Yesterday I received the unexpected news that Ezzat al-Salamony died … back in August. He was a leader in al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (the Islamic Group), designated a terrorist entity by the United States. Over the past few years I was able to interview him a couple of times.
According to al-Shuruk, Salamony died in the Tora Prison hospital, from an intestinal blockage. He had been jailed as part of the ‘Alliance to Support Legitimacy’ case.
Here is a picture of Salamony demonstrating in support of former President Morsi, proudly wearing a Rabaa sign.
Originally from Sohag in Upper Egypt, Salamony studied at al-Azhar Univerisity, graduating with a BA in Commerce. He joined the Islamic Group in 1979, served on its Shura Council in Cairo, and preached in mosques throughout the city, unaffiliated with the Ministry of Endowments.
He was married with three daughters. I do not know his age, though his youngest daughter was in college at the time.
As Salamony recounted, his first arrest came at the hand of President Sadat in 1981, lasting for a year and a half. Jailed repeatedly thereafter for short periods of time, he spent fifteen years in prison under President Mubarak, finally released in January 2006.
Salamony stated he was never involved in violence, though he admitted members of the Islamic Group committed ‘mistakes’ throughout this period. But on the whole he defended their record, stating they were much maligned by the regime and that most violence was defensive.
Our conversations ranged over many topics, including the history of the Islamic Group, the practice of hisba (commanding right and forbidding wrong), Islamist figures Morsi released from prison, the Innocence of Muslims film, and the Blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman.
I always found Salamony to be friendly, engaging, and eager to give a correct impression about Islam and the Islamic Group. Given his appearance and reputation, I was surprised he always arranged our meetings in a popular and upscale Nile River meeting area administered by the Egyptian military. He appeared to be a member, and we drank tea together.
I do not know if he was involved in violence following the fall of Morsi, though he certainly opposed what he considered to be a coup. We lost contact after this period.
But I was somewhat surprised also to find him prior to Morsi’s fall at a Salafi-Jihadi demonstration outside the French Embassy. He took the microphone and shouted:
“We tell these grandchildren of the Crusaders, we are the grandchildren of Saladin.”
“It is not right for the fields of battle to be in our lands, we must carry the battle into theirs.”
“We have the duty of jihad.”
Among the many chants that day was this, adapting the January 25 revolutionary cry: Al-Shaab, Ureed, Khilafa min Jadeed
“The people want a new caliphate.”
It was difficult to reconcile the peaceful, friendly character I encountered in the cafe with this one angrily shouting before a crowd. I understood that whatever kind of preacher he was, whether he employed violence or not, both then and now he was certainly a threat to the state.
Even so, his explanations of jihad and hisba were always nuanced, though his commitment to the eventual worldwide application of sharia was clear. I cannot imagine he would be in support of the current claimant to the caliphate, but I cannot be sure.
And now he is dead, so I cannot know.
The three years from January 25 to the last throes of popular pro-Rabaa resistance against President Sisi were a very strange time in Egypt. All constraints were thrown off, and every activist element of society took full advantage of the freedom available.
So it is hard to look back and evaluate Ezzat al-Salamony. Was he a long misunderstood Islamist finally anticipating success? Was he a conman deceiving a naive American into sympathy?
God – and likely the Egyptian intelligence – only knows, and now he will judge. May Ezzat al-Salamony rest in peace.
This article was originally published at Arab West Report.