Arab World: Meet the new head of the Muslim Brotherhood

Arab World: Meet the new head of the Muslim Brotherhood

 Last Saturday in Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood announced that it had elected Muhammad Badee as its new supreme leader, a succession which comes at a critical time. A few months ago, Muhammad Mahdi Akef – who had ruled the organization for the past six years – stated that he would not seek another mandate, thus sparking a crisis of major proportions.

But the trouble had already been brewing for a while.

Akef has continually fomented outrage in Egypt with extremist pronouncements. Not only does he overtly support Hamas and Iran, a year ago he proclaimed that he would rather see a Malaysian Muslim as president of Egypt than an Egyptian Copt.

Furthermore, an increasingly large number of Brothers are clamoring for reforms within the group. When the old leader came to the conclusion that he could not bridge the gap between the hard-liners and the reformers, he decided it was finally time to step down.

The younger generation of members are yearning to shake the yoke of the old guard and democratize the movement, and have thus become increasingly restive. They had pinned their hopes on Akef’s second in command, Muhammad Elsayed Habib, but he resigned in protest at the Akef’s policies and subsequently lost his seat on the Guidance Council (the governing body) in December.

Their discontent was only aggravated during the subsequent elections. The elections themselves – both for the seats in the Guidance Council and for the post of supreme leader -stirred anger, as many believed that they had been rigged. However, since the Muslim Brotherhood is banned in Egypt, the vote was held in secrecy and was therefore not monitored. What is known is that Badee was elected by a two-thirds majority of the advisory council, and that his ascension spells trouble for reformists.

THE BROTHERHOOD is far from a democratic movement open to pluralistic views. It has remained faithful to the extremist religious doctrine of the man who founded it in Egypt in 1928, Hassan el-Banna, and of its greatest theologian, Sayed Qotob.

Qotob was far more controversial than Banna. He radicalized Banna’s doctrine – which called for the restoration of the caliphate and the creation of one single nation for all Muslims under the sovereignty of Allah, with the Koran as the constitution and Shari’a as the legal system – by declaring that all Arab societies lived in jahalia (ignorance of the true Islam) as before the coming of Muhammad, and were therefore “infidels.” The meaning of his statement was clear: that it was legitimate to fight such Arab societies in order to form the new caliphate. To make matters worse, he also formed the religious basis that justified attacking non-Muslim states to bring them into the fold of Islam.

This doctrine has been adopted today by all jihadist movements – al-Qaida included – and gives them the legitimacy they need to kill innocent civilians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Badee, 67, is a professor of veterinary medicine. He is not only a staunch conservative, but he is also a devoted disciple of Qotob. The two were imprisoned together in the mid-1960s during one of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s periodic attempts to clamp down on the organization. It should therefore come as no surprise that Badee belongs to the hard-core, extremist element of the movement.

His election sends a clear signal that the organization does not intend to move toward greater openness, and will instead reinforce its extremist positions. True, his first message as supreme leader was one of moderation. He spoke about the importance of unity within the organization; he emphasized that he is ready to work with all political forces in the country; and he even stressed that the Brotherhood is not the enemy of the Egyptian regime. However it is highly unlikely that a new leader elected by a majority of conservatives will change the course of the movement.

Veteran hard-liners now form the majority of the new Guidance Council elected in December; the reformists were soundly beaten. Habib and Abd Elmoneim Abu Alfoutouh, both well-known reformist figures in Egypt, were not reelected. In fact the only reformist to have gotten onto the council was Asam Elarian.

THE MUSLIM Brotherhood was banned by Nasser in 1954 after a failed assassination attempt. Sixty-thousand members were jailed in successive waves of arrest operations, and many leaders of the movement – Qotob included – were executed. Badee himself spent nine years in jail.

When president Anwar Sadat took control of Egypt, he set Badee free together with many of the other Brothers in the belief that they would help him fight against the Nasserites who opposed his policies. He did not, however, rescind the ban on the movement.

Denied an official existence, the organization found other ways to survive. The Brothers set up student unions, and launched a concerted effort to infiltrate and take over all professional unions in Egypt. They also founded a number of benevolent societies, giving much needed help to the poor. This was done in the name of their particular brand of religious extremism, and was a major factor in the growing influence of religion in Egypt during the past few decades.

Pressed by the US to grant greater democratic freedom, President Hosni Mubarak permitted the Brothers to take part in the 2005 elections as “independents.” By the time he realized his mistake and put a stop to the practice, 88 Brothers had been elected to the parliament – 20 percent of the overall number of representatives – thus making the banned Brotherhood the most important parliamentary opposition force to Mubarak and his governing party.

The Muslim Brotherhood is an extremely vocal opposition, calling for the repeal of the peace treaty with Israel and the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador. Akef said on a number of occasions that Israel should “disappear from the map.”

Despite the group’s presence in the government, Egypt is currently making an all out effort to curb its activities. Some 5,000 members are currently in jail, and 40 financial institutions which provided the movement with funds were closed down within the past two years.

THE YOUNGER generation of the Muslim Brotherhood is ready to make the organization more mainstream, and would like to take a more active part in politics. Increasingly, they are turning to the Internet, leading to their nickname as the “the blogger opposition.” However, their activities have not been warmly received by the old guard, and recently a violent confrontation erupted between the two sides.

In an attempt to defuse the situation, the leaders of the movement insinuated that they might be willing to establish a political party – as opposed to remaining “independents” – and even circulated a tentative platform. Unfortunately, the platform offered no significant change as demanded by the reformists. Women and Copts were still to be banned from high office, and proposals for laws slated for the parliament were still expected to first be approved by a council of religious sages – a process similar to that in Iran. Since existing laws expressly forbid setting up a political party under religious lines, there is no chance that the Brotherhood could launch a party with the proposed platform. Furthermore, the vast majority of Egyptians are not ready to live under the rule of religious leaders.

Political commentators believe that Mubarak is satisfied with the hard line taken by the Brothers, since such a position will likely hurt the organization in the general elections due to be held in November. But the big question is whether the “youngsters” are going to bow down to the will of the elders, or whether they will keep up their fight. There was an attempt in the ’90s by reformists to branch off and create their own party, but it did not succeed. Today the political arena has changed, and another try by moderate Brothers could very well appeal to a great number of Egyptians.

The writer was Israel’s ambassador to Egypt and Sweden.