CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt released 900 members of an Islamic militant group that killed 58 tourists in 1997 and helped plot the murder of president Anwar Sadat, security sources said on Tuesday.
Analysts said that freeing so many members of the outlawed al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group), whose jailed leaders renounced violence six years ago, would help the movement gain a political voice and could strengthen the hand of more moderate Islamists in the Arab world’s most populous country.
News of the mass release came two days after Egypt announced it had freed Karam Zuhdi, the influential head of al-Gama’a’s policy-making Shura council.
The security sources said the 900 included other leaders such as Mamdouh al-Youssef as well as rank-and-file members, but were not able to say exactly when they were set free.
One of the sources saw a strong chance for other members of al-Gama’a’s Shura council to be freed in the next few days.
“This shows the Egyptian government is sure now there is no threat of problems from the group. They are sure of its transformation from violence to a political group,” said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamic militant groups at the Cairo-based al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
Al-Gama’a’s violent history stretched back for decades before jailed leaders, including Zuhdi, called for a truce in 1997, dividing the movement. Several al-Gama’a leaders were imprisoned for their role in Sadat’s 1981 assassination.
The group also participated in a six-year campaign in the 1990s to overthrow Egypt’s government and install an Islamist regime, and gained infamy for the murder of 58 tourists in the town of Luxor in 1997 by a faction opposed to the cease-fire.
There have been no militant attacks in Egypt since then.
Rashwan said over 5,000 al-Gama’a members had been released since the cease-fire, with human rights groups estimating that about 10,000 members remain in jail.
Egypt’s official MENA news agency said on Sunday that Zuhdi was freed because he “had completed his term in prison” but also cited humanitarian reasons, saying he suffered health problems.
Analysts said it was more likely he was released to allow his more moderate views to influence budding Islamists.
They say that although Egypt’s tough crackdown on militancy has wiped out the organizational capacity of Islamic groups, the Islamic world has become more radicalized since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the U.S.-led war on terror, giving birth to a new generation of potential militants.