Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood split

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood split

Brotherhood members take part in a demonstration in Cairo last year. Its growing influence worries the government

A senior leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has acknowledged that government repression has widened the rifts within the organisation as conservative voices fearful for its survival battle with reformists over the merits of political participation.

This internal turmoil could be the most critical in the 80-year history of the officially banned party, some analysts say. The Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group, is debating its strategy for next year’s parliamentary elections.

The strong showing of independent candidates tied to the Brotherhood in the 2005 elections – they won 20 per cent of seats – shocked the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

To prevent a repeat performance, the authorities have pushed through a series of constitutional amendments, apparently designed to marginalise the Brotherhood and limit the supervision of elections, notably by removing the important role of the largely independent body of judges.

The Islamists’ electoral achievements also provoked the regime to embark on unrelenting waves of arrests of the Brotherhood’s members, including reform-minded leaders who favoured greater political engagement.

“The regime maintains its crackdown, so the Muslim Brotherhood feels its organisation is in jeopardy and that leads to more retrenchment. They want us to look like a closed organisation,” Mohammad Habib, the deputy leader of the group, said in a Financial Times interview. “We are saying that we will stay open but some Brotherhood members do not agree.”

The Brotherhood has always been careful to calibrate its challenge to the Egyptian regime so as not to bring down the authorities’ wrath and threaten the survival of the political and social services which it has created across the country.

Part of the Brotherhood, Mr Habib said, believes that maintaining the body of the organisation is “an aim in itself” and this group wants a “minimisation” of political participation.

The rifts within the Brotherhood have implications beyond Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country and a traditional political trendsetter. Other Islamist groups in the region are also debating whether the evolution towards more political participation – which generally means more moderation and integration – has been worth the price.

The reluctance of governments to open up the political space is weakening Islamist reformers and strengthening more conservative forces. In Egypt, pressure on the Brotherhood, which espouses non-violence, has coincided with the expansion of Salafi groups, which preach a more puritan version of Islam but in many cases appear less threatening to governments bcause they stay out of politics.

For the first time in the Brotherhood’s largely secretive history, the internal divisions are out in the open, reflected in newspapers and internet sites.

The debate became sharper in recent weeks, particularly after the Brotherhood’s supreme guide, 81-year-old Mahdi Akef, unsuccessfully sought to elevate a prominent advocate of political engagement to the Guidance Council, the group’s highest authority. Having been defeated, Mr Akef then declared that he would not seek another term as supreme guide in internal elections due in January.

Mr Habib, a soft-spoken geology professor who favours more political activity but also tries to accommodate the concerns of conservatives, predicted that if Brotherhood elections were held today, those in favour of retrenchment would probably win.

But the regression in political liberties in Egypt and the pressure on the Brotherhood will probably ensure that the group plays a smaller role in next year’s elections.

“We’re in a very different situation from 2005 – there’s been a coup against the constitution, there have been blows to the Muslim Brotherhood aimed at containing it and reducing its participation and its efforts to reach out to the people, so we’re fighting on many fronts,” said Mr Habib. “We’ll participate but not as much as in 2005.”

Even the prospect of 40 members in the next parliament – barely half the number in the existing legislature – is on the high side, he added.

In retrospect, he said, the Brotherhood’s decision to seek a significant share of the vote in 2005 – it could have done even better had it contested more seats – was a “bad idea”. Winning 88 seats, he said, was a leap into the unknown, when the Brotherhood should be moving in gradual, measured steps.