Egypt’s Muslim Brothers hit turbulence
|Friday, March 5,2010 23:28|
|By Hussam Tammam|
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has been buffeted by a seemingly endless series of changes and blows over the past few years. No sooner had the organization begun to recover from a controversial leadership election that ended on January 20 than the regime detained some of the new senior leaders – including Deputy Supreme Guide Mahmoud Izzat and Guidance Bureau members Issam Arian, Mohie Hamid, and Abdel-Rahman al-Barr – in uncharacteristic midnight arrests on February 8.
The regime directed a new and surprising accusation at the three: attempting to form an organization based on the teachings of Brotherhood radical Sayyid Qutb (who was executed in 1966), including armed units intended to carry out militant operations inside Egypt. This was an apparent attempt to capitalize on the new leadership’s association with Qutb, whose ideas are generally deemed extremist, and to remind Egyptians of the Brotherhood’s past use of violence.
The combined effect of the elections and the arrests, coming on the heels of continuous regime attacks on the Brotherhood’s leadership and finances during the past four years, is to push the organization into an increasingly conservative and defensive direction. The Brotherhood’s internal divisions and problems are now exposed for all to see and real changes in the way the group functions may be underway. Relations between the Brotherhood and the regime, already poor over the last several years, might also be taking a turn for the worse.
The January elections empowered conservative members who are deeply influenced by the Salafist-style political thought of Qutb. New Supreme Guide Muhammad Badia, who was imprisoned with Qutb, is a prime example. This conservative faction is more interested in working from within to cultivate a strong, disciplined movement than in engaging with other political forces and intellectual currents in Egyptian society. They place a higher premium on the spiritual education and social upbringing of the movement’s base than on developing a comprehensive reform program that would appeal to a broader audience.
The Brotherhood begins its new chapter having lost almost an entire faction that was committed to a dialogue with other social and political forces and capable of building alliances with them. Although reformists never had a strong organizational presence and were unable to penetrate all of the movement’s organizational levels, they had a few senior representatives in the Guidance Bureau – for example Abdel-Monem Abu al-Fotouh and Mohammad Habib – who lost their seats in the latest elections. New Guidance Bureau member Issam Arian has been known as a leading reformist, but his recent election reportedly was due to a deal with the conservatives in which he disassociated himself from his reformist colleagues. During the elections, disagreements between conservatives and reformists escalated to the point where some candidates filed official complaints challenging the integrity of the electoral process. Some have refused to endorse the new guide.
Indeed, the elections precipitated an internal debate that threatens to produce a significant internal rift akin to the one that took place in 1996, when a group of young Brotherhood leaders left the movement to form the (still unlicensed) Wasat Party. The elections are also likely to set off a campaign to purge the Brotherhood of reformists. The movement will need time to overcome deep rifts and restore internal harmony, an unusual development for a group that had long succeeded in keeping such differences a private matter.
Another notable internal change in the Brotherhood is the end of the era of charismatic supreme guides; the post has changed from that of a revered spiritual and symbolic figure to one that is strictly administrative. Retired Guide Mahdi Akif’s tenure raised some concerns. Akif – a simple person with a tendency to overreact – made several political mistakes and media blunders. Akif’s age – he is 82 – and his status as a member of the founding generation have nonetheless guaranteed his standing as an icon for younger generations, especially outside of Egypt. There were no more contestants from the founding generation of the Brotherhood to replace him, which contributed to the intense competition over the post of supreme guide and controversy over the results.
The controversy was intense enough to necessitate the involvement of Brotherhood leaders outside of Egypt, which cost the group much of its prestige as the oldest Brotherhood organization and one that had often mediated other branches’ internal differences. Egypt’s movement has now joined the ranks of Brotherhoods in Jordan, Iraq, and Algeria, all of which have recently experienced internal rifts. This will hurt the Egyptian Brotherhood’s ability to play a leadership role in the future and might effectively mark an end to the international Brotherhood organization.
Despite the extensive changes in the Brotherhood’s leadership, the group’s major strategic choices – renouncing violence as a tool, participating in politics, and adopting a gradualist approach – are unlikely to shift suddenly. The Brotherhood made those choices over the course of three decades; all factions of the movement were involved, and the group’s social base supports them. The Brotherhood has long been known for its pragmatism and steadiness, and it will take years for effects of the current ideological reorientation to become clear.
As a result, the Brotherhood is expected to try to participate in all scheduled elections this year, including those for the Shura Council in May and the People’s Assembly in November. The fact that the Brotherhood constitutes the largest parliamentary bloc (88 out of 444 elected seats) after the ruling National Democratic Party also means that the new leadership will have no choice but to contest elections; otherwise it would be accused of sounding a retreat. Engaging in a strong battle with other forces might also help the group regain its internal cohesion.
While the Brotherhood will continue to participate in politics, significant changes in its political platform are likely. The conservative turn probably means the Brotherhood will be less receptive than in the past to dialogue over and criticisms of its program from other political forces – for example, its refusal to nominate women or Copts for the presidency.
The Brotherhood’s likely loss of flexibility and ability to make common cause with other political and intellectual forces will assist regime attempts to contain the group and prevent the emergence of any broad opposition front. The change will not necessarily diminish the Brotherhood’s popularity, however, as its support base favors conservative views and apparently desired a more conservative leadership. While this reorientation would seem to produce a Brotherhood more manageable for the regime, the recent arrests also open up the possibility of a new, more confrontational chapter between the two.