Brotherly Love

Turkey Nurtures Egypt’s ‘Terrorist’ Muslim Brothers

While Cairo hands down death sentences, Ankara allows the Brotherhood to open TV stations. A close look at a rivalry shaping many Mideast conflicts.

04.16.15 1:00 AM ET

ISTANBUL — Walid Sami fusses over a cup of green tea in the crowded apartment he shares with another Egyptian and six Syrians in a quarter of Istanbul's Fatih district overlooking the Golden Horn. “Turkish tea is too bitter,” says Sami, 28, tall and thin with a wispy beard, dressed in worn blue jeans and a green denim jacket. He prefers the tea in his native Egypt, but he can’t go back there now.

“I asked a lot of people in Egypt for advice,” says Sami. “Some say if I return they might even arrest me at the airport...If they want to kill me, they will, they don't care at this point who they are dealing with.”

Sami is one of around 4,000 Egyptians who have left their country fearing legal action, most now living in Turkey. Among them are some of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, their list of allies abroad fast dwindling, fleeing a massive crackdown at home by the government of Abdel Fattah el Sisi, which has jailed more than 40,000 people, including the revolution's top liberal and secular voices as well as Islamists, and has handed out more than a thousand death sentences.

Last week, an Egyptian court upheld death sentences against 14 Brotherhood leaders, including its head, Mohamed Badie. Thirty-seven others were handed life sentences, including Mohamad Soltan, a 27-year-old American citizen. The prospects of Washington convincing Sisi to back down seem slim—Egypt is now part of a coalition against the global scourge of the so-called Islamic State.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood in exile is trying to build a coalition of its own, meeting Western lawmakers, opening satellite news stations, even petitioning international courts that may have some jurisdiction over Egypt. But Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is perhaps the group’s only major ally. Erdoğan, himself increasingly isolated, continues to insist Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s ill-fated elected president of Egyp, is still the country’s legitimate leader.

After the Egyptian military dismissed the Morsi government on July 3, 2013, Sami joined Morsi supporters at Cairo's Rabaa al Adawiya square (also anglicized as Rabia el Adaweya), at a protest camp along streets that ran between an army base and the Ministry of Defense.

A few days later, Sami's manager called him into his office. “He told me the security service had a picture of me at the protest. You have a problem, and you are in danger, he said.”

Undeterred, Sami continued to attend the protests, right up until August 14, 2013, when the snipers and armored personnel carriers that had surrounded the camp for weeks finally moved in, killing nearly a thousand people in 12 hours.

Last April, Sami came to Istanbul for a one week business trip. Two days after arriving, he got a phone call from a relative in Cairo, delivering a message from Egyptian security: “You are in our records, nothing is confirmed yet, but we are waiting for you.”

Sami now works 13-hour days at a back-alley warehouse dying clothes for a Turkish fabric maker, and sending what he saves back to Egypt to support his wife and two young children. “Most of my coworkers are Syrians, they always talk about the war there. They all want to get smuggled to Europe, but I have a family, I don't want to go there, what if I get killed [on the dangerous voyage]?”

A symbol has crept up across the Islamic world, on cigarette lighters, iPhone covers, wall calendars in Peshawar, at rallies in Kuala Lumpur, even in graffiti in Istanbul's fashionable Cihangir neighborhood: a black hand, palm facing forward, thumb folded in, four fingers showing in a reference to the massacre at Rabaa al Adawiya—“Rabaa” literally means “Four.” Sanliurfa's main square has been renamed Rabaa al Adawiya, and Erdoğan regularly flashes the four-fingered sign at reporters.

For Turkey's Islamists, who have read Turkish translations of Brotherhood intellectuals like Hassan al Banna and Sayed Qutb for decades, Morsi's removal conjured up memories of coups of their own, says Mustafa Akyol, a commentator on Islamist movements. “Seeing the same thing happen in Egypt made [Erdoğan’s] AK Party more willing to stand up for the Brotherhood,” he says.

Akyol points out this is not the first time Turkey has hosted Muslim Brotherhood dissidents. In 1982, after Hafez al Assad decisively put down a long Brotherhood-led insurgency in Syria, the organization's leadership fled to Turkey, Europe and the Middle East. Three decades later Erdoğan successfully pushed to have the dissidents join the Western-backed Syrian Revolutionary Council. “These are the leaders of the Syrian opposition. The sons of the Brotherhood members who fled to Turkey in 1982,” he said.

But the international community has not thrown its support behind Erdoğan's Brotherhood brothers, who are regarded by the Saudis, especially, as a long-term political threat to their own regime—which is one reason the political front of the Syrian opposition has been so weak and fractured. The Brotherhood’s longtime supporters in the Gulf, the Qataris, have been put on the defensive.

In Egypt, the Sisi takeover was bankrolled with more than $20 billion in badly needed foreign cash from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait, which have been frosty with Ankara ever since the rise of the Brotherhood in Egypt. With the rise of the Islamic State in the Sinai, and Libya, the West has followed suit: the U.S. has resumed $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Cairo, delivering ten Apache helicopters there this December.

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Erdoğan is now maintaining a lonely stance, and a confident Sisi has responded with unguarded hostility. Both countries withdrew their respective ambassadors in 2013. Egyptian men aged 18 to 40 must obtain a security clearance before traveling to Turkey. There have been calls for Egyptians to boycott everything from Turkish fabrics to its famed soap operas.

“Turkey has taken a principled stance, whether it comes to the Syrian [revolution] issue, or to the Egyptians,” says Gamal Heshmat, a Brotherhood leader who headed the Foreign Relations Committee of the Morsi-era Parliament. “This is something unheard of in international politics.” Heshmat's two sons were briefly jailed in 2013, and two of his nephews have been in prison now for more than a year.

Heshmat, a former professor of internal medicine at Alexandria University, came to Turkey in November, 2013, and is among 69 Morsi-era lawmakers who now meet in Istanbul.

Inside Egypt, 167 Parliamentarians have been jailed, some in solitary confinement for more than a year. More than a thousand Brotherhood charities, part of the social network that underpins the movement, have been shut down, but the group has adapted: reducing the size of its meetings and holding them in secret in cafés or even while walking down the street, and publicizing false dates and locations for planned protests.

Heshmat insists the revolution will continue, although the days of large-scale protests are gone, replaced for more than a year now by weekly flash rallies, sometimes dozens across the country on the same day.

Younger Brotherhood members see Morsi's ouster as a revolutionary intermission. One example is Ammar el Beltagy, 23, the son of Mohamed el Beltagy, the general secretary of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, who has been in solitary for nearly two years. Ammar's 17-year-old sister Asma el Beltagy, was killed in Rabaa, as the military and police were moving in to disperse protesters. Two of his brothers were jailed in the last year.

Fearing he was next, el Beltagy quit his studies at Cairo University last November and came to Turkey. “I couldn't even do simple things like register for classes,” he says late one night at a cafe serving Syrian shawarma in Istanbul's Uskudar district.

“I am trying to get a residency permit in Turkey,” he says, “but it is a very long, very expensive process.... I like Turkish culture, the atmosphere here. There are many kinds of people here, leftists, seculars, Islamists.”

Constantly fielding calls from Brotherhood members in Turkey and Egypt, el Beltagy works out of an office used by Syrians and Lebanese—he has found a place in the Arab micro-culture produced by millions of Arab Spring refugees.

El Beltagy acknowledges Morsi made mistakes during his rule, but has little sympathy for groups like the April 6th Youth Movement, which organized protests that precipitated the military coup. “You did lots of good work [in toppling Mubarak], but Sisi is worse than Mubarak, so what is your role now?”

The revolution in Egypt will continue, he says, but “we need to reach out to ordinary people.”

On the 23rd floor of a sleek new skyscraper near Istanbul's Ataturk airport, the Brotherhood has set up a modest television studio in rented rooms with little furniture and basic editing equipment. Rabia TV broadcasts 12 hours of daily programming, including history lessons on past Islamist struggles, and scripted debates between clerics on the permissibility of using violence to confront the Sisi regime's crackdown. It's one of four Brotherhood-affiliated stations operating out of Turkey, much to the chagrin of Cairo.

Commentators deliver ominous predictions of violence in Egypt. This February, the channel carried an ultimatum from a group calling itself the Revolutionary Youth telling foreign businessmen, diplomats, and tourists to leave Egypt or be “targeted by the movements of revolutionary retribution." A few weeks later, a group calling itself the Popular Resistance Movement carried out six coordinated bombings at a string of mobile phone shops in Cairo.

“There are some using violent language in the media, but they speak for themselves, or for specific movements,” says Heshmat. “No one can win if they respond to the Sisi regime's practices with violence.”

The Brotherhood is also looking to build support among global lawmakers, meeting with Western policy makers and legal experts in a campaign being waged through the Egyptian Revolutionary Council (ERC), a group formed in Istanbul last August that also includes a handful of liberals and Christian Egyptians abroad.

“It's a broad platform for those opposed to the military coup,” says Maha Azzam, the ERC's chairperson who is a former fellow at the London-based think-tank Chatham House. “It's often described as still being very closely connected to the Brotherhood and Islamist groups, and it certainly does include them, because our primary belief is that we should be an inclusive platform.”

The ERC's Brotherhood ties won it a blanket ban in Egypt last October. The assets of Azzam and 30 other members have been frozen, a sign, she says, of the group's impact. “Every time we come out with a statement or visit policy makers in another country, [the Sisi government] gets very annoyed and angry.” In the past few months, ERC delegations have met with human rights missions in Geneva, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and a string of diplomats from across Europe, including Germany, Denmark, Spain, Austria, and the Czech Republic.

This January, the ERC met with U.S. Congressional representatives and the State Department, drawing criticism not only from right wing outlets in the U.S., but also from the Egyptian foreign minister, who said “according to Egyptian law they should be treated as a terrorist group.”

Heshmat, who was part of the Washington delegation, hopes to slowly win over lawmakers. “We hope the United States changes its mind [on ties with Sisi], because Sisi has not brought any benefit for Egypt.... Sisi is the cause of terrorism in Egypt, because there are no human rights, no freedom, no justice, many people now think about how to win their rights, and some of them have decided to carry weapons.”

But the ERC's lobbying seems be having little impact among Western policy makers, and the U.S. is not the only one handing Sisi cash and weapons. This February, despite public pleas from the ERC, France sold Egypt 24 Rafale fighter jets worth around $5.6 billion.

The ERC has also been trying to get the U.N. to appoint a special rapporteur to investigate the Rabaa massacre, but it’s a long shot, says Maissa Abdel Latif, an ERC representative Paris. “There are red lines, because if a U.N. special rapporteur, for instance, investigates and finds fault, he has the right to raise the issue with the International Criminal Court. So those opposing us, like the UAE, Saudi, etc., would never allow that.”

International courts have been approached, with little luck. In May, 2014, the International Criminal Court rejected a Brotherhood petition on behalf of victims of the Rabaa massacre, saying the group did not have the “requisite authority” to represent the Egyptian state. A similar case is pending in the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Several Brotherhood supporters who are nationals in Europe and the United States have filed petitions in their own courts on behalf of relatives of those killed or injured in Egypt, but Latif says funding is a problem and so is fear of retribution against family inside Egypt.

Last week's death sentences may have raised some eyebrows in the West, but for most governments, Sisi's coup is yesterday's news.