Muslim Brotherhood Guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef’s decision to step down at the end of his first term in January 2009 is an important milestone for the largest opposition group in Egypt for two reasons. First, whoever the successor is, he will not enjoy the same historical legitimacy as Akef, who joined the Brotherhood at an early stage and worked with its founder, Hassan al-Banna. All of the potential replacements belong to another generation and lack the gravitas of Akef and his predecessors, which helped them resolve or at least postpone some organizational disputes.
The second reason is that Akef, who presided over a major political opening of the group in which its various intellectual orientations were clearly manifested, has the ability to manage diversity. This has been clear in his relations with leaders of the organization’s different currents and generations and his ability to bridge gaps between them. No candidate for the post seems to possess this skill, except perhaps Deputy Guide Khairat al-Shater, whose chances seem nil because he is currently imprisoned.
The departure of the Brotherhood’s founding generation suggests that the group will need to institutionalize decision-making to sustain itself. With current leaders viewing each other as equals, developing a clear mechanism to resolve disputes will be critical to avoiding confrontations that the founders were able to contain. For while the Brotherhood is highly institutionalized in terms of operational work and execution, this is not the case with decision making. Members of the organization have been more concerned about having well-established procedures for executing decisions than for making them. This was due to the confidence members have had in their leadership so far, the historical legitimacy this leadership has enjoyed, and a general feeling among members – due to ongoing crackdowns from the regime – that disciplined implementation was essential so that arrests would not paralyze the organization.
There has been some progress in institutionalizing decision-making during Akef’s tenure; for example, over the past years the group conducted a series of elections at all organizational levels. The current dispute about the elevation of Essam al-Arian (a reformist) to the Guidance Bureau after the death of one of its members is in many ways a manifestation of this organizational institutionalization. Whatever the conflicting parties’ motives in supporting or opposing al-Arian, the debate revolves around the interpretation of internal procedures, a new phenomenon in an organization in which most members historically knew absolutely nothing about such procedures and did not even care to know.
Competition among Trends
Another important question raised by the dispute over al-Arian concerns the level of internal diversity the Brotherhood will tolerate. The rise of Salafism in Egypt, in addition to the ongoing crackdown by the Egyptian regime, poses real challenges and pushes the Brotherhood in a less moderate direction. The group has witnessed a significant structural change over the past decade, with is organizational weight moving from cities to rural areas. With Egypt’s countryside being increasingly influenced by Wahhabi Salafism over the past couple of decades, it is only natural that this less tolerant school will have its influence on the Brotherhood.
In recent years, Wahhabi ideological intolerance has increasingly combined with organizational intolerance by Muslim Brotherhood members influenced by executed leader Sayyid Qutb, who focused on organization at the cost of ideas and advocated postponing all types of dialogue and debate in favor of increasing confrontation with the regime. This direction is strengthened further by the Brotherhood’s recruitment and promotion criteria, which are based on religious practice standards and organizational discipline (attending meetings, carrying out orders with minimal discussion) at the cost of creativity, criticism, and evaluation of the Brotherhood and its ideology. Such trends, fueled by the ongoing confrontation with the regime, will tend to elevate less moderate figures to leadership positions at the cost of reformists such as Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh.
Meanwhile, the competition between different trends within the Brotherhood goes on. Conservative trend leaders differ in their approach to diversity within the group; some appreciate its value and are aware of the consequences of its absence on the Brotherhood’s image, as well as its ability to lead change in Egyptian society. They are also aware that silencing reformists would lead to organizational divisions, and therefore adopt an inclusive stance. Others adopt an exclusive stance, seeing themselves as missionaries preserving the fundamentals of the group.
The exclusionary trend seems stronger at the moment, as indicated by the dispute about al-Arian. The conservatives within the Guidance Bureau worked hard to find a procedural justification to prevent his elevation to the Council (despite the fact that some of them became members using the same regulations), but clearly it was a vote against a new reformist voice in the Bureau. Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, whom many Brothers consider an important scholarly and intellectual reference point, called the treatment of al-Arian a betrayal of the Brotherhood’s principles, provoking further harsh exchanges about proper procedures.
Electing a New Guide
The new Guide will be elected based on his position on institutionalizing decision-making and managing relations among different trends within the group. While the reformist wing does not stand a real chance with the current composition of the leadership, the next leader will be elected in one of several ways. The first option is that different trends will compromise to reach an agreement on a leader who does not belong to any of the major intellectual schools in the group—which is what happened when Akef was elected—an event that would indicate awareness of the importance of diversity.
The second possibility is that the exclusionary wing will use its current majority to choose a Guide without regard for the reformist wing’s concerns. The Guide would be either a member of this Salafi/Qutbi wing (less likely, as members of this trend prefer working inside the organization away from the spotlight associated with the Guide’s political and media responsibilities), or someone close to this school, a less provocative and more likely course.
A final option would be to select a temporary Guide to serve until the Brotherhood heavyweights currently in prison (Khairat al-Shater, Mohammed Bishr, Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh) are released, and tensions with the Egyptian regime abate (presumably after 2010 parliamentary and 2011 presidential elections). More favorable circumstances inside and outside the Brotherhood might then provide a chance to rethink the choice of Guide.
Ibrahim al-Houdaiby is a freelance columnist and researcher focusing on Islamic movements and democratization. A graduate of the American University in Cairo, he is working towards an MA in Islamic Studies at the High Institute of Islamic Studies.
This article is re-published in agreement with the Arab Reform Bulletin, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.