NAHIA, Egypt (Reuters) - Abboud al-Zumar went to jail 30 years ago for his role in killing Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Now a free man, he believes democracy will prevent Islamists from ever again taking up the gun against the state.
Zumar was a prisoner for as long as Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, was president.
His release with other leading Islamists jailed for militancy is a sign of dramatic change in Egypt in the five weeks since Mubarak was swept from power by mass protests.
Zumar, 64, was a founding member of the Islamic Jihad group which gunned down Sadat during a military parade in 1981. He was released along with his cousin, Tarek al-Zumar, who had also spent three decades in jail on similar charges.
“The revolution created a new mechanism: the mechanism of strong, peaceful protests,” said Zumar, released on March 12 and one of the political prisoners who owes his freedom to the peaceful revolt against Mubarak.
“Public squares around the Arab world are ready to receive millions who can stop any ruler and expose him,” added Zumar in an interview in his home village of Nahia on the rural outskirts of Cairo.
To many Egyptians, Zumar’s name evokes a violent chapter in the history of a country that has been an incubator for Islamist militancy.
His release has alarmed those concerned by the Islamists’ move to the heart of public life in the new Egypt, where groups including the Muslim Brotherhood are making the most of new freedoms to organise and speak out.
Seeking to ease concerns, Zumar describes the Islamist movement as the “first line of defence” of Egyptian society. Islamists merely want to enjoy the same freedoms as everyone else in the new Egypt, he says.
He was in prison with Ayman al-Zawahiri, now al Qaeda No. 2, who was released in 1984 and went on to assume the leadership of Islamic Jihad. Zawahiri’s brother, Mohammed, was released on Thursday after spending a decade in jail.
Zumar has not seen Ayman al-Zawahiri since 1984 but remembers him as a “man who loves his religion and justice.”
He supports what he described as Zawahiri’s fight against foreign occupation across the Arab and Islamic world in Afghanistan and Iraq but opposes al Qaeda’s attacks on civilians anywhere.
A military intelligence officer at the time of the Sadat assassination, Zumar dismisses a story that he was its mastermind. He plays down the significance of his role, saying he merely supplied the ammunition.
If Sadat had been in power in today’s Egypt, Zumar says he could have been held to account by the judiciary. “There would have been a different mechanism of implementation,” he said.
“The coming period does not at all require armed struggle with the ruler,” he added.
Zumar’s cousin Tarek is a leading figure in the Gama’a al-Islamiya — another Islamist group that took up arms against the state. He had also been in prison since 1981.
Their lawyers had been campaigning for their release on the grounds that they completed their sentences a decade ago.
Considered two of Egypt’s most famous political prisoners, they have been guests on primetime TV, appearing in a string of interviews that have drawn criticism from secularists who say the pair have been given too much attention.
The Zumars have sought to reassure Egyptians, saying they support rights for all, including the Christian minority, and declaring past militancy a result of state oppression.
“Violence breeds violence,” said Abboud al-Zumar.
In their village, the Zumars have been receiving a steady stream of well-wishers, including youths who pose for photos and ask questions about their time in prison and their views on the meaning of jihad, or Islamic holy struggle.
They have shown no regret about the Sadat assassination, a killing driven by grievances including the crackdown he mounted against dissidents, among them Islamists, and the peace treaty he concluded with Israel in 1979.
“We loved Egypt and we wanted good for it. Today, we love Egypt and we want good for it,” Abboud al-Zumar said.
Having assumed office in the shadow of the Sadat killing, Mubarak saw the Islamists as a danger throughout his rule. He was himself the target of an Islamist assassination attempt.
In the 1990s, hostility between the state and the Islamists spilt into a low-level guerrilla war in which hundreds of people were killed.
The conflict ended in 1997 when the Gama’a al-Islamiya’s jailed leadership declared a cease-fire. Later that year, a Gama’a splinter group massacred 62 people, most of them tourists, at a pharaonic temple in Luxor.
The Zumars say Mubarak’s administration stood in the way of at least one initiative in the 1980s aimed at halting violence.
The spectre of militancy suited Mubarak, they say, allowing him to justify autocratic government and restrict freedoms that have blossomed since he handed power to the military.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is now steering Egypt’s course towards elections that it hopes will allow it to hand power to an elected government later this year.
“The climate for armed action is finished and the main reason is the atmosphere of freedom we are now establishing,” said Tarek al-Zumar, still a leading figure in the Gama’a al-Islamiya.
Enjoying freedom to organise for the first time since the 1970s, the Gama’a al-Islamiya is now regrouping. It is expected to become part of a more diverse Egyptian Islamist movement that is currently dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Our concern in this period is to anchor the basis of a just political system which guarantees freedoms and the state of law,” said Tarek al-Zumar, who studied for a law doctorate while in prison.
“The project of establishing the Islamic state as a political model will be determined by the ballot box ... and the thing that will determine its continuation in power is the choice of the people,” he said.
Editing by Philippa Fletcher