Alexandria'S Islamist Activists: Then And Now
By EWI EXCLUSIVE | by J. Millard Burr
Tuesday, November 1st, 2011 @ 4:33AM
On the third day following the outbreak of war in the Sinai, all was chaos in Alexandria. The Israeli Airforce was known to have destroyed the Egyptian airbases in both the Western Desert and the Cairo region, and Israeli planes controlled the skies. In Alexandria harbor nervous Egyptian warships fired off their guns in expectation of a momentary attack.
Mobs of Europeans, Levantines and Arab expatriates who had found a home in Alexandria had crowded into shipping agencies and offered incredible prices for a single ship passage out of country. Thousands left. Few would return. The cosmopolitan city belovedly depicted in verse by such greats as Cavafy, Forster and Durrell was dying.
Three months following the disastrous conclusion of the Six Day War, the obituary in commemoration of a cosmopolitan Alexandria was being written. Egyptian President Gamal Abd al-Nasir was continuing with a vengeance his plan to “Arabize” Alexandria.
Until his death in 1970, Nasir waged unremitting war on the Muslim Brotherhood — the only entity ever to seriously challenge the Egyptian military (and his) control of government. Ironically, Alexandria was never a problem, but with its Arabization, the Muslim Brotherhood worked assiduously but very quietly until General Anwar al-Sadat, a former member himself of the Muslim Brotherhood, took power following the death of Nasir. Once settled in power, Sadat acted generously: The Ikhwan al-Muslimun could operate openly as long as it did not make trouble and understood there was no place for it in the military’s manacled civilian government.
At the time Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by members of a Salafist movment — which was comprised by former members of the Muslim Brotherhood — Ikhwan members could be seen collecting funds both on the street and in the mosques they controlled (especially in the port and western sectors of Alexandria). The funds would be used to pay the passage of jihadists to Afghanistan and their war with the Soviet Invaders. On the streets of Alexandria that once bustled with the activity of a score of nationalities, Muslim women dressed in a curious semi-burkha, and that dress perfectly depicted the demise of cosmopolitan Alexandria and the rise of an incipient Islamist movement.
Although General Mubarak, who was to succeed Sadat, never trusted the Muslim Brotherhood, he too came to an understanding with the Ikhwan. If it did not challenge his or the military authority, it would be allowed to continue its social welfare activities relatively unhindered. Thus, by the end of the decade of the eighties Alexandria city and its University of Alexandria had become the nexus of an incremental Ikhwan resurgence. The Muslim Brotherhood was by then more active, more zealous, than they had been in thirty years.
In late 1988 the United States Consulate in Alexandria had made note of a revived Ikhwan, and the phenomenon was the subject of two major cables. The Alexandria reporting provided a unique perspective because Mubarak had a stranglehold on government and there was really little independent political activity within Cairo itself.
The Alexandria consulate cable sent on 27 September 1988 described, “Alexandria’s Second-Echelon Sheikhs: Giving Breadth and Depth to the Trend.” The report provided an invaluable tour d’horizon of the growth of Islamist “politics, economics and social affairs” as witnessed in Egypt’s second city. As the report admitted, the persons discussed were relative unknowns outside of Alexandria, yet the analysis gave “real breadth and depth to the Islamic trend” occurring in the city. Although they were termed second-echelon figures, it was not done “to belittle their importance.” Given especial importance were: (a) Hassan al-Brins. (b) Khaled Daud. (c) Wagdi Ghoineim. (d) Dr. Ibrahim Zaafarani.
A second cable sent shortly thereafter stressed that although one might be tempted to visualize a number of “trends” given the information provided, the Consulate was “increasingly struck by how prominently the [Muslim Brotherhood] figures [are] in the trend in Alexandria. (J. M. Berger (ed.), “Islamic Extremism in Egypt, Volume 1, Intelwire Press, 207, page 112.)
Nearly a quarter-century later, some prominent Islamists that were noted in the Consulate cable are deceased. Others, however, have survived and are now counted among the most powerful politicians to emerge in the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 “Arab Spring.”
(a) Hassan al-Brins. In 1988 Brins was a 39 year old physician and emerging Islamist powerhouse at the University of Alexandria’s College of Medicine. Leader of that institution’s Salafiyiin, he was given credit for notable “organizational skills.” He was also held responsible for the violent activity that had erupted on that campus. He was then considered a protegee of the “Great Sheikh” Mohammed al-Maraghi, and he was said to recieve funds through Wahhabi allies in Saudi Arabia.
In September 2011 Brins announced from his Ikhwan power base in Alexandria that he was leading a movement to force the military council from power. To achieve that end, he announced that the Ikhwan was “willing to offer a martyr if the parliamentary elections are delayed.” The implied action was judged much too precipitous by the Ikhwan central in Cairo, which on its own behalf retracted Brins’ threat. (“Brotherhood member retracts threat against military council,” Al Masry Al Youm, English edition, 29 September 2011.)
(b) Khaled Daud (Dawood). Long a powerful Islamist figure in western Alexandria, he had earlier fled Egypt and like many other Ikhwan found employment in Saudi Arabia as a teacher. Eventually returning to Egypt, in 1988 he was considered the guiding spirit behind the growing use of the “niqab” (full veil); he did not bother to disguise his hatred for Egyptian Copts who comprised about fifteen percent of Alexandria’s population. He was a close ally of Ikhwan leader Wagdi Abdel Hamid Ghoneim, leader of the Islamist trend in the eastern quarter of Alexandria. Both were blatently anti-Semitic and Anti-Copt. Daud was a master of propaganda and his cassettes were disseminated widely.
In July 2011 Al Ahram noted (“Brotherhood divided by five,” Issue 30 June-6 July 2011, No. 1054,) that just as the Mubarak government was crumbling, the Ikhwan seemed to be doing likewise. The journal sensed that the Ikhwan al-Muslimun was no longer the soldidly-based Gamaa (organization). Rather, four new organizations had recently split from the parent: Al-Nahda (Renaissance), Al-Riyada (Pioneer), Harakat Al-Salaam Wal-Tanmaya (Movement for Peace and Development), and the Al-Tayar Al-Masri (Egyptian Current). All were then unlicensed since none were recognized by the military council in accordance with the political parties law it had issued in March 2011. Daud, still an important figure within the Muslim Brotherhood, was a leader of the Al-Riyada branch, but he admitted publicly he had not left the organization.
(c) Wagdi Abdel Hamid Ghoneim. In 1988 Goneim was considered a “rising star” in the Islamist movement. From his base in a mosque located in the eastern quarter of Alexandria, he controlled by force of personality and fiery rhetoric a large and growing following. His influence already extended beyond the city, and he had many followers in the Nile Delta and Beheira Governorate. Casettes of his sermons were being distributed throughout Egypt. The Alexandria Consulated called him “blatantly anti-Christian and anti-Jewish.”
In recent years Sheikh Wagdi Goneim has emerged as one of the best-known Egyptian clerics. He has hardly mellowed, and in a February 2010 appearance on Al Aqsa Television (Hamas/Gaza) he stated, “We pray to Allah that we be terrorists, if terror means Jihad.” In early 2011 he used the media to exhort Cairo’s Tahrir Square mob to revolutionary activity.
(d) Dr. Ibrahim El Zaafarani. In 1988 Zaafrani was a 35 year old Islamist activist with ties to a radical local Islamist Association. It, in turn, had close ties to the lcoal Salfiyiin group reportedly spearheaded by a medical colleague, Dr. Hassan al-Brins.
In the Al Ahram report published in July 2011, Zaafarani was said to be the leader of the Al Nahda movement, which had just broken away from the Muslim Brotherhood.
In 1988 the Alexandria Consulate was quite prescient in its evaluation of the growing Islamist movement in that city. Likewise, it provided valuable biographical data on the movement’s major players. Nearly all the individuals highlighted in cables were young men who were then creating a following of likeminded Islamists. Given the strength of their individual commitment they would eventually create a power base that would endure and emerged stronger than ever with the Arab Spring of 2011. Although the world media helped focus all eyes on events in Cairo, one should still be aware of the powerful Islamist movement these men have created in Alexandria, and its impact on events in Cairo itself.
Thanks are due to the legion of Foreign Service Officers who literally sweat blood in writing cables they believe provide invaluable slices of life. They know that work may not be appreciated (or even read), but old cables never die, they just wait to be rediscovered.
J. Millard Burr, a Fellow at the Economic Warfare Institute, authored with Robert Collins, Alms for Jihad,, Revolutionary Sudan and many other publications, and is a former State Department official.