Egypt's Brotherhood still operates secretively

February 21, 2013 - 11:31 AM
Mideast Egypt Muslim Brotherhood

FILE - In this Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012 file photo, supporters of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi arrive by bus to a rally in front of Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt. For most of the 85 years since its inception, the Muslim Brotherhood operated secretively as an outlawed group, working underground and often repressed by governments. But even after its political success since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, the group is still suspected of carrying on secretive operations. (AP Photo/Samuel Mohsen, El Shourouk Newspaper, File) EGYPT OUT

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi says he has firsthand knowledge of opponents allegedly plotting against him at a meeting.

A few months earlier, the most powerful man in his Muslim Brotherhood group, Khairat el-Shater, said he had access to recordings of former military rulers and electoral officials engineering his disqualification from last year's presidential race.

In Egypt, those statements are seen by security officials, former members of the Islamist group and independent media as strong hints that the Brotherhood might be running its own intelligence-gathering network outside of government security agencies and official channels.

Such concerns dovetail the Brotherhood, which has a long history of operating clandestinely, to suspicion that it remains a shadowy group with operations that may overlap with the normal functions of a state.

Brotherhood supporters also demonstrated militia-like capabilities at anti-Morsi protests in December.

Another oft-heard charge comes from the Foreign Ministry, where officials complain that the president relies more on trusted Brotherhood advisers than those inside the ministry in formulating foreign policy.

The Brotherhood emerged from Egypt's 2011 uprising as the country's dominant political group and Morsi was elected president in June of last year as the group's candidate.

The motive for setting up parallel operations could be rooted in the fact that many government bodies, such as security agencies and the judiciary, are still dominated by appointees of the ousted regime of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak or anti-Islamists with long-held suspicions of the Brotherhood.

The perception that such agencies are hostile to the country's new Islamist leaders lends their rule an embattled aspect despite a string of electoral victories.

"The problem with the Brotherhood is that they came to power but are still dealing with the nation as they did when they were in the opposition," said Abdel-Jalil el-Sharnoubi, former editor-in-chief of the group's website who left the Brotherhood in May 2011.

"Because they cannot trust the state, they have created their own," he added.

The notion of a state within a state has precedents elsewhere in the Arab world. In Lebanon, the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah is the de facto government in much of the south and east of the country and has its own army and telephone network.

To a lesser extent, followers of Iraq's anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are de facto administrators of Shiite districts in Baghdad and in parts of the mostly Shiite south.

In Egypt, the situation reflects a chasm that has emerged since the uprising over the nation's future. In one camp is the Brotherhood, their Islamist allies and a fairly large segment of the population that is conservative and passively inclined toward the ideas of Islam as a way of life.

Arrayed against them is a bloc of comparable size that includes not only those who served under Mubarak in the state and security structures but also moderate Muslims, liberals, secularists, women and Christians who account for about 10 percent of the population.

The Brotherhood denies that any of its activities are illegal or amount to a state within a state.

"The Brotherhood is targeted by a defamation campaign, but will always protect its reputation and these immoral battles will never change that," said spokesman Ahmed Aref, alluding to claims that the group was running a parallel state.

"There is still an elite in Egypt that remains captive to Mubarak's own view of the Brotherhood," he added.

For most of the 85 years since its inception, the Brotherhood operated secretively as an outlawed group, working underground and often repressed by governments.

But even after its political success, the group is still suspected of secretive operations.

The Brotherhood counters that it has legitimacy on its side, having consistently won at the ballot box since Mubarak's ouster. And they accuse the opposition of conspiring with former regime members in an attempt to overthrow a democratically elected administration.

The two most powerful Brotherhood figures, wealthy businessman el-Shater and spiritual leader Mohamed Badie, are seen by many in Egypt as the real source of power — wielding massive influence over Morsi and his government.

El-Shater, according to the former Brotherhood members and security officials, is suspected of running an information gathering operation capable of eavesdropping on telephones and email.

He was the Brotherhood's first choice for presidential candidate in last year's election but was disqualified over a Mubarak-era conviction.

Following his disqualification, he publicly said last summer that he had access to recordings of telephone conversations between members of the election commission and the military council that ruled Egypt for nearly 17 months after Mubarak's ouster.

The conversations, he claimed, were to engineer throwing him out of the race. He did not say how he knew of the contacts or their contents.

Again in December, he suggested that he had access to information gathered clandestinely.

Addressing Islamists in a televised meeting, he said he has "detected from various sources" that there were meetings of people allegedly plotting to destabilize Morsi's rule.

He did not identify the alleged plotters nor say how he had learned of the meetings.

A spokesman for the Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, said at the time when asked for comment that it was to be expected from a group as big as the Brotherhood to have its own "resources." That was taken as virtual confirmation of a parallel intelligence gathering operation.

Morsi was also seen as suggesting that the Brotherhood was spying on critics when he spoke to supporters outside his presidential palace in November. He said he had firsthand knowledge of what transpired in a meeting of several of his critics.

"They think that they can hide away from me," he said.

The words of El-Shater and Morsi were taken as strong hints that the Brotherhood has its own intelligence gathering operation. But in a country fed on a steady diet of conspiracy theories, no hard evidence has come to light, only suspicion and talk.

A former Brotherhood member, Mohammed el-Gebbah, claimed the group had six "mini intelligence centers," including one housed in its headquarters in the Cairo district of Moqqatam.

He did not provide evidence to back his claim and another Brotherhood spokesman, Murad Ali, denied that the group has such capability.

In an off-the-cuff remark, Brotherhood stalwart Essam el-Aryan said last October that Morsi's presidential palace secretly records all "incoming and outgoing communications." The president's spokesman swiftly denied it.

But it only fed the notion of a Brotherhood parallel intelligence gathering operation with Morsi's support and cooperation.

Another concern that has arisen is whether the Brotherhood might be running its own militias outside of government security agencies.

That fear arose from a wave of mass protests that turned violent in December. Protesters for and against Morsi faced off over decrees, since rescinded, that gave the president near absolute powers.

In early December, the Brotherhood posted a "general alert" on its official Facebook page and the next day, groups of armed Brotherhood supporters attacked opposition protesters staging a sit-in outside Morsi's palace.

Thousands of Morsi supporters and opponents poured into the area and street fighting continued well into the night.

Video clips later posted on social networks showed Brotherhood supporters stripping and torturing protesters in makeshift "detention centers" set up just outside the palace gates, partly to extract confessions that they were on the opposition's payroll.

On-camera testimonies by victims to rights groups spoke of police and palace workers standing by and watching as they were being abused by Brotherhood supporters.

At least 10 people were killed and 700 injured in the clashes on Dec. 5.

The next morning, groups of Morsi supporters staged military-style drills in residential areas near the palace.

Ali, the group's spokesman, denied the existence of any kind of militias.

"We have no military or non-military formations. None whatsoever," he said.

Aref, the other spokesman, disputed the version of events outside Morsi's palace on Dec. 5, saying 11 of the group's supporters were killed by thugs and nearly 1,500 injured, including 132 who were shot.

"The facts of that day were turned upside down to mislead public opinion and the victims became the culprit," he said.