Despite struggles, Brotherhood searching for new leader

Despite struggles, Brotherhood searching for new leader

Although currently battling local media over speculation of an internal split, Egypt’s powerful opposition Muslim Brotherhood (MB) group is currently searching for a new leader after Supreme Guide Mahdy Akef steps down from his post this January. The move has seen analysts and commentators question the path the Islamic group will choose for the future.

Akef, 81, has held the top post since 2004, but told reporters last summer that he “does not intend to renew my nomination after my term ends in January.”

His office said that the decision is based on the principles of democracy and that “it was time for the Brotherhood to choose a new path for the coming years.”

Akef spent more than 20 years in prison and oversaw the group’s return to mainstream politics in 2005, which saw the Brotherhood win one-fifth of Parliament seats. MB candidates officially ran as independents because the group is technically banned in Egypt.

The Supreme Guide often created frustration among the group’s younger members over his fiery comments, although most agree he was a unifying force that helped bridge the growing gap between the more reform-minded younger generation and the conservatives of old. Many of the young Brotherhood bloggers have called for major reforms to take place within the Brotherhood and analysts believe Akef may have been a stymieing force.

Abdelrahman Mansour confided to Bikya Masr when Akef announced his decision that the man was “quite supportive” of their efforts and “believed in the concepts of democracy and change.”

With the search on for a new leader, analysts who follow the group have been putting forward a list of names for his successor. They point out that the Brotherhood can choose one of three different routes: conservative, reformist or maintain the status quo of an in-between type of leader akin to Akef’s style.

“I think that if Akef is serious about resigning from his post then I don’t think it will go far from the conservatives,” argued Khalil Al Anani, a political Islam expert at Cairo’s Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies and one of the world’s foremost experts on the Brotherhood.

The election of a new leader will follow the Brotherhood’s internal democratic process, the Islamic group insists. The party’s Guidance Committee of 100 members will vote on a successor, his office confirmed. Anani said that within this committee, a majority of the members hail from the conservative ranks, making the possibility of a reformer to take charge unlikely, which is why popular leader Essam el-Erian is getting a push to enter the Guidance Committee.

Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University and author of the Abu Aardvark blog, is a leading scholar who closely follows the Brotherhood in Egypt. He believes the changing of the mantle will have “wide-ranging implications for moderate Islamist movements throughout the Middle East.”

Writing on his blog, which is published on Foreign Policy Magazine’s Web site, Lynch asks whether Akef will be “replaced by a politically-oriented reformist or by a religiously-oriented conservative?”

Most analysts are hopeful that Akef’s successor will continue the strong hostility toward Al Qaeda style jihad activities and a commitment to the political process, which the Brotherhood has already shown capable of participating.

A few names have already been mentioned by leading scholars, including Lynch, over who will succeed Akef. Topping the list are reformist members Essam El Arian and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh as well as Mohamed Habib, a moderate, and current deputy supreme guide. Lynch argues that the selection of Habib would “signify continuity with Akef’s tenure,” by balancing the conservative and reformist elements within the group.

Anani agrees with Lynch, saying that Habib has the ability to maintain both the conservatives and reformist within the group.

“The first candidate for this post would be Mohamed Habib,” argued Anani.

“First of all, Habib is conservative, but he can be a balance between the conservatives and the reformists. He is a very sharp guy.”

The main difference between Akef and Habib, however, is the age difference, Anani said. This would give Habib the ability to mold the group for a number of years, without worry that his age would become a factor.

If Akef holds true to his promise and does not seek a second term as Supreme Guide of Egypt’s leading opposition group, the search for a leader to carry the Brotherhood into the heart of American President Barack Obama’s administration is currently under way. The choice could hold the key to their global legitimacy as the region’s leading Islamic group.