CAIRO – The Egyptian Ministry of the Interior announced on Friday that an attack by security services on an apartment in Cairo had captured Mahmoud Ezzat, the incumbent leader of the banned Muslim Brotherhood had been on the run for seven years.
The capture of Mr. Ezzat, 76, was the rare arrest of a high-ranking figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest and largest political movement, which was put down by a violent wave of state repression in recent years.
Since the military takeover that ousted Egypt's first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013, most of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders have been thrown into the country's overcrowded prisons with maximum security or forced into exile. Mr. Ezzat was the exception.
As deputy to the Brotherhood's leader, Mohammed Badie, Mr. Ezzat was appointed acting leader in 2013 after his arrest. He immediately disappeared from the public eye and many Egyptians believed he had fled to Turkey, where many of the exiled Brotherhood leaders and media outlets are living.
Instead he was in Egypt for at least some time. In the statement released on Friday, authorities said he was captured by National Security Bureau officials in an apartment used by the Brotherhood in the Fifth Settlement, an upscale district in eastern Cairo near the American University in Cairo .
Authorities said they had found computers and telephones with encryption software that Mr. Ezzat used to communicate with members of the Brotherhood in Egypt and abroad. They didn't say when he was arrested.
A photo distributed by the Home Office showed a frail looking man in his seventies identified as Mr. Ezzat, sitting at a table wearing a training jacket.
Mr. Ezzat joined the Brotherhood in the 1960s and spent some time in prison during the reign of Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak. Since 2013 he has been convicted of terrorism in absentia and sentenced to death twice. Under Egyptian law, he will now be tried again on the same charges.
In secret, Mr. Ezzat tried to exert influence on the group, as they were driven underground by the Egyptian authorities. Under the current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, tens of thousands of political opponents, mainly supporters of the Brotherhood, have been detained in the country's overcrowded prisons, often under dubious allegations, according to human rights groups.
Mr. Ezzat's influence has been further weakened by internal divisions resulting from disputes over whether the group should take up arms to oppose Mr. el-Sisi. Many younger supporters were outraged after the Egyptian security forces killed over 800 people, mainly Brotherhood supporters, in August 2013 as Mr el-Sisi consolidated his power.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood officially rejects violence, factions have promoted sporadic attacks in recent years, mainly bombing and weapon attacks against the security forces on the outskirts of Cairo.
On Friday the Ministry of the Interior announced that it had discovered documents in Mr. Ezzat's hiding place which indicate that the Brotherhood had destructive plans, ”the statement said on Friday, without giving further details.
Abdelrahman Ayyash, a researcher on Islamist movements, however, said Mr. Ezzat remained committed to non-violence policies. Mr Ezzat led the more conservative wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr Ayyash said on Twitter. "But when it comes to violence, Ezzat and his men were whole-heartedly against it."
Despite tough crackdown on the movement, Mr. el-Sisi routinely blames the Brotherhood for Egypt's sufferings and government officials often tarry critics as sympathizers of the Brotherhood, often with little evidence. Mr Morsi, the ousted president, died in prison last year on charges by his family that the authorities intentionally failed to treat his illnesses.