INTERVIEW-In new Egypt, Gama'a Islamiya steps out of shadows
* Gama'a Islamiya meets for first time in 15 years * Committed to truce, non-violence; critical of al Qaeda
* Yet to decide whether to go into politics
By Tom Perry
CAIRO, Feb 17 (Reuters) - The overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak has allowed an Islamist group that took up arms against his administration to step out of the shadows for the first time in years.
The Gama'a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) this week held its first public meetings in 15 years, said Assem Abdel-Maged, a leading member of the group who has spent half his life in prison for a role in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat.
That would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago when Mubarak was still in power. Mubarak spent years suppressing Islamists he saw as a threat to his rule and survived an assassination attempt by militant Islamists in 1995.
Abdel-Maged, who once shared a cell with Al Qaeda no. 2 Ayman al-Zawahari, says the Gama'a wants a new start in relations with the state. The group remains committed to non-violence and a truce it declared in 1997, he said.
"Our position is to turn a new page with the new regime," he said. "We will perform any positive role we can to help society," he said in a phone interview from Assiut, one of the areas of southern Egypt where the group developed.
The Gama'a wants to revive its work in da'wa, or proselytising for Islam, and helping the poor, said Abdel-Maged, part of the group since 1978 and a member of its advisory council. It has yet to decide whether it will go into politics.
"We give advice to those who are governing in line with what we see as being in the country's interest. Will we take part in politics more than that? That is the subject of study at the moment," said Abdel-Maged, 53.
"We are returning after a 15-year ban so I cannot tell the amount of the sympathy the Gama'a will have in the street."
Seeking the establishment of a strict Islamic state, the Gama'a fought a low-level guerrilla war with the police from 1992 to 1997, mainly in southern Egypt. More than a thousand people were killed in the violence.
The group's jailed leadership declared a truce in 1997 that was ignored by Gama'a members who massacred 62 people, including 58 foreign tourists, at Luxor temple a few months later.
In 2003, the jailed leadership, which had condemned the Luxor massacre, published a series of books renouncing violence, condemning al Qaeda and ditching the idea that taking power was the way to push Egyptians towards their interpretation of Islam.
AL QAEDA'S "LEGAL MISTAKES"
Abdel-Maged was jailed from 1981 to 2006. He received a 15-year jail term for providing "moral and material" support for the assassins of Sadat and was sentenced to life in a separate conviction during a mass trial of militants in 1982.
He has kept a low profile since his release. Even after their release from jail, Gama'a members had faced "severe suppression" by the security forces, he said.
In 2007, Abdel-Maged said he was put under house arrest for two months after addressing a public event. He said hope of change in Egypt had been "a distant dream", "but it has been realised".
This week, the group held what Abdel-Maged described as two celebrations in southern Egypt, one in Assiut and another in Minya. "In Minya there were about 1,000 people and in Assiut, a bit less," he said. In Assiut, they had gathered at a mosque first used by the group in the 1970s. The security forces did not try to prevent the meeting.
Abdel-Maged called for the release of around 150 Gama'a members who are still held in Egyptian prisons. He also called on the United States to repatriate Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, a 73-year old Egyptian cleric who he cited as his inspiration. "I was his student inside and outside jail," he said, adding that he had spent time in an Egyptian jail with him.
Abdel-Rahman was convicted in 1995 of conspiring to attack the United Nations and other New York City landmarks, following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The twin towers of the World Trade Center were later toppled in the 2001 attacks on the United States carried out by al Qaeda.
Abdel-Maged said he had not seen al Qaeda deputy leader Zawahari since he left prison in Egypt in the mid-1980s. At the time, Zawahari was a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group, not Gama'a Islamiya.
"We published more than one study correcting the legal mistakes that the youth and the leadership of al Qaeda have fallen into," he said. Violence was not "the ideal policy in dealing with the West", he added. (Editing by Myra MacDonald)