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Inside the Ikhwan

Interview with Tharwat El-Kherbawy; an insider’s look at the Muslim Brotherhood

Tharwat El-Kharabawy speaks about his time inside the Muslim brotherhood and how his membership came to an end Sara Abou Bakr
Tharwat El-Kherbawy speaks about his time inside the Muslim brotherhood and how his membership came to an end
Sara Abou Bakr

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been surrounded by mystery throughout its 84 years of existence. In the last 15 years several prominent Brotherhood leaders have handed in their “resignation,” leaving the group with which they have spent most of their youth.

Among the most vocal retirees is Tharwat El-Kherbawy, a well-known lawyer who has written memoirs exposing the secrets of the Brotherhood, as well as his own personal views on what is happening inside the organisation currently led by businessman Khairat El-Shater, with whom he has a well known feud. His second book has just hit bookstores, Secret of the Temple.


Did you leave the Brotherhood because of Khairat El-Shater?

El-Shater was not the main factor, rather it was [Brotherhood Supreme Guide at the time] Ma’moun Al-Hodiby.

The Brotherhood is divided into two groups; one group views the enhancement of the organisation as a mandatory obligation, similar to a religious practice. i.e. it is not right for anyone to live his life unless he belongs to the Brotherhood. This group is lead by El-Shater, Mahmoud Ghozlan, Mahmoud Ezzat, and [current Supreme Guide] Mohamed Badie’, who all currently control the Brotherhood.

The other group views the organisation not as a goal in itself but a rather means to an end; the Brotherhood does not have to have a rigid organisational structure thus turning into a movement that affects society.

This group is formed of [third Brotherhood Supreme Guide] Omar El-Telmsany’s students: [ex-presidential candidate and current Head of Strong Egypt party] Abdel Mon’eim Abul-Fotouh, Mohamed Habib, Mokhtar Nouh, Ibrahim El-Za’farny. I belonged to the second group; all have been forced to leave the Brotherhood by the first group.

The first group wanted to get rid of all people who propagated the other way of thinking. The first person they got rid of was [current Al-Wasat party Head] Abul Ela Mady and the others in 1996 who now belong to Al-Wasat party.

At that time I did not belong to the group, but I believed in the same ideas they adhered to. Then I followed in 2002, a year later they got rid of Mokhtar Nouh. Then they limited all responsibilities of Abul-Fotouh inside the Brotherhood until they got rid of him together with Habib, El-Za’farny and Mohamed Daoud. It was a purge of El-Shater’s rivals.

‫Until today the Brotherhood still harbours members of both groups.


Why were you forced out of the Brotherhood?

The Mubarak regime at that time had put the lawyer’s union under legal guardianship. On 15 October 1999 a meeting was held in Maadi between leaders of the lawyers union and Muslim Brotherhood figures, to discuss the situation. Security forces got news of this meeting and arrested all who attended as it was a “good catch.” The meeting contained Badie’, a member of the Brotherhood guidance bureau at the time,  Mohamed Beshr, Medhat El-Hadad, renowned Brotherhood leader in Alexandria and Mokhtar Nouh who was responsible for the lawyers’ file in the Brotherhood.

They were all arrested and referred to military court. The Brotherhood leaders formed a conflict management committee which is common for the Brotherhood in such situations. These committees decide how to act and have the final word. I was elected as head of this committee, formed of 10 other members.  I consulted Badie’ who was in prison and we formed a plan which we called “the plan to spread worry.” We had to make the regime worried that if verdicts were issued against these members, it would have negative results on the regime itself.

I was surprised when then Supreme Guide Al-Hodiby refused the plan and issued a decree to fire the committee, cancelling all steps taken. It was common knowledge at that time that Al-Hodiby, along with the rest of the ruling group at that time, had his own ambitions.

I discussed this with the group in prison, including Badie’ who asked I continue with the original plan. I, along with two other members, continued with the plan and were successful; steps were taken on both political and judicial levels, including filing lawsuits to release the detainees to the Administrative Court that eventually ordered their release.

Badie’ after getting out of prison claimed that he did not ask anything of me and made a show that he was upset I had continued down this path. I was then tried inside the Brotherhood, it was decreed I went against Al-Hodiby’s orders and was expelled in March 2002.


What is a Brotherhood trial?

In any organisation there are methods to make people accountable when they make mistakes, which normal as long as there are laws that organise it.  But inside the Brotherhood there are no rules. The trials are undertaken depending on the desires of the current administration. The administration asks three people to form a judiciary panel. And in most cases they are handed both the charges and the verdict desired by the administration.

It is more of a cosmetic procedure. When I was charged I asked them to bring in [prosecution] witnesses and I told them that humanely, and from an Islamic point of view, I should face the witnesses and should be given the chance to bring in my own witnesses – but of course this did not happen. At that time I called it “military trials inside the Muslim Brotherhood‫” in several articles. ‫


Are you bitter?

There is a difference between the psychological pain that accompanies the situation at the time and bitterness. One should not suffer this pain throughout his life. It turns into a memory and becomes a learning experience. There isn’t any bitterness [in me]. I’ve said before I was proud I belonged to the Brotherhood and proud I left it. Both benefited me greatly.


When did you join the Brotherhood?

It is never a sudden [decision] to join the Brotherhood. It is always done in phases; I was close to the group in my early 20s. Then in 1978 I was what is known as an affiliate of the Brotherhood. Then I got involved with Al-Wafd [party] for a year, only to return to the Brotherhood a year later to become an official member in 1985.


What prompted you to join the Brotherhood?

At that time there were strong da’wa [Islamic lecturing] characters involved like Omar El-Telmsany. His lectures, which were allowed by [late President Anwar] El-Sadat, at universities were quite‫ moving. Abdelmet’al El-Gabryl, was one of the strongest lecturers as well as Fouad Hamouda. They all talked about religious issues, never about politics attracting young religious people. I became part of the Brotherhood because of this religious aspect, but later the group became too involved in political work rather than religious lecturing.


Why is it wrong for the Brotherhood to focus on political work?

There is a difference between the “open” political work which we all get involved in and the “competitive” political work that I warned of.

If [the Brotherhood] works in da’wa – calling people to the modern way of thinking and spreading the ideals of Islam, they should not compete in elections. [They] compete in elections [claiming] to be representatives of Islam, accusing competitors, whom the Brotherhood should include in da’wa, of being against religion, thus turning Islam from da’wa to a competition. Islam never competes with anyone, rather it embraces all. The competitive political work and the fight over power is what I warned of.


As an observer, what do you think is currently happening inside the Brotherhood?

There is a power struggle, not inside the Brotherhood, but over Egypt.

El-Shater and his group won ‫the fight inside the Brotherhood before the [January 25, 2011] revolution. They are currently the ones in control of the Brotherhood and have been implementing their ideas throughout the past years. The coming fight is over Egypt and not inside the Brotherhood; when [Mohamed] Morsy became President he wanted to form a circle that has a measure of independence from the Brotherhood – and he is still trying – but they won’t allow him the chance as they want Morsy to implement their policy

The Brotherhood wanted El-Shater to represent them in the elections but things did not go well [because of El-Shater’s legal papers], and they approved the candidacy of Morsy thinking they could control him and achieve their goals through him. Looking at the presidential campaign it seemed like El-Shater was the one campaigning, talking about Al-Nahda [Renaissance] project as if he was behind it all.

El-Shater wanted [ex-speaker of the People’s Assembly and current chairman of the FJP] Saad El-Katatny to run instead but the party held a meeting, led by Morsy, and decided that Morsy should run. It was the party’s choice and not the Brotherhood.


Why did the party do this?

It was not the party, it was Mohamed Morsy.

He was well-connected with the previous regime in Egypt as well as SCAF. It was his power; the ability to open channels of communication between him and the Mubarak regime. When [late head of Egyptian intelligence] Omar Suleiman met a representative of the Brotherhood [in February, 2011] it was with Morsy not El-Katatny. Morsy knew El-Shater’s papers would be rejected. So he held a party meeting the next day to have a back-up and asked the party to vote – it was natural they vote for the head of the party, [Morsy].

El-Shater harped on about his economic potential and how with Al-Nahda project he can help revive the Egyptian economy as if saying “I will be the real president.” Before the election he said to the FJP paper that “from the first day Morsy wins, I will be the sole person responsible for the economic projects in Egypt.” He was promoting himself as the person behind Morsy’s success. El-Shater has his eyes on the next presidential race, while Morsy wants to be elected again because if the Brotherhood withdraw their support to Morsy and choose El-Shater instead it’d mean that he has failed.


Is this based on solid information or your own conclusions?

This is partly the way I interpret the situation and partly information I from inside the Brotherhood.

There are signs that Morsy wants to stear clear of El-Shater’s group. He started enlisting people who belong to the second group [opposing El-Shater] and empowering [businessman] Hassan Malk, who is a great adversary of El-Shater. Morsy also gave El-Erian the chance to be his advisor. He made Dr [Mohamed] Besher, one of El-Shater’s  biggest enemies, governor of Al-Monofia.

Mahmoud Mekki, who became Morsy’s vice president, has a well-known and problematic history with El-Shater. The same goes for Selim El-Awa who is currently one of Morsy’s advisers. So when Morsy uses all these people, that means he is alienating himself from El-Shater’s group‫.


What do you think of Morsy’s rule so far?

Morsy and those ruling with him are inexperienced amateurs who don’t have a vision. They don’t have solutions to economic problems and they issue contradictory statements. For example, he said he will not allow loan interest and then asks for the IMF loan, leading to a contradiction between what is being said and what is actually done. The president does not have an economic nor political vision thus he is only left with words; to make himself popular through speeches. He talks a lot but does nothing.


How do you see the next three months?

I was talking to Dr Youssef Alqaeed, the well-known writer, and he was telling me “I am very pessimistic.” I told him I am optimistic and pessimistic at the same time [because] God always sends Egypt a way out. However, we are heading towards a [tough] situation greater than a political power struggle; the poorest people, when they feel that their livelihoods are being threatened, can lead a violent revolution. Particularly as the current regime is unable to solve the economic problems, it may lead to a violent confrontation with the poor who are suffering greatly.

The other factor is the nature of the Brotherhood when they reach power; Democracy is only used once to reach power. Then, if there are elections that may cast them out, they will not allow [such elections], especially since the Brotherhood have young men who are trained in combat.


There have been claims that the Brotherhood has a trained militia, but no material evidence has ever been presented. What is your proof militias exist?

I am an eyewitness. As for proof, there is much evidence; in 2006 when Israel tried to invade south Lebanon, [then Supreme Guide] Mahdi Akef at the lawyers union said that the brotherhood has “10,000 trained young men that we can send to Lebanon to fight the Israelis.”

Some viewed it as a slip of a tongue, but in the same month Essam El-Erian was asked on Al-Mannar [TV] Channel, what would the Brotherhood do about the Israeli attack on south Lebanon? He said that if the government allows it [they would fight] and when asked about [Akef’s statement] El-Erian said “and if we want them to be 100,000, we can. Our boys are ready and trained.” These are the statements by Ikhwan themselves.

The other proof; in the same year the combat training conducted by the Brotherhood youth at Al-Azhar university – while wearing face masks similar to the ones used by Hamas – made it clearer that they were highly trained. They filmed the training and sent a CD to the newspapers and TV channels.

There was a problem between Ikhwan students and the administration of Al-Azhar university, including the current Al-Azhar Sheikh, and there were students who were cast out of student elections. They wanted to prove that they are up to the confrontation if a clash happened with security forces. With the public scrutiny on the Brotherhood, the Ikhwan responsible for the show was severely punished and tried inside the group.

It was also clear during the Camel Battle. When the attack happened with camels and horses, two groups were able to face off with the thugs; the Brotherhood youth and some of the Ultras, clear from the videos aired on TV. I injured my foot on 28 January and got beaten by security forces. I was saved by young Ikhwanis who I know. I was hospitalised and some of them visited me after the Camel Battle and talked proudly of how the training helped them save the day and the revolution.


What about your personal experience with this training?

After El-Telemsany died, they started training in 1987. They did not say what this training was for. I was 30 years old. It was conducted at Al-Shams Club; the security manager of the club at that time would open for us to train after midnight till dawn – after the members had gone home. It was military training. I attended four or five times and then I was told they had stopped,  but I learnt through friends that they have gotten rid of a group of us – deemed unfit.

Among those who stayed were Ayman Gabr, who was a Karate champion and now is a physician and Ahmed Hassan who was supposed to be an international champion in Kung Fu until the federation was dissolved.


Many young people accuse young Ikhwanis of not thinking for themselves.

Anyone who thinks cannot be a part of the brotherhood because it is a military group; it has a military way of thinking.

You do not have to think, for it is done for you. You only have to implement. The Brotherhood only grants high ranks to those who can implement; executive personalities who implement but do not think. Has the Brotherhood got any famous writers, poets, scientists? It is proof enough that they are unable to produce any because they do not allow creative thinking.


Some critics of the Brotherhood claim that Ikhwan now are using a Salafi curriculum to educate their young people.

The syllabus in my time used to be rather moderate, which was at odds with the Salafi way of thinking. Then Salafi educational ideas were introduced to the Brotherhood. The Wahabi way of thinking has become very prominent inside the group.

The current Brotherhood leaders belong to [Islamist theorist] Sayed Qutb’s school. They have also worked in the Gulf – Saudi Arabia and Yemen – and spent years there. Including Ezzat, Ghozlan and Badie’ and even El-Shater as well as Gamal Abdelhadi and Adelsatar Fathallah, who are from Al-Azhar, but Salafis consider them their leaders. These characters became very powerful. The ideas that they got [from the Gulf] became the current [ideology] of the brotherhood. It is related to the Wahabi project since 1939.


Women in the Brotherhood are shrouded in mystery.

Women are not considered members inside the brotherhood in the true sense; they are sub-members to a male in her family; father, brother or husband. A woman on her own cannot be a member. She does not have the right to vote or become part of the guidance council. When Gihan El-Halafwi, Ibrahim El-Za’farny’s wife, tried to be part of the council, she was fired.  Women usually leave the Brotherhood if the male is fired. My wife left the group. Women try to compensate this through the FJP.


So why do women continue in the Brotherhood? Is it a way of life?

Yes, you can say it is partly a way of life.


You claimed that the United States supported the Brotherhood because they can get almost anything out of them.

There is currently an American airbase being built in Katameya. I have the papers to prove it and I will publish them soon with the contracts involved. Israel also needs the Brotherhood, for maintaining the Camp David treaty. If Ahmed Shafiq won and the US wanted the same things, what would be the response of the [Egyptian] people? The same holds if Shafiq was the one to send the latest letter to [Israeli President Shimon] Peres.

How would the people respond to Israeli aircrafts breaching Egyptian airspace if Shafiq were president? The [criticism] would have been very strong and he would have been accused of being a double agent, because he does not have [the Brotherhood] to protect his decisions. The US supported Morsy because he has a brotherhood that [enforces] him.


Will the Brotherhood continue?

It’s like fire, if it doesn’t find anything to eat it will eat itself. So I predict it will crumble soon. They helped end the [January 25, 2012] revolution from the first time they sat with Suleiman to negotiate. They used the revolution for their own agenda and made a deal with SCAF that started with the [fight] over the referendum. I consider [the referendum] the biggest crime the Ikhwan and [Constitutional Expert] Tareq El-Bishry committed against the revolution.

A revolution has its own powers and should have had its own courts, this is why we demanded a civilian council made of well-known political figures with a representative of the army to negotiate on behalf of the revolution. But we went through normal legal procedures that led to the acquittals [of officers accused of shooting protesters as well as figures of the Mubarak regime]. We went back to using the laws that Mubarak formed and amending a constitution tailored by Mubarak.

Add to that [the Brotherhood] separating themselves from the revolutionaries; having their own protests and accusations of thuggery [during the Mohamed Mahmoud Street fights]. They acted as though engaged in a business deal, looking for a profit, not as men of religion.


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