A court is set to rule in the case of Muhammad al-Zawahiri, accused of forming a terrorist cell. The case of the al Qaeda's chief's brother comes as the group has lost ground to "Islamic State," Naomi Conrad reports.
Being the brother of one of the world's most wanted terrorists can be somewhat of an inconvenience, at least according to Khalid Nour al-Deen. Muhammad al-Zawahiri's main problem, the lawyer told DW in his stiflingly hot office, as tinny Islamic chants could be heard in from a small TV in the waiting room down the corridor, "is that his surname is al-Zawahiri" - and that his older brother, Ayman, took over as al Qaeda's leader following Osama bin Laden's death in 2011.
That is why, al-Deen said, Muhammad al-Zawahiri was arrested in August 2013 at the height of the crackdown on Islamists following the Egyptian army's overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. "They wanted to put pressure on Ayman," the 47-year-old al-Deen told DW.
Together with 66 co-defendants, al-Zawahiri is accused of forming a terrorist group linked to al Qaeda and plotting attacks on government installations, security forces and Egypt's Christian minority. Al-Zawahiri is charged with having formed and armed the group and arranging training sessions in the use of explosives. Group members allegedly trained at secret camps in Cairo and the Nile Delta. A verdict is expected on Monday.
'Ridiculous and baseless'
The charges could result in the death penalty, but al-Deen dismisses them as "ridiculous and baseless": al-Zawahiri was never "part of any group or a leader of any such group," he said. Nor "has he ever held a weapon," he said.
That is highly unlikely: Al-Zawahiri, an engineer by training, began his career in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a violent group that emerged in the early 1970s and carried out armed attacks on government personnel and Egyptian and US facilities and is widely believed to be behind the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Many of the group's members, including al-Zawahiri and his brother, later joined the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan and made up the backbone of the group that would eventually call itself al Qaeda.
Al-Zawahiri moved to Yemen, where he was arrested in 1999 and sent to Egypt. He was released from jail in 2012 and spent the next couple of months until his rearrest organizing protests and granting interviews to various media outlets. In one such interview with the German newspaper "Die Zeit," in early 2013, al-Zawahiri said he "was completely in agreement with (his brother's) thoughts and actions." He went on to dismiss democracy and speak out in favor of "spreading Shariah all over the world."
Al-Zawahiri's family refused to be interviewed. But Mohamed Ayyed, a close friend who studied engineering with the younger al-Zawahiri, and who says he knows both brothers well, described the defendant as "polite and always ready to help." He told DW that al-Zawahiri had been a "very religious man, who wanted to live in an Islamic state." Ayyed, who refers to Osama bin Laden as a "hero," is emphatic that al-Zawahiri "was never a member of al Qaeda and never took up arms; he would never hurt anyone." But, Ayyed said, al-Zawahiri was proud of his older brother - as is Ayyad: "If I had had the chance to join in the jihad in Afghanistan, I would have loved to."
Ahmed Abd Raboh, a professor at Cairo University who is currently on sabbatical at Denver University, told DW that he doubted al-Zawahiri was as innocent as his supporters and friends would make him out to be and, in fact, believed that it was "very possible" that al-Zawahiri was indeed forming a terrorist cell in Egypt.
But even if he did establish cells, Raboh is convinced that other figures have begun exerting much more influence in the last couple of years than al-Zawahiri and even his more powerful brother: He points to the fact that most leaders of al Qaeda have been killed in recent years or "remain isolated in the mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan."
Instead, militants and would be supporters are turning to a new source of influence: The "Islamic State," which splintered from al Qaeda and later publically split from the group.
And so an Islamist insurgency that had simmered on the Sinai peninsula for years - and was further fueled by the ousting of President Morsi - is increasingly being dominated by a local group that swore allegiance to IS last year. "Sinai Province" (formerly Ansar Beit al-Maqdis) has claimed increasingly sophisticated attacks in recent weeks, including a bombing outside the Italian consulate in Cairo, the destruction of a navy vessel and the kidnapping of a Croatian citizen.
A guilty verdict for Muhammad al-Zawahiri is unlikely to lead to mass protests, Raboh believes. Unlike his brother or Osama bin Laden, "he was never really an icon anyway." Any legacy al-Zawahiri might have, he added, was thanks to his brother, Ayman.
Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.