“I need money for a trip to Afghanistan,” I said, wondering why my mother looked at me as if I was a nutcase. “I am not going alone. The whole class is going,” I decided to reassure her. The next morning she went to meet the administrative assistant who laughed her heart out as she told my mom that the trip was to the zoo and that I must have misunderstood. “What kind of a misunderstanding could that be? Where did she get Afghanistan from?” my mom asked. “Oh! That’s another story,” the assistant replied casually. “The school is collecting money for the fighters in Afghanistan.” “Are you serious?” mom sounded like the answer had to be “no” and the woman did not sound like she was lying when she said she was unable to see the problem.
That was it, my mom gave the assistant a lecture that contained too many complicated words for a six year, it was something along the lines of “indoctrinating the children,” “marring the political outlook of future generations,” “mixing education with politics” and the like. My mom then insisted to know whose initiative it was, especially since this was a private school that does not get instructions from the government as far as its internal activities are concerned. “All schools are doing this,” the woman replied, and before mom was able to snap again, she quickly added, “this is to support Muslims in their fight against Communists, you know.” “Thank you for the information,” mom grinned, “but we’re not paying.” “As you wish, Madame,” the assistant replied in what seemed to be a euphemism for, “it’s not like your money will make a difference.” Mom made a dramatic exit from the woman’s office dragging me by the arm as I asked persistently, “so where will the trip be?”
Understanding with age
Later on I understood the reason for my mother’s reaction, but I also understood why the assistant found this reaction abnormal. The Muslims versus Communists discourse was intensively promoted by the Egyptian government. Late president Anwar Sadat had become a U.S. ally and was openly crushing Communists and flirting with Islamists and it was only after his death that Egypt’s logistic and military involvement in the Afghan conflict became common knowledge. The school initiative, which could have been recommended, even if it wasn’t dictated, by the authorities, was one of many manifestations of support for what was perceived as a war for Islam and of resistance to what was perceived as the threat of Communism. Very few, obviously including my mother, understood the meaning of a proxy war and foresaw the repercussions of internationalizing the Afghan conflict.
When fighters from across the Muslim world started joining Afghans in their struggle against the Soviets, the modern concept of jihad came into beingSonia Farid
It was when fighters from across the Muslim world started joining Afghans in their struggle against the Soviets that the modern concept of jihad came into being, for it was no longer seen as the Afghans fighting foreign troops in their countries, but rather Muslims declaring war on infidels. That was also when any country in which “believers” engaged in conflict with “enemies of Islam” became an open battlefield. Iraq, then Syria, offered the most poignant example of the continuation of the foreign fighters’ tradition and it did not matter whether the enemy was an occupying force or citizens of the country. Similarly, it never mattered that neither the Soviet troops, summoned by the Afghani government, nor the mujahedeen, backed by the CIA, reflected the will of the Afghan people.
An invitation to Egypt
Toppling Muslim Brotherhood rule constituted an open invitation for jihadists from outside Egypt to join the conflict that ensued between members of the group on one hand and the police and the army on the other hand. The aim was to subvert the “coup” that was marketed as an attack on Islam. Recruitment of foreign militants seems to have been made possible through fiery speeches in which Brotherhood leaders called upon Muslims across the world to save their Egyptian brethren, speaking from the podiums of the sit-ins staged in protest of the ouster of President Mohammad Mursi and through religious edicts that rendered waging war on the Egyptian state a holy duty. However, the presence of those militants was actually made possible by the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood not only because of the presidential pardons Mursi issued for convicted terrorists, who of course maintained links with other organizations outside Egypt, but also because of the Brotherhood’s alliance with foreign groups that constituted its only line of defense against the Egyptian military. The collaboration between the ruling Brotherhood and Hamas facilitated the entrance of large numbers of militants from the Gaza Strip into the Sinai Peninsula, which has lately metamorphosed into a training camp for extremist groups and a death trap for police and army officers. Egypt’s borders had never been as porous as they were during the year of Brotherhood rule and that allowed huge quantities of heavy weaponry to enter the country from Libya and Sudan.
The Muslim Brotherhood was establishing its own militia which it would have used to suppress all sorts of insurgency, whether military or popular. It only did not have ample time to see the project completed and tested, yet the nucleus of this project made an appearance in the clashes the followed the ouster of Mursi and the dispersal of the sit-ins as militants from Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, among other countries, were arrested as they fought alongside the Muslim Brotherhood. The black flags of al-Qaeda were also brandished in several pro-Mursi demonstrations in a clear indication of the link between the Brotherhood and terrorist organizations that operate internationally.
Unlike the conventional cases of Iraq, where there was an actual occupation, and of Syria, where the strife took a sectarian turn, Egypt is more alluring for foreign fighters since it provides them with the opportunity to take part in a universal scheme similar to the one propagated in Afghanistan and which portrayed their struggle as part of a broader mission whose outcome is bound to transcend the frontiers of the local war zone. The Muslim Brotherhood’s professed cause is not much different from that of the mujahedeen, one in which domestic gains are only a prelude to an international victory, of Islam in this case. That is why in the doctrines of both the Brotherhood and the jihadists, the unity of a given country, is a marginal issue and national disintegration does, in fact, expedite the achievement of the ultimate goal. Unlike the mujahedeen, who came from several parts of the world, members of the Muslim Brotherhood are Egyptian yet both engage in a war that is, unlike most wars, devoid of patriotic sentiments and that gives precedence to a project over a homeland.
Because of this ideological framework, it would be quite naive to assume that the role of foreign militants in Egypt would end with the elimination or disbanding of the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamist extremism was not uprooted with the withdrawal of Soviets from Afghanistan or Americans from Iraq and the same would apply to the toppling of the Syrian regime. Osama bin Laden was not ruined when the CIA abandoned him. The fall of an enemy or the loss of an ally does not usually weaken groups involved in international jihad for the first scenario would make them more confident and the second would make them more adamant.
Sonia Farid, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Cairo University. She is a translator, editor, and political activist. Her social work focuses on political awareness and women’s rights and her writing interests include society, politics, and security in Egypt. She took part in a number of local and international conferences and published several academic papers. She can be reached at email@example.com