(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Last week a solemn and public tribute was held in the Israeli city of Umm el-Fahm to mark the passing of Muhammad Mahdi Akef, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Leading the prayers was Dr. Mashhour Fawaz, a member of the World Union of Muslim scholars, a front organization of the Muslim Brotherhood formed by Youssef al-Qaradawi and chairman of the Higher Islamic Council for issuing fatwas in Israel, who is quoted as having said that “the Muslim nation has lost one of its greatest preachers...”
Conveniently forgotten was the fact that the man had been involved in terrorist activities and incitement for most of his life.
Akef, one of the Brotherhood’s historic leaders, died on September 22 at Cairo Kasr el Ayni hospital. He was 89. A former teacher of physical education, he was credited with exceptional qualities which led to his meteoric rise through the ranks; in 2004, he became the seventh supreme leader of the movement.
He belonged to the more fanatic branch of the Brotherhood and followed to the letter the teachings of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), who declared that Arab society was no longer adhering to Islam and preached jihad until it went back to observing the Shari’a. This was the inspiration of the modern revival of Islam which led to al-Qaida, ISIS, Boko Haram, the Somali al-Shabaab and dozens of splinter groups.
Akef was born in 1928 as the Brotherhood was being created. He was barely 12 when he joined the movement and soon became active in the secret branch tasked with destabilizing the regime of King Farouk and bringing about the end of the British occupation as a prelude to the restoration of the caliphate. The Brotherhood carried out high-profile assassinations including of two prime ministers and a judge, established links with the Nazis in the ’30s and led campaigns against the Jews with themes taken from Der Stürmer. In 1949, the king’s secret service assassinated Hassan al-Banna, the founder and the first leader of the Brotherhood, which was banned.
Akef had been among the volunteers from the Brotherhood who joined the army in 1948 to fight the newly reborn Jewish state. He was arrested in 1954 after the failed assassination attempt against Nasser and received a 25-year sentence. While in jail he took part together with Sayyid Qutb in the planning of a second assassination attempt in 1965. The plot was discovered in time and Qutb was executed.
In 1974, president Sadat freed Akef together with most of the imprisoned Brothers, in a bid to recruit the movement in his fight against Nasserist and pro-Soviet forces in Egypt. Henceforth Akef devoted himself to promoting the Brotherhood and rose steadily through the ranks. In 1996, he was jailed for three years; by that time, he was the leader of the world movement of the Brotherhood.
In 2004, he was appointed supreme leader, resigning in 2010. During his tenure, he demonstrated hard-line Islamist extremism, expressing particularly harsh views regarding his own country. In a public interview, he declared that when the hoped for caliphate would arise, Egypt would not have any special importance, and as far as he was concerned, the caliph could come from any country, as long as he was a true believer.
He demonstrated a virulent hatred against Israel and the Jews, backing Hezbollah during the Lebanon war in 2006 and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denouncing “the myth of the Holocaust.” On some occasions, Akef called for canceling the peace treaty and expelling the Israeli ambassador from Cairo. During the campaign for the 2009 elections he proclaimed that the Muslim Brothers had never, and would never, recognize Israel.
“There is no such word as Israel in our vocabulary, there are only Zionist gangs who conquered Arab lands and dispossessed its inhabitants. If they want to live among us, it has to be within the framework of Palestine; if they want a state of their own we shall oppose it.”
In 2013, following the fall of president Mohamed Morsi and his regime, Akef was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and incitement to murder following the death of protesters demonstrating in front of the movement’s headquarters in 2012. He appealed the decision and a new trial was scheduled. However, his health failed him and he was taken to the hospital where he died.
The Egyptian Ministry for Religious Affairs forbade the holding of traditional prayers in his memory without prior authorization and threatened to arrest contraveners. In Qatar, a strong supporter of the Brotherhood, the emir authorized prayers in all the country’s mosques, but Akef’s followers chose to assemble in the home of Youssef al-Qaradawi.
Khaled Mashaal, former head of the political branch of Hamas, attended together with Muslim Brotherhood militants who had fled Egypt. Qardawi eulogized Akef, and Mashaal lauded the defunct leader for his support of the Palestinian cause and mentioned that Yasser Arafat used to come often to see him. It appeared that nothing was done in other Arab countries, most of which have suffered from Islamic terrorism.
On the other hand, there was a public ceremony in Turkey, a staunch supporter of the Brotherhood, as well as in the Gaza Strip, Hamas being an offshoot of the movement as stated in the first two articles of the covenant which established the Palestinian Islamist movement.
The writer, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.