Settling for small steps

Settling for small steps

Settling for small steps
What’s next for the Muslim Brotherhood? Omayma Abdel-Latif speaks to the group’s new supreme guide about future plans
The large world map dominating the wall space of Mohamed Mahdi Akef’s office is symbolic, perhaps, of the new Muslim Brotherhood leader’s life’s work. Titled "Our Islamic world", the map demarcates Muslim populated regions across the six continents in green. The 75-year-old Akef, who was selected to be the brotherhood’s leader last week, has always been known as a strong advocate of expanding the group’s global reach.

In the 1970s, while living in the United States, Akef helped establish numerous Islamic centres. He was based in Germany for six years in the 1980s, when he was in charge of the brotherhood’s Europe chapters. He boasts that the leading figures of most of the region’s Islamic movements were "my disciples, including both the current prime minister and foreign minister of Turkey".

Just a week ago, Akef was a little known figure. The intense media exposure of the past few days — he was interviewed by at least four weekly newspapers and several TV stations — looks set to alter this image forever. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly on Sunday at his office in north Cairo’s Al-Roda district, Akef discussed the somewhat troubled and vague relationship the brotherhood has with the state.

Akef said there was no room in the movement itself — whose membership numbers were "increasing by the day — for radical ideas or tactics. The brotherhood’s leadership has made a conscious decision, he said, to conduct its opposition to the regime peacefully. "We want to build bridges with the government in order to overcome the crisis gripping our societies," Akef told the Weekly. While he fully acknowledged that this sort of conciliatory tone was not likely to gel with a state bent on the group’s containment, he urged patience nonetheless, and said he would settle for "small steps forward".

A faithful disciple of the group’s founder and spiritual leader Hassan El-Banna, Akef joined the brothers in 1950 at the age of 22. El-Banna’s focus on issues of social reform — during his regular Tuesday talks — attracted the young Akef and, according to him, helped shape his way of thinking. In this respect, he is allied with those in the group who think that political ends can be achieved via social upbringing, or what most observers of political Islam term Islamisation from below.

Akef has led a life of political activism. He was a member of the movement’s paramilitary wing and fought against the British occupation. After the revolution, Akef was sentenced to death on charges of plotting to overthrow the government and assassinate President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. He was seventh on the list of those sentenced to death, but was spared the ultimate punishment after Abdel-Hakim Amer, a close associate of Abdel-Nasser’s who also happened to be a close family friend of Akef’s, intervened.

Akef spent 20 years in prison, from 1954-1974. After his release, he went to Saudi Arabia, and then later spent time in both the United States and Germany. When he came back to Egypt, he was put in charge of the group’s students and professionals units. In 1987, he ran for parliament and won.

In most of this week’s interviews, Akef has been stressing that "the Muslim Brotherhood is not plotting in the dark to take over the state." He told the Weekly that the brotherhood "only wanted to be given a space to function as a proper social movement concerned with reform. This in itself is a huge undertaking."

Akef said this does not imply that he does not believe in the movement as a political entity. In fact, it was Akef himself who had consistently pushed for the group’s transformation into a political party. When Mustafa Mashhour was the supreme guide, he assigned Akef to study just such a possibility. Members who defected from the Muslim Brotherhood later hijacked the brainchild of those efforts — Al-Wasat Party.

Akef said he still believes that the group’s structure and cadre could function as a political party. "If we are given the governmental green light, we would form a party tomorrow," he said. His number one mission, then, is to struggle for legality as a political group. "I want to see that the brotherhood has a headquarters that functions properly and legally, which is why the group’s priority right now is to focus on civil liberties and political freedoms."

Currently, the group’s office mirrors its rather peculiar relationship with the state. The place was buzzing with activity because security bodies have chosen to leave the office alone — for now at least. And yet, the group moved to their current location only after the state closed down their downtown headquarters in 1995, and banned the group’s mouthpiece, Al-Da’wa magazine. Today, a weekly newspaper called Afaq Arabiya (Arab Horizons), serves as the group’s informal mouthpiece.

Akef appeared to be tiptoeing between projecting an image of the group that was not confrontational with the regime, while making it clear at the same time that the movement was not willing to compromise its ideals. About the brotherhood’s relationship with the state, Akef said, "the group maintains some sort of dialogue with wings in the Egyptian government. We have contacts with high-ranking officials who conduct dialogue with us in their personal capacity. They fully acknowledge our clout as a movement." He declined to name the officials, however.

Observers agreed that the movement’s evolution into a viable and effective opposition force has taken place in the years since Hosni Mubarak became president in 1981. The government, meanwhile, has remained opposed to giving the group political legality. President Mubarak’s political adviser Osama El-Baz told the weekly magazine Al-Ahram Al-Arabi this week that while the state would tolerate the existence of Islamic-oriented groups that are social or charitable in nature, it would not accommodate any political group with a religious platform.

That dynamic angers Akef. "Who has the right to deny any social or political group its right to political participation?" he asked. The Egyptian constitution does not prohibit any group from engaging in the political process, he said. It does not even prohibit the existence of political parties with a religious platform; it’s rather, Akef said, the emergency laws that do just that.

In Akef’s view, the Egyptian constitution is exemplary because it embraces pluralistic and democratic values while simultaneously acknowledging the role of religion in the formation of both the society and the state. "The constitution," he said, had been "replaced by a number of laws which stifle civil liberties."

Critics of the brotherhood, on the other hand, accuse the group of seeking to take advantage of a democratic climate in order to gain power. Once in power, these detractors argue, the brotherhood would impose an anti-democratic political system and show no respect human rights.

"How can such a judgement be made when we have not been put to the test," Akef asked. He was also dismissive of the view that the group’s internal affairs were not being conducted in a democratic manner. "We embrace the concept of shura, which is the closest governance concept to Western democracy. How else could a movement have existed for 75 years if it had not been run democratically and managed via institutions and not individuals."

The brotherhood, Akef argued, is in a continuous state of expansion, with the proof being the ever- increasing number of recruits. "They join the group with the full understanding that they run the risk of being arrested or harassed by security — and yet they believe in what we stand for," Akef said. He would not, however, reveal the current membership numbers. "Only when we become a legal party," he said, "would the membership lists be revealed."

Critics have also argued that the movement is run in an ultra-secret way, and that younger brotherhood cadres resent the unquestioned loyalty they must show for the group’s elders. Akef said such views were "simplifying complicated matters".

The group’s specialised committees, he said, are entitled to tackle all types of issues, whether educational, political, social or economic. These committees submit their assessment reports to the guidance bureau, which in turn distributes them to the movement’s different organs and branches across the nation to gauge their reactions. "When we seek members’ opinions on any issue, we conduct a process similar to elections. They submit their views to the bureau, which is an elected body, and the final decision is made there."

When asked how a group that was constantly being hounded — in some way or another — by security bodies — could actually function, Akef said, "the group does function, and meetings are held all the time. We try to be very discreet about those meetings; sometimes they end in arrests… and other times they progress quietly."

Akef said the group was well aware that "all our activities are closely monitored by the security apparatus, but we are only interested in serving our faith and society, and we will not give this up."

Akef said the group did not "have to rally popular anger on the streets, or call for civil disobedience, to show how strong the brotherhood is. Confrontation with the state is a futile task, particularly now. There are other mechanisms to get your message across, and violent confrontation is definitely not one of them."

According to Akef, "the only mechanism now is to educate the people, orient them with the true precepts of Islam, and promote a sense of justice in society."

At the same time, however, he brotherhood would never "ally with an external force to impose democracy" on the country, he said. As such, Akef said the brotherhood totally rejected any US meddling in Egypt’s affairs, and would not accept "any form of dialogue with the US as long as it [continues its] hegemony and criminality in the region. When the US leaves Iraq and Afghanistan, and reduces its one-sided support for Israel against the Palestinians, then we [the brotherhood] can conduct a dialogue," Akef said.