When the alternative is not so different after all

When the alternative is not so different after all

After a difficult and protracted interlude the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) elected a new supreme guide, Mohamed Badei. The fate of the MB leadership had been pending ever since the seventh supreme guide, Mohamed Mahdi Akef, announced that he would step down after his first term even though the Brotherhood’s internal regulations entitled him to a second.

The MB in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world has suffered one crisis after the other over the past three years. If this tells us anything it is that the Egyptian, Jordanian and Algerian branches of the Islamist group are beset by confusion and political decline, sufficient to undermine their image among the public as a possible alternative to existing regimes. As different as the circumstances are for the Muslim Brothers in these countries, the branches of their elderly organisation have one major element in common. They are gripped by a structural and ideological crisis which has erupted into unprecedented internal disputes. In the case of the Algerian branch (Movement for the Society of Peace), differences have escalated to the point of schism.

The current crisis calls into question the viability of the MB’s political programme. Will it be able to survive among, and compete against, other political and religious programmes? Is the Muslim Brotherhood obsolete as a socio-political movement? Will it retrench as a closed and insular religious association after having lost its spirit of initiative and ability to inspire people?

CRISIS AND INTERNAL RIFTS: For the first time since it was founded 80 years ago the Egyptian MB became embroiled in a dispute over the election of a new supreme guide. The crisis began following the death of Mohamed Hilal, the most senior member of the Guidance Bureau, in October 2009, at the age of 90. According to the MB’s internal regulations the influential Essam El-Erian should have filled the vacancy, having received the highest percentage of votes in the last Guidance Bureau elections in June 2008. However, the conservative wing objected to El-Erian’s promotion on the grounds that it was procedurally illegitimate and not immediately necessary. In response the then supreme guide, Akef, who supported El-Erian, threatened to resign. His first deputy, Mohamed Habib, then announced in an interview on Al-Jazeera that Akef had delegated most of the powers of his office to him.

Over the next two months tensions in the ranks of the MB escalated as elections to the 16- member Guidance Bureau drew closer. One camp, led by Mohamed Ezzat, pressed for elections to be held as soon as possible so that a new supreme guide could be chosen before the official end of Akef’s term on 14 January 2010. An opposing camp, led by Habib, wanted to defer elections until June 2010, which would be after the MB had elected a new Shura Council, the approximately 100-member body responsible for electing members of the Guidance Bureau and the supreme guide. After a brief stand-off between the two camps Ezzat’s prevailed.

The ensuing elections contained a number of surprises. First was the elimination of Habib and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh from the Guidance Bureau, curtailing reformist influence in the Brotherhood’s upper echelons though El-Erian was elevated to the bureau. Then Habib resigned from all his positions within the organisation apart from his membership in the Shura Council.

The crisis cast into relief the absence of real democracy and transparency in the organisation. Against the backdrop of controversy over the elections and charges that the procedures were inconsistent with internal regulations Akef was at a loss over how to contain the disputes on the Guidance Bureau.

Aside from conflicting interpretations of the bylaws, many MB members aired doubts over whether the current Shura Council was fully competent to elect the members of the Guidance Bureau, especially since the powers of the deputy supreme guide, who should have chaired the council during the elections, had been overridden. This calls into question the legitimacy and credibility of the newly elected Guidance Bureau and its authority to elect the next supreme guide. The crisis also pierced the MB’s aura of being somehow more principled than their opponents by exposing the squabbling, bartering and back room deals that plague all Egyptian political parties, including the NDP.

The elections, tantamount to a bloodless coup against the reformists and pragmatists, destroyed the hopes of the younger generation of Brothers that internal reform is possible. Most of the new members of the Guidance Bureau are over 50 and have no known reformist inclinations. Indeed, apart from El-Erian, little is known about them. The MB’s grassroots members are as much in the dark as the general public.

As for the election of the new supreme guide, it was more of a political appointment or internal promotion than the result of a democratic process. There was little difference between Badei and Rashad El-Bayoumi, whom the Guidance Bureau preferred because he was the most senior member. Both represent the hardline conservative trend that now dominates the group.

NEW GUIDE, OLD RHETORIC: Badei’s election has raised many questions, and they concern not only the legitimacy of the process by which he reached office but his own political and ideological positions.

The man who is now the eighth supreme guide comes from the heart of the MB’s institutional machine. If this machine can be described as conservative and intent upon ensuring the organisation’s survival, Badei is its representative. The address he delivered upon taking office made this clear. He reaffirmed the MB’s commitment to the renunciation of violence, gradual reform, non-confrontation with the regime and other familiar stances. But what lies behind his language of appeasement?

There is a marked difference between the new MB leader and his predecessor, Akef, who during his six-year term, from January 2004 to January of this year, introduced a qualitative shift in his organisation’s political rhetoric with audacity and unflagging persistence. While it is still too soon to issue judgements on the potential of the new supreme guide, it is nevertheless possible to make some brief observations that might offer clues to the future of the Muslim Brotherhood under his leadership.

Although Badei attempted to draw a veil over any procedural irregularities surrounding his election the shadow of suspected illegitimacy will lurk behind every decision he makes. He will also find it difficult to strike balances and accommodations between the conservatives and reformists, who no longer have anyone to represent them in the upper echelons of the Muslim Brotherhood. Akef was particularly adept at this, giving the reformists considerable manoeuvrability. And even if he should be so inclined Badei will not be able to offset the ideological and political dominance of the conservatives who, after all, brought him to power.

The new Supreme Guide has no known connections with other political parties or forces in Egypt. Such connections could facilitate the conclusion of alliances or political deals with them, another process at which Akef demonstrated considerable skill.

In the end Badei will most likely strive to avoid any confrontation with the regime, not only out of fear of the power of the latter but because of his own weak position when it comes to maintaining discipline and control over the MB’s rank and file.

Even so, any suggestion that the MB will withdraw from engagement in political life because of the conservatives’ control over the organisation is logically flawed. Political involvement is vital to the MB if it is to score political gains, sustain its connection with the public and ability to recruit new members. The movement’s problems in the foreseeable future will stem not from its absence from the political arena but from the way it manages the political game, especially as regards the project to form a political party, its position on women and Copts, and its relationship with the regime.

CAUGHT BETWEEN A LEADERSHIP CRISIS AND A CRISIS OF DIRECTION: However determined the MB is to remain in the political game, its current state of political and organisational confusion casts a shadow over its ability to maintain an effective political presence. The MB does not function in a vacuum; it is driven by a political and ideological outlook that either will or will not reverberate in the environment in which it seeks to operate.

The MB’s entire political enterprise is in crisis, to which testify four interrelated factors. The first is the decline in its ability to inspire the Arab public. This phenomenon cannot be solely attributed to its inability to compete with rival movements and discourses from across the Islamist spectrum, from the jihadist to the reformist trends. It is also the product of a rigidity that has closed the door to more modernist and secularist concepts and modes of political action.

The second factor is the stagnation that has beset all the reform initiatives the MB has presented in the countries in which it operates. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has not voiced a new idea since the reform initiative it unveiled in 2004, and the same applies to its sister movements in Algeria, Jordan and, perhaps, Yemen.

Third, MB movements have failed to reach accommodations with the regimes in their countries, whether because of the regimes’ determination to suppress them and to lure them into futile battles or because of the movements’ lack of leaders with the political and negotiating skills needed to persuade or compel the regimes to assimilate the Muslim Brotherhood into official political life.

The fourth factor is the widening generational gap in the MB. Structural rigidity has inhibited the incorporation of younger members into the hierarchy, a problem that has plunged the movement into internal conflicts that drain its energies and mar its public image.

The Muslim Brotherhood may not wane entirely. What has happened, though, is that the group has lost the initiative, and in doing so no longer looks a credible alternative to the existing regimes.

* The writer is senior scholar at the Institute for Middle East and Islamic Studies, Durham University, UK.