policy hostage to some degree. This was the case with Terry Jones, an obscure Florida pastor who became a major international news story in September 2010 when he threatened to burn a Qur’an. Even General David Petraeus weighed in on Jones’s threats, arguing that burning Islam’s holy book would endanger U.S. forces. Although Jones didn’t follow through on his threat in 2010, in March 2011 he organized a mock trial of the Qur’an in which he served as the judge. (This “trial” also featured attorneys for the prosecution and defense, as well as witnesses.) At the end, Jones declared the Qur’an guilty, and it was set aflame.

Less than two weeks later, an angry crowd in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, attacked a U.N. compound and killed at least eight people. Although there were multiple responsible parties for this outbreak of violence—not least the crowd itself, as well as President Hamid Karzai—this illustrates how one lone extremist can cause deaths halfway around the world and threaten critical U.S. foreign-policy objectives. One aid worker in Afghanistan commented at the time, “This is not the beginning of the end for the international community in Afghanistan. This is the end. Terry Jones and others will continue to pull anti-Islam stunts and opportunistic extremists here will use those actions to incite attacks against foreigners. Unless we, the internationals, want our guards to fire on unarmed protesters from now on, the day has come for us to leave Afghanistan.”

It will be virtually impossible to stop rogue individuals like Jones from igniting similar controversies. Their impact can be mitigated, but one reality of life in the early twenty-first century is that lone nuts can influence geopolitics in ways they couldn’t have twenty years ago. In 1991, Jones would most likely have been consigned to the letters-to-the-editor section of the local newspaper, his Qur’an-burning antics earning no more than local exposure.

Stunts like this will have international ramifications again in the future, and lives will be lost as a result. This new dynamic needs to be understood, and deserves serious discussion.

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The Forgotten Secularists of Egypt’s Revolution

In late April, supporters of a hardline Islamist group camped out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to rally for their presidential candidate. I was visiting Cairothree years after I lived there, and downtown looked completely different than what I remembered. Men with full beards and women in black niqabs were rallying for shariah law and carrying the raya, the black banner often carried by Sunni fundamentalists across the region. These were rare sites a few years ago when downtown was packed with American University of Cairo students, tourists, and businesses thriving off of the capital city’s commotion. The demonstration occurred against a backdrop of street art depicting the young martyrs of the revolution, many of them clean-shaven and dressed in Western clothing. The contrast between these new protesters and those depicted on the wall illustrated the early evolution of the new Egypt.

Salafi Rally in Tahrir
Salafi Rally in Tahrir

Meanwhile, across the 6 of October Bridge, the activist band El Zabaleen headlined a concert for Earth Day. Zabaleen, which means “garbage people” in Egyptian Arabic, refers to a class of people who collect and recycle most of trash generated by Cairo’s 6 million residents. As students at American University of Cairo, the band formed as a way to bring attention to the grave environmental state of the city, and to Egypt as a whole.

Last week, Egyptians headed to the polls for their first free and fair elections. The resulting runoff between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi and the former Mubarak official Ahmed Shafiq leaves voters in the tenuous position of having to choose between an Islamist domination of the government and a remnant of the regime they revolted against.

Though an Islamist domination ofEgypt’s politics seems highly possible now, this was not necessarily the case in January 2011 when the revolution seized Egypt. At that time, the members of El Zabaleen had joined their friends and classmates in Tahrir to protest a system, and a government that was no longer tolerable even for the wealthy and employed. Youssef El Kady, the founder of El Zabaleen, describes the other early revolutionaries: “You can’t really generalize by saying it was young people or Salafis or whatever, but from my perspective, I think that it started off not by the people who are struggling economically, but rather with the people who are fed up with the corrupt system that has been there all their life.”

In January 2011, many in Egypt shared El Kady’s perspective. While the Arab Spring found its catalyst in a poor Tunisian street vendor, the impetus for the revolution in Egypt was Wael Ghonim, an educated Google executive who was raised in a middle-class family. Ghonim and other young activists used not just their presence in Tahrir but also social media to topple Mubarak. There are disagreements over the extent to which Facebook and Twitter themselves produced the revolutions, but studies such as the Dubai School of Government’s Arab Social Media Report give empirical substantiation to the unique and prominent role of these online tools.

But on Earth Day 2012, none of these educated, well-off youth could be found in Tahrir. The liberal parties have taken a backseat to Islamist and military political dominance, despite Cairo’s prodigious graffiti and artwork depicting the martyrs of the revolution – many of whom were employed young adults or current university students.

Instead, Tahrir was packed with ardent supporters of Salafist leader Abu Ismail. While it is difficult to summarize the broad spectrum of Salafism with one definition, Center for Naval Analyses analyst and Johns Hopkins adjunct faculty Will McCants  describes the practice in the Brookings report Lesser of Two Evils as “the method modeling one’s thought and behavior on Muhammad on the first three generations of Muslims, called the ‘forefathers’ (salaf).” Salafists generally adhere to a strict interpretation of the Qu’ran, and many shun participation in parliamentary democracy. As such, most of Egypt’s “quietist” Salafi leaders were apprehensive of or outright resistant to the uprising against Mubarak in early 2011, and conservative religiosity was uncommon in downtown Cairo even after the early days of the revolution.

So where did the Salafis come from, and how did the Salafis manage to win a quarter of the seats in the recent parliamentary elections?

El Kady explains, “When we went into the streets on January 25, we never dreamed of what could happen in a couple weeks. After Mubarak fell, we were ready for the Muslim Brotherhood but the Salafis were very much a surprise. We didn’t even realize there were Salafis in Egypt.”

McCants contextualizes not just the little-known presence of Egyptian Salafis, but also their unprecedented political participation. He explains that Salafis not only existed before Mubarak’s fall, but were able to organize freely because they shunned involvement in politics and thereby earned Mubarak’s “benign neglect.”

While there is a distinction between the now organized Salafi party members and the illiterate, religious, conservative masses who voted for Salafi parliamentarians, McCants concedes that it is hard to quantify this distinction from publicly available reporting. Nonetheless, it is clear that “the Salafi parties are formidable, drawing their support from charitable institutions with broad geographical reach, popular satellite channels, and deep pockets that are allegedly filled with Gulf petrodollars (estimated by one analyst at $1 billion).”

As for the original protestors, it should be no surprise that the majority of Egyptians are not liberal secularists. They are a very small minority of the Egyptian population; as Hudson Institute research fellow Samuel Tadros aptly writes, “Egypt is not Cairo and Cairo is not Tahrir Square.” Too, there is a sense, even among themselves, that the secular liberals retreated too early, pulling back just as Mubarak fell.

This has engendered sour feelings among those who had supported the young revolutionaries. Salwa, an artist and mother of two living in Cairo, told me, “I feel betrayed. I feel like we all went out into the streets and supported these young people and put our lives on the line. But as soon as they thought they won, the streets were left empty. They didn’t think ahead and now you have people in Tahrir who want to mix religion and politics and to take away our freedoms.”

Other secularists seem to have a more realist approach to the events of the Arab Spring, both in recognizing their populist shortcomings as well as the incumbency of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Mariam Ali, the lead singer and eponym of another Earth Day activist band, AboMariam, explains, “SCAF kind of pulled the rug out from everyone, I think, by having Mubarak step down and having it seem like the revolution had succeeded – which it has in some ways, but it’s not even close to being over. Despondency and despair is our enemy, not people.”

As an outsider, I expected there to be more animosity between these rival groups and viewed the Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood as having hijacked the revolution. But many of the young secularists I spoke with repeated this sentiment that they are not particularly worried about who is in Tahrir. They were more optimistic that they were free of the initial grievance of the revolution, the state of emergency law. And it is abundantly clear that people, from Salafis to secularists, are finding a myriad of ways to remain politically active. Ali explains, “People are campaigning for their rights, engaging in political discussion, through music, film, theater, comedy, street art and much more. It’s like new life has been breathed into them. It’s enough for me that we feel we have a claim in our country and its future.”


Tara Vassefi is a faculty member with the Naval Postgraduate School’s Leadership and Development Education for Sustained Peace program. She received her Master’s from the University of St. Andrews and lived in Syria and Egypt from 2007-2008. These views are her own and do not represent those of LDESP, CCMR or NPS.

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