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Egypt's arrest of a chemist in connection with the London bomb attacks has highlighted the country's uncomfortable legacy as one of the birthplaces for the radical ideology espoused by al-Qaeda.

While Egypt itself has been relatively quiet since the government squashed an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, many Islamist radicals hail from there.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden's deputy, is Egyptian, as is much of the rest of al-Qaeda's leadership, as well as September 11 organiser Mohammed Atta. Sayed Qutb, a 20th century Egyptian theorist who did more than anyone else to create the modern ideology of Islamic fundamentalism, was hanged in 1966.

There is no longer believed to be a large-scale militant movement active inside Egypt, after an insurgency led by the Gama'a Islamiya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, two groups which aimed to establish a puritan Islamic state, sputtered out in the late 1990s.

The insurgency, which cost the lives of over 1,300 people, collapsed under heavy government pressure as well as internal divisions created by its last major episode of violence, the 1997 massacre of 58 tourists in the southern Egyptian town of Luxor.

Last year, in a sign of official confidence that the insurgency was not likely to revive, the Egyptian government released several Jamaa leaders from prison after they penned a series of books renouncing their armed campaign.

Although some Egyptians continue to espouse radical Islamist ideas, a pervasive security apparatus, the concentration of the population in the geographically restricted Nile Valley,and the public revulsion at the excesses of the earlier insurgency combine to inhibit the revival of an armed movement.

The country has however witnessed sporadic acts of terrorism in recent years, notably the October 2004 bombing of a hotel in the Sinai resort town of Taba and the April 7 attack on Cairo's Khan al-Khalili bazaar.

The government has blamed both attacks on small, isolated cells the Taba bombing on a group based among the bedouin of the Sinai peninsula, and the Khan al-Khalili attack on a cell based around a family in Cairo.

The Egyptian government is reportedly anxious to downplay reports of more sophisticated terrorist groups operating in the country to avoid damaging the tourist industry, but little substantive evidence has emerged to date that would connect either attack to a larger movement.

The latter bombing in particular fit a pattern which some analysts say may become the future of Islamist militancy in repressive but relatively stable states like Egypt small groups of amateurs, inspired by al-Qaeda's ideology but without any operational link, launching attacks on unprotected targets.

Egypt is also home to the Muslim Brotherhood, an illegal but semi-tolerated movement which claims that it wants to establish an Islamic state by peaceful means, as well as a number of non-Islamist opposition parties and networks.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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