On 28 August the Interior Ministry made a surprise announcement: it had arrested Mahmoud Ezzat, the acting supreme guide of terrorist-designated Muslim Brotherhood group.
Ezzat, who was arrested in a flat in New Cairo, had been on the run since the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime and arrest of most of its leaders in the summer of 2013. It was widely believed that like thousands of other Muslim Brotherhood members Ezzat had fled Egypt and travelled to either Qatar or Turkey via Sudan.
The Interior Ministry described Ezzat as “the Brotherhood’s most wanted man, the group’s black box and mastermind”.
The Interior Ministry’s statement said that “the search of the flat where Ezzat was living produced a cache of computers and mobile phones with encrypted software necessary to secure his communications with leaders and members of the group’s International Organisation inside and outside the country” as well as papers containing plans to target the state.
Following the arrest of the Brotherhood’s supreme guide Mohamed Badie, Ezzat, 76, was named the group’s acting leader in August 2013. He was also the head of the Brotherhood’s London-based international organisation.
“It would have been difficult to locate Ezzat without the security forces being given information from Brotherhood members who were in contact with him and knew his whereabouts,” says security expert Khaled Okasha.
“Ezzat’s strategy had been to change his hideouts regularly, and spread rumours that he had fled Egypt. But security officials knew he was still here and that he was trying to mislead them. What helped him escape arrest for so long was probably the fact he depended on a very limited number of aides.”
Former deputy interior minister Mohamed Noureddin said in a TV interview that the laptops and mobile phones which security forces found in Ezzat’s flat will provide a treasure trove of information about the terrorist group.
Maher Farghali, an expert on Islamist movements, said the fact that Ezzat was temperamentally an isolationist had allowed him to escape the security radar for years. “Even during the massive Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins organised in public squares in Cairo and Giza in the summer of 2013, Ezzat, unlike other leaders, chose not to appear in public, even though he was the one orchestrating the sit-ins.”
“The arrest of Ezzat will, for a while at least, disrupt links between Muslim Brotherhood elements inside Egypt and branches of the international organisation abroad.”
According to the Interior Ministry, Ezzat was in charge of forming the Brotherhood’s armed wings and oversaw major terrorist operations.
“Operations masterminded by Ezzat included the assassination of former prosecutor-general Hisham Barakat in 2015, policeman Wael Tahoun in 2015, army officer Adel Ragei in 2016, and the attempted assassination of the prosecutor-general’s former aide Zakaria Abdel-Azim in 2016.” The Interior Ministry statement further accused Ezzat of planning a deadly car blast outside Cairo’s main cancer hospital in August 2019 which killed 20 people, overseeing “the Brotherhood’s cyber militias which spread fake news to stir up confusion and provoke public opinion in Egypt”, and managing the “movement of the group’s funds to sponsor terrorist activities”.
Security expert Magdi Al-Bassiouni, a former deputy interior minister, believes that during his years in hiding Ezzat also orchestrated terrorist activities carried out by the Brotherhood’s armed wings, Hasm and Gond Masr (the Soldiers of Egypt).
“The fact that this old man was able to use modern technology and orchestrate operations from his hideout individually, or depending on a limited circle of assistants, made it a challenge for security forces to arrest him,” says Bassiouni.
Farghali argues the arrest of Ezzat “is a debilitating blow to the Brotherhood both organisationally and in psychological terms.
“The Brotherhood will now resort to its usual narrative of victimhood as it tries to mobilise international human rights organisations against the regime in Egypt.”
That process has already begun. On 28 August a Muslim Brotherhood statement said Ezzat was suffering chronic health problems.
Okasha thinks the Brotherhood may now name a younger leader to replace Ezzat as acting supreme guide, and break with the convention the acting guide be present in Egypt. He suggests Mahmoud Hussein as a likely replacement.
Ezzat, born in 1944, joined the Brotherhood in 1962, when he was just 18. In 1964 he was arrested, alongside Badie, and convicted of leading a conspiracy against the regime of Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
Ezzat was released from prison in 1974 under pardon from late president Anwar Al-Sadat. In 1981 he was named a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, and put in charge of its economic activities. In 1995 he was arrested once again and sentenced to five years in jail.
In 2009, Ezzat was one of the group of hawks who took over the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was named the group’s acting leader in August 2013, following the arrest of supreme guide Badie.
He has received several sentences in absentia, including a death penalty, during mass trials of the Brotherhood’s leading members.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly