CAIRO — Egyptian security forces captured Essam el-Erian on Wednesday, one of the last few prominent leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood still at large after a crackdown on the group that began with the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi.
The seizure of Erian, a senior leader in the Brotherhood’s political arm and an adviser to the president, appears to complete the incarceration of the organization’s top leaders less than 18 months after they stood on the brink of consolidating power over the presidency and Parliament. He was among the most visible and outspoken leaders of the Brotherhood, Egypt’s mainstream Islamist movement, and his arrest caps a career that has traced the group’s evolution through years of repression, internal reforms, electoral victories, and political failure.
The charges against Erian were not clear, although many of his fellow Brotherhood leaders have been arrested on allegations of incitement to violence.
A physician by training, Erian, 59, began his rise through the Brotherhood’s leadership in the 1970s as a student, helping lead a revival of the Islamist movement in Egypt. He became part of a group of young reformers that pushed the organization to open up, embrace democratic politics, and compete in elections for Parliament even when it was dominated by allies of President Hosni Mubarak. Some members of the group ultimately broke with the Brotherhood to form what became known as the Center Party,seeking a full separation of electoral politics and the group’s core missionary work.
Erian stayed with the Brotherhood. He was jailed several times for his opposition to Mubarak, including a five-year stint that ended in 2000. He ultimately won a seat on the group’s internal governing board. But in 2009 he was pushed off the board for his relative liberalism, emphasizing pluralism and individual choice, in a conservative purge that also expelled an ally, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh.
But when Mubarak’s ouster in 2011 forced the group to confront the challenge of a new democratic opening, Erian stuck with the Brotherhood’s more conservative leaders against moderates like Abolfotoh, who argued that the organization should separate its religious mission from politics and allow its members to enter the electoral fray.
Abolfotoh was expelled from the group for declaring his presidential candidacy as an individual outside the Brotherhood’s political party and against the decree of its leaders. Erian stayed with the Brotherhood, becoming the vice chairman of its newly formed political arm.
As the Brotherhood gained power through parliamentary and presidential elections, Erian began to sound increasingly strident, even erratic. He publicly reprimanded Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey — a hero to Islamists across the Arab world — for suggesting that Islamists in Egypt had nothing to fear from a secular, democratic government like Turkey’s. He urged Egyptian Jews who had fled in past decades to come home from Israel because he predicted an end to the Jewish state.
Most fatefully, in December 2012, when the police refused to protect Morsi’s office in the presidential palace from demonstrators, Erian led public calls for Brotherhood members and other Islamists to defend the building themselves, by force if necessary. The appeal led to a night of bloody street fighting in the blocks around the palace that left at least 11 dead, most of them Morsi supporters.
The fighting that night was the first major violence between rival political factions — as opposed to political groups and the police — in more than 50 years. It led to widespread warnings of a coming civil war and became a turning point in the events that led to Morsi’s military ouster amid enormous protests against his rule. Announcing the takeover on July 3, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the nation’s top military leader, said he was acting to protect Egypt from further descent into division and violence.
Prosecutors have now charged Morsi with incitement to murder, alleging that he instigated the violence that night last December, and he faces trial on Nov. 4.