Families of imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood members are calling on Egyptian authorities to release their relatives in exchange for a pledge to never again participate in politics, as well as a hefty donation to a state-run fund for each prisoner, according to a London-based source with close ties to the group.
The new initiative, which was announced on August 19, came five days after a letter claiming to represent 1,350 imprisoned youth of the Muslim Brotherhood was published online that called on the group’s leaders to open talks with the government and resolve the ongoing conflict with authorities to help secure the youths’ release. Brotherhood leaders responded by casting doubt on the letter’s authenticity.
Thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood have languished for years behind bars in substandard prison conditions, with trials that rights organizations have widely criticized as unfair and lacking in due process.
Meanwhile, neither the Egyptian government nor the senior leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood — all of whom are in prison or exile — have welcomed the idea of negotiations aimed at reaching some form of reconciliation after the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and the massacre of hundreds of his supporters by the military and police in Rabaa al-Adaweya and Nahda squares.
The initiative was not an official Brotherhood proposal but was put forward last week by relatives of the group’s imprisoned members and was published on Facebook by Omar Hassan, whom the London-based source described as a close associate of the group’s youth members. It called on the authorities to pardon imprisoned Islamist youth and proposed four mechanisms to address the state’s political and security concerns.
The first proposal includes a pledge that any freed prisoners would “never again participate in political life … quit all public work, including proselytizing and charity,” and would limit their activities to “rebuilding their personal and family life.” It adds that security agencies should take all “precautionary measures they deem appropriate to ensure this, without undermining the individual’s freedom and dignity.”
The second mechanism goes further, offering a monetary incentive to the state in exchange for freeing detainees. It proposes that each prisoner applying for amnesty pay a monetary sum as a “bail, ransom, or donation” to the state-run Tahya Masr (Long Live Egypt) Fund, which was established by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2014 to support the recovery of the Egyptian economy. The initiative suggested an amount of US$5,000 per prisoner (equivalent to over LE 80,000) and said that if imprisoned youth each paid this sum in exchange for their release, it would “save the state over five billion Egyptian pounds.”
The third proposal is that security agencies review the case files of applicants to determine who is eligible for amnesty. And fourthly, the initiative suggests having a body oversee and supervise the entire process, such as al-Azhar or the National Council for Human Rights.
A member of the presidential pardon committee, Karim al-Saqqa, refused to comment on the initiative, explaining to Mada Masr that, despite its significance and relevance to the committee’s work examining cases of prisoners jailed for nonviolent crimes, they could not confirm whether the initiative was actually put forward by the imprisoned Brotherhood youth and their families. He also questioned how Omar Hassan, who first published the initiative, was related to the group.
Mohamed Aboelgheit, a journalist who specializes in Islamic movements, says the initiative incorporated “concessions agreed upon by a large segment of imprisoned Brotherhood youth.” Aboelgheit tells Mada Masr that over the past year, the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood have sent a number of messages to the group’s leadership abroad — some of which have been leaked to the media — urging them to open channels of dialogue and negotiation with Egyptian authorities, but that these pleas have been ignored. He added that some of the group’s leaders even denied that these appeals were issued by their imprisoned members and claimed that they had been fabricated by security officials in Egypt in order to drive a wedge between the group’s members.
Aboelgheit says the Brotherhood leadership spurned the pleas of its imprisoned members because they have no conception of how to negotiate with the Sisi government and are uncertain whether a move towards reconciliation would be welcomed by authorities in the first place. He adds that the group’s leadership is also undecided about what concessions it is prepared to make in exchange for having its members freed from prison.
Prisoners’ families were prompted to act after the group’s imprisoned younger members were unable to reach a consensus on what concessions to offer the state, according to Aboelgheit. The suggestions included dissolving the Brotherhood, publicly supporting President Sisi, or pledging to retire from politics, but an agreement was never reached. This pushed the families to directly address Egyptian authorities themselves and put forward an initiative of their own that offers a clear and simple trade-off for amnesty.
Kamel al-Beheiri, an expert in regional security issues at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, describes the initiative as a “message of despair.” He tells Mada Masr that the latest initiative is the fourth to be suggested by the imprisoned youth of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic movements since 2017, but it is the first to be supported by a large number of members and their supporters.
While Beheiri sees a number of positive aspects of the initiative, he also cast doubt on its authenticity. He questions why the initiative was announced by Omar Hassan, a previously unknown figure who identifies as “non-Brotherhood” and whose ties to the group are unknown. Beheiri also points out that many of the group’s imprisoned members are on trial and any one of them could have announced the initiative in court with the media in attendance, similar to what members of Jama’a al Islamiya did in the 1990s. Beheiri adds that the initiative’s credibility is further called into question because it does not include any terms or religious references commonly used in the rhetoric of the Brotherhood youth.
The families’ initiative was preceded by an August 15 message, also published by Omar Hassan, purportedly agreed to by hundreds of imprisoned Brotherhood youth members and other Islamist movements and addressed to both Egyptian authorities and the Brotherhood leadership.
Writing on behalf of “Brotherhood and non-Brotherhood detainees,” the letter called on all leaders of the group, both in prison and in exile, to act decisively to resolve the ongoing dispute with authorities and “not hesitate in taking a step back” from their leadership positions to help secure their release.
In the letter, the imprisoned youth ask Egyptian authorities to transfer the senior leaders of the group into the same cells as them in order to facilitate discussions. “Put Khairat al-Shater, Mohamed Badie, and the rest of the leadership [in the same cells] as the youth to determine whether they are the side refusing reconciliation,” the letter states. It adds that meeting this demand would indicate the willingness of the government to address the political crisis and warns that the youth have reached a stage where they have “nothing to lose.”
The letter says it was approved by 1,350 youth detainees, with 350 of them signing off on its content and wording and an additional 1,000 who were unable to see the final text but approved of its content in principle.
In response, a number of Brotherhood leaders rushed to cast doubt on the authenticity of the letter, claiming that it was cooked up by security agencies. Ibrahim Mounir, the Brotherhood’s deputy Supreme Guide in London, said security authorities fabricated the letter “to whitewash the face of the regime in Egypt ahead of the United Nations anti-torture conference” that was originally scheduled to be held in Cairo in September (The UN later announced it was indefinitely postponing the conference, citing “growing unease in some parts of the NGO community with the choice of location.”)
Yet another source close to the group in London affirmed to Mada Masr that the letter was genuine and that he verified its authenticity with a number of families of imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood members. Meanwhile, journalist Aboelgheit said that he learned of the contents of the letter, and the support of around a thousand of the group’s imprisoned members for it, over a year ago through the son of a prominent imprisoned Brotherhood leader.
For his part, Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, a prominent lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood, equivocated over the credibility of the letter. He tells Mada Masr it is equally plausible that the letter was authentic or was fabricated by security agencies, but that he cannot confirm either way due to the difficulty of communication. Abdel Maqsoud stresses that Egyptian authorities are not looking to reconcile with the Brotherhood leadership.
In April, media outlets reported on a reconciliation initiative between the state and a group of Islamist youth held in Tora prison under the name The Initiative of Independent Youth in Egyptian Prisons. At the time, Fouad Allam, a member of the National Council to Confront Extremism and Terrorism and a former official in the State Security Agency’s Department of Religious Extremism, called on the authorities to deal seriously with the initiative, saying in televised statements that it aimed to “correct misconceptions entrenched in the minds of these young people.”
Yet another initiative appeared at the end of 2017 from within Fayoum Public Prison that denounced the very ideas and principles upon which the Muslim Brotherhood was founded and criticized the ways in which the group attained state power in Egypt.