The moderate behind bars

The moderate behind bars

If you visit the home of prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam El Erian you will be met with decorations in the reception area and a big sign saying “Welcome Home”. But that’s not how El Erian usually welcomes his guests. His family had put up the sign to celebrate his return from a few months in prison in 2005.

But why is it still there? Simply, because they never had time to remove it. A few months after his release, El Erian was arrested again in May 2006 during a demonstration supporting the independence of the judiciary. About eight months later, he was released, only to find himself behind bars again a couple of weeks ago.

But these were not the only times El Erian had to pay for his political activism. He was first detained in 1981, then again in 1995, following a military tribunal which sentenced him along with other Brotherhood members to five years in prison. In total, El Erian spent seven years in prison, away from his family, friends, students and colleagues.

The irony of it all is that El Erian is not a criminal by any measure. He is a respected intellectual, political activist and Islamist reformist. He is the Deputy Chairman of the Egyptian Doctors’ Syndicate, chief of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political bureau and a former Member of Parliament. He is also cofounder of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and member of the Arab Organization for Human Rights in which capacity he participated in tens of conferences on democratization, political reform and human rights issues in Egypt and the Middle East.

El Erian has an outstanding and diverse academic record. After graduating from Cairo University’s Faculty of Medicine, he completed his master’s degree in clinical pathology, a law diploma from Cairo University, a BA in history from the same university, besides his Islamic studies. Although he used his time in prison to complete some of these studies, his detainment deprived him of registering for his PhD in medicine.

Known for his moderation and political openness, El Erian is a favorite in TV shows, political debates and press interviews. Even the political rivals of the Brotherhood place him in high esteem. Ever since he headed the group’s political bureau in the early 1990s, he has been playing an important role in pushing the Brotherhood towards moderation and political integration. His contribution to the development of the group’s political discourse and platform is undeniable.

In his writings, El Erain illustrates a high level of tolerance and political pragmatism. He wrote an article recently about the Turkish AKP arguing that healthier political systems lead to Islamist democrats. He was only realistic when he undermined the possibility of imitating Turkey’s experience in other Arab countries, “because Arab countries do not have free and fair elections, and suffer from extreme forms of political oppression.”

He spoke from his personal experience of oppression and tyranny under the current regime. A few days later, he was arrested at the home of another Brotherhood businessman, who had invited El Erian and others for lunch.

Earlier on the same day, El Erian was unconstitutionally banned from travelling to Turkey. He has been repeatedly banned from travelling to attend conferences, seminars or talks to such an extent that it was no longer considered news. This time round it made headlines because he was going away on vacation.

It was a struggle writing this article because I still fail to comprehend the reasons for El Erian’s detention, especially that the potential consequences are clear.

El Erian is a moderate leader who enjoys a high level of credibility and popularity amongst Islamists. He is also a political leader capable of moderating and integrating Islamists. It’s not a stretch to then think that the Egyptian regime is keeping moderate influential leaders like El Erian and Khayrat El Shater behind bars to undermine the Brotherhood’s moderate discourse and give space for the radical sentiment that would be a good pretext for further crackdowns on Islamists.

The regime seems to be playing a very dangerous game to maintain its illegitimate existence; a game that will only benefit the radicals, and will harm everybody else.

Ibrahim Al Houdaiby is board member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s English website