international analysis and commentary

The crisis of the Muslim Brotherhood: new leadership, old politics

There is no better way to test the temperature of Arab politics than to examine the state of the Muslim Brotherhood – the most powerful religiously-organized opposition movement in Egypt and the Arab world. With branches in several Arab and Muslim countries, the Muslim Brothers portray themselves as a more authentic, viable alternative to secular authoritarian rulers and religious extremists of the al Qaeda variety.

The recent election of a new leadership has utterly discredited those claims and exposed a serious rift within the 81-year-old Islamic organization. After weeks of internal turmoil and infighting, the Brotherhood announced that it has chosen Mohammed Badie, an ultra-conservative veterinarian, as its eighth supreme leader since its founding in 1928, along with 16 members of its highest executive policy-setting Guidance Bureau.

The old guard like Mahmoud Izzat, Secretary General and gatekeeper of the Brotherhood’s finances and secrets, and Mohammed Akif (former Supreme Leader) who oppose opening up the organization and democratizing its decision-making, gained the upper hand. Ignoring the wishes of many younger members who called for transparency and respecting electoral rules, Izzat, Arif and their cohorts swiftly shoved the secretly-arranged results down the throat of opposition. 

Resigning in protest, ex-deputy leader Mohammed Habib publicly accused the old guard of violating the Brotherhood’s regulations and illegally engineering Badie’s selection. “The future of the movement is at stake,” said Habib in a revealing interview in the Egyptian newspaper, al-Masry al-Youm.

Habib’s complaints put on display a deepening power struggle between the old guard – conservative men in their seventies and eighties – and a younger generation of the 1970s with reformist tendencies similar to its Turkish counterpart. 

Badie’s election clearly shows the dominance of the old guard – a coherent but a dwindling ideologically-inclined group of Muslim Brothers most of whom were members of the late Sayyid Qutb’s 1965 paramilitary network. Qutb, master ideologue and theoretician of radical Islamism known as jihadism, was executed by the Nasser regime in 1966. The Brotherhood renounced violence in the late 1960s.

Many of Qutb’s followers like Izzat, Akif and Badie spent about a decade in Egyptian concentration prison camps and ever since their release in the mid-1970s have exercised a stranglehold over this influential social movement.

Although highly regarded as a professor of veterinary pathology, Badie possesses no intellectual and political vision to lead the outlawed Brotherhood in an open and inclusive fashion. His claim to fame is absolute obedience to the powers that be within the organization (Izzat and Arif) and aversion to reforms. A low-key man with an awkward demeanor, Badie’s election is designed to maintain the status quo. 

The reformist wing, which calls for transparency and joining ranks with the small, but active, secular opposition, suffered a major setback. Reformist-minded heavyweights like Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh and ex-deputy Habib lost their seats in the Guidance Bureau – a hard blow.

In particular, Futouh (over the years, I have frequently interviewed him, along with many leaders of both camps) is the most forward-looking voice on whom progressive young Muslim Brothers and outsiders pinned their hopes for change. His removal shifts the balance of power further in favor of hardliners like Izzat who oppose a more active role in the political arena and want to preserve the internal cohesiveness and unity of the organization.

What this means is that in the next five years, the Brotherhood will be more preoccupied with increasing its membership, already more than a million strong, than lending a helping hand to the opposition to bring about peaceful change in Egypt. The new leadership will refrain from provoking the Mubarak regime which has recently cracked down hard on the Brotherhood and imprisoned hundreds of its members.

“We reaffirm that the Brotherhood is not an adversary to the regime,” Badie said at a press conference immediately after the announcement, sending an early signal of reconciliation to the authorities.

In fact, the Mubarak regime is the main beneficiary of the triumph of isolationist hardliners within the Brotherhood. Sidelining itself, the Islamic organization will no longer threaten the dominance of the National Ruling Party in October’s parliamentary elections, which will pave the way, many Egyptians say, for the succession of Mubarak’s son, Gamal, to the presidency. Although banned and harassed, in 2005 the Brotherhood garnered a fifth of the 454 in the current Egyptian parliament. The next largest opposition party has six seats.

Despite its claims to the contrary, the Brotherhood leadership failed the test of transparency and accountability. Surely, a political movement that is internally closed and authoritarian cannot be trusted to practice democracy, if and when it gains power. One would hope that reformists like Abul Futouh will weather this painful defeat and save the Brotherhood from self-destruction.   

A convincing argument can be made is that the Brotherhood and the Mubarak regime are two sides of the same coin. The tragedy of Arab politics is that the secular ruling elite and the powerful Islamic opposition are illiberal and undemocratic. There is no viable third force on the Arab horizon that offers a light at the end of the dark tunnel.