Middle East

The jailed joke-cracking Muslim Brotherhood leader

Essam el-Erian being detained by security forces in Cairo
Image caption Essam al-Erian is now back in Tora prison

Essam el-Erian, who was detained this week by the Egyptian authorities, cuts an unusual figure amongst Muslim Brotherhood leaders, reports Jeremy Bowen.

I was not surprised to see Essam al-Erian wearing a big smile in the photo released by Egypt's interior ministry after his arrest. He smiles a lot.

Before President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February 2011 I used to meet Mr el-Erian on one of the islands in the River Nile in Cairo, in a scruffy flat that back then was the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

After the revolution they moved into a spanking new HQ. It was burnt down during the coup against the Brotherhood in the summer.

Essam - it was always first names with him - was friendly to Western journalists. He used to answer his mobile phone, make jokes, and agree to interviews.

Not all the other leaders of the Brotherhood were as obliging. His loyalty to the group seemed absolute, but he did not fit into its austere template.

He is, of course, very religious. Like many pious Muslims he sports a callous caused by rubbing his forehead on a prayer mat during the five daily acts of worship.

Once I told Essam that I was not religious. He seemed shocked, even concerned, and as the BBC team left his office he called back Angy, our Egyptian producer, for a pep talk.

As we went back down the narrow, dusty stairs, Angy, who wears a headscarf, said he had told her to make a big effort to explain how important religion was in any life.

He said: "Look Angy, you are free, you are working, you are veiled - what is the problem? Talk to that man and explain religion to him. People like him do not understand."

Religion defines lives in the Middle East, in a way that many people who grew up in secular Europe can find hard to understand. It took me a while to grasp the idea when first I went to live in the region.

The Muslim Brotherhood has deep roots in Egypt, which is why I think the military's current crackdown is not, in the long term, going to be any more successful than all the other attempts it has made to neuter the Brotherhood in the last 60 years.

The Muslim Brotherhood pioneered and established modern political Islam after it was founded in 1928. It spread quickly through Muslim countries. By the 1940s some members of the Brotherhood turned to violence.

In the 1950s the government of Egypt's most charismatic President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, set out to crush the Brotherhood, jailing and sometimes executing its leaders, activists and thinkers.

In prison there were many debates about the gradualist ideology of the Brotherhood, and the movement split.

One of the offshoots eventually evolved into al-Qaeda. Its Palestinian branch produced the Islamic Resistance movement, better known as Hamas.

But the core of the movement stayed patient, and non violent, deepening its influence by providing the closest thing poor Egyptians had to a welfare state.

Everyone expected Mohammed Morsi to win the presidential election that followed the Egyptian revolution.

Image caption President Morsi "alienated too many Egyptians"

Essam el-Erian always used to insist that the Brotherhood's conversion to democracy was genuine, that it would not be a question of one person, one vote, one time. Senior western diplomats in Cairo told me they were convinced.

But in government President Morsi and his people were incompetent, alienated too many Egyptians, and the army removed them from power in the coup in July this year.

Essam al-Erian was due to be tried in absentia along with President Morsi and the other leaders. But now he will be joining them in the dock.

One of the charges concerns a jailbreak from Cairo's Tora prison, during the uprising against President Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood leaders had, as usual, been rounded up and sent to jail.

Essam told me about six months after Mubarak was overthrown that criminals in Tora prison had smashed their way out and that he had followed, with Mohammed Morsi and the others.

Some accounts say that Mubarak's interior minister, Habib al-Adly, had allowed a mass jailbreak to try to discredit the uprising by associating it with chaos.

The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood draws credibility from jail time.

Essam told me how he was tortured in prison after one of the Brotherhood's violent splinter groups assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

He is dismissive about arrest, calling it the "usual thing". In his words: "Even when Nasser was killing some of our leaders, he could not kill our beliefs."

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