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Will Egypt offer asylum to Gulen?

If the United States ever agrees to extradite Fethullah Gulen to Turkey, he has avid supporters who would welcome him in Egypt.
U.S. based cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 29, 2016.  REUTERS/Charles Mostoller/File Photo - RTSL85T

Egyptian politicians and media figures are calling on their government to grant political asylum to Fethullah Gulen and supporters of the Gulen movement.

The Turkish government accuses Gulen, a Turkish cleric who lives in the United States, of being behind the failed July 15 coup in Turkey, and is calling on American authorities to extradite him.

Egyptian parliamentarian Imad Mahrous recently presented a draft statement to his government proposing political asylum for Gulen. After discussions with a number of parliament members, he told Al-Monitor by phone, “The Egyptian government was not opposed to granting Gulen and his supporters political asylum.” 

He clarified that “Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail had confirmed on more than one occasion that the Egyptian authorities were not opposed to taking this step and completely understood the security threats being faced by Gulen’s supporters inside Turkey, [especially] after all of their institutions were closed and [their members] were subjected to a campaign of arbitrary arrest.”

Mahrous said a number of Egyptian representatives “are currently seeking to open a direct line of communication with Gulen and coordinate with his followers inside Egypt on a standing basis, as well as support them during the crisis they are facing with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan.” 

In their view, “Erdogan is supporting terrorist gangs across the world and seeking to undermine Egypt’s national stability by harboring the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey, and [by] financing a number of Brotherhood channels that have sprouted up over Turkish territory with the official backing of Erdogan and other Arab states,” Mahrous said.

He added that the idea of hosting Gulen will be accepted “not only among the official circles of the Egyptian government, but at the popular level as well, along with wide swaths of Egyptian society that believe him to be a modern man of faith who repudiates religious extremism and believes in the importance of dialogue and tolerance.”

Turkey’s Justice Ministry and Foreign Ministry have both officially requested Gulen’s extradition from the United States. Gulen moved to the Poconos region of Pennsylvania in 1999. A number of his students followed him to the area.

Orhan Kaskin is a Turkish businessman residing in Egypt who founded a series of international schools affiliated with the Gulen movement inside Egypt. He dismisses the possibility that Gulen might relocate from his voluntary exile in Pennsylvania to anywhere else.

“[Gulen] prefers not to move around a great deal even within America, for personal reasons pertaining to his desire for voluntary seclusion with a number of his students in the mountain region where he resides,” Kaskin told Al-Monitor by phone. “He deliberately puts distance between himself and construction, people and traffic, partially owing to his health situation, which makes it difficult for him to move. He suffers from heart disease, diabetes and other ailments stemming from his advanced age.” Gulen is 75.

He also noted, “It would be very difficult for [Turkey to compel] Sheikh Gulen’s extradition from the United States, in light of the absence of evidence to substantiate any of the charges against him.”

American authorities, according to Kaskin, “understand that the movement’s activities are peaceful and undertaken in hundreds of countries around the world.”

Kaskin, who has lived in Egypt since the early 2000s, said that many countries seek to host Gulen, despite the recent tensions. He believes their governments understand that Gulen has called on his followers to distance themselves from religious extremism.

Ishaq Inci, the chief editor of the Turkish publication Zaman Arabic, known for its ties to Gulen, said in a phone conversation with Al-Monitor that Gulenists “enjoy stability inside Egypt; we can safely move about, and we have found Egyptian officials welcoming of our presence on Egyptian territory.” He added, “President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a respectable president who behaves like a true head of state in his foreign policies.”

Inci, who resides in Egypt, said, “Thousands of Turks will flee from Turkish territory to escape the ongoing violations perpetrated by Erdogan’s oppressive administration toward anyone who belongs to Gulen’s movement.”

He stressed that the Turkish officials who are accusing Gulen’s followers of being terrorists and are closing all of Gulen’s institutions inside Turkey “are themselves the ones who used to praise these institutions and, when they were first inaugurated, would sit in the front row [during dedication ceremonies].”

Inci said the Gulen movement “has not suffered any constriction in its presence inside Egypt recently at the hands of Egyptian authorities, which confirms there are no ties between us and Erdogan.” He anticipates that in the near term “many of the movement’s followers will be transferred to Egypt, especially given the state of political and security stability in Egypt.”

Gulen’s movement may be benefiting from the political strains between Turkey and Egypt, according to Bashir Abdel-Fattah, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies. 

He believes the proposal to host Gulen inside Egypt “is part of a context of ongoing political recrimination between Turkey and Egypt, and is set against the background of the state of tension in relations between the two states.”

“Many high-ranking members of the Muslim Brotherhood have taken refuge in Turkey,” and now many in Egypt wish to return the favor, he said. However, in his view Egypt’s foreign policy with Turkey must transcend these political spats, particularly since Egypt’s problem with Turkey is limited solely to the fact that Erdogan remains in power.

Abdel-Fattah also told Al-Monitor, “The security agreements that relate to extraditing suspects between Turkey and the United States prevent America from extraditing Gulen. The United States is unlikely to take this step in any event, because they view Gulen as being a more modern version of political Islam that can curb extremist elements on a religious level.”

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