In Focus: The Brotherhood Crisis

In Focus: The Brotherhood Crisis

CAIRO: Since its inception in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has never experienced a crisis like the one it was subjected to last week. The announced reason for the current crisis was the refusal of the MB’s Guidance Bureau (the group’s highest executive body) to promote leading Brotherhood member Essam El-Erian to the Bureau’s membership to replace Mohamed Helal, who passed away three weeks ago.

The MB’s Supreme Guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef insisted on promoting El-Erian on the grounds that the group’s by-law gives him the right to do so. The dispute between Akef and other members of the Guidance Bureau forced Akef to threaten to resign and to delegate most of his powers to his first deputy Mohamed Habib.

The real reason for the crisis, however, lies in the struggle over political succession to the current guide. Last March Akef declared his unwillingness to take on a new term starting January 13. This would be the first time in the history of the group that the leader steps down voluntarily at the peak of his leadership, as it was customary for the previous six leaders to stay in office until their death.

It seems that the group could not tolerate Akef’s bold step to resign in January, thus giving rise to a muted internal conflict within the Guidance Bureau leaders over who will replace him. However, the conflict was not between conservatives and reformists or between hawks and doves, but primarily within the conservative camp, involving the pragmatic and radical wings.

The Brotherhood standoff was rife with connotations and paradoxes. First, the conflicts within the Muslim Brotherhood are a break from the group’s historical tradition of cohesion and confidentiality. But this time, we have witnessed a volcano of differences that have suddenly erupted. The media machine was fiercely used by all sides.

Second, the Supreme Guide’s threat to resign, although it was later denied, was an unprecedented event in the history of the group, as the Guide has a symbolic and a prestigious status, with the final say in resolving the group’s internal differences. The resignation attempt reflects the anger and pressure Akef has experienced during his term since 2004.

Throughout his leadership Akef had managed to contain the strife and tensions within the group, serving as the “balancing factor” that reins in the group’s interactions and contains the divisions between reformists and conservatives. The Guide’s threat to resign stems from his feeling inability to continue to challenge the dominance of conservatives over the group’s institutions and decision-making process.

Third, it was the first time that the leader delegates his powers to his first deputy without the existence of a force majeure. Not only has the decision broken with tradition but it has also violated the group’s internal regulations.

According to Article XVI, the guide has no right to leave office except in three cases: the failure to perform his job, resignation, or death, and since none of these conditions have been met, the guide cannot abdicate his powers to his first deputy.

Furthermore, it does not seem logical for the guide to abdicate his powers to his deputy while he is still in office and has the ability to manage the affairs of the group.

Finally, this crisis has revealed two very important things: first, the weakness and fragility of the structure of decision-making within the Muslim Brotherhood. It appeared that the crisis is manipulated by the views of the parties involved, as there are no institutional terms of reference that can be invoked to resolve the internal conflict.

Unfortunately, there is no item in the bylaw determining who can be consulted in the event of a disagreement between the leader and the Guidance Bureau.

Second, the end of the era of “divinity” and “confidentiality” within the Muslim Brotherhood, as the group’s leaders have tried to deify themselves and make themselves untouchable in the eyes of its grassroots and younger generations. Such divinity has been quashed forever by the crisis.

The crisis is expected to be resolved quickly so as not to spill over to the Brotherhood’s grassroots. Therefore, elections for a new Supreme Guide will be held in the next three weeks by the group’s Shoura Council.

In all cases, the new Guide will not enjoy full legitimacy or to strike a balance within the group, be it through Mahmoud Ezzat, the group’s secretary general, or Mohamed Habib, the first deputy leader.

Mahdi Akef will be the last of the generation of historical legitimacy.

Khalil Al-Anani is an expert on Political Islam and Deputy Editor of Al Siyassa Al Dawliya journal published by Al-Ahram Foundation