• October 24, 2005
  • 6 minutes read

Prison is like death

Prison is like death Essam El-Erian, the 52-year-old Muslim Brotherhood leader arrested in May, was finally released on Sunday evening. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly the morning after his release El-Erian was in high spirits and, he admitted, surprised to be free. "The way I was arrested," he said, "indicated that things would escalate and the outcome would be altogether different." El-Erian was arrested along with three others, including Amr Darag, deputy president of Cairo University Staff Club and Hamdi Shahine, a Cairo University professor, when police stormed his house on the morning of 6 May. All were released on Sunday. The arrests were part of a wider clampdown on the organisation after it had staged mass demonstrations demanding reform in Cairo and other governorates. According to the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) 1,500 Brotherhood members were detained in May. On the same day El-Erian was arrested Tarek Ghannam, a Brotherhood member, died when a demonstration in Daqahlia was attacked by anti-riot police. El-Erian’s arrest was interpreted by many as a warning to the group to desist from organising any further demonstrations alongside the smaller anti-Mubarak and pro-reform protests staged by the Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya). There were also, at the time, widespread but unconfirmed reports that El-Erian was planning to contest the presidential elections. "I never confirmed that I would stand," El-Erian told the Weekly. "When I was asked about it during a BBC interview I replied that the authorities had tailored the election law to allow only the candidates it wanted. I was surprised that the authorities misinterpreted my intentions, and that security reports were filed to that effect." Why, then, does El-Erian think he was arrested in the first place, and why his sudden release? "We always say that in Egypt prison is like death. It comes suddenly and goes just as quickly. There are no guarantees when it comes to freedoms with this government. We were detained for five months because of the demonstrations while members of the Kifaya movement, for example, were held for only a day though they, too, were organising demonstrations." A member of the 1984 and 1987 parliaments, and assistant secretary-general of the Doctors Syndicate, El-Erian was a key player in the group’s brief political flourishing in the 1980s. He was also a witness to the government’s clampdown in the 1990s. Along with 27 members of the Brotherhood he was detained in 1995. Six months later the case was referred to a military court which sentenced him to five years imprisonment with hard labour for belonging to an illegal group. The sentence coincided with parliamentary elections which El-Erian, along with other active Brotherhood members, had planned to contest. It was the first time since 1965 that members of the outlawed group had faced a military trial. During his imprisonment El-Erian, who had graduated from medical school and obtained an MS in clinical pathology and a degree in law, enrolled in Al-Azhar’s Faculty of Islamic Sharia and Law and the Faculty of Arts’ History Department. He remained an important figure within the Brotherhood and became an influential member of its guidance council following his release in January 2000. Although it has been widely anticipated that El-Erian will contest the 8 November parliamentary elections he says he remains undecided. One important factor in his decision is his conviction in 1995 before a military court. While the election law bars anyone convicted of a criminal charge from standing the status of ex-political detainees who, like El-Erian, were tried in military courts remains unclear. El-Erian’s lawyer Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maqsoud, however, told the Weekly his client had no plans to contest the election. May’s security clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood triggered condemnation from international rights groups like Human Rights Watch and influential US papers, including the Washington Post and New York Times. Although the US administration has been silent over the issue, at least in public, it has voiced more general criticisms of the government’s repressive methods. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) released a report two weeks ago on political reform in Egypt which urged the Egyptian government to clarify the status of the Muslim Brotherhood by legalising the group. Since El-Erian’s arrest the Muslim Brotherhood has refrained from taking to the streets, with the exception of recent student protests demanding reform at Cairo and Ain Shams Universities. The sudden U-turn in the Brotherhood position was interpreted by many commentators as the price of securing his release. "Why should my release have been contingent on a deal?" asks El-Erian. "Isn’t it possible that the security mentality has changed? After all, there was no security presence or intervention in September’s presidential elections and we’re told there won’t be in the parliamentary elections… Of course, there could be other surprises in store, other ways to control the election results. But it is perfectly possible that the authorities have finally realised that arresting us only draws sympathy to the Muslim Brotherhood." Deal or not, the Muslim Brotherhood is clearly operating in a different political climate and many, including some of the group’s leaders, attribute to change to US pressure. During previous elections thousands of the group’s members were systematically arrested. Ahead of the 2000 elections an estimated 6,000 Brothers were detained. But for months now there hasn’t been an arrest. And the outlawed group is once again flaunting its motto — Islam is the solution — despite the fact that it violates the election law ban on using religious discourse and symbols in election campaigns. El-Erian, who insists that "it’s not wrong to have good relations [with the authorities]", refuses the irony of having possibly found himself under external — ie US — protection. "What has changed," he insists, "is the government’s position. Maybe there is pressure — it’s no secret that even the Americans realise they cannot eradicate the Islamists. But there is no link whatsoever between the Brotherhood and the US administration."