Where Is Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Headed?

Political squabbles and the newness of the situation in Egypt make the September elections a hard call.

"I don't even care if the Muslim Brotherhood is headed by a Copt, on condition he is elected by its general council and acts in accordance with the organization's agenda," said former Muslim Brotherhood chief Mahdi Akef last week. Akef, 83, is known for his sharp tongue; a few years ago he said: "It doesn't matter who heads Egypt as long as he is a Muslim" - in other words, he need not even be an Egyptian or someone born in Egypt.

Now Akef is intervening to stop the cracks showing in the Muslim Brotherhood and to prevent its split into two blocs or two political parties that will vie in the parliamentary elections in September.

Muslim Brotherhood deputy head - Reuters - March, 2011

The dissension in the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood stood out shortly after the large demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo ended, when a group of activists who defined themselves as "the Young Brotherhood" demanded of the organization's leader that he hold free elections for the leadership of the Brotherhood, echoing the popular demand for free presidential elections in Egypt. This group is headed by Dr. Ibrahim Zafarani, a veteran Muslim Brotherhood activist and former member of its Shura Council - the ruling body that chooses its leaders. It is expected he will be joined by Abdul Moneim Abu Al-Fatouh, chairman of the Doctors' Union; both men represent the intermediate age group in the organization as well as the politically and religiously pragmatic and reformist stream. The group also intends to found a new political party, Al Nahda, distinct and separate from the Muslim Brotherhood, which on its part has declared the establishment of a party of its own, called Justice and Freedom.

A history of schism

This is not the first time schisms have arisen within the organization. In fact, since its establishment in 1928 by Hassan al Banna, there have been factions and splits. For example, the Islamic Group and Takfir wal-Hijira, two violent movements opposed to the Brotherhood's policy of non-violence, split off from it. In 2007, after the publication of the Muslim Brotherhood's platform, following their sweeping victory in 2005, a major ideological dispute developed on the question of the organization's stand on the justice institutions. The conservative group proposed establishing an elected body of experts on religious law to advise and instruct the regime on matters of religion, thereby eliminating the exclusivity enjoyed by the important institution Al Azhar. The group also proposed preventing women from serving in high positions and opposed the possibility of a Copt becoming president.

The pragmatic group demanded recognition of the authority of the country's Constitutional Court to decide on constitutional matters, including legislation touching on religious issues. Moreover, the pragmatists do not object to appointing women or Copts to leadership positions.

Not only issues of content have split the movement. So have the way members are appointed to senior positions in the organization, the appointment of the leader - the general guide, as he is called - and the apportioning of responsibilities. These issues led to the formation of two streams that have increasingly diverged, so much so that some members under the leadership of Dr. Mohammed Habib, the deputy general guide, decided to resign from the Brotherhood.

This time, however, the movement is facing an even more threatening disagreement because in contrast to the period before January 25, when the movement could close ranks around the persecution, arrests and harassment by Hosni Mubarak's government, this unifying threat is gone. Recruitment and rallying around the slogan of opposition to the regime can no longer serve it, and now it must deal with the internal dispute in new circumstances.

One of the results is already evident: The movement's leader, Khairat Al Shater, who was recently released from prison, appealed to members of the movement to make suggestions for reform and to voice their complaints against the leadership. Unsurprisingly, he formulated this call on a special Facebook page of the Muslim Brotherhood Internet site, aiming his appeal at the Young Brotherhood - the group calling for far-reaching administrative reforms within the movement.

This young group is not cut off from the larger movement of secular young people who fomented the revolution in Egypt. Some of them spent time in jails together with secular colleagues, cooperated in setting up opposition Internet sites and went jointly to demonstrations or strikes at factories or in labor unions. Thus, during the course of the past decade at least, an understanding emerged among them as to the kinds of aspirations they need to articulate and fulfill to transform Egypt into a better country for the next generation.

It is not yet clear from the ferment inside the Muslim Brotherhood what the movement's strength will be in the coming elections. In elections held last week for the student union at some of the universities, the Brotherhood won a share ranging from 12 to 28 percent. This share might be indicative of the movement's real strength among the general public and might neutralize the fear of a "conquest of Egypt" by the Brotherhood - a fear more often articulated outside of Egypt than within the country itself.

In the meantime the ruling party is also trying to show its strength. This week it opened a number of new Facebook pages devoted to "Turning over a new leaf with citizens." The party assesses it has a good chance of obtaining a majority in a number of important districts like Shag, Mnya and Assiut in the southern part of the country.

Apparently, the party not only reckons the opposition parties will have difficulty organizing well in the time remaining until the elections but also figures the fact that a large part of the government organizations and most of the junior bureaucracy, which deals directly with citizens, support continued control by the party.