Firstly, for a Supreme Guide to retire is unprecedented – they usually pop their clogs (or have them popped for them in the case of the founder, Hasan al-Banna) in situ. Secondly, Akef had already announced that he would be retiring from his role as the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood. And thirdly, Egyptian politics is entering a period of exceptional uncertainty: both parliamentary and presidential elections are to be held within the next two years, and, with President Mubarak expected to step down, there will be a new president for the first time in over a quarter of a century.
These are strange times indeed for the Ikhwan as they attempt to manoeuvre in the face of a renewed crackdown on their activities both domestically and internationally, and try to consolidate and improve on the successes they enjoyed in the last parliamentary elections in 2005.
There has been a great deal of speculation surrounding the future of the world’s most powerful Islamic political movement for some time. Most of that speculation has centred on the future direction of the movement, as the reality of turgid domestic Egyptian politics has dawned on the party’s members. The furore that surrounded Akef’s supposed resignation seemed to confirm what many analysts were thinking: here was the first outward manifestation of a leadership struggle between younger, more progressive activists and their more conservative co-members.
Akef allegedly clashed with conservatives on the Guidance Council over the appointment of senior member Essam al-Erian, a renowned dove within the organisation. His nomination came in the wake of the recent death of Muhammad Hilal, a hawkish member of the Guidance Council, which first ignited tensions amongst the leadership.
The direction the Brotherhood takes could have much wider implications: the group is the largest opposition movement in Egypt (with some sources estimating membership at half a million Egyptians), though officially banned. Furthermore, as a pan-Islamic organisation, it is highly influential beyond Egypt’s borders as the father of Islamist movements across the Arab and Muslim world — including the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
But perhaps the two most important developments in this saga, have been the high profile criticism by the influential cleric and sometime Brotherhood ‘spiritual leader’, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, of the decision to reject al-Erian’s candidacy, and the statement released by the MB Youth Wing in response to media storm following Akef’s reported resignation.
Al-Qaradawi, called the decision a ‘betrayal of da’wah, the party and the Ummah one and all’. However, Dr Mahmoud Ghazlan, a hawkish member of the Guidance Council, in a strongly worded letter to the shaykh retorted, “If you must interfere, then do so as a matter of principal, values and etiquette, and try to put out the flames of conflict.”
For their part, the Youth Wing used their statement to call for unity, to stress their support for the Supreme Guide and announce the holding of ‘youth conference’ some time in the near future:
Letter of the Muslim Brotherhood Youth:
We followed the recent events that have occurred in the Guidance Bureau, so we decided to have a position and opinion to be announced to the group and to the public because we are the sons of this group and we are proud of it and its civilized approach. We have the honor to belong to such a group and we are the most concerned with its progress and strength. We are keen on making it the bridge that our country can use to cross from the atmosphere of tyranny and injustice to that of freedom and progress and we sum our opinion up in this statement:
1 – We declare our appreciation and esteem for our guide and leader, Mohamed Mahdy Akef, and his leadership of the group and appreciate his effort and all the moves to maintain our presence, and the progress he achieved during his term in the Guidance Bureau and we call on him to maintain his active presence at the head of the group until he finishes his term [in January].
2 – We all respect the mechanisms of the shura (Guidance Bureau) and their results, with emphasis on the policy of openness and transparency, where regulations governing the rules of internal procedures are announced, and equality in all situations and not allowing the door for different interpretations and personal interpretations, which negatively affect the group.
3 – The unity and cohesion of our construction is one of the constants that we would not allow to be affected, so we fear that such events would lead us to severe forms of advocacy passed in other countries and therefore the duty of everyone now is to bridge the gap and ensure the safety of the spirit of logical brotherhood and to maintain objectivity away from emotions.
4 – It is not acceptable at all that some people question the guide’s [Akef] respect to shura and democracy, as he was the finest example in this respect when he insisted on changing the old regulations and the internal organization of elections and entrenched this principle. He then asked not to be given the responsibility of heading the group, to leave the opportunity to others.
5 – We call on the leadership to review its internal regulations and to modify it in a practical manner that is commensurate with the nature and requirements of the stage we are going through.
6 – We are stressing the need to improve the media performance of the group, and to make it better than it is now, in order not to repeat the poor performance, and this contradiction that has emerged in the Brotherhood’s media performances to the current events. In a way this has worsened the image of the group! We also stress that the media attaché of the group needs a comprehensive review with the seizure of media statements of the leaders and figures. We also need to determine an official spokesman for the group in order to avoid the conflicts that we saw in these recent events.
7 – We thank all the media, which dealt with professionalism and objectivity to the events with the rejection of attempts by some media that became addicted to harming the Muslim Brotherhood and we hold ourselves responsible for what happened and allowed some others to use distortion and fabrication against the movement.
8 – We confirm that solving this issue should be in a practical and objective manner to ensure non-recurrence of the problem and not to exacerbate the accumulations of it, and we are confident that the leadership is keen on this, like everyone else.
9 – We emphasize that the Muslim Brotherhood is a national Egyptian movement of community-based and public efforts since it was founded by Imam Hassan al-Banna, and is concerned with public issues and all important issues to every Egyptian and everyone who is interested in the moderate civilized Islamic project, so the society should interact with us as the largest popular movement seeking reform and change in Egypt.
10 – We aim that the next period would be the start of a boom in the national movement to meet the expectations of millions of Egyptians who rely on the Muslim Brotherhood and its role in reform and change.
We wish to take this opportunity to announce an important step, in which we wish to please the good of the homeland and of the movement and the project as a whole. Hereby we declare the launch of the first electronic conference for the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood, which will be in the near future and will discuss the most important issues of concern to the group, to present visions aimed at reform and development.
Youth of the Muslim Brotherhood
Dissent, debate, rivalry and resignations are all part and parcel of the democratic process. That two politicians rarely agree, in spite of the best efforts of spin doctors to create the façade of party unity, is one of the most enduring aspects of party politics; it’s a healthy sign that issues are being debated, compromises are being sought, and policies formulated with input from all sides of the debate. In the run up to the elections, despite Akef’s claim that the Brotherhood will not field a candidate for the presidency, it will be interesting to see if the movement can adapt, compromise and move forward progressively or whether it remains ossified; wedded to a current of Islamist thought that has gained little for the movement over the last three quarters of a century.