Friend of Zawahiri: The Tangled Tale of the Mild-Mannered Salafi

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

Mohamed Abdel Rahim al-Sharkawy spent 17 years behind bars in Egypt after being extradited from Pakistan in 1994. The fundamentalist Islamist was released from prison in March after numerous appeals from his family claiming his innocence.

The men who pray alongside Mohamed Abdel Rahim al-Sharkawy at a small mosque in downtown Cairo whisper gossip about him after the prayer. Most of the worshippers are fundamentalist Muslims just like Sharkawy, a quiet man with a bushy grey beard. But there are those who fear him, all the same. They say the 61-year-old Egyptian, with his strange, Pashtun-style black turban, is a friend of al-Qaeda's newest leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. They say he's being watched. Many keep their distance. Others are fans. "He has a very unique position on jihad," whispers one admirer excitedly, trailing the slow-moving sheikh after Friday noon prayer.

"There are those who are respectful and those who are scared because of the way I dress," Sharkawy says later, contemplating his own image in the new Egypt. He knows they call him Zawahiri's right-hand man. "I don't know why they say that," he laughs, and then adds mockingly: "I was in arrested in 1994. So from 1994 until now Zawahiri has been without his right hand."

Sharkawy is one of thousands of Egyptians to emerge in recent months from the dungeons of the Mubarak regime's 30-year war on terror and against voices of opposition. And indeed, his personal history includes some murky details that would raise eyebrows in the Western security community. He once owned a business selling walkie-talkies and satellite phones in Peshawar, Pakistan. He says the late al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who he met there once, was a good man.

But Sharkawy says — and indeed, Egyptian courts have ruled on numerous occasions, including under Mubarak — that he never did anything wrong. He was never part of one of Egypt's violent jihadist organizations. He never plotted a terrorist attack. In fact, his story may say more about the terrors of the decades-old Egyptian State of Emergency than it does about Sharkawy's participation in any crime.

"It all started in 1981," remembers Abdel Rahman al-Sharkawy, Sharkawy's oldest son. President Anwar Sadat was assassinated. And in the hunt for Sadat's assassins, the government imposed a State of Emergency — a vague and broadly applied law that has allowed for infinite detentions without charge. State security then arrested thousands of Islamists. Sharkawy, a petroleum engineer, was in the United States for a technical course at the time. But he had a friend, an army officer, who was a suspect in the case. Upon his return to Egypt, Sharkawy was arrested. "They were arresting everybody who knew those who were detained," says Abdel Rahman. Sadat's Vice President Hosni Mubarak had taken over the government, and the prisons filled with friends and acquaintances of the men suspected of Sadat's murder.

Sharkawy was beaten on his head and electrocuted repeatedly for three years before being released without charge, along with many of the others who were rounded up in the wake of the assassination. A few years later, when someone else tried to assassinate the deputy interior minister, the pattern repeated itself. "They collected all the people who had been arrested before," says Sharkawy. Again, came the beatings and electric shocks. "I couldn't walk. My legs were very swollen," he says, lifting up the bottoms of his trousers to reveal permanent scars.

The goal was always to elicit confessions. It didn't matter if they were correct; only that they came and preferably, that they implicated others. "They don't collect information. They collect people and their friends," says Sharkawy. The behavior was to become a hallmark of the Mubarak regime's dealings with detainees ranging from criminal suspects to political opposition. And Mubarak's emergency law later became a key grievance in the uprising that toppled Mubarak in February 2011. Initially, it had been applied "to ensure a conviction," says Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who also represents Sharkawy. "It was deliberately set up as a parallel legal system for the government to short-cut due process rights," says Bahgat. More than 20 years later, Bahgat is helping Sharkawy take the Egyptian government to court.

Less than a year after his release the second time, Sharkawy made a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. While he was there, the old friend — the army officer whose acquaintance had initially gotten him jailed — escaped from prison. State security raided the homes of all the men it had incarcerated the first time around, searching for the escapee. When Sharkawy called home to check on his family, security had already been there. His mother told him not to come back.

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