The End of Brotherly Love?

The End of Brotherly Love?

The Egyptian context will impose on all political factions to take a stand in the next presidential elections and thus push the Muslim Brotherhood to clearly determine its views of authoritarian regimes, says Tarek Kahlaoui.

Reconsidering the “Conservatives-Reformists” Conflict in the Muslim Brotherhood

In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is perhaps the most influential and yet “illegal” political institution in the country. A group that seems to be the very embodiment of illegality for it is widely characterized in Egyptian political discourse as the “banned group” (al-jama’a al-mahzoura) and more often as simply “the banned” (al-mahzoura). But not only it has official offices, and the largest parliamentary bloc of opposition, but also the elections of its internal institutions are known in advance and draw wide media coverage. This time the elections of the new “Executive Guidance Bureau” (EGB) as officially translated in the MB’s “” and which is the highest ruling body in the group, drew more attention because they came after public controversies among the leadership and they brought with them what is being widely characterized now in Egyptian and Western media as a victory of the “conservatives” over the “reformists”. Still the differences between these two sub-groups are usually represented in vague descriptions, which is why it is very pre-mature to assume any major divisions due to the current conflict. On the other hand there seems to be the right context pointing to a more serious “conservatives-reformists” conflict in the future.

To point out the vagueness of the current conflict let’s take as an example the way the recent controversies leading to and following the EGB’s elections were described. The list of “reformists” in the leadership is short yet it does not usually include the same names. Mohamed Habib the “first deputy of the Supreme Guide” until recently is usually presented in media reports as one of the heads of the “reformists” due to his seniority. As news reports suggested in mid October the resignation of Mohamed Mehdi Akef from the position of the Supreme Guide, which later proved to be inaccurate, his first deputy Mohamed Habib was seen as his successor, the acting Supreme Guide, and more importantly as an unprecedented opportunity for the “reformists” to access the highest position in the organization. After the elections of December 21 Habib lost not only his bid to succeed Akef but also his seat in the EGB. It was seen as one of the most important indications that the “reformists” lost big in the elections. Habib himself presents himself as a “reformist” especially as tension grew these recent weeks when he refused to take part in the elections (suggested postponing them) and finally did not recognize the results.

Hossam Tammam, however, a well known expert on the MB characterized in a recent article (October 29 in “Islamyoon.”) Habib as “closer” in his actions to the “conservatives” as he was among the EGB’s members who vigorously opposed the Supreme Guide’s proposal to include Issam El-Iryan (another major “reformist” figure) in the EGB and as he seemed to be as critical to Akef as the well known “conservatives” of the EGB. The effective isolation of Akef from the rest of the members of the EGB including Habib on the basis of his support of a “reformist” candidate seem to question Habib’s commitment to the “reformists” cause.

Commitment to a disciplined group of “reformists” is also an issue for Issma El-Iryan himself. Perhaps the most popular figure of the MB outside the organization this young physician gained in these recent years the position of one of the unofficial spokespersons of the “reformists” of the MB. The whole controversy that imposed unexpected early elections of the EGB began with the attempt by Akef to add him to the leadership without elections. But as Habib, who is seen as the most senior “reformist”, refused to take part in the elections along Abd al-Mun’im Abu Al-Futuh (the other senior “reformist” in EGB) El-Iryan accepted to participate in the elections in the midst of reports suggesting that he agreed to a deal letting him ascend to the EGB while breaking from a “reformist” boycott of the elections.

The affiliation of other names to the “reformists” is even more problematic. Khayrat al-Shatir, a member of the EGB, probably the person responsible of the financial resources of the MB, and who is now in prison is described by Habib in a recent interview (Al-Doustour newspaper December 13, 2009) as “possibly a reformist”. Besides according to the same interview it is hard to understand the divisions inside the second most important isntition in the MB’s structure the elective and “legislative” body “Consultative Council” (Majlis Al-Shura), which is the body in charge to decide the date of the EGB’s elections and ore importantly to elect its members. Habib provides the numbers of 37 members who wanted to have an imminent election, which was supposedly the “conservatives” position. On the other hand 32 members wanted to postpone the EGB’s elections to after the Shura’s elections, which was scheduled for June 2010. And only 16 members wanted to postpone it even to a later date. Habib emphasized these numbers to suggest that those who are in favor of the “conservatives” date were a minority. But as the results of December 21 have shown the members of the Shura voted massively and decisively in favor of the “conservatives”.

The much more difficult task, however, is to describe the reasons of the divide especially when it comes to policy positions and how and why should we assign attributes such as “conservatism” and “reform” to any of the members of the leadership. Tammam for instance suggests a series of characteristics that either they have no tangible relationship to “reform” or simply are hard to prove. In the same article mentioned above he describes the MB as a “front” that includes all kinds of Islamists from hard-liner Salafists to “liberal” Islamists. His division of “reformists” versus “conservatives” seems to be shaped by two different factors. First the functional position in the organization with the “reformists” being those who are in charge of political and media tasks necessitating an open-minded and pragmatic view against those who are in charge of the administrative and organizational instruments of the MB, which is a much more enclosed context creating the circumstances of “conservatism”. The second factor of division suggested by Tammam is age. The “reformists” are presented as the younger generation and the “conservatives” being the older generation.

But there are few problems with these two instruments. While it is true that some indications support such a view (the majority of the “conservatives” in the EGB are among its oldest members, and the some of the “reformists” are among the youngest) they are more of circumstantial evidence that are not always in accordance with reality. Habib is a good example of someone who is in charge partly of organizational tasks yet he is seen as a “reformist”. He is also the most senior (now former) member in the EGB but he is portrayed as being in the same group as Abu Al-Futuh the younger (now former) member of the EGB or El-Iryan the even younger (now new) member of the EGB. If we focus on the new generations outside the leadership among students and bloggers we can see a more problematic picture. Even though we seem to find more notable “reformists” in this section such as Mustafa Al-Najjar and Abd Al-Mun’im Mahmoud their presence seem to be more vocal than a reflection of a new balance of power. With all the voiced protests from the youth of the MB their allegiance to the organization was rarely in question. The presence of hardliner “conservatives” among the students of the MB is very notable especially with the relatively large presence of Salafists. Another indication of the influence of “conservatives” throughout the organization regardless of age and functions is their increased presence since 2008 in the occasion pf the complementary elections of the Shura Council, which was clearly indicated in the results of the EGB’s elections.

The final and most important element in locating “reformists” and “conservatives” in the MB is policy statements and programs. Observers usually mention the 2007 project of a “political program” as suggestive of possible frictions. The program included especially two clauses that were very controversial in Egypt because they restrict the presidency to Muslim men and demand that the parliament should be overseen by a non-elected religious body. But we do not have any clear evidence pointing to the exact positions of each member of the EGB regarding this document and especially regarding what some observers (like Tammam) describe as a later insertion of both clauses by the “conservatives” to obstruct what was supposedly going to be a “reformist” program.

But we do have personal statements by figures who are seen as “reformists” suggesting various approaches to “reform” the MB. For instance Habib, especially in the recent weeks, emphasized the need to “reform” the structure of the organization and give more voice to the “Consultative Council” over the EGB, which he sees as “solely” an executive branch that should take its “directives” from the “Shura”. More importantly El-Iryan published by the end of October 2009 in the midst of the controversy surrounding his ascension to the EGB an article that was unprecedently critical of the organization’s status quo as it confronts mounting pressure from the Egyptian regime. The article titled “The Side Effects of the Police’s Campaign Against the MB”, which was widely distributed in October 29 in the web notably by MB bloggers, seems to focus on the structure of the organization but it does suggest a “reform” of the discourse and the program as well. The main point suggests the need to clearly differentiate between three structures and functions: politics, religion, and charity. These three structures would report to one single leadership but they should have independent powers in an increasingly decentralized organization. He suggested also, in consortium with the requests of some of the MB’s youth, to give more freedom of speech to the members of the group. The reactions to this paper were mixed. Some of those who are seen as “conservatives” (for example Juma’a Amine who is the member of the EGB and possibly the new Supreme Guide) refused to discuss it and downplay the importance of El-Iryan as others (like the member of EGB Rachad Bayoumi) explicitly rejected El-Iryan’s proposition to divide the organization and loosen its centralized administration. From the “reformists” side the most apparent enthusiasm was among the youth and the only explicit support from the leadership came from Ibrahim Al-Za’farani who is a member of the marginalized “Consultative Council”.

Therefore it is very difficult to locate a homogenic group of “reformists” with a definite list of names in the MB’s leadership in terms of actions as the recent events has shown. It is also difficult to clearly define a “reformist” discourse given the published documents and statements. An identity problem that is clearly recognized by some influential “reformists” in the base of the organization such as the journalist-blogger Abd Al-Mun’im Mahmoud (for example in a post dated in March 25 in his blog “”) or Mustapha Al-Najjar (in a post dated March 20 in his blog “”). Yet it is clear that the coalition or “front” of schools of thought in the MB is under high pressure to be able to continue to coexist in one single group in the future. The “reformist” trend would be shaped by two major factors. The Egyptian context will impose on all political factions to take a stand in the next presidential elections and thus push the MB to clearly determine its views of authoritarian regimes. And then the impact of the regional context especially the possible rising conflict between Salafism and the rest of the Islamist groups and also the rising influence of the Turkish model of the AKP Islamist-moderate party. In both contexts we may see an increasing trend of several Islamisms that would be in conflict with each others as much as they would be with other currents of thought making their common Islamist nature only a formal one. This will impose on the MB’s possible “reformists” to choose either the unity of the historical organization or the shaping of an independent program; either loosing the Brotherhood’s ties or acquiring the primacy of thought.

Otherwise it is hardly possible that the MB would contain in the future its “reformists” if the latter are not allowed to implement their own agenda. Replacing two major veteran figures in the EGB such as Habib and Abu Al-Futuh by the popular yet lonely El-Iryan is certainly not the right direction towards that end. Dividing and marginalizing the “reformists” will only lay the grounds to the future division of the MB. In fact the “conservatives” apparent need to keep the MB’s “reformists” but only as an ineffective minority is an act of denial to the need of “reform”, and paradoxically it is helping it to grow and eventually take a more recognizable form.

Tarek Kahlaoui is an Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Art History and History at Rutgers University. He can be contacted at: [email protected].