Powerful Islamic movement sees leadership struggle

Powerful Islamic movement sees leadership struggle

  The Middle East’s most powerful Islamic political movement is undergoing a leadership struggle as young, more moderate activists try to push the Muslim Brotherhood to soften its fundamentalist ideology and become a more democratic force.

The direction the Brotherhood takes could have wider implications. The group is the strongest opposition movement in Egypt, though officially banned. Moreover, it is highly influential beyond Egypt’s borders as the father of Islamic movements across the Arab and Muslim world – including the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Egypt’s autocratic government has cracked down fiercely on the group, arresting many of its members and branding it a front for extremists. The United States has been reluctant to open up channels to the Brotherhood in deference to the government, a close Mideast ally.
Egypt Brotherhood Reform Egypt Brotherhood Reform
AP Photo – File- In this May 8, 2005 file photo, Egyptian Brotherhood’s leader, Supreme Guide Mohammed Mehdi Akef, right, and his deputy, Mohammad Habib attend a press conference in Cairo Sunday May 8, 2005. Last week, Akef, stepped aside, retaining his official post but handing all his authority to his deputy, Habib, who is considered more hard-line. Arabic at background read as " Press conference on security interference on elections"

    * Egypt Brotherhood Reform
    * Egypt Brotherhood Reform


Still, some reform advocates in the region and the West believe there is little chance for real democracy unless popular Islamic groups like the Brotherhood somehow participate in the process.

But the government crackdown only makes reform within the Brotherhood less likely, many observers say.

"The Egyptian state is dictating the kind of Brotherhood we are getting today," said Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State University who studies the movement. "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.

Young Brotherhood moderates say it needs to become a more open and modern political movement if it is going to survive. Some want to imitate Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, an Islamic-rooted party that has embraced mainstream politics. The young critics contend the Brotherhood’s old guard is holding it back.

"Those in charge aren’t connected with today’s world," Abdelmonem Mahmoud, a journalist and blogger, told The Associated Press.

Mahmoud, once a prominent spokesman for Brotherhood youth who was jailed several times for being part of the movement, said he froze his membership a year ago because of repeated intellectual clashes with the conservative leadership.

Several others have done the same. Mahmoud said that while it wasn’t an organized exodus, if the leaders didn’t start to pay attention to the younger generation, the Brotherhood would begin to lose many of its "open-minded" members.

"Their thirst for change is not sated by the Brotherhood, so they look for it elsewhere," he said.

But conservatives are digging in. While some urban youth push to liberalize the Brotherhood, its large rural membership has become more hardline in recent years.

Two weeks ago in an unprecedented move, the Brotherhood’s 81-year-old leader, Supreme Guide Mohammad Mehdi Akef, stepped aside from his post. His deputy Mohammad Habib, who is considered more hard-line, announced Akef had handed all his authority to him, a claim Akef later denied in Egyptian newspapers. The confusion over Akef’s position has betrayed the divisions within the leadership in an organization that prides itself on having a divine purpose and unified front.

Khalil al-Anani, an Egyptian expert in Islamist groups, said Akef felt he could no longer deal with conservatives’ demands. "The pressure became too much," al-Anani said.

The Muslim Brotherhood advocates an Islamic state in Egypt, implementing Shariah law. Moderates in the Brotherhood feel that rather than insisting on an Islamic state, it should be a party for promoting Islamic values in a democratic system.