Release of Islamist Leader Sends Mixed Signals

Since his 2013 arrest, shortly after the army’s removal of former president Mohamed Morsi, Abul Ela Madi’s name has topped the lists of people whose release has been called for, even by critics of political Islamic groups. Two long years later, and Madi finally walked free from a police station on August 12, two days after a court ordered his release.

Observers differ on the possible implications of his release. Was it simply a legal issue in compliance with existing laws that set a maximum of two years in pre-trial detention? Was it a sign of a possible reconciliation between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood? Or was it an attempt to absorb widespread discontent among political Islamic groups following the sudden death of al-Jama’a al-Islamiya leader, Essam Derbala, in prison earlier this month?

With a long history of political activism whether as a university student or as an elected member of the Engineers’ Syndicate, Madi, 57, was seen more as a man of dialogue and compromise. In the wake of Morsi’s ouster however, his political party al-Wasat, a moderate Islamist party that grew out of a group that split with the Brotherhood, sided with the brothers, dubbing Morsi’s removal a military coup. The party joined the Brotherhood-led National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, a coalition of political Islamic groups calling for Morsi’s reinstatement, and for an end to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule.  

The Origins of Wasat

Madi, Sultan, and some of the younger members of the Brotherhood led an unprecedented split within the group in 1996, forming a political party against the wishes of the Brotherhood’s elder leaders. They named it al-Wasat, which means ‘the middle’ in Arabic. Madi and his colleagues said the group needed a political party that adheres to existing Egyptian laws, rather than continuing to exist as a religious group based on a hierarchy and strict obedience to its leadership.

The party, however, did not receive its official license from the government until after the January 2011 Revolution. Under ousted president Hosni Mubarak, the party had tried four separate times, faced instead with rejections, and lengthy legal procedures of appeals and counter appeals.

The Wasat Party enjoyed limited success in the 2012 parliamentary elections, running alongside two other moderate Islamist parties, also born of Brotherhood offshoots. During Morsi’s year in power, however, Madi, and his party, appeared to be leaning more to their original roots, siding with the Brotherhood in all their differences with secular political parties. Mohamed Mahsoub, a Wasat Party leader received a ministerial position, and Madi’s name was floated as a possible prime ministerial candidate.

Following Madi’s arrest, together with his deputy, Essam Sultan, in August, 2013, al-Wasat suffered a major split. Some of its leaders living abroad, such as Fateh Azzam, continued to maintain a hardline stance against the current regime, while the majority of those inside Egypt, decided to quit the NASL, insisting that the party should establish an independent position.  

Madi’s Release

After his release, Madi wasted no time, immediately springing back into action. He did, however, announce in a brief statement upon his release that he would not talk to the media until he gets enough information on the current situation. He said he was relatively isolated during the last months of his imprisonment, with no access to newspapers or outside information. Nevertheless, two days after his release, Madi was reportedly holding meetings at al-Wasat’s office with leaders of political Islamic groups, including al-Jama’a al-Islamiya and others, who also opposed Morsi’s removal. These groups have also appeared dissatisfied with what they describe as the Brotherhood’s dominance over decision making and the tendency towards increased violence in confronting the current regime.

Several observers and experts on political Islamic groups interpreted Madi’s release as a sign that he might start working on an initiative to put an end to the daily, small Brotherhood demonstrations, and the increasing number of attacks against policemen and public installations. This, they thought, would come in return for authorities reconsidering the fate of thousands of detained Brotherhood members facing various charges, and even the party’s possible participation in politics.

Sameh Eid, an expert on Islamist groups and himself a former Brotherhood member, said that with his good relations with Brotherhood leaders, with whom he has spent the last two years in Tora Prison, and his reputation as a supporter of a dialogue with the regime, there is no better candidate for a mediator than Madi. Eid, like other analysts, linked Madi’s release to a similar move when authorities not only released two prominent Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Helmy Gazzar and Ali Batikh earlier this year, but also allowed them both to travel to Turkey.

Omar Farouk, Secretary-General of Al-Wasat Party, however, denied that Madi’s release had any political implications, or that it was related to a specific initiative to mediate between the government and the Brotherhood. “It is simply a legal issue. Engineer Madi should not have spent all this time in prison in the first place without being referred to trial,” said Farouk. He added that according to existing laws, no defendants should be kept in pre-trial detention for more than two years, “and that is why Madi was released,” he told EgyptSource.

When asked whether the Wasat leader would seek to launch an initiative to end the ongoing confrontation between the security bodies and the Brotherhood, Farouk said, “We call upon all parties, the state and the Brotherhood, to sit together and start a dialogue on the future and how we can end the current state of conflict and political division that exists in our country. This is the only hope to build a state in which justice prevails. If there is any effort we can exert towards this end, I’m certain that Engineer Madi will not stay behind.”

Mamdouh Ismail, a leading member of al-Jama’a al-Islamiya and a former member of parliament, however, said that reports on possible compromise between the government and the Brotherhood is wishful thinking. Instead, he linked Madi’s release to the recent death of al-Jama’a al-Islamiya leader, Derbala in prison. While the interior ministry says Derbala died of natural causes, his family and the al-Jama’a insist he was denied medical care that could have saved his life. Madi’s release, Ismail claimed, was simply a diversionary tactic on the part of the authorities.

Kamal Helbawi, a former prominent Brotherhood member, agrees with Ismail and does not believe that either the government or the Brotherhood is ready to compromise. “Following the assassination of Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat [on July 1], we’ve seen a major reverse in talk on compromise and increasing calls for carrying out death sentences against Brotherhood leaders,” Helbawi told EgyptSource. “This was met by similar calls for escalation against the regime among the younger members of the Brotherhood, and no one seems to be in a compromising mood.” Instead, Helbawi believes that Madi was released in an attempt by the government to send a message that the door remains open for moderate Islamists to take part in politics—as long as they reject violence.

Khaled Dawoud is currently Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the official spokesman of social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei. 

Image: Photo: Abul Ela Madi after his release from prison (Wasat Party Facebook page)