“I am the one who sent Mohamed Atta to Afghanistan,” Naim says proudly of the lead pilot of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And yet here he sits: He was released from prison in March, just weeks after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, who had kept him locked up for 20 years. It’s astonishing that such a man now walks free in the streets of Cairo, along with hundreds of other Islamic militants recently paroled from Mubarak’s prisons.
But Naim is not as scary as he sounds. Al-Jihad abandoned violence in Egypt years ago; “We were exhausted,” he says, and at 53, he looks it. The former terrorist concedes that this country is headed toward Western-style democracy: “It’s the only available option.”
My conversation with him and several other Islamist political leaders this week pointed to the risks of Egypt’s ongoing democratic revolution — but also to the reasons that the ascendancy of parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood should not be as alarming as many in the West suppose. An Egypt dominated by these groups would be a difficult partner for the West and a menace to secular Egyptians. But the challenge would more closely resemble that of Turkey’s democratically elected Islamist government than that of Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The biggest reason for this is that the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the more fundamentalist parties to its right, have renounced violence. Apart from a few militants embedded in Bedouin tribes of the Sinai Peninsula, there are no armed Islamists in Egypt. Senior Brotherhood spokesmen such as Essam al-Erian, who met with me after this week’s first round of parliamentary elections gave his movement more than 40 percent of the vote, have been repeating for years that the group favors, as he put it, “alternation of power through regular elections.”
There is plenty in the platform of the Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party that secular Egyptians and Westerners will find troubling. While favoring a free-market economy, it calls for limiting foreign funding to civil society groups and media, criminalizing adultery and abolishing the National Council for Women, “which acted as an intelligence arm of the international players in Egypt.”
Although Brotherhood spokesmen have said they would preserve Egypt’s peace with Israel, the platform says that Egypt should “aid and support the Palestinian people and Palestinian resistance against the Zionist usurpers of their homeland” — the language of Hamas. The more fundamentalist parties known collectively as salafists, which appear to have won more than 20 percent of the vote in the election’s first round, are considerably more militant, both about Israel and domestic social policy.