Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood sees leadership struggle

Cairos Muslim Brotherho

October 30, 2009 10:32
4 minute read.

The Middle East's most powerful Islamic political movement is undergoing a leadership struggle as young, more moderate activists try to push the Muslim Brotherhood to soften its fundamentalist ideology and become a more democratic force. The direction the Brotherhood takes could have wider implications. The group is the strongest opposition movement in Egypt, though officially banned. Moreover, it is highly influential beyond Egypt's borders as the father of Islamic movements across the Arab and Muslim world - including the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Egypt's autocratic government has cracked down fiercely on the group, arresting many of its members and branding it a front for extremists. The US has been reluctant to open up channels to the Brotherhood in deference to the government, a close Mideast ally. Still, some reform advocates in the region and the West believe there is little chance for real democracy unless popular Islamic groups like the Brotherhood somehow participate in the process. But the government crackdown only makes reform within the Brotherhood less likely, many observers say. "The Egyptian state is dictating the kind of Brotherhood we are getting today," said Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State University who studies the movement adding that "the policies of repression and arrests make it very difficult" to move toward a more moderate Brotherhood because they strengthen conservatives in the group. "They (hard-liners) say, what has running for elections and democratization done for us? It just leads to more arrests," Stacher said. Young Brotherhood moderates say it needs to become a more open and modern political movement if it intends to survive. Some want to imitate Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, an Islamic-rooted party that has embraced mainstream politics. The young critics contend the Brotherhood's old guard is holding it back. "Those in charge aren't connected with today's world," Abdelmonem Mahmoud, a journalist and blogger, told The Associated Press. Mahmoud, once a prominent spokesman for Brotherhood youth who was jailed several times for being part of the movement, said he froze his membership a year ago because of repeated intellectual clashes with the conservative leadership. Several others have done the same. Mahmoud said that while it wasn't an organized exodus, if the leaders didn't start to pay attention to the younger generation, the Brotherhood would begin to lose many of its "open-minded" members. "Their thirst for change is not sated by the Brotherhood, so they look for it elsewhere," he said. But conservatives are digging in. While some urban youth push to liberalize the Brotherhood, its large rural membership has become more hard-line in recent years. Two weeks ago, in an unprecedented move, the Brotherhood's 81-year-old leader, Supreme Guide Mohammad Mehdi Akef, stepped aside from his post. His deputy Mohammad Habib, who is considered more extreme, announced that Akef had handed all his authority to him, a claim Akef later denied in Egyptian newspapers. The confusion over Akef's position has betrayed the divisions within the leadership in an organization that prides itself on having a divine purpose and unified front. Khalil al-Anani, an Egyptian expert in Islamist groups, said Akef felt he could no longer deal with conservatives' demands. "The pressure became too much," al-Anani said. The Muslim Brotherhood advocates the implementation of Shariah law and establishment of an Islamic state in Egypt. Moderates in the Brotherhood feel that rather than insisting on an Islamic state, it should be a party for promoting Islamic values in a democratic system. The Brotherhood has long seen internal debates over how much it should operate within the system. Founded in 1928, the group had an armed wing that carried out bombings and other attacks until the 1970s, when it officially renounced violence, though it remains outlawed. The Brotherhood has gained popularity through a network of schools, clinics and other social services known for being far more efficient than their state-run equivalents. In recent years, the Brotherhood entered politics more forcefully than ever before. Its candidates - running as independents - won 20 per cent of parliament's 454 seats in 2005, making it the largest opposition bloc. For the past month, Brotherhood moderates have been trying to get a figure seen as one of their own, Essam el-Erian, into the group's top body, the Guidance Bureau, after a position opened up. Conservatives in the Bureau have resisted. El-Erian, a 55-year old doctor and Brotherhood member for almost 35 years, is widely known as a moderate voice in the organization. He has been reported to accept the principle of women and Christians running for the presidency - counter to the group's official line - to agree with greater cooperation with the West, and has been reported to say that it's time to accept Israel as a reality with a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "This is a good time to exert pressure on the old guard to change the group from a religious movement to a civil one," said one young Brother who manages a Facebook group along with other moderates. He spoke on condition of anonymity in order not to jeopardize his position in the organization. But the broader problem, experts say, is that even if the Brotherhood does reform, the Egyptian government is unlikely to allow it into politics. The government has stepped up its repression ahead of parliament elections scheduled for next year. "It is in the government's advantage to keep the Brotherhood ultra-conservative," said al-Anani. "The more democratic the group gets, the more popular it will become in the country."

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