By Ahmed Imbabi
Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- After the 25 January Revolution and the election of Muhammad Mursi to the presidency, the number of Islamic Group and Jihad Organization leaders who have been released from prison has risen significantly. One of the most prominent figures to be released is the Islamic Group's Rifai Taha.
After years of being on the run, followed by a lengthy prison sentence, Taha, the Islamic Group's international representative, who in the past has been charged with planning the assassinations of presidents and government officials, has finally returned to his hometown in southern Egypt.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are your thoughts on the Anti-Islam film which insults the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and the subsequent attack on the American embassy in Cairo?
[Taha] This (movie) is a criminal act. I believe that the rulers of the Arab Spring should adopt different position from the customary denunciation and condemnation that prevailed in the past. I believe that Egypt, led by President Muhammad Mursi, must sever diplomatic ties with the United States and expel the US ambassador, if only for a short period of time. This is the only procedure that can calm the Egyptian people. If a strong position had been announced in a statement by the presidential spokesman, it would have absorbed this public outrage.
What were the circumstances involved in your prison release?
[Taha] I was released after being jailed pending the completion of the trial in which I was a defendant. President Mursi did not intervene, but we would have liked to be released as soon as the revolution began. Suffice to say that I was acquitted in a retrial of the case, just like other leaders. I believe that in the time of revolutions, all prisoners must be released. I call for the release of all (Islamist) prisoners, but we are not asking anybody for a pardon.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What were you charged with?
[Taha] I was charged in the case of the returnees from Afghanistan, but I was tried for joining group formed in violation of the law, for which the maximum prison sentence is five years. Yet, I was sentenced to death.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some say you were the Islamic Group's leader abroad when the attempted to assassinate former president Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa?
[Taha] The Islamic Group attempted to assassinate Mubarak in many locations, including Addis Ababa. The arrangements for this operation were made (by Islamist leaders) abroad, while other operations, such as the attempt to assassinate former interior minister Zaki Badr, were planned by the group's leaders in prisons (in Egypt).
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are the claims that you joined the global front, known as "Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders", which was founded by Bin Laden as a nucleus for Al-Qaeda network at that time?
[Taha] The truth is that we did not sign this statement. As we said on the Islamic Group's website at the time, which was called Al-Murabitun, we never joined this front, so we did not have to withdraw from it. We were not members in it, but if we were invited to join, we would study the matter. As for the United States, we treat it as an enemy, and we do not consider it a friend of the Arabs and Muslims. What happened was just a wrong judgment by Osama Bin Laden and Abu-Hafs al-Misri, one of the leaders of Al-Qaeda, who were assassinated. They thought that adding the name of the Islamic Group and Rifai Taha may support them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] A number of reports state that you had ties with Al-Qaeda?
[Taha] Yes, there was a relationship between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Group, but it was not in the form of a common organizational framework. It was similar to a relationship between any two political parties. There were exchanged benefits. As I said, the Islamic Group abroad was not responsible for the confrontation with the authorities in Egypt.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The leaders of the Islamic Group in Egypt, who were in prison then, used to say that the organization abroad was running operations against the state?
[Taha] The opposite is true. The jailed leaders were leading this confrontation, but they disowned them later on.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are your thoughts on the reviews carried out by the Islamic Group in the late 1990s?
[Taha] I had many reservations about the review initiative and I declared that explicitly at the time and during the State Security Police's interrogation. The purpose of this initiative was to eliminate Islamic Group members. After failing to achieve this goal through brutality, aggression, oppression and injustice to women, children and members of the group, they wanted to achieve it by blackmailing (Islamist) prisoners who had nothing. Unfortunately, they succeeded. I adopted the idea of rejecting the initiative, until the Islamic Group secures conditions worthy of its struggle and opposition to the former regime, most importantly to be allowed to practice Islamic call and politics, as well as the release of all imprisoned members and leaders of the Islamic Group, whether they were already sentenced or still being detained without trial. I also requested compensations for all jailed members of the group and their families for all the harm and displacement they had suffered. I wanted the initiative to be bilateral, not just unilateral. However, some of the historical leaders of the group in prison, who were not fully aware of what was actually happening, did not see the scene from the outside. They felt that they should respond to the regime's blows with similar blows. They consider armed attacks on the regime would make it back off. We, abroad, thought that we should be patient until we achieve our ultimate objective of establishing an Islamic state, or national state that respects the people's choice of their leaders, and end the autocratic regime.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the historical leaders of the Islamic Group justified their initiative to end violence by saying that it would end the bloodshed of the Egyptians, protect group members, and secure the release of most prisoners.
[Taha] They failed to achieve this, because the regime deceived them and no one was released during the time of the initiative. It even continued to arrest people for a period of six years after the initiative, and prisoners were not released at the end of their sentences.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is a strong belief that the Arab Spring revolutions will have a negative impact on Al-Qaeda.
[Taha] On the contrary, Arab revolutions will provide a better opportunity to move around, but there is no more justification for its existence in many places. For example, the Egyptian revolution overthrew the regime and brought a president affiliated to the Islamic Movement. So, why would it operate in Egypt? And the same goes for Tunisia as well.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that Mursi's election victory contributes to the achievement of the Islamic Group's demands?
[Taha] Why would the Islamic project not succeed in establishing an Islamic state in Egypt? The Egyptian people choose Islamists. If the people wanted something and it was positive, and the Islamic movement succeeded in the competition, there will be an Islamic state. If the Islamic movement failed to solve the problems of the Egyptian people, there will not be an Islamic state.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some of the leaders of the Islamic Group have stated publicly that they regret killing Al-Sadat. What are your thoughts on the matter?
[Taha] That is their opinion. Perhaps the killing of Al-Sadat brought an even worse president to power, namely Hosni Mubarak, and perhaps Al-Sadat's era provided more freedoms of the Islamists, but Al-Sadat himself was an arrogant tyrant, and he allowed all trends to practice politics, except the Islamic one.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are many rumours about the assassination of Al-Sadat, with some saying that Mubarak had a hand in it, as well as international intelligence agencies, including those of the United States and Iran. How do you see all this?
[Taha] This is not true. The Islamic Group killed Al-Sadat, and I was a leading member of the group and one of the planners of Al-Sadat's assassination. The plan was made by a group of young people, along with elements from the Jihad Organization. No other side was involved.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How can you say that the group has never initiated violence, when it began its activities with the assassination of President Al-Sadat?
[Taha] This is not true. The Islamic Group was not isolated from the Egyptian people. On the contrary, the Egyptian people loved and welcomed the Islamic Group at all times. Hundreds of people from Armant, which is the area to which I belong in Luxor (southern Egypt), were tortured at the hands of the authorities to lead them to me and to may arrest, after my escape, one month after the assassination of Al-Sadat. But despite all this oppression inflicted on the people of Armant, they welcomed me when I was released a few days ago.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How would you evaluate the performance of president Mursi so far?
[Taha] I think he is good and successful so far. This is promising for the Islamic Movement, but there is a great deal of pressure on him, because the secularists, whether leftists or liberals, do not want him to succeed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to dominate all state agencies, as some have alleged in recent weeks?
[Taha] Secularists want to scare people of the Brotherhood, just like Hosni Mubarak did. I believe that the Muslim Brotherhood has the right to rule Egypt, if they win the majority. No other trend, whether Islamist or secular or even Islamic Group, has the right to say the Brotherhood control or dominate [state institutions]. I do not think this is right. The Muslim Brotherhood won a majority and has the right to rule the country. If they do not succeed, the people will choose somebody else to replace them. The Islamic Group did not forge an alliance with Muhammad Mursi, but it supported him.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But there are those who say that the release of the Islamic Group and Jihad leaders was in exchange for supporting Mursi in the elections?
[Taha] This was not in exchange for supporting Mursi in the elections. Even if they had not been released, we would have supported him. Besides, he did not intervene to release me, for example.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you decided whether to participate in the activities of the Islamic Group and its political party in the near future?
[Taha] This is something for the leaders of the Islamic Group to decide.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Islamic Group leaders objected to Mursi's recent visit to Iran. How did you feel about it?
[Taha] I think that Egypt should be open to the world with a certain balance in order to be influential in its regional environment. Therefore, he should visit Iran, the United States, Turkey and others.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did Iran support the Islamic Group?
[Taha] I was in Iran. It hosted the leaders of the group for a period of time after the failure to assassinate Mubarak in Addis Ababa. They said to us "you are Sunnis and we are Shiites, and we want to have joint ventures together," but we turned down their offer. We told them that we were oppressed and expelled, so how could a small group be engaged in projects with a country. Therefore, this was not appropriate for that phase. However, they welcomed us in Iran.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are your views on the Rafah border incident, where Islamists targeted Egyptian army officers?
[Taha] I do not think that Islamists carried out this attack, but whoever did it is a sinner who must be severely punished. I imagine that Islamists, whether from the Islamic Group or the Jihad Organization, would never fire their bullets at the Egyptian army.