Media statements by a number of leading Muslim Brotherhood figures over their intention to leave Qatar have stirred questions about the shift in the official position of the Qatari government towards the Islamist group and its future in exile.
Qatar has been one of the Brotherhood’s largest supporters in its battle to delegitimize current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule.
But, concerns have been raised regarding the Islamist organization’s next steps and the effect of its leaders’ decisions on the cohesion of the group. Prominent members are scattered between prison and exile in this new phase of the Brotherhood’s 85-year history.
Brotherhood leading figure Essam Telima, whose name is on the list of those seemingly deported from Qatar, told Mada Masr from his current residence in Malaysia that news about the Qatari government’s decision to deport them is false and malicious. He said, “Some of us decided of our own accord to leave Qatar in order to ease embarrassment on the government, which for the past six months has been under pressure from Egypt and Gulf countries supporting Sisi’s regime to deport us. No one publicly asked us to leave, or hinted this in secret. Qatar never ceased to remove obstacles for us during our stay.”
Telima asked, “What’s stopping the Qatari government from making a public and official statement about our deportation if they have made such a decision?”
Brotherhood leader Gamal Abdel Sattar, who is also allegedly on the deportation list, spoke to Mada Masr during a visit to Qatar “to finish some personal paperwork” after leaving for Turkey a week earlier. He said that the Qatari authorities didn’t stop him from entering the country and that he still enjoys good relations with them. Nor has he witnessed any attempts to hinder his new residency in Turkey, he claims.
Telima and Abdel Sattar’s denial of an official deportation order fall in line with the government’s position on the case.
Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled bin Attia told the Financial Times last week that Doha has not asked Brotherhood leaders to leave the country, emphasizing that Qatar “remains an open platform for people with different views.”
“We will not use our authority to shut down the Al Jazeera channel or change their editorial policies,” he added, confirming a statement released by the channel that Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, which serves as the fugitive leadership’s mouthpiece, would not be shut down.
“The rumors that the channel is going to shut down within a month are the latest in a series of rumors targeting the oldest Arab news network,” the statement said.
Political science professor at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo Ahmed Abd Rabbo says that pressure was clearly put on Qatar to deport certain Brotherhood members. He suggests individuals were verbally instructed to leave the country in an attempt to save face and avoid releasing information jeopardizing their independence.
Abd Rabbo believes that the shift in the official stance of the Qatari government is due to an internal struggle in which the new Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al- Thani, who recently succeeded his father, voiced different views on how to deal with such matters in order to give the nation more flexibility in global politics.
Additionally, the recent expansion of Islamic State territory has changed regional politics, he says, pushing the United States to form an alliance with Turkey.
Another variable he mentioned is the position of Gulf countries, especially following the Gedda convention, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain escalated events by withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar.
Saudi Arabia, the largest country in the region, considers the Brotherhood a threat to their legitimacy, in Abd Rabbo’s opinion, especially in light of an ageing royal family and their struggle with internal issues related to the monarchy, as well as the Brotherhood’s support for internationalism.
He explained that there is a conflict of political influence in the region, as Qatar had managed to build a partnership with Egypt in the years following the revolution, but that this relationship declined recently, coinciding with an attack on the Qatari Embassy in Cairo.
Meanwhile, expert on Islamist movements, Kamal Habib, suggests the main variable is the shift in American support for Qatar, due to the nation’s perceived sympathy for the Islamic State, Nosra Front and other organizations that pose a threat to American interests. He says this thesis is obvious in opinion articles and analysis published by American research centers.
Telima, who worked as office manager and personal secretary for Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawy for six years, said the rumors about Qatar’s determination to deport the controversial preacher were “impossible,” as he has held Qatari citizenship since 1966. He cited Gamal Abdel Nasser’s attempt to extradite Brotherhood figures, including Qaradawy and Abdel Moez Abdel Sattar, from Qatar, which the nation refused, he claims, “not out of disdain for the Egyptian regime, but in line with the loyalty Arab tribes are known for.”
Telima highlighted Sisi’s alienation of Qatar, including “spreading rumors against the royal family in an attempt to undermine its rule, and Egyptian actions against the organization of the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar.”
Director of Egyptian Interpol Gamal Abdel Bary confirmed in televised statements that Interpol hadn’t received any official correspondence from Qatari authorities regarding the extradition of Brotherhood leaders to Cairo. However, he added that Interpol would take all necessary legal procedures in countries where the exiled leaders are expected to seek refuge.
He explained, “All fugitives are dealt with within legal frameworks, regardless of their affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood,” adding that Egypt and Qatar don’t have an extradition deal, making Egypt’s demands to turn them in unbinding for Qatar. There is an extradition agreement between Egypt and Turkey, but Abdel Bary thinks that the differences between the two states may cause further problems in this case.
Egyptian Interpol is currently following 40 Brotherhood fugitives abroad, and 25 have been extradited to Egypt in the last two months, including Mohamed al-Qabbotty, Nofal and Sami Sabra.
The idea of an “alternative homeland” has been a major theme in Brotherhood literature and history, as a way to escape the oppression of regimes and circumvent arrest campaigns. Saudi Arabia was the first place of asylum for the Brotherhood during Nasser’s regime, while Europe was another in the seventies, during the rule of Anwar al-Sadat, whose campaign nearly destroyed the organization.
Qatar and Turkey continue to be the most recent choices of residence for Brotherhood members, since much of the leadership fled to the two countries following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013.
Telima revealed to Mada Masr that most of the names mentioned in the deportation list circulated by the media don’t currently reside in Qatar, except himself, Islamist preacher Wagdi Ghoneim — who has been living in Qatar for two years — and spokesperson for the Freedom and Justice Party Hamza Zobaa. He also said that Mahmoud Hussein and Amr Darrag live in Turkey and make intermittent visits to Qatar.
Telima said he has many options for residency, including Norway to obtain a PhD, but he chose Malaysia and left his family. “The decision to leave or come back is in my hands only,” he said, adding that all of his children were born in Qatar, where he has lived for 16 years.
While Wagdi Ghoneim and Gamal Abdel Sattar left for Turkey, Hamza Zobaa, who holds Albanian citizenship, continues to live in Qatar. Erdogan’s public announcement that he welcomes Brotherhood exiles led most of them to chose Turkey, Telima says.
Abd Rabbo, however, believes that the decision to reside in Turkey is due to its political stances and foreign policy. He says Turkey is perceived as a role model for moderate Islamism by many, although he stresses it is not an entirely safe choice, due to its desire to join the EU. He speculates that this may force the Brotherhood back to Egypt eventually.
Habib thinks Turkey is a strategic choice, and that Erdogan is trying to gather all representatives of Egyptian political Islam, so as to be the voice representing them.
Telima says six members of the Brotherhood were promoted to join the Guidance Bureau in Egypt and that weekly meetings prove that the Islamist organization will persevere, as he adds, “oppression is not new to us.”