The MB’s uncharacteristically public spat

For those watching Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) opposition movement, it’s no secret that the group’s ranks have been divided for more than a decade. But the recent war of words between ranking MB members represents the first time for the group’s dirty laundry to be aired so publicly.

It is also the first time that senior MB leaders, usually tight-lipped about internal matters, admit that the group–which has traditionally presented outsiders with a monolithic front–is not necessarily of one mind. The MB’s murshid, or supreme guide, 81-year-old Mohamed Mahdi Akef, has decided once and for all to step down from his position in January–a "historical" development, in the words of Essam el-Erian, head of the group’s politburo.

Akef is the first MB murshid to resign from his position. His decision to leave office six months earlier than the date hoped for by senior members has triggered early elections for the post.

Because of internal scuffling, it remains uncertain when exactly a new supreme guide will be elected. But in an interview with Satellite news channel Al-Jazeera last Thursday, MB Secretary-General Mahmoud Ezzat declared that the issue would be decided by 13 January.

When contacted by Al-Masry Al-Youm on Sunday, Akef refused to discuss either his resignation or the date for upcoming elections, saying that both issues were "now in the hands" of the group’s consultative Shura Council. The 109-member council dictates MB policy, and–in theory–its decisions override those of the supreme guide.

Meanwhile, elections for members of the group’s authoritative Guidance Bureau are ongoing. Akef is expected to call a press conference this week to announce voting results.

El-Erian, for his part, known to be at loggerheads with Ezzat, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that "nothing is clear now." He went on to admit the existence of internal "problems and disputes," complaining that "there’s no transparency anymore" in the group’s decision-making process.

The organization, first founded in 1928, achieved political prominence by capturing roughly one-fifth of parliament in 2005, even though the group has been formally banned by the government since the mid 1950s. Fielding candidates as independents, the MB managed to clinch a total of 88 seats in the People’s Assembly, otherwise dominated by President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party.

Since then, the group’s rank and file have been divided over the issue of political participation, with some members fearing that participation in the current political system only serves to legitimize the state’s hollow claims of political diversity. These internal divisions, however, were–up until now–generally kept under wraps.

For years, "What happens among the MB, stays among the MB," represented an unspoken rule among the group’s members.

With the exception of an inter-group dispute that surfaced in the 1990s, when ex-member Abul Ela Madi (now leader of the unlicensed Wasat party) angrily left the MB after branding it "authoritarian and regressive," the movement has never appeared so internally divided. Currently, "conservative" and "reformists" camps are openly bickering, frequently employing the media to air grievances against one another.

"The brotherhood used to be very secretive about their inner politics and leaks about internal conflicts usually came from the security apparatus," said Hossam Tamam, a local expert on the Muslim Brotherhood. "Now they’re using the media as a tool to make alliances and win internal battles. This is unprecedented."

The recent row began over amendments to the group’s procedural regulations aimed at filling essential positions inside the Guidance Bureau. Personal conflicts between el-Erian, who had been nominated for one of these positions, and Mohamed Morsi, a senior member who opposed el-Erian’s appointment, soon spilled into the public arena. 

Group second-in-command Mohamed Habib, meanwhile, refuses to describe the obvious divisions as a "rift" per se, insisting that such "differences in opinion" merely illustrated the group’s "democratic" nature.

"It’s only natural that people differ over procedural issues," Habib said. "If anything, such differences are a sign of strength and health."

Still, these "differences of opinion" have emerged at a critical juncture for the MB.

The group is already subject to a nasty crackdown on its membership by the regime in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections. It is also still recovering from recent setbacks, such as the jailing of 40 leading members in April 2008, including Khairat el-Shater, who, if free today, might have been a contender for the group’s top post.

The usually soft-spoken Habib appeared to lose his temper when Al-Masry Al-Youm suggested that Akef’s tenure had been marked by his fiery remarks to the press, internal disputes and leaks of internal group matters–all of which may have contributed to tarnishing the MB’s image.

According to Habib, the domestic and regional atmosphere–in addition to longstanding government oppression–has affected Egypt and the MB’s image both domestically and abroad.

Some analysts say the regime has been successful in portraying the group as a threat to both national security and democracy and should therefore not be allowed to assume the reins political power.

"The regime has succeeded in scaring society away from the MB," Khaled al-Anani, expert in political Islam, wrote in a recent editorial in Daily News Egypt. In August, the government accused the MB of having ties with various "terrorist" organizations, including Lebanese and Palestinian resistance groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

Politics aside, Akef’s discourse with the media was often disastrous. "In the beginning, Akef’s interaction with the media was formal," said Tammam. "But since 2005, he began going back and forth in his statements, often using inappropriate, colloquial language not suited to his status as murshid."

El-Erian, however, defends Akef.

"The murshid was not diplomatic in his responses, but he was very spontaneous," said el-Erian. "And this spontaneity was seized on by the press and exaggerated."

So what now for the brotherhood?

According to Habib, elections for the next supreme guide should take place within 60 days after Akef’s departure. But in light of Ezzat’s latest statements, the group might end up choosing a leader before that.

Traditionally, every member of the group’s Shura Council is a would-be candidate for the post of murshid, including Habib himself. No one outside the council is allowed to field candidates or nominate themselves, while all MB group members are allowed to vote for council members.

In the meantime, Habib is expected to serve as interim supreme guide until a new leader is elected.

But will the departure of Akef end the internal squabbling? Not according to Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, researcher of Islamic movements, who says it was Akef who had worked to contain the differences until now. Al-Houdaiby also believes that MB decision-making is on the verge of breaking away from a tradition of leaving the last word to the supreme guide.

"The departure of the brotherhood’s founding generation suggests that the group will need to institutionalize decision-making to sustain itself," wrote al-Houdaiby in a recent article. "Developing a clear mechanism to resolve disputes will be critical to avoiding the confrontations that the groups’ founders had been able to contain."

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