Egypt Muslim Brotherhood’s ’audacious’ leader

 Mohammed Mehdi Akef changed face of underground movement into openly active player on political scene.

In almost three years as supreme guide of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Mehdi Akef has changed the face of the underground movement into an openly active player on the political scene.

“He is definitely the most audacious leader,” says Diaa Rashwan, senior researcher at the Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies.

“He is outspoken and he has done a great deal for the movement,” Rashwan said.

Just three months after being elected supreme guide in January 2004, Akef announced a detailed plan of proposed political reforms. That was a year before President Hosni Mubarak’s regime launched a reform package that paved the way for multi-candidate elections.

While previous guides of the officially banned movement had spoken about reform before, Akef was the first to lay out a written plan.

He also shifted from the cautious style of previous leaders by calling for mass street demonstrations against the regime and by lending substantial support to other opposition groups such as Kefaya (Enough) in the run-up to the presidential elections of September 2005.

But Akef’s political weight was most highly reflected in the dramatic and surprise results of the November-December 2005 parliamentary elections.

Following an aggressive campaign under the slogan “Islam is the solution”, the group clinched 88 out of 454 seats in parliament.

It was the biggest success for the group, despite a violent election season that saw arrests and intimidation of its members

The Muslim Brotherhood, which describes itself as a moderate Islamic organisation that wants to bring Islamic law to Egypt, has been outlawed since 1954, when its leaders tried to kill Gamal Abdel Nasser.

And while it is still officially banned it is tolerated, though its members are periodically imprisoned.

Akef himself spent 23 years in jail, 20 of which were in one stretch from 1954 to 1974. His time in jail only reinforced his commitment, he once told the press.

“Being imprisoned in the cells of the tyrants increased my faith. It was never an obstacle in the path of working for the religion of God.”

Akef was born in the year the movement was founded in 1928 in the Nile delta province of Dakahliya.

He joined the group in 1940 under the leadership of the founding father Hassan al-Banna, centenary of whose birth is commemorated on Saturday.

But while his political audacity has moved the group to become a crucial player and the biggest opposition movement in the country, it has also been seen unfavourably by some in the group, Rashwan says.

“He makes very bold statements, not always very calculated, and some members don’t like that,” Rashwan said.

He famously told an Egyptian reporter recently “toz” to Egypt, a rudely dismissive term to mean ’who cares about’ Egypt.

During Israel’s offensive in Lebanon over the summer, in an indirect challenge to the regime, he said he would be willing to send 10,000 trained fighters to support the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.

More directly, he recently said that had Arab leaders not been Muslim, they should have been killed for not supporting Hezbollah.

But some of Akef’s bold statements do reflect the consensus of the group, Rashwan says.

The brotherhood, and Akef in particular, have waged a strong campaign against a widely believed takeover of power by Mubarak’s son Gamal, saying it would turn the Egyptian republic into a hereditary system.

Akef recently said in an interview that he “felt sorry” for Mubarak junior because the “political powers have managed to push the people against him, making him the person who bears the brunt of all the hatred that stems from all the corruption of this era.”

The group has opted for a slow and calculated journey to the top, preferring to enlarge its power base and gain strength on the popular level first.

“When the conditions are ripe, if the people are convinced, then power will be ours,” Akef said.

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