Egypt’s dynastic succession contested, as Muslim Brotherhood fractures

Egypt’s dynastic succession contested, as Muslim Brotherhood fractures

Will Gamal Mubarak succeed his father as Egypt’s next president? Is the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s leading opposition force, about to split? Should liberal and democratic forces align themselves with the Brotherhood to oppose “hereditary democracy”  even at the risk of absorbing elements of the Islamists’ unsavory politics?

These are some of the questions being raised as Egypt’s long-ruling National Democratic Party ends its annual conference. Party leaders kept the long-running succession issue off the conference agenda but could not dampen speculation that Gamal is being groomed for the top job.

Party leaders rejected calls for a constitutional revision, claiming they are a distraction from government priorities like tackling poverty and clearing slums. After decades of NDP rule, Egypt remains one of the most impoverished and corrupt countries in the region.

“We cannot take the frequent statements of party leaders about social justice and economic issues seriously as long as these issues are raised to provide a smokescreen for the real objective of NDP conferences, which is to catapult Gamal Mubarak into the presidency,” said one critic.

The presidential election is due in 2011, but parties are already positioning themselves for next autumn’s parliamentary elections. Some secular and liberal groups have partnered with the Brotherhood in a new Campaign Against Presidential Succession, headed by Ayman Nour, a leading liberal who was jailed shortly after contesting the first multi-party presidential election in 2005.

The alliance has been called an “unclean coalition” by prominent feminist and writer Nawal al-Saadawi. She criticized those opposition factions who “circumvent [other groups] to establish such coalitions with the MB because they lack popularity.”

While supportive of opposition coalitions in principle, she insists that they should be “based on respect for others, respect for principles and this matter is not verified in the case of a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The Islamists claim “that they are seeking democracy and freedom, but at the same time they deprive women and non-Muslims from seizing power and they claim that women are equal with men, but in the framework of Islamic law that permits polygamy,” she said.

But the Brotherhood has problems of its own.

Two weeks ago, after the Brotherhood’s veteran leader, Supreme Guide Mohammad Mehdi Akef, dramatically stepped down from his post, his hard-line deputy Mohammad Habib, announced that he had assumed the leadership. Akef denied that he passed his authority to Habib, but the confusion has highlighted latent divisions between conservative hard-liners and relatively reformist elements.

Conservatives have resisted efforts to place the moderates’ Essam el-Erian into the group’s Guidance Bureau. As a recent report notes:

El-Erian, a 55-year old doctor and Brotherhood member for almost 35 years, is widely known as a moderate voice in the organization. He has been reported to accept the principle of women and Christians running for the presidency — counter to the group’s official line — to agree with greater cooperation with the West, and has been reported to say that it’s time to accept Israel as a reality with a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Younger activists, including Brotherhood bloggers, suggest that this is “a good time to exert pressure on the old guard to change the group from a religious movement to a civil one.”

Others believe the rift will be resolved to the advantage of the hardliners and will eventually lead to the departure of another leading moderate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh from the Guidance Council and to el-Eria’s expulsion from the group’s Shura Council.

Some analysts believe the Egyptian government’s repressive policies have played into the hands of hard-liners.

“It is in the government’s advantage to keep the Brotherhood ultra-conservative,” said analyst Khalil al-Anani. “The more democratic the group gets, the more popular it will become in the country.”

“The Egyptian state is dictating the kind of Brotherhood we are getting today,” argues political scientist Joshua Stacher. “The policies of repression and arrests make it very difficult” to move toward a more moderate Brotherhood because they strengthen conservatives in the group.

“They (hard-liners) say, What has running for elections and democratization done for us? It just leads to more arrests,” Stacher said.

But the Islamists’ own authoritarian instincts and party structures are another factor contributing to the crisis and possible split.

“The way the Muslim Brotherhood group manages internal disagreement shows … the low level of the group’s flexibility in dealing with those who disagree with it. The competition between the group wings seems to be a “zero sum” game,” writes al-Anani.

Constitutional obstacles make it virtually impossible for the opposition to put up a rival candidate against the NDP’s choice.

Opposition groups and dissident bloggers have been pushing Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa or Mohamed El-Baradei, whose mandate as director of the International Atomic Energy Agency expires shortly, to contest the election. 

Others suggest that the incumbent might stay on for a further final term. “There is still a lot of debate regarding the next candidate mainly because the president did not say whether he will run or not,” said Hala Mustafa, a member of the party’s policy committee. “He had in the past said he will lead until his last breath which gave the impression that he might re-run.”

But the great unknown is the position of the army, others suggest. Since the 1952 coup which brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, Egypt’s presidents have all come for the military. Veteran Nasserite Hassanein Heykal recently spoke out against “hereditary presidency”, raising speculation that the military could promote General Omar Suleiman, head of the Egyptian security services.

The military will rule regardless of the candidate, claims the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Akef. “Gamal will have no power as he will be controlled by the security apparatus. The security apparatus is what is driving the president and the government and everything,” he said.