Brothers gonna work it out?
On March 25 Mohammed Mehdi Akef, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, told an Egyptian newspaper that he would not seek a second term and will step down within a few months. The coming election of his successor marks an interesting and important moment in the history of the Brotherhood, with broad implications for the future of moderate Islamist movements in general.
The Brotherhood, founded in 1928, remains the most influential mainstream Sunni Islamist group, and the identity of Akef’s successor – and the means by which he is chosen – will offer important insights into the Brotherhood’s internal direction on matters ranging from democracy to al Qa’eda to relations with the United States.
Akef’s decision to not seek a second term comes at a sensitive time in the Brotherhood’s relations with the Egyptian government and the West. The Mubarak regime is in the midst of planning its own transition, with most observers suggesting that Hosni Mubarak hopes to see his son Gamal replace him in the President’s office. The massive popularity of Hamas in the wake of the Israeli attack on Gaza has strengthened the Muslim Brotherhood’s hand inside of Egypt and deepened fears within the regime. And there are still uncertainties about the new Obama administration, and whether it might be more open to engaging with the Brotherhood than was the Bush team.
The Brotherhood’s deputy guide, Mohammed Habib, recently complained on Al Jazeera that the Egyptian government was trying to tarnish the Brotherhood’s image in Washington to block any changes in Washington’s policy toward Islamist parties – and to deflect attention from its own failings.
The selection of Akef’s successor will also shape the ongoing policy debate in the West over the relationship between the Brotherhood and al Qa’eda. “Firewall” theorists see it as a strong organisation with a more moderate ideology than the salafi-jihadists of al Qa’eda, one which acts as a barrier to the infiltration of salafi-jihadist radicalism.
But the Brotherhood is certainly not liberal – it is the essence of Islamism, deeply committed to spreading conservative religious identity and values throughout the Muslim world in pursuit of a truly Islamic state. Many analysts therefore regard it as a “conveyor belt”, a movement that facilitates the recruitment of disaffected Muslims into more radical terrorist groups
In reality it probably plays both roles, depending on the context: Brotherhood chapters vary widely in their organisational strength and attitudes from country to country with little central control from Cairo. But the supreme guide is nevertheless the symbolic face of the Brotherhood, and his identity will send a powerful signal about how the organisation will approach the coming period.
The simple fact of Akef’s decision not to seek another term stands in sharp rebuke to the norms of the Arab Middle East, where no leader has voluntarily surrendered power in recent history. As the Egyptian analyst Amr Choukbi said, it would be an “historic step” for the Brotherhood and for Egypt. But it isn’t entirely a surprise. Akef had promised not to seek a second term when he took office in January 2004, and repeated his intention to stand down at the end of his term when he turned 80 last year. Sources inside the Brotherhood complain that any controversy over Akef’s decision to step down has been manufactured.
Still, it is extremely significant that this succession is happening in the Muslim Brotherhood rather in the palaces or in an avowedly “liberal” party. The election is also historically unprecedented for the Brotherhood: past supreme guides have typically served until death. What is more, Akef will be replaced in a process that includes significant elements of internal democracy. The supreme guide is elected by a simple majority of the Brotherhood’s Shura Council, a body of 100 members, of which 80 are directly elected by the membership and 20 are current or former members of the Guidance Council (itself an elected body). Akef himself told the London-based Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat that the only reason for all the fuss over his decision was that “in Egypt there are no former officials… there are only dead officials”.
The Muslim Brotherhood has come a long way since its creation in 1928 in Egypt by Hassan al Banna. The Brotherhood quickly grew to be a powerful political force across the Arab world under the simple slogan “Islam is the solution”. During the 1950s, the extreme repression of the nationalist government of Gamal Abdel Nasser drove the Brotherhood underground, into prison or exile. In response, Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb produced a far more radical set of ideas rejecting existing society as jahiliyya (the pre-Islamic age of ignorance), whose spread inspired Islamist radicalism around the world.
The Brotherhood itself repudiated ed Qutb’s most extreme ideas with the publication in the late 1960s of Preachers, Not Judges under the name of then-Supreme Guide Hassan al Hudaybi. During the 1970s, the government of Anwar Sadat released the Brotherhood from the prisons and invited them into the political process as a counterweight to the left. Ever since, in Egypt and beyond, it has participated in elections and public life wherever permitted (in the universities, professional associations and national elections) and has built a vast public network of social services.
Over the last few years, the Egyptian Brotherhood has come under intense pressure from the Mubarak regime – which most interpret as punishment for its too-successful participation in democratic elections and its potential threat to the transition to his son. A number of its senior leaders have been arrested and tried in military courts, including the still-imprisoned moderate icon Khairat al Shater.
Conservatives inside the movement grumble that they have received nothing but grief for their decision to enter the political realm: their determined moderation has seen the constitution changed to prevent them from contesting the presidency, a series of elections rigged against them and an ongoing campaign of arrests and intimidation. They call for a retreat from politics and a return to more traditional forms of religious activism. The repression has weakened the hands of the pragmatists, whose advocacy of democratic participation has offered few rewards, and may have strengthened the position of the rising religious “salafi” trend within the movement. The selection of a new supreme guide may therefore reveal the current balance of forces within the Brotherhood.
Akef, who was elected as the seventh supreme guide in January 2004, has always been something of a cipher. His public speeches tend toward the uncompromising, with a hard line on Israel, the United States and most public issues. He has repeatedly inflamed controversies with his fiery rhetoric, offering plenty of fodder for Brotherhood-bashers seeking to demonstrate the organisation’s true radicalism. He has been quoted praising Osama bin Laden as a “mujahid”, promising to send thousands of Brothers to fight in Gaza, and more. Even his supporters admit that he has often been carried away by his passions and given voice to extreme views which thrill his base but tarnish the Brotherhood’s image with the wider public.
At the same time, he has presided over a supreme guide’s office dominated by pragmatic, politically-orientated reformers who have charted a difficult but quite impressive path through Egypt’s political turbulence.
Under Akef the Muslim Brotherhood participated fully in the 2005 Parliamentary elections, and then remained committed to the democratic process despite intense regime repression and repeated provocations (including wide-scale arrests of its members and the wholesale banning of its candidates from municipal and upper-house elections). Akef nurtured the emergence of a new generation of young, reformist Brotherhood members. When many of those young reformists began publishing their criticisms on blogs, he helped protect them from internal censorship and nurtured their independent thought (at least until the public debates became fodder for the Brotherhood’s opponents, who cast their open discussions of internal matters as a sign of a split within the organisation).
He oversaw the drafting of a controversial political party platform, which drew fire for its proposal of a new religious council to oversee legislation and its refusal of a female or non-Muslim president, but which in other respects was a remarkably democratic document. And under his guidance the Brotherhood has consistently and rapidly condemned al Qa’eda terrorist attacks everywhere (though, consistent with the widespread Arab and Muslim distinction between terrorism and “resistance to occupation”, his Muslim Brotherhood refused to condemn Hamas violence and was conflicted on the violence in Iraq).
So who will replace Akef? Despite reports that Brotherhood figures in Europe, Jordan and Syria are being considered, it is highly unlikely that a non-Egyptian will be selected. The global Muslim Brotherhood organisation has always been more notional than real, and it would be difficult to conceive of a non-Egyptian playing the guide’s role effectively.
The supreme guide has always been an Egyptian, and Egyptians hold a majority of the seats on the Guidance Council. Should a non-Egyptian be selected, it would be an powerful signal of a revolutionary shift towards a global rather than national conception of political and religious action. But few expect this to happen.
The choice of a reformist leader, such as the political pragmatists Abd el Monem Abou el Fattouh or Essam el Erian, would be a powerful signal of the commitment to the democratic game and moderate doctrine. But the leading liberal figures are very unlikely to command sufficient support across the organisation to win election.
By far the strongest reformist candidate would be the wealthy financier Khairat al Shater, the moderate deputy supreme guide who is serving seven years in prison after a much-criticised trial in a military court. But it is difficult to imagine the Brotherhood selecting a leader currently in prison.
The selection of a conservative, dawa-orientated leader such as Mahmoud Ezzat or Mohammed Morsi would please the rank and file of the movement, even as it would signal frustration with politics and a more inward-looking organisation. Such leaders would likely steer the Brotherhood away from politics and back into the social sector and religious indoctrination.
For the politically-orientated Brothers, the best hope is probably the other current deputy supreme guide, Mohammed Habib – a more cautious, softer-spoken and wily pragmatist who would likely avoid Akef’s unpredictable style but may have difficulty inspiring the cadres. Habib would most likely signify continuity with Akef’s tenure, balancing the religious and political trends while maintaining a commitment to the political process and resisting a complete turn towards the religious sector.
Whether the Brotherhood chooses a politically or a religiously-orientated guide matters for three big reasons. First, it will reveal a lot about the real distribution of opinions inside the organisation, as very little is known about the political views of the rank and file of the Brotherhood. While there will be no organisation-wide election, the preferences of the 100 elected members of the Shura Council could tell outside observers a lot about the real support for the highly visible reformists or the much-rumoured but little-studied conservative salafi trend.
Second, the new supreme guide may or may not continue Akef’s general policy of tolerance for the open expression of diverse opinions within the organisation. Muslim Brotherhood reformists worry that many of the leading candidates to replace him played a role in shutting down the 2007 “Brotherhood bloggers” experiment and that anyone who replaces Akef will be less tolerant of internal diversity.
Prominent bloggers such as Abd al Monem Mahmoud were already wondering about the future of the Brotherhood’s reformists even before Akef’s announcement, and that question has become even more urgent. Younger political activists and politically-orientated leaders within the Brotherhood would chafe at moves to quash internal dissent, and might even opt to repeat the ill-fated experiment of the Wasat Party in the mid-1990s by splitting off and trying to form a new political movement – which would tip the balance of power inside the movement even more sharply towards religious conservatives.
Finally, the election of a more religiously-orientated guide might lead the Brotherhood to retreat from its current engagement in the political sphere. Participation in democratic institutions represented a major development in the evolution of moderate Islamist political thought and practice, and encouraged the emergence of a pragmatic leadership. Retreating from the political could distance the Brotherhood from the rest of society, and encourage a turn towards more radical religious orientations.
The Egyptian government may well prefer such an outcome, even if it contributes to the longer-term radicalisation of the movement, since it would reduce the risk that the United States might reach out to the Brotherhood as a potential alternative to the current regime. But this would be a disastrous outcome for those who see a moderate, pragmatic Islamist movement as a key component to the battle against salafi-jihadism and radical extremism.
Marc Lynch is associate professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and co-director of the Insitute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. He writes a blog on Arab politics and media for Foreign Policy.