Essam El-Erian: the Brotherhood's genial face

Yasmine Fathy, Tuesday 26 Oct 2010

Next only to the group's Supreme Guide, Essam EL-Erian's is the most visible face among the Muslim Brotherhood's top leadership. It is also the most genial.

Next only to the group's Supreme Guide, Essam EL-Erian's is the most visible face among the Muslim Brotherhood's top leadership. It is also the most genial. Perpetually in and out of prison, he insists on ensuring that his time behind bars is well and efficiently spent. He would wake up early, read as many as ten newspapers a day and would do his daily workout while listening to the Quran on his earphones. “It’s true,” smiles El-Erian sheepishly. “And if I am lucky now, my day would run just as smoothly as it did in jail,” he adds without a hint of irony in his voice. The 56 year-old’s laissez-faire attitude towards jail is no surprise considering he has spent his life walking in and out of its doors. He is a man who has been on both sides of the law: an active parliament member on the one hand and a political prisoner, jailed repeatedly for his activities with the “outlawed” Brotherhood, on the other. He has been jailed so often – four times in the last decade and six times in total – that the lines between prison reality and that of the outside have blurred. “The first time I was arrested in 1981 I did a tour of all the jails,” he laughs. Jail is no joke, though, El-Erian insists. Through his time behind bars he has learned to be practical. A clinical pathologist by training, he is one of the more media-friendly faces in the MB and is a prominent member of the group’s reformist trend. Today, he sits in his stuffy office in the Medical Syndicate, where he works as assistant secretary-general. “We are always reading bad news,” he says, as he waves at the pile of newspapers in front of him. Despite the gloomy mood, political career-wise El-Erian is riding high. This year he was elected to the Brotherhood’s 16-member guidance council. It was the first time he had been elected to the council - the highest body in the MB - since joining the group. His rise to the top leadership of the group was not smooth sailing, however; initially, triggering a crisis that seemed to threaten a deep schism within Brotherhood ranks. In October 2009, Mahdi Akef, then the group’s Supreme Guide, wanted to appoint El-Erian to the council after the death of a council member. This was met by fierce opposition from other members of the council - the ‘old guard.’ Eventually, El-Erian did secure a place in the Guidance Council's elections that took place a few months later, but the preceding events were telling of the tightrope he has been walking for years. Like other reformers, El-Erian wants to push the group towards a more moderate position with regards to women and Copts, as well as other political ideologies. Yet, at the same time, he does not want to lose the support of the conservatives who have a stranglehold on the group. El-Erian’s reformist views occasionally went too far, verging on liberal. Not only did he express an interest, in 2007, in opening a dialogue with the US, he went as far as saying in an interview with the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat that if the Brotherhood were to come to power they would recognise Israel and cooperate with it. Five days after the interview Akef distanced himself from El-Erian’s comments, saying that the “Brotherhood does not and will never recognize Israel - Israel does not exist in the Brotherhood’s dictionary.” El-Erian denied making the statement, but it was one of the many times he has found himself red-faced after voicing controversial views before the media. Despite the ruckus, El-Erian is seen as one of the most visible faces of the MB. His status now is a far cry from the simple village he was raised in. When he joined Cairo University’s Medical School in the early 1970s, he joined with Abdel-Moneim Abou El-Fotouh, currently also a leading member of the MB, and others in founding the Gamaa Al-Islamiya, the radical Islamic movement that sprung up on Egyptian campuses, later spreading throughout the society, and taking up violent struggle against the state. He rose within the ranks of the movement, eventually holding the title of “Amir.” He graduated from both campus activism, and Gamaa radicalism by joining the Brotherhood in 1974. But in September 1981, El-Erian’s political life was put on hold when he was arrested along with 1,536 political activists, during President Anwar Sadat’s crackdown on the opposition. Following his release he decided to be more active in mainstream politics and at the age of 33, ran for parliament and won a seat in the 1987 elections. However, he did not complete his term as the parliament was dissolved in 1990. In 1995, he was arrested again and sentenced to five years in jail. The sentence coincided with the 2000 parliamentary elections, thus barring him from running. El-Erian was arrested again in 2005, 2006, 2007 and again early this year. Predictably, El-Erian's main concern these days is the upcoming parliamentary elections. In the last elections the MB won a record 88 seats. El-Erian’s four children are now all married and he is the proud grandfather of eight. His repeated incarcerations and intensive political activity mean that he does not get to see them as often as he would like. He does not regret the sacrifice, however. “If we measured our love for Egypt through sacrifice, then nobody loves it like the Brothers,” he says. “All this time, effort and years wasted in jail are all for this country.”

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