The ideology of radical Islam was developed in Egypt, and its cadres were hardened in the prisons of the country’s authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak.
But as anti-government demonstrators battled it out with government supporters in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square on Wednesday, jihadi groups found themselves curiously on the outside.
As Mubarak’s government teetered, jihadis wrestled with what it meant to see a principal adversary assailed by an uprising whose agenda they do not share, with a potential slate of candidates they do not support waiting to take his place.
The ambivalence of the radical groups played out this week in their web forums along with calls to use the chaos to their advantage.
At Muslm.net, a website associated with Al Qaeda in Egypt, the call was for foreign youths to come to Egypt to join the jihad.
“Hey, brothers, the fall of Egypt’s tyrant is a fall of the earth’s tyrants,” it urged. “This is the time to slaughter the cow.”
That, one expert said, was about the most they could make of the crisis. “Like always, Al Qaeda’s online movement is viewing this through consummately opportunist lenses,” said Jarret Brachman, a counter-terrorism consultant.
Elsewhere, web postings urged jihadis in Egypt to attack the Arish-Ashkelon gas pipeline, which goes to Israel.
As-ansar.com, a Qaeda website, urged jihadis not to spend energy protesting, but to exploit the deteriorating security situation to seize military weapons and to gather the names and addresses of spies and government officials for future assassinations, “as the mujahedeen did in Iraq”.
The jihadi groups, which created mayhem in Egypt in the early part of the last decade, were largely crushed by Mubarak’s government, and do not enjoy popular support.
They face structural challenges in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative but non-violent organisation, forms the best-known political opposition.
Though many Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, began in the Muslim Brotherhood, the two movements often have contrary positions, and the Brotherhood on Tuesday announced its support of Mohamed ElBaradei, a liberal Muslim, to lead an opposition umbrella group in negotiations on a new government to replace Mubarak’s — a position that is antithetical to Al Qaeda, because it exalts human authority rather than divine.
From their weakened position, some jihadis struggled to figure out their role in the protests in Cairo.
In a post on the Ansar al-Mujahedeen forum, an anonymous writer noted many jihadis’ objections to the demonstrators’ “mistakes and distance from religion.”
But he added, “It is nevertheless our duty not to ignore the benefits that may come about,” including an empty throne. “Jihadists may then leap on that throne.”
New York Times