Notes: 1992 - Present
In 1992 at the same time extremists in Algeria were initiating a bloody war in an attempt to overthrow the government there, violent confrontations between Coptic Christians and Islamist members of al-Gama'aal-Islamiyya ("the Islamic Group"), who wanted to overthrow the Egyptian regime and replace it with "Islamic" rule, spilled over into pitched battles with police. The rise of Islamic militancy in Egypt in many ways grew out of reaction to the failed policies of its former President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser's persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood radicalized such prominent Islamists as Sayyid Qutb. (More on sectarian violence in Egypt.)
In June, 1992, outspoken Egyptian secularist intellectual Farag Foda was assassinated by al-Gama'a extremists in Cairo. (Foda had been in favor of beefing up laws against religious terrorism and also favored normalizing relations with Israel.) A crippling earthquake on October 12, 1992 temporarily strengthened the militants' hand because it was Islamist groups (including the Muslim Brotherhood), not the government, that appeared first on the scene with medicine, food, tents, and other amenities for the victims. By the end of the year, extremists began targeting tourists in an attempt to cripple one of the pillars of the Egyptian economy and bring the government to its knees.
In late November, 1992, al-Gama'a took over the working class Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba and declared it an "Islamic Republic." (Imbaba had been a stronghold of extremist support since the 1980s where "Islam" had become a cover for all sorts of racketeering by common criminals.) Government response was swift and forceful. A few weeks later in December, 1992, 14,000 Egyptian troops stormed Imbaba and occupied it for six weeks putting an end to the "republic." After this, the tide turned against extreme Islamist movements in Egypt. Huge sums of money were invested to rebuild and improve the societal infrastructure there in a successful effort on the government's part to undercut any remaining role al-Gama'a played as a deliverer of reliable social services. Mosques were put under the firm control of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
Al-Gama'a tried to recoup its losses by increasing its high profile attacks against tourists. In February, 1993, three foreigners were killed in the bombing of a downtown Cairo restaurant. From 1993 to 1997, hundreds (tourists and Egyptians alike) were killed. On October 14, 1994, Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed and seriously wounded by a Muslim extremist on a Cairo street. Some Muslim revivalists had regarded his novel, Children of Gebelawi, as slander and idolatry on account of its thinly veiled depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. (see also "Wars of Words and Images")
Moreover in 1996, an Egyptian appeals court upheld the divorce decree imposed upon Professor Nasr Abu Zaid and his wife Ibtihal Younis (also an academic). Abu Zaid's marriage was annulled on the grounds that he was guilty of ridda (apostasy): that his writings contained thoughts that are blasphemous in the eyes of Islam (for example, he stated in one of his works that some parts of the Qur'an should be read metaphorically, not literally). The divorce decree was also sanctioned by the new Sheikh of al-Azhar, Muhammad Said Tantawi.
However by 1996, the extremists showed signs that they were close to disintegration. Many of the "Afghan Arabs" in their midst, those who had gone off to fight the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan and then had returned to Egypt to wage jihad against the "impious" government at home, had been killed or arrested. Their supreme religious leader, Sheikh Umar Abd al-Rahman was serving a life sentence in an American jail for his role in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. A gruesome attack on tourists at a Cairo hotel in April, 1996 that had killed eighteen Greek tourists (fourteen of them women) further outraged the Egyptian public and turned it against the extremists, who had decimated tourism, a major source of livelihoods in Egypt.
But, one final attempt by Muslim extremism in Egypt to recover its losses remained. On November 17, 1997, fifty eight foreign tourists were massacred by a band of six militants claiming to be members of the al-Gama'a as well as Jihad Talaat al-Fath ("Holy War of the Vanguard of the Conquest"), a combination of Talaa t al-Fath and its parent group Islamic Jihad. The incident took place at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor.
Early 21st Century
After 2000, relations with the U.S. began to chill over Egypt's failure to persuade Arafat to accept the Camp David peace deal (2000) and because after 9/11 Egypt, like much of the Muslim world, went into denial and refused to admit that any of its citizens could have been involved in the attacks. Another irritant was the case of Saad al-Din Ibrahim which indicated to many that Egypt's political life was ripe for reform (see below). As the Palestinian intifada ground on, and with the run up to the 2003 war in Iraq, Egypt began to lift the lid on growing anti-Americanism in the streets. Anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstrations became more regular.
Along with anti-Israeli sentiment, anti-Semitism grew as well. The government decided to respond in December, 2002 with strong criticism of Arab anti-Semitism. And in a gesture intended to foster more tolerance for Egypt's Christian minority, the following month President Mubarak surprised his country by announcing that from then on, January 7 - Coptic Christmas - would be a national holiday. In spite of this generous gesture, violence between Copts and Muslims flared up again in December of 2004 amidst accusations by Copts that some of them were being forcibly converted to Islam by Muslim fundamentalists. These complaints received high profile legitimacy when the Coptic patriarch Pope Shenouda III went into seclusion in the desert monastery at Wadi Natrun in an effort to force the government to step in.
The question of who would succeed the aging President Mubarak became more acute. He had risen to power following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Mary Anne Weaver writing in the October 2003 issue of The Atlantic Monthly noted that after twenty-two years ruling his country (the longest presidency in Egypt's history), Mubarak appeared more and more isolated, yet more and more determined to hold on to power. He had never appointed a vice president. Some speculated that he was grooming his son Gamal to take over. Others, including prominent military men, argued that since Nasser, Egypt had been ruled only by military men, and Gamal was not one. Egypt's intelligence chief Lieutenant General Omar Suleiman was, and some were betting that he would be the country's next ruler especially given his closeness to Mubarak.
Egypt's political system and economy in 2003 and 2004 continued to stagnate. Little of the $2 billion annually of American aid appeared to be trickling down to the population of 70 million (growing by about one million per year). Egyptian GNP stood at about $1400 per year and fifty percent of the population was illiterate. The population of Cairo was growing at the rate of about one thousand per day. Overcrowding, repression, censorship, and poverty continued to fuel rising resentment throughout the population. Anti-Americanism was on the rise due to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and to American pressure on the Arab world to enact political and economic reforms.
By September of 2004, formidable pressures to reform began to appear. The Popular Campaign for Reform, an umbrella group of more than two dozen human rights and other political organizations , began sharply criticizing the regime building on such earlier critics as Saad al-Din Ibrahim (2001). Other allies in the cause were the Muslim Brotherhood and the Communists. One of the main leaders was Ahmed Seif al-Islam, director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre. In late October, the group circulated a petition with 700 prominent signatures calling for direct elections and a limit to the number of terms a president could serve. The group also called for a repeal of the emergency laws enacted after the assassination of President Sadat in 1981. (see BBC, Nov. 1, 2004)
Fresh calls for reform came on the heals of the detention of Ayman Nour, head of the Ghad Party, who was arrested on January 29, 2005 and from a group calling themselves Kifiyya ("Enough!") who opposed another term of office for Mubarak. Then, in a surprise move on February 26, President Mubarak, under pressure from the U.S. to undertake democratic reforms, asked the parliament to amend Article 76 of the constitution to permit multiple candidates in time for September's presidential elections. Pessimists were quick to point out that the Mubarak-controlled National Party remained in charge of the process, and that there were no plans to amend Article 77, which set no limits on terms of office. Unrest continued through the spring of 2005: in May the government arrested hundreds of Muslim Brothers in a nationwide sweep. In July, the editors of three prominent state-owned newspapers were replaced with younger journalists thought by some to have more credibility with reformists, but by others - opposition voices - to be hand-picked allies of Gamal Mubarak's policies committee in the ruling National Democratic Party (New York Times, July 6, 2005). Mubarak handily won a fifth term in office.
The electoral gains of the Muslim Brotherhood in November and December, 2005 marked the growth of new phase in the "Islamization" of Egypt, as some put it, which took place in the wider context of rising Islamist political power elsewhere: in the Palestinian territories, for example (see electoral victory by HAMAS in January, 2006 ) (see also Adel Guindy, "The Growing Islamization of Egypt," MERIA, vol. 10, no. 3, Sept. 2006)
| Benchmarks in Modern Egyptian History