Egypt’s Reaction: The U.S. and the War Against Terrorism
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ramadan in Cairo, post-September 11. It’s sunset. Those who are fasting can eat again after a day without food and water. In neighborhoods all over the city, wealthy people have set up what are called “Tables of God,” where the poor, or just people passing by, can dine free of charge.
On this night, they ate quietly and quickly and then left. But some stayed because they were eager to talk about terrorism and Islam.
MAN: This is really a Muslim. But most Muslims hate war. No war.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’re saying this is the true Islam? It’s not…
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: …War.
MAN: Yes, this is Islam, really. But with the war, it is too bad. Too bad, the war. We not like war, but this is really Muslim man, like this.
MAN: As you see, we don’t know each other, but we collect it, and we slave… In this place…
MAN: Coming from all over.
MAN: …And we are from many different governors.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Uh-huh. States.
MAN: Yes. But we came here around 5:00. This is the time at which we can eat.
MAN (Translated): Islam doesn’t know the words “hate,” “war,” “jealousy,” “cheating.” The West doesn’t know that Islam is a religion of forgiveness, a message of peace.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do some people like Osama bin Laden here?
MAN: No, not at all.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Nobody?
MAN: No, no, no.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You don’t support Osama bin Laden?
MAN: Osama bin Laden? No!
MAN ( Translated ): Osama bin Laden has a point to be made regarding the Arab states and Islamic states, but he’s making it the wrong way, which is international terrorism, because terrorism breeds terrorism.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Each Egyptian we talked to this week said that the terrorism confronted now by the United States was all too familiar to them.
ABDEL MONEM SAID: That’s because… Not because that’s the war of the United States. It is our war. We have been in the trenches before the United States. Welcome aboard.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Abdel Monem Said is the director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
ABDEL MONEM SAID: They bombed the cafes in Egypt. They shot at terrorists, they shot at trains, at boats in the Nile.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: At your president.
ABDEL MONEM SAID: At our president. They killed our president before.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The president was Anwar Sadat, shot to death by Islamic militants in 1981. Since then, the government of President Hosni Mubarak has been at war with many of the same people and groups believed responsible for the events of September 11.
Ayman al Zawahiri, who founded al-Qaida with Osama bin Laden, was a leader of the group that killed Sadat. Al-Qaida’s military chief, Mohammed Atef, was also Egyptian. He was reportedly killed by American bombing this week. And Mohamed Atta, who flew one of the planes into the World Trade Center, was the son of a Cairo lawyer.
The Egyptian government’s fierce antiterrorism offensive in the ’90s made it very difficult for those militants to function inside Egypt, and so they left, and began to work internationally. The last significant attack in Egypt occurred in November, 1997, when terrorists killed 62 people — 58 of them tourists — at Luxor, in upper Egypt.
Four years have passed since then, but the campaign here against militant Islamic groups continues. According to human rights organizations, there are about 15,000 people in prison who were detained under emergency antiterrorism legislation.
Most are tried in military courts, where they are kept in cages during the proceedings. And arrests continue. This week in a military courtroom closed to cameras, but much like the one seen here, a high-profile trial of 94 alleged terrorists is under way.
Human rights organizations in Egypt and the United States have criticized the lack of due process in the military trials, the torture of detainees, and conditions in prison. But government leaders like Moustafah al-Faqi make few apologizes.
MOUSTAFA AL FAQI, Egyptian National Assembly: Each country has its own set of values and ideals, rights, and traditions. That’s why the human rights is a relative issue; it’s not an absolute issue. It depends on the criteria, each society. I’m afraid that America will follow us, after some years to come, in certain criteria and measures against terrorism.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Like the military courts.
MOUSTAFA AL-FAQI: Yes, of course. The style of American life will be changed because you have faced the same problems. I remember we were attacked strongly because of the military courts, et cetera, et cetera. But it was one of the ways and means to stop terrorism.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Immediately after September 11, President Mubarak denounced the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, and said he supported the U.S. right to strike back.
But his response differed greatly from “Desert Storm,” when he had helped put together the coalition that drove Iraq out of Kuwait, and when thousands of Egyptian troops were among the first to fight. For this new battle, though, there would be no Egyptian soldiers and fewer statements of outright support.
Also, the Egyptian press, including “al-Ahram,” which is close to the government, unleashed a torrent of criticism of American support for Israel and the bombing of Afghanistan. In response, The Washington Post editorialized that Egypt’s “autocratic ruler, Hosni Mubarak, props himself up with $2 billion a year in U.S. aid while allowing, and even encouraging, state-controlled clerics and the media to promote the anti-modern, anti-western and anti-Jewish propaganda of the Islamic extremists.”
Other American newspapers were critical, too. Abdul Monem Said, who writes a column for “al-Ahram” said his American counterparts overreacted.
ABDUL MONEM SAID: You’ll find Egypt is full of different types of opinions, and all these opinions, some of them with, some against the United States. Some of them are just outright propaganda for certain political forces. Some are kind of deep type of analysis. Each kind of variety you get in Egypt is worth, I think, looking at… seriously — not like you pick here and pick there to fit a previously conceived kind of an idea.
The media in Egypt probably, and the United States more, is making wrong reading of American-Egyptian relations, which I think on the people’s level and on the government’s level, is quite strong.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In fact, while Egyptians go about their everyday lives — working, shopping for Ramadan, playing backgammon with friends — behind the scenes there is increasing cooperation between Egypt’s security forces, who are ubiquitous in Cairo, and the FBI. U.S. agents in Cairo are working with their Egyptian counterparts to gather as much information as possible about suspects in the September 11 attacks.
Also, hundreds of overflights of U.S. warplanes have been authorized by the Mubarak government, and the authorization process for U.S. warships to transit the Suez Canal has been greatly speeded up.
This cooperation is not popular in poor Cairo neighborhoods, like Imbaba, where Islamic radicalism has sunk deep roots and where security forces have been particularly brutal. Many people in Imbaba do not like what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan.
MAN (Translated): Terrorism is everywhere, all over the world, not just in Afghanistan. America should not put so much pressure on Afghanistan. They have old women, old men. Those old people have given us no trouble. It’s difficult to pinpoint where the terrorists are, so what’s happening in Afghanistan is not fair.
DIA’A RASHWAN: They have the feeling now that this war, whole international war against international terrorists, it’s only international war led by Americans against Arab or Muslim people.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dia’a Rashwan has studied Egypt’s radical Islamic movements for two decades at the “al-Ahram” think tank. He said the men in Imbaba may fear they could be targeted next.
DIA’A RASHWAN: You could have, in my mind, many… a lot of new groups which will be created in the future only to defend themselves, their societies, their countries, from which we call now the American aggression against Arab and Muslim people — as it’s in Afghanistan.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Most of the Egyptians that we spoke to said that they feel relatively safe from terrorist attacks now, but a lawyer close to the underground group said they may be weakened, but they’re not defeated.
Montasser al Zayat was a member of a group called Gamaa Islamiya and was imprisoned in the 1980s. He claims he no longer supports terrorism, but he still represents militants as an attorney.
MONTASSER AL ZAYAT, Attorney (Translated): Anyone who imagines that the Islamic groups have been vanquished, I say to them, “No.” No, and they will not be. No government or nation will be able to break them, because the militant Islamic groups have a long heritage and history of Islam.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In Afghanistan, it appears — perhaps it’s wrong — but it appears that people have welcomed the fall of the Taliban. What is your response to that?
MONTASSER AL ZAYAT (Translated): The Taliban is in crisis. And I don’t want to make it harder for them, but who says the Taliban represents the right implementation of Islam?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In the poor neighborhood of Imbaba, as in other parts of Cairo, there is much sympathy for the Palestinians. The men we spoke to in the street there brought it up and claimed a resolution of that conflict would help end terrorism. Montasser Al Zayat shares that view.
MONTASSER AL ZAYAT (Translated): It’s very important the U.S. understand the feeling of hate against them. It’s because of their policies. Even those people who attacked the U.S. didn’t do it because of the American people.
We don’t hate Americans because they are American. We don’t hate the French or British, despite the fact that they occupied our land for 70 years. We don’t hate the Germans. So the hate — and it’s very important to clear up this point — is directly related to U.S. policy.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Parliamentary leader Moustafa Al Faqi puts it differently.
MOUSTAFA AL FAQI: A more troubling terrorism with the Palestinian question, but from the other side I would like to say, more justice in international relations. Narrowing the gap between poor and rich countries and states, it will help in depriving terrorists from their raison d’etre.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that Egypt has won its war against terrorism?
MOUSTAFA AL FAQI: More or less, I can say yes. We have the upper hand now. After a continuous, long fight. It doesn’t mean that we are 100 percent safe. The old terrorist circles underground are still watching and monitoring what’s going on. Okay?
If they have a chance to react or to respond, they will. Definitely. They will not be able to do it in the United States. They have to do it in the Middle East to do it, anywhere else, but they have to respond.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But Abdel Monem Said believes events in Afghanistan and elsewhere have weakened radical Islamic groups.
ABDEL MONEM SAID: Iran has nothing to inspire them. Sudan, already, they are out of power. And in Algiers, they are making a despicable kind of… horrifying kind of an example. Of course, Afghanistan, it shows. The pictures now show what they are. So in a sense, I think Islamic political activism has been weakened.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And so, in this Ramadan season, as people gather in prayer at al Azar mosque, which dates from the 10th century, Egyptians are waiting and wondering what further effects the events of September 11 might have on them.