London, Asharq Al-Awsat- In the Arab World, it is hard to find anyone in tune with current events who does not know Muntasir al-Zayyat. Al-Zayyat is the principal lawyer of the defense panel of the Islamists charged with political motivated violence in Egypt.
Al-Zayyat Born in Aswan Governorate in southern Egypt, later joining the Islamist movement in Egypt in 1974, where he was taught by Sheikh Abdullah al-Simmawi. Al-Zayyat was charged with belonging to the Jihad Organization in 1981, which resulted in him being imprisoned for three years.
After being released on 23 October 1984 he established the Islamist lawyers’ group at the Lawyers Syndicate in 1985. The group has been defending the detained Islamists from numerous groups.
Al-Zayyat’s knowledge of fundamentalism goes far beyond “Islamic Groups,” of which he is accused of belonging, but also to Al-Qaeda. His latest book “Al-Qaeda, Its Establishment and Its Roots” is near completion.
Asharq Al-Awsat sat down with this controversial figure, to uncover the man behind the headlines.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) did you always intend on becoming a lawyer?
(Al-Zayyat) After obtaining the General Certificate of Secondary Education in 1974, my father’s wish was that I attend the new Antiquities College, on the basis that I was from Aswan Governorate that was well known for the antiquities and temples of the ancient Egyptians. My father’s view was that that college would guarantee good job opportunities in antiquities and tourism. However, I insisted on studying law, which I considered the college of politics in which the leaders graduated. My father agreed, and I joined the Faculty of Law at Cairo University.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) If you could turn the clock back, would you follow the same road?
(Al-Zayyat) Definitely, especially as I have gone through difficult experiences in my life. After joining the Islamist movement, I had a hunger to study Shariaa, in addition to my organizational activities. There were some suspicions that aroused about the study of law, and hence I stopped my studies for years until I was arrested after the assassination of (Egyptian President Anwar) Al-Sadat, and my trial in the case of belonging to the Jihad Organization in1981. As I was in solitary confinement being tortured in Al-Qal’ah Prison, I was longing for a visit by a lawyer, and then I understood the importance of studying law and working as a lawyer. I completed my studies while I was in prison, and as soon as I was released, I started to practice as a lawyer. I moved from behind bars to the defense rostrum, and I found in it wider horizons, jihad through the word, a call, and a vocation.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What is the most difficult situation you were involved in after your arrest in the Al-Sadat case?
(Al-Zayyat) I think that there were many harsh situations. However, the most difficult are two. The first was while I was on the run after the assassination of Al-Sadat. I was accompanied by Rifa’i Taha, the leading member of Al-Jama’ah Al-Islamiyah (Islamic Group); brother Majdi Salim, the well-known leading member of Jihad who is still serving hard labor for the Tala’i al-Fath case; and the third one was brother Adil Abdul-Majid Abdul-Bari, who is currently detained at Belmarsh Prison in London. We were planning to release our brother detainees from the military prison, but the security organizations discovered our plan after we were arrested. The second situation was my appearance on Forum for Opinion program. I was then in the Al-Qal’ah Prison being tortured; I was given a prepared statement to make but one of the brothers – called Mahmud Abdul-Hamid – who was from the same prison spoke before me, which I used as an opportunity to avoid repeating the prepared statement. Indeed, as soon as we returned to prison, the officer said to me, “Why did you not say what we agreed?” I said: “Sir, Mahmud said all that.”
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Were you tortured? After that, did you identify the officials responsible for your torture?
(Al-Zayyat) No detainee escaped being beaten up and tortured during the investigations of the case of Al-Sadat’s assassination, and the Jihad Organization. The fact is that Maj-Gen Fuad Allam is responsible, as he was the chief of combating religious extremism and deputy chief of State Security Investigations Authority at that time; however, because of legal loopholes he was not charged in the case that saw 44 officers and soldiers charged. Personally, I received the first slap on my face from him during my arrest on the Nile bank on the road to Ma’adi (south of Cairo).
(Asharq Al-Awsat) How many days did you spend in prison after you joined the Islamic Group?
(Al-Zayyat) In the first arrest after the assassination of late President Sadat, I spent two-and-half years, as I was arrested after a lengthy chase in August 1982, and I was released in October 1984; in 1986, I was detained for two months; in 1987, I was detained for three months; and in 1994, I was detained for eight months.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The Islamists in London say that you live “between the lion’s jaws,” i.e. you are under the control and surveillance of the security organizations. Therefore, the Islamists forgive your dealing with these organizations in order to ease the suffering of the detainees, or to arrange for their families to visit them?
(Al-Zayyat) I am the son of the reality in which I live. I will let you know that I have learned a great deal. Since I was arrested in 1982 I have been representing my brothers in the negotiations in prison; this is how I acquired experience. In the world of religious or political organizations and groups, you can easily discover the infiltrations. The thing that bestows credibility most in the missions I performed is openness; I do in daylight what others do secretly. Secretiveness is ambiguity and suspicion. As a lawyer and representative of thousands of detainees and people charged in cases of violence, I deal with the security organizations as legitimate institutions of the state in order to fulfill the interests and requests of those I legally represent. When I am about to meet someone from the security institution, I say to the brothers close to me, and who are concerned with the issue, that today I will meet someone from security. I do not feel weak or sensitive. On the other hand, there are others who contracted secret deals, and we do not know how or when this happened. There are relations that are not clear to others, perhaps by some living in exile; perhaps some people understand these relations in the light of the necessity of having to deal with their files. What is important is that in all cases I do not involve myself in organizational details that have nothing to do with me. Thus, every time I have been arrested because of my work as a lawyer, I feel very confident because there is no “organizational tail,” and by the grace of God, I end up released and stronger than before.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Did you feel embarrassed because of Al-Zawahiri’s personal attack on you in his book, “Knights under the Prophet’s Banner?”
(Al-Zayyat) Not at all. Perhaps if it were someone other than me, he would have perished, and would not have been able to bear it. However, I have a mission, and I am not an intruder into the Islamic movement who came only through the door of being a lawyer; I have been the son of the movement since I was very young, and I ask God to allow me to live and die as a believer and as a Muslim. Dr. Al-Zawahiri is dear to my heart, and I appreciate him, however much others might be angry because of what I say, and however much I disagree with some of his convictions. Dr. Al-Zawahiri adopts a course of action, which I describe as “coup d’etat course;” as for my humble person, I have an opposite viewpoint. As my efforts in the field of putting an end to the fighting operations in Egypt preceded the initiative of the Islamic Group, it is natural that Dr. Al-Zawahiri would direct his fierce criticism at me, rather than directing it at the leadership of the Islamic Group. Therefore, I pursued refuting what he said in his book, and I published my book, “Ayman al-Zawahiri As I knew Him,” in which I defended my viewpoint, and defended my plan and honor. Here I am before you, by the grace of God, I continue my activities and my mission.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Has there been any contact between you and Dr. Al-Zawahiri after he criticized you in his book?
(Al-Zayyat) No, because if this happened, then by now I would be in Guantanamo camp in Cuba with the wronged people. The last contact between Al-Zawahiri and I was in March 1977. It was a telephone call about the appeal for ending the violence, which I launched; Al-Zawahiri was very angry because of this appeal, and I explained to him my viewpoint, the circumstances that motivated me, and the way I saw the reality in which we lived in Egypt; there were thousands of prisoners and detainees, there were young men whom we lost in security incursions that ended up with their death, there were thousands of families without a breadwinner, and there was the Islamic call that was affected by the atmosphere of bullets and bombs.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) But recently it has been rumored that you exchanged messages with Al-Zawahiri?
(Al-Zayyat) These rumors have caused great embarrassment for me. The confusion happened as a result of the Washington Post publishing a report about Al-Zawahiri that included the incident of these messages, which took place four years ago. This journalist met me some time ago, and conducted an interview with me. Some people thought that what the Washington Post published was new, and that the interview was recent, while the fact is that I organized a forum through the “Al-Mustaqbal Center for Studies,” which I manage in Egypt, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the September 2001 events. On that occasion, I published on the Al-Mustaqbal Center website a message from me to Dr. Al-Zawahiri in which I asked to conduct a dialogue with him to exchange views about his stance toward these events and their consequences. The message was published on many Islamists websites in the hope that Dr. Al-Zawahiri, or one of his friends or followers, would visit any of these websites and see the message. However, some six months later I received at the Al-Mustaqbal Center mailbox two e-mails – I cannot categorically say that they came directly from Al-Zawahiri, because I have no categorical evidence – that included the reply to this aforementioned message. We published this at the time in 2002. However, the Washington Post’s recent publication of this article confused some people, as they thought that I was republishing this information in order to look for a role. May God forgive me and forgive these people, because someone like me does not need to look for a role, or for superficial publications in the media. I believe that I have a reasonable presence, and I am capable of putting serious issues to the public opinion whenever there is a need for this without fabricating an occasion.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Is the character of Riyad al-Khuli in the “Birds of Darkness” film by the actor Adil Imam meant to represent the lawyer Muntasir al-Zayyat, or was the issue merely artistic projection?
(Al-Zayyat) Naturally I am not the man portrayed by Wahid Hamid in the film “Birds of Darkness.” These are accusations that have been directed at me for a long time without any proof. I am here, and I am free, because I am not the one to convey from within prisons commissions to commit murder, sabotage, or explosions. As I said before, I am honored to be one of the sons of the 1970’s generation that witnessed the modern birth of the Islamist movement, and I am not merely a lawyer who deals with it. However, definitely there is a drama attempt by Wahid Hamid to sabotage the role of the lawyers who are well known for defending the members of the Islamic groups, and to distort their efforts and their distinguished status in defending freedoms. I am honored to be one of these lawyers who gained the trust of the Islamist youths, and who transformed the law profession into a mission and a vocation. From this angle, we are all this man. When my fellow Islamic lawyers filed a court case to stop the showing of the film, I personally went and convinced the lawyers to abandon the case, so that we would not give anyone the opportunity for one-upmanship, and to portray us as standing against creativity and the freedom of expression.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What kind of non-political programs do you watch, other than those on Al-Arabiyah or Al-Jazeera?
(Al-Zayyat) I am from the generation that has a close relationship with Al-Jazeera satellite channel, because it has been the direct factor in relaying our issues clearly and in breaking all the barriers and obstacles that prevented us from appearing on Egyptian TV and the Egyptian domestic media. We provided Al-Jazeera with information, and it gave us the opportunity to publish and express our views. However, I also watch On the Air program by the journalist Jamal Inayit, Cairo Today program by the journalist Amr Adib, and sometimes I watch Who Will Win the Million by George Qirdahi. Whenever the series Amr Bin-Abdulaziz or the Unknown Prince, in which Nur al-Sharif excelled, is repeated, I watch it. I also watch most of the Syrian historical drama, such as Al-Hajjaj, Dhi-Qar, Spring of Cordoba, and Kings of the Sects.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Are all your lifetime friends from the fundamentalist tendency, or does your liking encompass others?
(Al-Zayyat) There are friends from the periods of youth and university with whom I keep close relations, and we meet occasionally. Whenever I go to Aswan I meet them. These friends do not belong to any groups, and they do not have political interests. Whenever I meet them I feel happiness reminiscent of the days when we were young; they are Muslims and they practice the rites, but they are not from the fundamentalist tendency. Among my close friends are some from whom I have been separated by time and circumstances. The most prominent of these friends are Majdi Salim, who is also my brother in law, and he is absent because of a long imprisonment sentence; there is Adil Abdul Majid, who is absent abroad living in London since 1992, and then in Belmarsh prison; Dr. Hani al-Siba’i, who currently lives in London, is one of the dearest people to my heart, because of his purity and refinement, and because we spent long years sharing the good and the bad until he emigrated; my beloved friend Tharwat Salah Shihatah, who is one of those on the US wanted lists, and is sentenced to death twice, and we established together the law firm in which I currently work; and Nabil Na’im, who is one of the leading members of Jihad, and is detained since 1991. As for my non-Islamist friends, the most prominent among them is Mr. Muhammad Salah, the well-known journalist.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you listen to music? Who was your favorite singer to whom you listened in your youth? During your relaxation times, do you for instance listen to Umm-Kulthum or Abdul Wahhab? What is the song that is embedded in your memory?
(Al-Zayyat) No, I do not have musical interests. Since I joined the Islamist movement I listen to the well-known chanting of Abu-Mazen, and other Islamic and patriotic chanting. As for my youth, like the rest of my generation, I used to listen to Abdal-Halim Hafiz and Umm-Kulthum. However, now and for the last 30 years, I do not listen to singing or music.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What do you do if you are interviewed by a pretty female broadcaster on a satellite channel? Do you follow the principle of the first glance is allowed, or do you follow the jurisprudence of necessities?
(Al-Zayyat) I wish that this would be considered by the sister broadcasters when they host religious personalities, or people of religious and intellectual interests, and that they would observe this special characteristic; this is a practiced custom, and not a new invention. I wish that some of the female broadcasters who have adopted the veil would adhere to the Shariaa veil, which covers the pockets and the bosom. I used to feel embarrassed when attending the program of the broadcaster Halah Sarhan when she was working for Dream TV; however, in most other satellite channels, usually, with God’s guidance, everything works all right. In most cases we appear on the screen from the satellite bureaus in Cairo, and our concentration is on the camera only. We ask God to grant us health and a good ending.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) If a young man proposed to your daughter, what are your conditions, for instance, would you want him to be an Islamist, rich man, or a businessman?
(Al-Zayyat) I will not put any conditions more than those put by the Prophet, God’s prayer and peace be upon him, “If someone whose faith and morals satisfy you, then marry him off.” I learned to pay attention to both the appearance and the substance, but not to exaggerate the interest in the appearance without paying enough attention to the substance and content.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) In your day-to-day normal life, are you liberal in your thinking, or are you a hard-line Islamist?
(Al-Zayyat) I try as much as I can to be a moderate Islamist. I teach my children what is allowed and what is prohibited by God, but at the same time we sit down for sessions of chatting and entertainment. Whenever I need advice, I gather my family, my wife and children, and we discuss the issue until God guides us to a conclusion.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you regularly follow a diet, or practice any type of sports?
(Al-Zayyat) Obesity is one of the most important problems I face in my life. I always resort to diet, go back to be obese again, and so on. A number of years ago I was able to reduce my weight by 30 kg in nine months, I preserved this weight for two years, but unfortunately obesity overcame me during the past two years. Now we are starting another round of diet, coupled with warnings by doctors. Unfortunately lack of free time does not allow me to practice any sports.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Did you have a love story with the girl next door in Aswan before traveling to Cairo?
(Al-Zayyat) May God forgive what is in the past. The fact is I have never loved any female as much as I love my wife, whom God gave me, and who has been the best help during the crises and hard times. She stood by me during all the periods of my detention and imprisonment, and I am very grateful to her.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What is the latest book you are giving to the Arabic library?
(Al-Zayyat) My latest book, which is about to be published is “Al-Qaeda: Its Roots, Establishment, and Extensions.” It is going to be published in both Arabic and English. It includes eight chapters. It criticizes and analyzes the establishment of the Al-Qaeda Organization, and its historical background as a body with two heads: Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri; the role of Ayman Al-Zawahiri and his men in the establishment of the organization, Bin Laden’s first project about advice and reform, the international front for fighting the Jews and the Crusaders, Bin Laden’s control of Al-Qaeda, and the role of the Arab Afghans in the establishment of Al-Qaeda.