Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Blind Sheikh’s Family Hosts Celebration for Freed Prisoners

Hassan Khalifa

At an open fast-breaking meal outside the sit-in protest for Omar Abdel Rahman at the US Embassy, Hassan Khalifa shed tears of joy as he concluded his ten minute speech.

‘I apologize for going long, but forgive me, it has been nineteen years that I have been in prison,’ he said.

On June 21 President Mohamed Morsy issued a pardon for 572 prisoners convicted in military trials. Of these, 25 were members of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya or Islamic Jihad, groups still designated as ‘terrorist’ by the United States. Hassan Khalifa, now in a wheelchair, had been sentenced to death.

‘I praise God; I have never stopped speaking on behalf of al-Jama’a my entire life,’ he said, before switching to intercede for the Blind Sheikh.

‘Omar Abdel Rahman’s only crime was that he was the greatest one in worshipping God. He never ascribed to Islam anything that did not belong to it.’

Essam Derbala, who fifteen years ago led al-Jama’a in its Non-Violent Initiative to unilaterally give up terrorist techniques, presented Khalifa and others with a commemorative Qur’an.

Embraced in freedom

Others honored included:

  • Ahmed Abdel Qadir
  • Amr Gharib
  • Abdel Hamid al-Aqrab
  • Sheikh Abu al-Ai’ila
  • Ahmed Hammam
  • Atef Moussa
  • Attia Abdel Sami’
  • Mohamed al-Fouly
  • Hussein Fayed
  • Shawki Salama
  • Mohamed Yousry

Each of these warrants further investigation as to their crimes. I hope after further investigation to describe if these individuals were directly involved in terrorist activity and efforts to overthrow the government. Large numbers of al-Jama’a members and sympathizers were imprisoned upon association with the group, or even to pressure family members more deeply involved.

Essam Derbala

‘The United States has to stand with the people of the revolution and its demands, which include the release of Omar Abdel Rahman,’ said Essam Derbala. ‘Al-Jama’a will continue to exert all effort to obtain his freedom.’

Abdullah Omar Abdel Rahman (L), with brother Mohamed

Abdullah Omar Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheikh’s son, added, ‘We congratulate the members of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya who were released from prison. May God reward you for what you have endured.’

Abdel Rahman also relayed the testimony he received from Ahmed Raghib, the deputy minister for Egyptian affairs abroad in the Foreign Minister. Raghib told him Omar Abdel Rahman’s file was complete, awaiting only the signature of the military council or President Morsy. Once authorized, he said the Blind Sheikh would be back in Egypt ‘within hours’.

Mohamed al-Saghir

Mohamed al-Saghir, an Azhar sheikh and member of al-Jama’a’s Building and Development Party, added, ‘We tell the US administration, if you want to turn a new page with the Egyptian people, let us see your good intentions and release Omar Abdel Rahman.’

‘He was in solitary confinement for 19 years, but did nothing except call people to God.’

Abdel Akhir Hammad

Abdel Akhir Hammad is an Islamic legal scholar for al-Jama’a, and interceded for the Blind Sheikh as well.

‘They lie when they say he is responsible for the explosion of the World Trade Center in 1993; they are the first to know he is innocent.

‘We are not weaker than the government of Yemen which was able to secure the return of Mohamed al-Muayyid back to their country, from an American prison.

‘I call on Morsy to fulfill what he promised and pressure that oppressive nation which claims it defends human rights.’

Nageh Ibrahim

Nageh Ibrahim is another long-term leader of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya. Along with Derbala and others he shaped the group’s Non-Violent Initiative.

‘We never expected a president who was part of the Islamist movement, but that day has come,’ he said.

‘From the first days of our initiative we have been waiting patiently for some of these people to be released.

‘But their release will not make us forget Omar Abdel Rahman.’

Nasr Abdel Salam

Nasr Abdel Salam is president of al-Jama’a’s Building and Development Party. He focused his words for prayer on the Blind Sheikh’s behalf, especially in the month of Ramadan.

‘God works with us as we work with him,’ he said. ‘So we must aid the right and God will aid us.

‘Let us return to God and ask him to support Muslims everywhere and free Omar Abdel Rahman from prison.’

As God is sovereign in all affairs, may he honor justice, have mercy, and bless those dedicated honestly to their cause.

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Aslan Media Middle East Published Articles

Escalating Pressure for the Blind Sheikh

Omar Abdel Rahman, the ‘Blind Sheik’

On Thursday, July 26, the family of Omar Abdel Rahman ratcheted up their rhetoric in their awareness campaign to free their father. The family issued five demands to President Morsy and invited speakers to comment, some of whom threatened America harshly.

Otherwise known as the ‘Blind Sheikh’, Abdel Rahman is imprisoned in America for involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. His family claims Abdel Rahman’s arrest was political, as the US yielded to Egyptian demands to silence him from criticizing Mubarak. The family has conducted an open-ended sit-in protest outside the American Embassy in Cairo since August of last year.

Abdullah Omar Abdel Rahman, one of the Blind Sheikh’s sons, called for a press conference and invited political leaders to speak on his father’s behalf. He desired to put pressure on President Morsy to intercede in the case, to fulfill his promise made during his inaugural address from Tahrir Square. Morsy identified Abdel Rahman as a ‘political prisoner’ and vowed to work for his release, along with hundreds of other prisoners in Egyptian jails, who were jailed for their revolutionary activity.

Morsy pardoned or otherwise freed over 500 Egyptian prisoners on the eve of Ramadan. He has backtracked, however, on promises to secure Abdel Rahman’s release.

Abdullah issued five primary demands:

  • For President Morsy to form an urgent committee to visit Abdel Rahman in his American prison and check on his health and the state of his confinement
  • For President Morsy to immediately authorize legal advisors to challenge the Justice Department’s use of an antiquated law to keep Abdel Rahman in solitary confinement for 19 years
  • For President Morsy to give the green light to the Foreign Ministry to begin diplomatic efforts to return Abdel Rahman to his country
  • To apply the principle of reciprocity on every American prisoner in Egypt and subject them to solitary confinement as is done to Egyptian prisoners in the US
  • For the presidency to allow some of Abdel Rahman’s family members continual visitation rights in America until he returns to his country

Political leaders in attendance were mostly from al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, Abdel Rahman’s original group which is designated a terrorist organization in the United States. In the 1990s al-Gama’a formally forswore violent methods. Following the Egyptian revolution it has created a political party, called Building and Development, which cooperated with Salafi parties during the recent parliamentary elections.

Abbud al-Zumur

Abbud al-Zumor was the keynote speaker. A leader in al-Gama’a, he is unapologetic for his role in assassinating President Sadat in 1979.

‘Abdel Rahman was among the strongest to call against Mubarak and it resulted in his being exiled from Egypt,’ he said. ‘Eventually he went to America where he found no human rights, let alone the rights of a domesticated animal.

‘The matter is now in Morsy’s hands and he must move quickly to return Abdel Rahman safely to his family, as he is very sick.’

Mohamed Shawki al-Islamboli

Mohamed Shawki al-Islamboly is also a leader in al-Gama’a, whose brother was the actual assassin of Sadat. He recently returned to Egypt after spending many years abroad in Iran as a political refugee.

‘Abdel Rahman exposed the Egyptian regime so it pressed the US to arrest him in violation of its proclaimed human rights,’ he said. ‘This is a shame upon America.

‘We say to Morsy it is your responsibility to seek the freedom of every Egyptian who opposed Mubarak, whether inside or outside Egypt.’

Nasr Abd al-Salam

The most incendiary comments, however, were issued by Nasr Abdel Salam, president of al-Gama’a’s Building and Development Party.

‘Americans spend millions of dollars every year to improve their image in the Muslim world, but it has only gotten worse,’ he said.

‘If anything happens to Abdel Rahman, America and its people will pay the price. The criminals in the administration and the embassies will pay the price.

‘Abdel Rahman’s dignity is the dignity of every Egyptian.’

The final al-Gama’a speaker was Ezzat al-Salamony. He spoke of the need to ‘lay siege’ to the American Embassy, but Abdullah, the Blind Sheikh’s son, clarified these remarks afterwards.

Next Thursday, Abdullah said, there will be an open Ramadan fast-breaking meeting at the sit-in at the US Embassy. At that time he said they would announce the date for a massive demonstration at the complex, but there were no intentions to permanently close the embassy.

Salamony, meanwhile, clarified Abdel Salam’s remarks about ‘paying the price’. Speaking with him afterwards, he stated there were all sorts of means to pressure the American administration. Specifically he mentioned an economic boycott and sending fighters to Afghanistan to oppose the US military there. The objective would be to do to the US what was done to Russia, resulting in America’s loss of dignity in the world. This is the ‘price’ the American people would pay.

Salamony emphasized nothing would be done to American civilians, as this was against sharia law.

Other speakers outside al-Gama’a included Hanny Hanna, a Copt known as the ‘preacher of the revolution’ for leading Christian prayers from Tahrir Square.

‘The only way for Abdel Rahman to return to his children and grandchildren is to establish Egypt as a national regime,’ he said. ‘We must strive to return all Egyptians from foreign prisons as a humanistic demand.

‘As I love the Messiah I must also love the prisoner.

‘President Morsy has not dealt with his situation in wisdom. When he mentioned it at Tahrir he made the US think it was at the top of his agenda, and he made them aware of the importance of this issue. If he had been quiet and waited two years and asked then it would have been much simpler to secure his release quietly.’

Kamal al-Helbawi

Kamal al-Helbawi is a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who resigned when the group nominated a candidate for president, believing they had betrayed the revolution.

‘We as Muslims must defend the right in every place, whether it is for a Muslim or a non-Muslim,’ he said. ‘I helped defend Nelson Mandela in South Africa, so how can I not defend our sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman?

‘We must mobilize Muslims and non-Muslims, Islamists and seculars, so as to make Abdel Rahman a national cause.

‘America is not a democratic nation; it is a nation of criminals. What they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan was not even done by the Mongols or the Tartars. But we do not fear America, we fear God.’

Finally, Yahya Ismail is a religious scholar from the Azhar university.

‘We must support Abdel Rahman from every mosque, every institution, every political party, and even the Azhar itself,’ he said. ‘We must put his picture everywhere and host seminars and raise awareness. What have we done for him so far? He is being persecuted by the Zionists and Crusaders.

‘God has permitted war in the case of aggressing against religious scholars. A nation’s peace rests in the peace of its religion, and the peace of its religion rests in the peace of its religious scholars.’

Chants issued during the press conference included:

  • Oh al-Gama’a, oh al-Gama’a, we want a million-man demonstration!
  • Oh America, collect your dogs, we are tired of your terrorism!

But the microphone for the chant leader malfunctioned shortly afterwards and chants were abandoned.

Following the conference I spoke with Safwat Kamal, an unaffiliated Islamist from the neighborhood of Imbaba, Cairo. With Abdullah Omar Abdel Rahman standing beside, he spoke of the need to escalate the cause.

‘It has been a year now, and the people are getting angry,’ he said. ‘I have told Abdullah many times already, we must storm the embassy or kidnap a few Americans. But every time he says no.’


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Morsy at Tahrir

Addressing the crowd

Amid the celebrations, and worry, over Egypt’s new president, there has been a small crisis over where President-elect Morsy will swear his oath of office.

The military’s supplemental constitutional declaration says that in lieu of parliament, he must swear in at the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Many Islamists, however, fail to recognize this declaration and the dissolution of parliament, and insist he swear his oath in front of the chosen delegates of the people.

Revolutionaries, on the other hand, demand he swear his oath in front of them at Tahrir Square.

Mosry has chosen the balancing act, honoring two of three.

Seemingly submitting to the military dictate, Morsy is due to take his oath of office tomorrow. Many interpret this as a tacit acknowledgement of recent military decisions, or worse, indicative of a ‘deal’ or power-sharing arrangement.

Others say Morsy is simply playing along by the rules of the military in order to obtain the presidential office, at which point he will slowly, but surely, work to reverse their accumulated power. Under this scenario, he is currently cementing his revolutionary and centrist credentials so as to keep a popular mandate to resist, and then press against, the military.

Along this path, today Morsy pledged his allegiance to the Egyptian people at Tahrir.

During his 45 minute speech, he gave a little bit to everyone.

To the establishment he said he comes with a message of peace and Egypt will not attack anyone. Israel was not mentioned specifically but the intention was clear enough.

To the centrists he mentioned he would be the president of all Egyptians. He placed Muslim next to Christian, specified tourism workers, and included those who opposed him, and still do.

To liberals he pledged Egypt would be a civil, national, constitutional, and modern state.

But for the revolutionaries he saved his theatrics, worthy of Mario Balotelli’s pose. In the middle of his speech, Morsy left the podium and addressed the crowd directly. He then opened his jacket to reveal a plain blue shirt, and more importantly, no bulletproof vest. He trusted in God, and in the Egyptian people.

The triumphant pose against Germany
The dramatic pose at Tahrir

Morsy led chants honoring the ‘free revolutionaries who will continue the path’. He vowed not to accept any limitation on the powers of the president, implied in the supplementary constitutional declaration.

More poignantly, he pledged retribution for the martyrs and injured of the revolution. He did not specify, but most revolutionaries finger the military.

And when he finished his address, the official chanter boomed, ‘Field Marshal [Tantawi], tell the truth. Is Morsy your president or not?’ It was a direct challenge.

The only group left out of the above was the Islamists. There were no calls for sharia.

But he did tack them on at the end, almost as an afterthought. After referencing the large banner near the stage, he took up the cause of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. Known as the Blind Sheikh, he sits in an American prison for conspiring in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. From here he promised to work for the release of all prisoners incarcerated during the revolution, and included the Blind Sheikh in their number.

And finally, he called the people to unite in their love for Egypt. Yet to this he added such unity and love would ‘promote the cause of the umma’. Umma is an Arabic term generally taken to denote the Muslim nation as a whole. He did not elaborate, but perhaps hinted at, or subconsciously expressed, the greater aims of the Muslim Brotherhood project.

Reviewing Twitter later in the day, it was clear many Egyptians, even those opposed to the Brotherhood, were impressed. Perhaps not being raised in the arts of Arabic rhetoric I could not appreciate it, but I found the speech a bit rambling and repetitive. At the same time, however, it was a stark departure from the autocrat norm. Morsy was comfortable, engaged, and theatric. He reveled in his moment.

As for the content, a politician is often judged successful by how many constituencies he can please. In this case, he hit the mark. Morsy had to shy away from his base, but even the Omar Abdel Rahman reference can possibly be understood as one of justice, as I have written here, here, and here. At the least, a nation should be expected to lobby on behalf of its citizens jailed abroad, even its guilty ones. Still, the reference will give fodder for analysts to focus on Morsy’s extremist agenda, as well it possibly might suggest.

More likely it was a bone thrown to the Salafis and al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya, but who knows?

Another bone might concern the wrangling over the powers of the president. It is a key revolutionary demand, and of the Brotherhood as well. But largely it is nonsensical. Without a constitution, the powers of the presidency are undefined, yet to be determined by the people. That Egypt has reached this point is the fault and possible manipulation of many; but here, it is a rallying cry more than an issue of substance. That is, unless the charge is true the Brotherhood wish to gain control of everything.

In the end the largest question remains unanswered: Is their conflict or cooperation between the military and the Brotherhood? At Tahrir, did Morsy throw down the gauntlet, or simply pose for dramatic effect? Or, somewhat in between, was he establishing a bargaining chip? It is hard to tell. One’s answer here depends on the reading given to the revolution as a whole, not just on today’s speech.

A speech, which was on the whole successful. Is it his high-water mark, or is the best yet to come? Stay tuned, as the revolution continues. (Or not, depending on your interpretation…)

Post-script: After Morsy’s speech, Tunisian Prime Minister Rashed Ghannouchi addressed the crowd.[Ed. note: Ghannouchi leads al-Nahda Party, but is not prime minister.]Among other remarks he praised the martyrs of both the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. To their number he added Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was assassinated, allegedly on orders of the government.

He then added Sayyid Qutb, who was hung following trial Nasser. While perhaps a victim of military rule, Qutb represent a strand of strident Islamism that employed violence and questioned the faith of Muslims who differed from his vision. Ghannouchi’s mention thereof, like Morsy’s reference to the umma, may reveal more beneath his public agenda. Or not; perhaps he just knew his audience.