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Time to Move On
Time to Move On
Defying tradition, Mohamed Mahdi Akef decides to retire as the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood
Monday, May 11,2009 01:06
by Dina Basiony EgyptToday

Think what you like of Mohamed Mahdi Akef, but he does know how to make an exit. The Supreme Guide of the banned Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood) turned his group’s tradition on its ear by announcing that he wishes to retire, nine months before the end of his first six-year term.

Since the Muslim Brotherhood’s inception in 1928, a Supreme Guide has never stepped down voluntarily, much less requested to leave before his term of office ends. The group’s bylaws require the council to hold elections every six years, but the process has, to this point, been a formality: All six previous supreme guides were repeatedly re-elected, leaving office only upon their deaths.

As head of one of the largest and most active opposition groups in the nation, the 80-year-old Akef has been busy over the past five years mobilizing Al-Ikhwan members to run for political office, leading street protests and demonstrations, and making headlines with his outspoken commentary. After announcing his retirement, the local media headlines dedicated almost a week to speculating about Akef’s health, rumors of dissension in the ranks, and Al-Ikhwan’s future.

The speculation is far from idle. Al-Ikhwan claims to have millions of members, supporters and offices nationwide, though the group will not discuss exact numbers, citing the government crackdown on its members. While it is not recognized as an official political party, 88 members won seats in the 2005 Parliamentary elections by running as independents — the largest opposition bloc in Parliament. Whoever is tapped to replace Akef takes over during a critical period marked by the upcoming 2010 parliamentary elections and the presidential elections in 2011.

The chief questions among analysts remain as to whether the next supreme guide will be as tough and politically oriented as Akef, or if the transfer in leadership may lead to a change in Al-Ikhwan’s strategy.

“This is my decision”

In an Egypt Today exclusive interview, Akef dismisses rumors about his health. “I made my decision to retire while I’m in my best mental and physical health, thank God,” he says. “Listen, in 2004 when I was appointed [as Supreme Guide] I told my brothers [in Al-Ikhwan’s Shura Council] that when I reach the age 80, I hope that they excuse me from this position because I know that there are other excellent representatives in Al-Ikhwan who are qualified enough to take my place.”

His eightieth birthday came last July, and Akef reminded the council again of his intent to step down, announcing that he wished to retire before his term officially ends in January 2010. The council asked him to at least stay through the end of his term, to which Akef has agreed.

Other rumors speculate that there is internal pressure behind Akef’s announcement. Shady Al-Adl, head of Al-Ghad party’s youth committee and a member of the April 6 youth movement, gives them a voice: “I don’t think Akef’s retirement is really because he wants to give other people the opportunity to rule. I think he started to realize lately that the young Al-Ikhwan members criticize him excessively in their blogs and websites, and that he was receiving a lot of negative criticism.”

Akef denies that he is being forced out by factions within the Brotherhood, saying that no one had ever pressured him to step down. “This is my decision and I’m responsible for it.”

Other voices seem to side with Akef. Mustafa Al Nagar, the 29-year-old Brotherhood blogger behind the Amwag Al Tagheir (Waves of Change) and Ana Ma’ahom (I’m with Them) blogs, says, “Mahdi Akef has given us an internal freedom and a chance to express ourselves and our different views more than any other supreme guide.” He adds that he and his fellow Ikhwan bloggers criticize the group’s leadership on their websites, “to improve and try to correct any negative thoughts or ideologies adopted by Al-Ikhwan, but not to [overthrow or change leadership].”

Rumors aside, Akef is definitely feeling the pressure to stay in his post. Abdel Monem Abdel Maksood, Al-Ikhwan’s lawyer, says that Akef’s request to step down has encountered heavy opposition within the organization. The strength of this opposition, Abdel Maksood notes, will be determined when Al-Ikhwan holds its next elections in January 2010 — he posits that Akef could be re-elected for a second term as supreme guide against his wishes.

Stoking the fire

The retirement decision is not the first time Akef’s comments have been at odds with the views of the organization he leads. Throughout his five years as guide, Akef has made statements that have sparked rebuttals from within the group or worse, government crackdowns.

In 2006, a number of websites quoted Akef as saying that he thinks Osama Bin Laden, the leader of terrorist group Al-Qaeda, is a mogahed (fighter) who fights the occupier for the sake of Allah, an opinion not shared unanimously within Al-Ikhwan nor among the general public. Through the official website of Al-Ikhwan (ikhwanweb.org) and in their personal blogs, young Ikhwan members immediately went on the defensive, writing that Akef’s statement did not reflect the beliefs of the entire organization, and that the Brotherhood does not support Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda or terrorism.

Akef later explained that he supports what Bin Laden does against the occupiers, but not against innocent people. Deputy Supreme Guide Mohammed Habib also issued a statement denying that any Ikhwan member has joined or will join Al-Qaeda, and condemning acts of terrorism upon innocent people.

That same year, Akef made statements declaring Al-Ikhwan’s willingness to rally thousands of its followers to fight the Israelis during the Lebanese-Israeli war of 2006. In the wake of those comments, hundreds of Al-Ikhwan members were arrested during the course of the hostilities.

In 2005, Akef was among the many political leaders asked to comment on the possibility of Gamal Mubarak following his father as president. At the time Akef said the younger Mubarak should be treated like any other citizen who has the right to run for presidency. That view shifted after the Constitution was amended to allow and establish criteria for multi-candidate presidential elections in 2007. Akef felt the changes were designed for a father-son transfer of power. “I reject tawreeth [hereditary transfer of rule] to Gamal Mubarak,” he said in a November 2008 videotaped interview aired on Al-Ikhwan’s English language website. “After Gamal headed the National Democratic Party’s policies committee, a committee that cements tyranny and establishes military trials and other injustices, I said, ‘He is no good at all.’”

Perhaps the biggest controversy came in 2007, when a copy of al-Ikhwan’s draft platform for a political party was leaked to the media. Published by independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, the document was criticized for the sections stating women and Coptic Christians were not eligible to run for presidency.

Akef defends the draft in the interview with Egypt Today. “It was just an opinion. We went back to Al-Shariah and we found two opinions: One says that they can run and another says that they can’t. So, we found that it’s better if they didn’t. Don’t we have the right to choose and have an opinion, sister?”

The platform’s stance regarding the status of Copts and women was misunderstood, says Akef, adding that he believes that both Copts and women enjoy full rights under the umbrella of Islamic law. “These are their entitled rights, not gifts granted by us.”

Akef says he found it disheartening that the draft’s social, economical and political reforms were not even addressed by the analysts.

Setting aside the public reaction, Akef asserts that version of the platform was not intended for public release. “I sent the proposal to [certain political leaders] in a closed envelope and I said, ‘My brothers, this is a first draft that I have been thinking about. If you have comments to improve it, please share them to help and enlighten me.’ I was surprised, however, that someone gave a copy to the press.”

Akef says that the group has made an effort to amend the issues people criticized in the first draft, adding “[the draft] remains here,” pointing to his drawer, “and it will never get out until this despotic regime goes away.”

Following the release of the draft platform, at least 35 Al-Ikhwan leaders were arrested, a regular occurrence for the group. Akef has also earned his stripes in that arena. Born in 1928, the same year Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimun was founded, Akef joined the group in 1940, under the leadership of the first supreme guide, Hassan Al-Banna. Over the years, Akef has been tapped for the group’s leadership positions locally and internationally.

In August 1954, amid an intensifying government crackdown on Al-Ikhwan, Akef was arrested on charges of hiding Abdel Moneim Abderraouf, one of the Army officers involved in ousting King Farouk. Akef was sentenced to death; he appealed, and the ruling was later reduced to life imprisonment. He and a number of other Brotherhood members were released in 1974 by a decree from then-President Anwar Sadat.

In 1987, Akef was elected to the People’s Assembly representing the East Cairo district, and served as an MP for five years.

Akef was arrested again in 1996, charged with heading the Muslim Brotherhood International Organization, considered a threat to national security, under the Emergency Law. He was sentenced in a military trial to three years in prision. He was released in 1999.

About his incarcerations, Akef simply says, “We live in a totalitarian, despotic country where many things happen min gheir leih [without a rational reason].”

Since then, he has served on the Brotherhood’s Shura Council and on the Guidance Bureau, before finally being elected as the seventh Supreme Guide of Al-Ikhwan.

A New Vision

Al-Ikhwan was founded on the precept that all aspects of life, including the government, should be organized according to Shari’a (Islamic law as written in the Qur’an) and the Sunna (the teachings of Prophet Muhammad [PBUH]). In the 1940s, Brotherhood members were allegedly involved in bombings and assassination attempts, including the successful assassination of Prime Minister Mahmud Fahmi Nokrashi in 1948. President Gamal Abdel Nasser outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954 on the grounds its members had tried to assassinate him.

The group has eschewed violence in recent decades, and before Akef came to power, Al-Ikhwan’s activities were mainly directed towards social and charitable work such as establishing hospitals, orphanages and other social institutions.

Since taking office, Akef has shifted the organization’s attention towards the political arena, both at elected and grassroots levels. Brotherhood members of all ages have been encouraged to participate in public demonstrations with other political groups, and the organization was very active in the anti-Mubarak demonstrations leading up to the 2005 presidential elections — the first multi-candidate presidential elections in the nation’s history.

The parliamentary elections that same year saw Brotherhood-affiliated candidates win 88 seats in the People’s Assembly, up from 17 seats in the previous elections. The legal opposition parties managed to win just 14 seats out of 444.

After the election, Akef told et that his watchwords were no longer “the implementation of the Islamic Shariah” but genuine democratization. In March 2004, he launched a comprehensive reform initiative that affirmed the group’s commitment to democracy, political pluralism, women’s rights and equal rights for Copts. The supreme guide has also been a staunch advocate of respecting civil liberties. “[T]he first portfolio is assuring the people full freedom,” Akef said of the Brotherhood-affiliated MPs’ agenda in an interview published January 2006.

Al-Ikhwan’s electoral success gave Akef the confidence to pursue what had long been a goal of his: drafting the controversial proposal for a political party platform, which he did in 2007.

Also during Akef’s tenure, Al-Ikhwan spread out online with at least 25 websites and personal blogs of Al-Ikhwan members reaching a national and international audience.

Looking at Al-Ikhwan’s performance over the past five years, Diaa Rashwan, an expert in Islamist movements and political Islam at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, notes, “Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimun [has grown into] a big movement. It [has become] huge, actually.”

Al-Ikhwan today, Rashwan says, is a strong participant in society on many levels. In Parliament, Al-Ikhwan members are actively working alongside members of other parties on social issues such as education, housing and civil rights. At the social, health and educational levels, Rashwan believes Al-Ikhwan has made significant contributions through charity donations, to match their words and actions in Parliament.

At the general political level, the group has been more active than previously in the public arena. Members’ participation in the Gaza protests was especially significant: Through SMS and emails, Al-Ikhwan members organized protests against the Israeli attacks on Gaza in January this year, gathering crowds of thousands throughout the nation.

Rashwan notes that Al-Ikhwan members also have considerable representation in the professional syndicates. In the lawyer’s syndicate, 15 of the 24 board members are from the Brotherhood. Al-Ikhwan leaders have important posts in other unions as well: Essam El-Erian, a member of the Shura Council, is the secretary of the Doctor’s Syndicate, while prominent Al-Ikhwan member Mohammed Abdel Kodos heads the Freedoms Committee in the Press Syndicate.

This amount of integration and influence is precisely why, notes Rashwan, the State puts tremendous pressure on the Brotherhood. “[Al-Ikhwan] is a strong alternative to the current regime, and therefore there is permanent hostility from the government towards them.”

That hostility did not deter Akef, but he admits it has clipped some of his ambitions. “When I came to power, there was a lot that I wanted to work on and improve in the country,” Akef says of his goals and accomplishments. “We wanted to restore a refined set of morals in the spirit of our youths, and pull them away from deviance.”

“This nation can and should be one of the best nations. We do not lack the men, we do not lack the intelligence, we do not lack the resources and we do not lack the power and energy to become a strong, leading nation,” he continues. “But [] as you know, we are trapped. We are mahzoreen [prohibited]. As long as this tyrant, despot system is in power, what can we do?”

Stable strategies

The question on many minds is what exactly will change after Akef steps down. Nothing radical, says Rashwan. “I don’t expect the strategy of Al-Ikhwan to change completely after Akef. But he definitely [made] some additions that have to be followed,” he says. “The strategy of Al-Ikhwan hasn’t been changed for a very long period of time. It hasn’t been changed in the last 30 years, actually.”

Rashwan explains that any alterations in the strategy of Al-Ikhwan will not be the decision of the next Supreme Guide alone, but must be shared with Al-Ikhwan’s Shura Council, and will also depend on the general atmosphere in the country.

As for the upcoming parliamentary elections, Rashwan says that if Al-Ikhwan were able to win a large number of seats again in 2010, he would consider this to be a positive change as long as it reflected the choice of the people in a free, democratic environment. However, he adds, “the proper settings are not available” for free, democratic elections.

Rashwan speculates on whether the nation’s laws may be changed prior to the start of next year to prevent Al-Ikhwan from participating in the elections, suggesting that such a thing is bound to happen. “The constitutional amendments passed in 2007 prohibited the mixing of political and religious activities together, [and] might be formulated into laws to restrict Al-Ikhwan’s activities,” he says, noting that the Emergency Law could be used to justify further restrictions on the group.

The more pressing matter for the Brotherhood right now is choosing a new leader. All 100 members of the Brotherhood’s Shura Council are automatically nominated for election as supreme guide, but the shortlist of favorites includes Habib, El-Erian, and the dovish Abdel Monem Abou El-Fotouh, a member of the group’s Guidance Bureau, among others.

Brotherhood representatives declined to give election or candidate specifics, out of concern for their safety and freedom amid the ongoing government crackdown on the banned group. Al-Ikhwan lawyer Abdel Maksood mentions that the council members will not meet in one place to vote, also for security reasons. The last time Al-Ikhwan tried to gather its members for group elections in 1995, hundreds were arrested by state security officials and tried in a military court on charges of an illegal assembly by an illegal group. Instead, members will send their votes to the Guidance Bureau in Cairo, which will tally and announce the results.

El-Erian, perceived within Al-Ikhwan and by other political figures as an acceptable, modest representative of the Brotherhood, says, “I have the same chance [to be elected] that any of the 100 members of Al-Ikhwan’s Shura Council in the governorates have.” He also believes the strategy of Al-Ikhwan will remain the same no matter who the next Supreme Guide will be. “Al-Ikhwan is built on systems, not individuals.”

Meanwhile, Akef says he is stepping down, but not aside. After retirement, he will remain a member of Al-Ikhwan and continue to serve on the group’s Shura Council. “I will just be a gondy [a foot soldier].” He advises the next Supreme Guide to abide by two chief tenets: “One, [fear] God and [keep] nothing in his heart but Allah. Two, Al Shura [consult his colleagues in the Brotherhood], because this is a noble gesture as well as being a beneficial act.”  et

The Source


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