The Muslim Brothers’ new leader,,Which way now?

The Muslim Brothers’ new leader,,Which way now?

THE election of a new leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the Arab world’s most influential movements, has aroused an oddly muted response, not just from the group’s critics but from fellow-travelling Islamists as well. Muhammad Badeea, a media-shy 66-year-old veterinarian, whose elevation to the post of the Brothers’ “supreme guide” was announced on January 16th, is the eighth leader of a movement founded in 1928, with millions of sympathisers across the Muslim world. Nowadays he and his cohorts face mounting challenges from without and within.

Seen by some as a wellspring of global Islamist extremism and by others as a moderate and modernising defender of Muslim identity, the Brotherhood has long carried influence far beyond the borders of Egypt, where it remains the strongest opposition party, despite sporadic persecution and an official ban imposed since 1954.

Recent years have seen both triumphs and setbacks. Hamas, a Palestinian affiliate of the Brotherhood, won the Palestinian general election in 2006, forcibly ousted Fatah, its secular rival, from the territory a year later and has run the Gaza Strip since. Other close ideological kin include the leading opposition parties in Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Yemen, as well as groups that have been banned and chased out of still more authoritarian states, such as Algeria, Syria and Tunisia.

Yet in many of these places the Brotherhood’s brand of conservative pan-Islamism, which nowadays generally eschews violence and agrees to play by the rules of the secular state even if it thinks them unfair, may be losing ground. A growing number of young people, frustrated by paternalism and impatient for change, seem attracted to more radical trends, such as arch-fundamentalist, Saudi-influenced Salafism that harks back to a pure form of Islam said to have prevailed in the religion’s earliest days, not to mention violent jihadism. More moderate and even secular movements have also gained ground among ordinary people in various Arab countries. In others, state repression has limited the Brotherhood’s sway.

In Egypt itself, where Mr Badeea will preside over the movement’s headquarters, relentless waves of arrests, followed by trials in special “state security” courts, have crippled its organising power. With a general election due later this year, President Hosni Mubarak’s government appears determined to avoid a repeat of its humiliation in 2005, when Brotherhood candidates, running necessarily as independents, won a good fifth of seats and would have got many more without the state’s blunt interference at the polls. Egypt’s interior minister, a man of few words who heads a police force often charged with brutality, recently ominously declared that, although the Brothers had achieved electoral success in the past, “the situation is now different.”

The Brothers’ decision to choose Mr Badeea, a relative conservative who ran the group’s recruitment and indoctrination arm and has the cachet of repeated spells in Egyptian prisons, may reflect this darkening atmosphere. Signs of increased hostility from a state that has often preferred to accommodate rather than confront the Brotherhood have persuaded many of its members of a need to retrench and lie low for the time being. As in past periods of repression, the group may resort to stressing what some Brothers anyway consider its main purpose: to spread “correct” Islamic values rather than play politics. But with Mr Mubarak ageing after 28 years in office and social unrest in Egypt spreading, some Brothers also reckon a period of political change is at hand—and that they should avoid confrontation to preserve their strength for the future.

Yet despite the famed internal discipline that has sustained the Brotherhood for decades, finding a replacement for Mr Badeea’s 81-year-old predecessor, Mehdi Akef, exposed wide schisms. A younger, more liberal faction, including many Brothers who gained prominence in trade unions in the 1980s, had hoped to rise to the fore. Instead, elections in December to Egypt’s 15-man “guidance council”, which in turn, in consultation with a broader international council, elects the supreme guide, saw a solid win for conservatives. In an unprecedented breach of Brotherhood tradition, Mr Akef’s second-in-command, a relative reformist, resigned in protest at what he charged were flawed electoral procedures. Non-Egyptian branches were also said to have been dismayed by the outcome and by the promotion of a relative unknown to the top post.

Like Mr Badeea, many of the Brotherhood’s new Egyptian leaders belong to a generation that suffered extreme torture after a wave of arrests in 1965. They remain loyal to the memory, if not fully to the radical ideology, of Sayyid Qutb, a Brotherhood intellectual who was arrested in the same sweep, then hanged for writings that promoted rebellion against “infidel” regimes. Qutb is widely seen as a fount of inspiration for radical jihad. Since being allowed to re-emerge in Egyptian politics in the 1970s, the Brotherhood has repeatedly and vehemently renounced the violence that Qutb espoused for political ends, except in the cause of defending Muslim land; hence its support for Hamas in Palestine. Yet the new leadership’s loyalty to Qutb’s philosophy inevitably raises concerns. Some suspect Egypt’s government of itself promoting the conservatives’ rise by arresting moderate Brothers to make the movement look less appealing.

In his acceptance speech, Mr Badeea stressed his belief in peaceful, democratic action. The Brotherhood sees neither Egypt’s government nor Western powers as hostile, he said. But he did condemn what he called “this global system that accepts freedom and democracy for its own people but denies our people the same.” A bitter struggle, it seems, will continue.