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Surprising times for outlawed opposition
Surprising times for outlawed opposition
As the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s officially outlawed opposition organisation, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, 80, has grown accustomed to making political statements that buck the status quo. Last week, he made another one: he will resign in January.
Thursday, April 2,2009 20:59
by Matt Bradley The National

As the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s officially outlawed opposition organisation, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, 80, has grown accustomed to making political statements that buck the status quo. Last week, he made another one: he will resign in January.

That is radical thinking, some observers say, in a country where political leaders prefer to make their resignation speeches from a death bed rather than a podium. But then these are surprising times for the Muslim Brotherhood, which for the first time, will select its next leader and “general guide” through elections in its 100-strong Shura council, according to Mr Akef.

“All cases have very different opinions. I see opinions this way and I see opinions that way. When I find everyone agreeing, I say ‘stop’, because it’s not possible for 10 or 15 people to have the same opinion,” said Mr Akef, who repeatedly insisted in an interview on Saturday that the Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy should surprise no one. “I love that everyone has differences of opinion. But in the end, it gets resolved by the Shura.”

If Mr Akef’s speechmaking seems calculated and pointed, that is because it is, said Khalil Al Anani, a political analyst and editor of Al Siyassa Al Dawliya magazine. By establishing their own democratic bona fides, the Brotherhood hopes to set itself apart from Egypt’s autocratic president, Hosni Mubarak, who has spent the past 27 years jealously guarding his post as Egypt’s head of state by, among other methods, suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and jailing its members. Mr Mubarak, who turns 81 in May, has shown no intention of retiring.

It’s a message from the Brotherhood to the other political parties and the regime that we have some kind of internal democracy and we are going to have this democracy to elect a new supreme guide,” Mr al Anani said. “It’s a symbolic step and it’s very important. In the Egyptian context, we don’t have this kind of leader who resigns in any political party.”

In many ways, Mr Akef’s five-year term as “general guide” has acted as a not-so-subtle message to the Egyptian president and his ruling National Democratic Party.

Months after Mr Akef was appointed to the post in early 2004 following the death of his predecessor, Ma’mun el Hudaybi, the Brotherhood expressed its first coherent and comprehensive policy statement. By touching on questions of health care and education, the document offered a glimpse to the Egyptian people of the group’s ambitions beyond its typically vague statements of religious devotion and comments on Islamic jurisprudence.

In parliamentary elections several months later, Muslim Brotherhood candidates took 88 out of the 444 contested seats, or 20 per cent of the total.

Although the victory legitimised the Brotherhood, it also incited a crackdown by the government. Security forces arrested hundreds of Brotherhood members following the elections, Mr Akef said, and proceeded to commit what he alleged was widespread fraud during the 2007 elections for the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper legislative house, and municipal polls in 2008.

“What happened in 2005 was a surprise for everyone, the government and for us. The government opened the door for democracy and liberty based on requests from Washington,” Mr Akef said. “The government didn’t think the Brotherhood had this kind of influence on the Egyptian street. When they saw this influence with this impressive success, they returned to their original nature under the direction of George Bush,” the former US president.

Several years later, the Brotherhood and its ideas are an important voice in Egyptian political discourse. But if the organisation has embraced politics, observers continue to wonder whether it will seek a more moderate political platform or whether its membership will begin to debate its policy positions in the public square.

In general, the divisions within the Brotherhood movement are generational. Mr Akef’s tenure as general guide and his talent as a leader, according to analysts of the Brotherhood, have been a bridge between the movement’s elderly leadership and the bright lights among its “younger” politicians who are in their 50s and 60s.

The man most likely to take over from Mr Akef is Mohammed Habib, the deputy general guide and a similar character to Mr Akef: politically savvy, ideologically conservative and willing to listen to the more moderate ideas and perspectives of younger members.

In an interview, Mr Habib said he hopes to energise the Brotherhood’s internal democratic institutions, such as its Shura council. He also said the Brotherhood should seek dialogue with Egypt’s other opposition parties.

He did not express an opinion on the controversial issues that have divided Brotherhood members and sparked concern among much of the Egyptian public. Recent policy statements, such as the one issued in 2004, stated that Egypt should not be led by a woman or a member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. It also called for the formation of a council of senior religious scholars who would serve a consultative role in the Egyptian legislature by determining whether proposed legislation is consistent with Sharia.

That vague description prompted many Egyptians to ask whether such a council would have formal authority to veto legislation. The Brotherhood stressed that the council would only issue recommendations, but the suggestion reflected a certain degree of unease with democratic principles.

Until Mr Akef actually steps down, however, the ideological direction of the Brotherhood remains uncertain, said Amr Hamzawy, an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr Hamzawy and al Anani agreed that regardless of the Brotherhood’s political positions, the organisation will continue to become more outwardly political.

“There is a real paradigm shift inside the movement. We really saw a movement that used to debate internal matters internally,” Mr Hamzawy said. “I’m not ruling out the possibility of differences between different candidates and camps being debated in the public space.”

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