Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – Aboud al-Zumar served 30 years in jail for his role in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. He was released just weeks after the 25 January revolution – alongside other leading Egyptian Islamists – having spent the entirety of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency behind bars.
Al-Zumar is a former Egyptian intelligence officer and a founding member and first emir of the Islamic Jihad group which gunned down Sadat during a military parade in 1981. He was succeeded by Ayman al-Zawahiri, with the Islamic Jihad group later merging with Al Qaeda. Al-Zumar is a member of the Egyptian Islamic Group’s [Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya] Shura Council. The Islamic Group renounced violence in the 1990s and is today part of the Egyptian political landscape, having formed the Building and Development Party. The Building and Development Party has 16 MPs.
In a telephone interview with Asharq Al-Awsat from Cairo, al-Zumar spoke about his view and memories of the 25 January revolution, his take on the political situation in Egypt today, and his hopes for the future of the country,
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] One year after the revolution, can you tell us your impressions and memories of the Egyptian 25 January revolution? How did you monitor the situation from prison?
[al-Zumar] The revolution started as a protest movement, and we monitored this via Facebook. We were aware that the security forces were very concerned about the situation. We would use the internet and satellite television channels to monitor everything that was happening [in Egypt].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you call on your colleagues in the Egyptian Islamic Group [EIG] to take part in the protests?
[al-Zumar] No. We knew that the youth would play this role; we only provided them with material support. I issued two statements. The first statement called for everybody to support the Egyptian people and stand with this protest movement as their demands are just. The second statement was addressed to the Egyptian military and my army colleagues, and I warned the Egyptian armed forces against clashing with the people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you expect the revolution to be successful? Were you expecting to be released from prison?
[al-Zumar] Earlier, I said this was a protest movement, nothing more, but after people had been killed and injured over a number of days [by the security forces], I expected the situation to escalate and to reach a dangerous stage, and for comprehensive [political] change to take place. This is because it is well known that when people are killed, the street mobilizes. During the revolution, some people asked me: should we withdraw from Tahrir Square. I said: if you withdraw from Tahrir Square you will find yourselves next to me in Tora Prison, and so you must be steadfast in confronting the regime.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When did you realize that the Mubarak regime would fall?
[al-Zumar] When Mubarak began to make concessions…this is because I am aware that Mubarak is unbelievably politically ignorant, and I knew that he does not understand anything. I would tell people that Mubarak had one eye on the palace and another on the airplane door [i.e. he was in two minds about whether he should stay in power or leave].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is this when you began to feel that it would be possible for you to be released from prison?
[al-Zumar] We knew that when this regime collapses and is replaced, we would have a good opportunity to be freed from prison as any new regime would give us justice, particularly as we have served our sentences according to the law. This is because any new regime will try to win over the enemies of the former regime.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Were there any conditions attached to you release?
[al-Zumar] None whatsoever! I was released without any negotiations or conditions. However there were indirect offers to release me – with conditions – put forward prior to the revolution [by the Mubarak regime]. Since the 1980s the former regime offered us a number of things to secure our release. They told us: if you join the National Democratic Party, we can release you. Another time, they offered to release us on the condition that we refrain from talking about politics. As for the last such offer, this was just months before the revolution, and this offer had a very dangerous condition attached. They said: if Aboud and Tareq al-Zumar accept power being bequeathed to Gamal Mubarak, they can be released.” We rejected this saying: we do not accept somebody like Gamal Mubarak being responsible for Egypt…and if we were to do accept this, we would be traitors to God, his prophet, and the Muslim people.”
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you been subject to harassment from the security services following your release?
[al-Zumar] Not at all, I live my life normally with complete freedom, and I have not been challenged by a single police or security officer, and I say whatever I want to say at whatever conference without restriction. Personally, I am amazed by this!
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Egyptian Islamic Group’s involvement in politics has been met by strong condemnation by certain parties. How do you explain this?
[al-Zumar] This is because in the past phase the Egyptian Islamic Group has been more involved with Islamic dawa [than politics], but we now have [political] aspirations and are monitoring the political conditions and working to quickly prepare our leaders for political work so that we can regain our political position and restore our political leaders. We put forward 28 candidates [at the recent Egyptian parliamentary elections], which resulted in 16 of our members being elected as MPs; in other words 60 percent of our candidates were successful. Therefore the Egyptian people choosing and voting for our candidates confirms that we are ready to enter the political arena.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The youth who were the prime force behind the revolution feel as if the revolution has failed and been hijacked by the Islamists. What is your opinion of this?
[al-Zumar] This is not true. This revolution is the result of a cumulative effort and long struggle that cannot ignore and exclude the efforts of the previous generation. I say, this revolution was carried out by 50,000 people who were the first group to take to Tahrir Square. However many other things contributed to the revolution, such as the previous activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the mobilization carried out by the honourable opposition, as well as the newspapers, media, and human rights organization. More importantly than this was Mubarak himself; one of the major reasons for this revolution. The youth began the revolution, and they were followed by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists and all other Islamist groups, who supported them in the resilience stage.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However even if everybody did take part in the later stages of the revolution…isn’t it true that it is the Islamists and the Islamist political parties who have made the most gains?
[al-Zumar] That is their rights, because these gains have been made democratically. The revolution opened the scene to freedom of expression, and the people chose who they wanted to choose. It is the [Egyptian] people who chose the Islamist trend…nobody hijacked anything…it is the people who decided, saying: they [the Islamists] are the ones who best represent us.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people are very concerned about the Islamists reaching power in Egypt. How do you view this?
[al-Zumar] This is an illusion. They say: we fear the Islamists will do this and that. However this is nothing more than fears being provoked by the remnants of the Mubarak media. We must understand that the Islamists have not solely come to power, there are others forces in parliament with us, and we are operating by [political] accord and listening to everybody, so there is no reason to fear. I say: the man who believes in God should not be feared…for he himself fears God.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are reports that Building and Development Party MPs will seek to enact Islamic Sharia law immediately. Is this true?
[al-Zumar] Everybody who voted for the Islamist trend voted for them for this reason, for Islamic Sharia law to be applied [in Egypt]. We should not be afraid of Islamic Sharia law because it protects people’s rights…and we will seek to apply this because Islamist MPs elections are based upon this, and the popular force is behind it. The [Egyptian] people are saying: I chose you to implement Islamic Sharia law, and this does not mean killing Christians or opponents or opposition.
However Islamist Sharia law is not the primary issue today, rather we must seek to complete the [political] reform and the trials of the former regime officials, as well as solve the economic and health-care problems that Egyptian society is suffering from.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the reports claiming that your party intends to put forward a draft law in parliament granting amnesty to all political prisoners? Is this true?
[al-Zumar] This is very important; there are people who were treated unjustly during the Mubarak era who are affiliated to the Egyptian Islamic Group or the Islamic Jihad group. They did not kill anybody; they were imprisoned because they had a different political opinion [than the government] and because they support the implementation of Islamic Sharia law. It is not logical for this situation to remain the same [under the new regime] and so they must be pardoned. In addition to this, we are asking for Dr. Omar Abdel-Rahman to be returned to Egypt from US prison, as well as all members of the Egyptian Islamic Group abroad.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What if Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, former Emir of the Islamic Jihad group, wants to return to Egypt? Would you accept this?
[al-Zumar] I do not think he will return…but I have no problem with all such figures returning to their countries on the condition that security is provided for them. I have no problem with al-Zawahiri returning to his country in safety and with honor. We would welcome his return with our heads held high, after the end of the battle with the Mubarak regime; there is one problem which is that the US will not accept this [al-Zawahiri’s return], and will exert pressure on Egypt not to accept his return.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Don’t you think his return would be a risk?
[al-Zumar] His return would not be a danger for Egypt, for figures like al-Zawahiri were opponents of the former regime and their threat was solely against this regime, not Egypt. As for today, he [al-Zawahiri] is working to liberate Afghanistan and Iraq…but I do not believe that he will return.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you in contact with members of the Islamic Jihad group abroad?
[al-Zumar] No, I have avoided this because I am taking the political line; I have turned the page on the past, and opened the door to peaceful action.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you view Egyptian relations with the US and Israel in the future?
[al-Zumar] Relations with the US must be balanced and in the public interest, and so long as there is popular will for this, I believe that Egypt will have good relations with the US. However if there is conspiracy on the part of some countries to disturb parliament or handover power, this will have an impact on our bilateral relations with any country. As for Israel, there is a second peace agreement that is present and which nobody is speaking about…but this must be developed in the interests of Egypt and with the agreement of both sides.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about relations with Iran? How do you view this, particularly as tension has been caused over Iran naming a street after Sadat’s assassin Khalid Islambouli?
[al-Zumar] The former regime took an illogical position against Iran; it is politically stupid to take a position opposing Iran, and it was possible for us to deal with Iran in a better way in the interests of the region. It is not necessary to cut off ties with Iran because of a street being named after Khalid Islambouli, whilst as the same time Egypt was silent about a huge mural on the side of the Israeli Knesset which said that Israel is from the Nile to the Euphrates. I think these are historical instances that Egypt should not ignite an unnecessary crisis and battle over. Egypt should not demand the removal [of this street name]…why should Egypt be angry about Khalid Islambouli being glorified in Iran? Let us assume that a state names one street or institution after Mubarak, will the revolution take a stance on this and demand Egypt cut its ties with this country?