Back to the future

Back to the future

It would be no exaggeration to say that the resignation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) supreme guide (or more accurately his delegation of his responsibilities to his deputy) has ushered in the worst leadership crisis the Islamist organisation has experienced in over half a century. The last time it seemed in such disarray was during the leadership of the second supreme guide, Hassan El-Hodeibi, during the confrontation between the MB and the Nasserist regime in 1954. That crisis ended with the dismissal or departure of a large number of MB leaders, most of them from the Al-Azhar contingent.

The MB’s current problem is aggravated by the sensational play it has been given by the media. Although MB spokesmen have blamed the “hired” media, close to national security agencies, for this coverage it is just as likely to be due to a new development within the MB itself, the growing tendency among its rank and file to leak information, broadcast internal difficulties and air personal views through official media channels. Evidently, some Brothers’ desperation for publicity has become as strong as the media’s thirst for an exciting inside scoop on what has, until recently, been a very secretive organisation.

At the root of the MB’s current crisis is its dwindling ability to maintain cohesion between its various sub-trends. An influential faction of its leadership is increasingly monopolising decisions on matters pertaining to the group’s image, ideological orientation and future.

The organisation of the MB is difficult to grasp for those unfamiliar with such totalitarian entities. Structurally it is bigger than a political party, but unlike a political party its membership and scope of operations transcend the state. Ideologically, it has more in common with a political front or organisational umbrella for different, in this case, Islamist trends, than it does with a party espousing a specific platform or programme. The umbrella embraces ultraconservative fundamentalists to religious liberals and everything between, all of whom have managed to coexist within a single organisational framework, generally subscribing to the principle of gradual peaceful change.

Against such diversity we can nevertheless speak of two divergent trends. One favours open political involvement in student or syndicate circles and other areas of public life. Known as the reformist trend, it has drawn the contours of the MB’s image in the sphere of public life. Abdel-Moneim Abul- Fotouh is the most prominent exponent of this trend among the group’s senior leaders. The other trend runs the organisational operations of the group, in which capacity they oversee recruitment activities, hierarchical appointments and relations, and the design and implementation of material and programmes for indoctrination. The most important exponent of this conservative trend in the MB leadership is Mahmoud Ezzat.

The MB leadership has always managed to keep these two trends together despite their mutual differences. This has been no small task, massaging the strains between people who prefer to work in the public domain and, hence, are naturally inclined towards constructive, open and continual engagement with society, and those whose focus is inward, whose energies are forever directed at building their own world and raising the “vanguard of the faithful” upon whom the hopes and duties of reshaping society and the nation are pinned. The expansion in the activities of the group, combining proselytising, charity and political activities, favoured coexistence to the extent that the public reformist and conservative organisational trends were regarded as complementary. Their combined efforts, it was believed, lent impetus to the group, expanded its grassroots base and improved its image among the government elite. The organisation also seemed pleased to be the Mecca for all, to those inclined towards political involvement, to those dedicated to proselytising, and to those keen on philanthropic and charity work. The leadership was not particularly concerned with unifying these diverse interests towards the pursuit of a single clearly defined vision; it was merely content that they should not clash.

The most recent manifestation of the prevalence of this outlook was the election of Mahdi Akef as the supreme guide in 2004. Akef epitomised the desire to perpetuate the internal concord between the two basic trends. At the time he was elected — at the age of 76 — he stood in the middle of the two generations in the leadership bureau. On one side there was the old guard who were mostly over 80, on the other the generation that had become Islamist activists in the universities in the 1970s and who were mainly in their 50s. Akef represents a convergence between the two trends and age groups in other ways. Barely 12 when he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, he was trained by the organisation’s founder, Hassan El-Banna. In addition to belonging to the generation of founders, he early joined the organisation’s underground paramilitary wing. At the same time he enjoys considerable credibility and popularity among the younger and more open- minded MB generations involved in public affairs. He was the spiritual father of the project to found the Wasat (Centre) Party, which was to represent the MB in the public domain before the leadership crisis ended with the dismissal or resignation of most of the party’s founders. As supreme guide, Mahdi Akef sought to preserve the concord between the two trends. However, various developments, some brought on by Akef himself, diminished the possibility of sustaining a workable formula for mutually complementary coexistence.

Under Akef the MB experienced an onrush of pressures and changes that was perhaps too fast for an octogenarian leadership and too heavy of a strain upon the bond between the two major trends. During this period, Akef proved instrumental in promoting MB involvement in participatory politics, which brought the MB face to face with difficult questions it has failed to answer with the necessary clarity. The shift towards political involvement, which favours pragmatism and flexibility over ambiguity, tenacity and rigidity, worked to expose inherent discrepancies.

The most critical setback occurred in 2007, when the proposed MB political party, which no one expected to see the light of day, unveiled its platform. That the reformists laid out their vision against the backdrop of a political clampdown gave the conservatives the opening they needed to oust the reformists from their positions of influence within the organisation, uproot their bases of legitimacy, and to introduce crucial changes into the political party platform. The most notorious amendments the conservatives added prohibited Copts and women from running for public office and subordinated the legislature to religious supervision. These two changes alone were sufficient to decimate the reformist character and aims of the platform.

The battle over the party’s platform could have passed quietly amid the seemingly endless onslaught of clampdowns and other crises. Instead, it proved the beginning of the end to plurality, opening the floodgates to a battle over who has the right to speak for the organisation and shape its image.

A second critical juncture arrived with the MB’s internal council elections in 2008. The conservatives swept the board after having introduced constitutional changes in the council’s makeup. The victory enabled them to elevate five hardliners to the organisation’s Guidance Bureau. Perhaps this was the first and only occasion in which the supreme guide departed from his role as keel and mediator to put his full weight behind the reformists in the hope of pre-empting the almost total hegemony of hardliners. It was a race for time, and his first card was to bring Essam El-Erian onto the Guidance Bureau in order to shift the weight, if only a little, away from the hardliners who had been a dominating force since Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh and Mohamed Ali Bashr, two leading reformists, were detained. Akef failed in his bid. He had attempted to appoint El-Erian as his deputy, which he believed was his right under the regulations governing the Guidance Bureau; however, the move met with the opposition of all the other members of the bureau.

His second step was to attempt to influence the selection of his successor before leaving office, hoping at least to keep the post from the hardliners even if they monopolised the selection process. If we assume that Mahmoud Ezzat, the leading symbol of the conservatives, still sees himself as a supreme guide-maker, as opposed to the supreme guide himself, then he is certain to back a candidate from within the hardline camp. Currently, conjectures are wavering between Mahmoud Badie and Gomaa Amin, although of the two the latter seems to stand the better chance, judging by recent leaks to the media.

Meanwhile, First Deputy Mohamed Habib seems to have positioned himself closer to the hardliners. He sided with them in their opposition to El-Erian and has openly criticised Akef’s leadership, especially during the latest crisis. Yet on closer inspection Habib is nearer to Akef than he appears and could well be the supreme guide’s choice as successor. In fact, the two may have even reached an understanding or an arrangement to leverage Habib into the post of supreme guide which will become free at the beginning of 2010. One indication of the existence of such an understanding is that Akef has ceded some of his powers to Habib. The supreme guide’s first deputy wasted no time in publicising this mandate outside the organisational structures of the MB, most notably via a carefully worded message broadcast on Al-Jazeera, as well as through interviews and statements to the press. The hardliners, for their part, hastened to minimise the significance of this mandate, which they insisted had no bearing on the selection of the successor to the supreme guide. In fact, one member of the Guidance Bureau went so far as to question whether the delegation of powers actually took place at all.

The MB power struggle is certain to escalate as 2010 approaches, when the office of the supreme guide becomes officially vacant and elections are held. The newly reshaped Shura Council will meet, bringing into play the dynamic of the near total dominance of the conservative camp and the prospect of the elimination of the last remnants of the reformists in the Guidance Bureau.

In the absence of any arbitrating authority to which the parties could turn to resolve disputes — traditionally, the supreme guide served as such an authority — the conflict will escalate. Mahdi Akef can no longer act as mediator, not only because he is a party to the dispute — some would say the subject of the controversy — but also because over the past five years he has managed to dispel the halo that once surrounded the office of the supreme guide. Nor is there anyone else in the Guidance Bureau capable of performing the role. Some — Lasheen Abu Shanab and Mohamed Abdallah El-Khatib — have been too ill to be actively involved and command the necessary sway while others lack the prestige and moderation to act in such a way. Gomaa Amin, for one, is known for his volatile temper.

Not only is there no possible arbitrating authority, there is no one who could cap the crisis and keep it from spreading to the MB’s membership base. The only person capable of performing this function was Khayrat El-Shater. Not only did he hold the keys to the organisation — the allocation of resources, after all, passed through his hands — but he was also a veteran member of the MB’s established order though acceptable to the reformists. He could have steered the MB through this crisis with the least losses were he not serving a lengthy prison sentence that is supposed to end in 2014.

The aggravating crisis should not tempt us to expect rifts powerful enough to destroy the MB’s organisational unity, or even tremors severe enough to shake its cohesion and hierarchical structure. The culture of the organisation limits the notion of both dissension and secession.

The state of confrontation with the regime demands cohesion and the preservation of unity while the lack of political horizons through the establishment of a political party, the creation of political associations, the publication of newspapers and other such activities that could lead to the assimilation of Islamists into the established political order, also works to close off avenues for breaking away from the MB in order to engage in public affairs through more open and direct channels. Indeed, the third rejection of a permit for the Wasat Party delivered a clear message that the MB, however confined, remains welcoming than any government bureaucracy.

It will probably take years for the Egyptian MB to undergo schism. Rifts, if they do occur, will most likely occur outside Egypt, in the MB’s regional offshoots. It could well be that the crisis at the MB’s centre, with its historical legacy and legitimacy, will hasten disputes on the fringes, as is the case with the MB in Jordan, which is on the verge of rupturing into two, and the Iraqi branch, which seems terminally prone to rifts.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the MB will emerge from this crisis unscathed, as much as its leaders might like to romanticise their having weathered 80 years of trials and tribulations. It might not undergo a major schism but one can easily imagine quiet departures, even angry storm-outs, on the part of members of the reformist camp, especially among those already ensconced in the hierarchy. Such actions will probably be undertaken in an individual capacity or as small groups, while the majority will dig in, freeze their organisational activities and turn to the development of ideas and projects that do not necessarily collide with the whole. We can also expect a wave of disenchantment and possibly withdrawal on the part of the younger generations of MB members who, by virtue of age, temperament and exposure to reformist ideas, would be more emotionally affected by the current crisis.

The deeper effect of the crisis will be seen in greater organisational and ideological rigidity. The hardliners will probably engage in sweeping disciplinary measures, introduce stricter criteria for promotion, and continue their campaign to isolate and permanently sideline the reformist trend. The MB is thus on the threshold of another of its McCarthyist phases, such as that in 1996 targeting the sponsors of the Wasat Party, when a systematic campaign was launched to purge liberal-minded thinkers from the MB’s rank and file.

At an ideological level, the impending witch hunt may lead to a long-term setback for reformist ideas within the group, especially given the unfavourable external circumstances. This may not translate into major ideological U-turns on such central issues as the renunciation of violence; instead, there will be a greater shift to more fundamentalist ideas, made manifest in the MB’s official positions on such sensitive issues as the rights and status of women and Copts, as well as issues related to the arts, censorship, dress (the veil) and personal freedoms. This ideological direction will become clear after the conservatives and increasingly influential fundamentalists in the MB consolidate their alliance.