Very few of the leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood escaped the recent military-led crackdown on their movement. Some of those who did flew out of Cairo after paying thousands of dollars in bribes to airport security officials, while others took more convoluted routes, boarding planes in distant airports en route to friendlier nations.
One of those nations is Qatar, the tiny, oil-rich Persian Gulf state that helped bankroll rebels and Islamist democracy advocates throughout the Arab Spring and is now quietly absorbing the exiles that one country’s stumbling experiment in democracy has generated.
Cast out by — or, perhaps, saved from— the harshest political crackdown in recent Egyptian history, a handful of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist leaders found refuge here in the Qatari capital, while others traveled to Istanbul, London and Geneva.
The exiles’ community is small, disorganized and ideologically diverse, ranging from relatively moderate Islamist politicians to hard-line Salafists — groups that less than two years ago competed against each other in Egypt’s parliamentary and presidential elections.
Now, as they push back against the July coup that toppled their country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, they are on the same team.
At the same time, an exile leadership is starting to take shape here among the shimmering high-rises of Doha. Several of the exiles live temporarily in hotel suites paid for by Qatar’s state-run Arabic satellite network Al Jazeera — and it is in those suites and hotel lobbies that the future of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and, more broadly, the strategy and ideology of political Islam in the country may well be charted.
“We are not the kind to escape. We do not prefer exile. We have a task: to communicate the crisis and deliver the message to the world,” Ehab Shiha, chairman of the Egyptian Salafist al-Asala party, said as he sat in a hotel lobby in Doha.
The exiles don’t have a command structure, Shiha said. But, he added, “there is some sort of coordination.”
The exiles have regular meetings. They call counterparts in Geneva and London. Shiha said the group even speaks regularly with Ayman Nour, a longtime liberal who was jailed under now-ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak and is in Beirut.
“Right now, we are not in a political phase — we’re in a state of revolution,” Shiha said. “In a revolution, we don’t talk about parties. We talk only about revolution against an unjust regime, and we talk about sharing in our efforts.”
A high-ranking Egyptian Foreign Ministry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the “international Muslim Brotherhood” has held more than half a dozen meetings in Doha and a handful in Turkey and Pakistan since the coup, and that foreign funding is propping up the group at home.
But the political exiles in Doha say they are merely messengers. They did not elaborate on how much contact they have with the anti-coup activists and Brotherhood politicians who remain at large in Egypt. The protests that continue to challenge the country’s new leadership are locally coordinated, they and Egyptian protesters say.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest Islamist group and long its most popular grass-roots political organization, has been effectively eviscerated in the nation of its birth. More than 1,000 Morsi supporters have been killed — most of them shot as security forces raided two anti-coup protest camps in August. And the raids continue.
“Two weeks ago, they raided my house at 2 a.m. They wanted me, of course,” said Ashraf Badr el-Din, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who made his way to Doha in mid-September after moving between safe houses in Egypt for more than two months.
He was lucky. Almost all his colleagues are behind bars.
In a sign of just how remote the prospect of a political solution to Egypt’s crisis has become, one of the Brotherhood’s two key negotiators — a man who was permitted to remain free, analysts said, to negotiate with the military on behalf of the group — was stopped at the Cairo airport on Monday as he, too, sought to travel to Doha.
“It doesn’t seem that anyone on the military side is interested in a political solution. All that is happening is continuation of the oppression,” said Amr Darrag, who insisted that he was traveling for business.
Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency said Darrag was under investigation. “They think that if we travel, we’ll do some harm somehow,” he said.
Another Brotherhood leader, Hamza Zawba, got around his travel ban via a harrowing desert journey across one of Egypt’s borders. “Half of the trip was a land route, and the rest was by flight,” Zawba said, speaking from a hotel lobby in Doha, where he works as a commentator for Al Jazeera.
According to a spokesman for the Brotherhood-led Anti-Coup Alliance, the crackdown has left Darrag “the sole person responsible right now” for the alliance leadership. Hamza al-Sirawi said the group had lost contact with Mohamed Ali Bishr, Darrag’s colleague, a week ago.
“I don’t even know if he’s in Egypt,” Sirawi said. In September, Bishr had been blocked from boarding a flight out. He could be anywhere right now, the Anti-Coup Alliance spokesman said.
On the ground in Egypt, where small-scale protests continue almost daily, Brotherhood leaders say they have lost control of the masses — and some among the masses say they no longer take orders or even know where to look for them.
The protest movement has taken on its own persona in the absence of a leadership, said Ahmed Ali, a university employee who joined hundreds in an anti-coup protest Monday, as Morsi and 14 other Brotherhood leaders appeared in court across town for the start of a trial marred by politics and opacity.
“We don’t know anything about our leaders. They are hiding from police. Maybe they’re inside the country, or maybe they’re out. All we know is what we get from state media,” he said. “Everyone is on Facebook, and that’s how we know where to go.”
And as pressure from Washington seems to have eased — Secretary of State John F. Kerry flew to Cairo over the weekend, a day before Morsi appeared in court, to reassure the government of the two nations’ strong ties — Cairo has dropped its rhetoric of reconciliation.
“A sizable majority of the population is now against any kind of reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood,” the Foreign Ministry official said, adding that the government was under extreme pressure to heed that sentiment.
According to the exiles and the activists, the government won’t win.
“The Muslim Brotherhood exists in jail, out of jail, in the country and outside the country. No one can touch it,” Zawba said.
“We have been threatened and confiscated,” he said. “Everything has been shut down — the television channel, the newspaper, the headquarters. We are not existing on the ground as a political party. But we are existing as people resisting the coup.”
Erin Cunningham and Sharaf al-Hourani in Cairo contributed to this report.