Inside the Muslim Brotherhood’s hush-hush propaganda office in the U.K.
CAIRO and LONDON — The Muslim Brotherhood is reeling. Its headquarters in Cairo were gutted in August raids. Its leaders have been jailed. And in the latest move against the party of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, an Egyptian court on Monday issued an injunction dissolving the venerable Islamist movement and ordered its assets seized.
The ongoing suppression of the Brotherhood has driven party activists still in Egypt underground. But it has also prompted volunteers to take over the party’s work from what might perhaps seem an unlikely location: North London.
Buried in the depths of the British capital at an undisclosed address, the Muslim Brotherhood’s London press office has steadily become one of the most active arms of the Islamist group, coordinating with worldwide offices in Egypt, the United States, and Europe to send out the latest press statements, organize protests, and come up with new strategies — including hiring hotshot British lawyers to coordinate legal challenges to the new Egyptian government.
In some ways, London is a natural home for the Brotherhood outside Egypt. It was already the head office of the Brotherhood’s English-language website, "Ikhwanweb," which was launched in 2005 as the Western-friendly face of the organization. The first incarnation of the Islamist group in London dates as far back as the 1990s, when it opened a "global information center," which sought to communicate the group’s message to the world’s media. The Brotherhood spokesperson for Europe, Ibrahim Mounir, resides in the British capital, and Gomaa Amin, the Brotherhood’s second-in-command and most senior member not in jail, is currently seeking refuge in London, after visiting for medical treatment just before the mass arrests began.
It’s still not entirely clear what role the London branch of the Brotherhood plays today. Those involved are cautious about providing details for fear of repercussions against family members back in Egypt. According to Cairo-based, English-language daily the Egypt Independent, it has taken over the international media output of the outlawed group entirely.
A spokesperson, Salma, who asked that her real name not be used, said that together with a coalition of expat groups, the Brotherhood organizes weekly protests in London in support of Morsy, which in the past have included creative demonstrations like a human chain down the city’s main shopping district, Oxford Street.
But the London Brotherhood also takes on potentially more weighty tasks: It recently employed a dream team of internationally renowned British lawyers — including Michael Mansfield, who represented Mohamed al-Fayed in the inquest into the death of Princess Diana and families of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre — to start legal proceedings against the Egyptian government, potentially in the International Criminal Court.
The lawsuit filed by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and members of the dissolved Shura Council accuses the military and the interim Egyptian government of crimes against humanity, focusing on events like the violent Aug. 14 dispersal of Cairo’s two pro-Morsy sit-ins, where over 600 people were killed.
"The people who have instructed me have come under attack from the regime," says Tayab Ali, solicitor and partner of leading London human rights law firm ITN Solicitors. "My instructions have been modeled in such a way that even if I lose communication with every member of the FJP or Shura Council I will finish my investigations."
Salma, who is currently finishing her Ph.D. in Britain, refuses to disclose the number of people involved in the London office, saying only, "There is a hierarchical organization; we are organized and very structured, and very well informed."
"We have always been here, for a couple of decades now," she says. "The Brotherhood is an international organization; it is not only in Egypt."
The Brotherhood clearly has a London set stretching back generations. Its leaders began fleeing to Europe in the 1950s, when then President Gamal Abdel Nasser staged a crackdown on the organization, says Khalil al-Anani, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Anani believes that Egypt is witnessing a repeat of Nasser’s 1954 crackdown on the Brotherhood, which could cause a fresh wave of Islamist members to move back to Britain. "After Monday’s ruling they will be more vulnerable."
Khairat al-Shater, a leading Brotherhood member who is currently in prison and was seen by many as the power behind Morsy’s throne, was in exile in London in the mid-1980s together with Essam al-Haddad, a presidential aide who was detained in mid-September by security forces of Egypt’s military rulers.
Essam’s son, Abdullah al-Haddad, is now an active member of the Brotherhood’s London wing. The Haddads are not the only family with powerful links to Brotherhood networks in London and Cairo: The brother of Salma, the spokesperson, was part of Morsy’s presidential team and is currently being held in an undisclosed location.
Even from the relative safety of London, members of the British Muslim Brotherhood operate with caution. The Egyptian authorities are reportedly keeping a watchful eye on the Islamists’ activities in the British capital.
"We cannot be quoted by name anymore; it is huge security problem even here," Salma says. "We all have families in Egypt, so the security issues are personal — there are family pressures. I do not wish any of my family back in Egypt to be affected by my activism."
The Egyptian expatriate community in London is not all pro-Brotherhood, Salma admits. There have been counterprotests supporting the military in London, and most Egyptians living in Britain actually preferred Hosni Mubarak’s former prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, in the presidential election. "The majority didn’t vote Morsy," says Salma, referring to London’s ex-pats.
But with Brotherhood supporters fleeing to London as the government continues its crackdown, the number of Morsy supporters may be catching up with their rivals. Salma maintains that she and fellow Brotherhood activists will eventually return to Egypt — but as the crackdown continues to mount, that moment seems far off.
"Hundreds of Egyptians like me thought we could get a better education in London [and] then go back to build a democratic Egypt," she says. "But [the government] may keep me away from my family."