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(Tahrir Square in Cairo February 18, 2011/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

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.