Safe in exile, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood leaders now risk irrelevance

Britain is investigating whether Muslim Brotherhood members planned terror attacks in Egypt from London. After months in exile, Brotherhood leaders have little connection to events on the ground. 

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/REUTERS
Students who are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi shout slogans in a protest against the military and interior ministry in front of Cairo University March 26, 2014.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has ordered an investigation into whether the Muslim Brotherhood's London operation has links to terrorist attacks in Egypt.

For Brotherhood officials who fled an aggressive crackdown at home for sanctuary in Britain, the investigation is a setback. But arguably a greater challenge for the exiles is their growing distance from rank-and-file activists on the streets of Egypt and their inability to direct the movement from afar. 

Following the Egyptian military's removal of President Mohamed Morsi, a senior Brotherhood leader, the group has built up its presence in London, Doha, and Istanbul. Its London office is a cozy apartment above an abandoned kebab shop. British investigators will examine whether any terror attacks in Egypt were planned there. 

There is scant evidence to suggest any Brotherhood involvement in the wave of bomb attacks that, according to official figures, have killed over 400 security personnel through mainland Egypt since July 2013. Most high-profile bomb blasts have been claimed by Ansar Bayt el Maqdis, an Egypt-based jihadist group with links to Al Qaeda. Yesterday's bombing at Cairo University, which killed a police officer, was claimed by another group, Ajnad Misr.

A source with knowledge of the British investigation told The Christian Science Monitor it was prompted by Prime Minister Cameron’s desire to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia, which has encouraged regional allies to deny the Brotherhood refuge. Britain's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, John Jenkins, will lead the investigation. 

The Gulf state has replaced the US as the chief benefactor of Egypt's new military-backed authorities, putting Saudi Arabia at odds with Qatar and Turkey, which remain sympathetic to the Brotherhood. 

Growing tension

Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, says having a presence outside of Egypt is "critical" to the Brotherhood's longevity, providing its leaders with a safe space in which to discuss tactical lessons learned from Mr. Morsi’s year in office.

In Egypt, this has become impossible. Since Morsi's ouster, thousands of Brotherhood supporters have been arrested and more than 2,500 people have been killed. On Dec. 25, Egypt officially designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist movement, extinguishing the fading possibility of any reconciliation between the group and the military-backed authorities.

As the Brotherhood expands its geographical spread in order to survive politically, Mr. Hamid expects tensions between the exiled leadership and its rank-and-file supporters who remain in Egypt to rise.

“The main tension in the Brotherhood at the moment lies between revolutionaries and conservatives,” he says. “The leadership in exile are products of the Brotherhood system. That means that they are fundamentally gradualist…. and they focus on the language of political processes.”

The public relations game

The London office is primarily a public relations office, according to those who follow the organization closely. They say it will be difficult to prove it has been a launchpad for anything more sinister.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has had a media office in London for many years,” says Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has conducted extensive research into its activities. “Their official task now is to publicize the Brotherhood’s message and campaign for a reversal of the military takeover, both in public statements and through intense social media activity.”

Qatar's capital Doha has become the Brotherhood’s main operational base outside of Egypt. A number of high-profile figures, including strongman secretary-general Mahmoud Hussein, have moved there since Morsi's ouster.

Qatar is also home to the pan-Arab Al Jazeera network. Its Arabic channel has welcomed the exiles with open arms, giving them significant airtime and reportedly paying for the hotel rooms of some members.

The exiles have sought to get their message – that the coup and the crackdown were illegal – out to the Arab and international press. They have also hired London-based lawyers to compile a case against Egypt's military-backed authorities in the International Criminal Court.

A radicalized base

But the crackdown has radicalized many rank-and-file supporters within Egypt. For them, such incremental moves aren't enough for them: their goal is the destruction of the state as Egyptians know it, not just the right to control its levers once again. 

At a recent pro-Morsi demonstration in Cairo, demonstrators carried signs reading "Cleanse the institutions and start again."

Hamid says this camp could gain traction as the two groups grow more distant. Already, young members speak of alienation from the Brotherhood’s exiled upper echelons, and say they make strategic decisions themselves.

“Imprisonment and exile have made communication difficult between the leadership and our base,” says one member, who cannot be named for safety reasons. District-by-district coordination is most important these days, she says. Other members say that local initiatives are often rubber stamped by exiled leaders with minimal discussion.

“The leadership abroad don’t really understand what is going on in Egypt, so when they do take decisions, they are usually wrong,” sighs one young supporter. “Appointing a new supreme guide or head of the party is just a formality now. They don’t have a real role in our movement on the street.”

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