A split in the Brotherhood

Young workers move frantically around the office, bringing coffee and tea to visitors who wait to meet with the Muslim Brotherhood’s officials. There is more demand to meet the decision-makers after reports indicated that there is a coming schism within Egypt’s most powerful opposition group.
Deputy Brotherhood leader Mohamed Habib is cool and relaxed, offering his visitors insight into the workings of the group. He talks of openness and honesty within the group and is prepared to answer all questions.
“We are a democratic institution, something that you must search very hard to find in Egypt,” the bearded, former doctor begins, “and we are not concerned with what is being written because we know who we are.”
Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, a leading young Brotherhood blogger and journalist, wrote on his “Ana Ikhwan” blog that there is much worry among the leadership over a possible split within the group and that a push to get popular member Dr. Essam el-Erian into the Executive Bureau—the 105-member council that decides all major decisions, much as a Parliament does—and that the “reformist” and liberal leaders are pushing for his inclusion.
Mahmoud wrote that a number of second-tier leaders not in the bureau “planned to address Mahdi Akef, the leader and Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, to ask him and the Executive Bureau to step the member Essam El-Erian up to become a member of the Executive Bureau, to replace and succeed Mohamed Helal,” the former Supreme Guide who passed away in September.
“There must be a meeting and discussion over this, not to mention we have regulations and guidelines as to how a member is promoted into the [Executive] bureau,” said el-Erian.
Whether he wants to be promoted is another question. He said that what worries him is the string of recent arrests that have put a number of Executive Bureau leaders behind bars, most notably reform-minded Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who continues to languish in detention since his late July arrest.
“It worries me a bit so I have to wait and see what is going to happen and if I want to be on the council,” el-Erian continued.
In order for el-Erian to become a member of the Executive Bureau, which has a few vacancies after recent deaths in the group, he must win over 40 per cent of the vote.
Deputy Mohamed Habib argues that this is a matter that must be looked into and dealt with through the proper Brotherhood procedures before action is taken, but he says that this is not cause for concern.
“We go through the rules established by the Brotherhood charter and hold elections to choose our leaders, so if el-Erian is to be part of this, then it must go through the proper channels,” Habib said.
As for the split that may have erupted within the group, Habib pointed to a number of incidents in recent years that have attempted to break the Brotherhood.
“You know, we deal with this kind of thing all the time, especially with media because they don’t want us to succeed and know that people support us. The only thing that is going on at this point is an internal debate over who will be eligible to take over after [Supreme Guide] Akef leaves office, as he announced earlier this year,” Habib said.
Akef plans to step down as Supreme Guide in January and an internal election is scheduled for the beginning of next year. Reformist members are hopeful el-Erian or Aboul Fotouh will succeed Akef for the top job, but most analysts believe the time for a reformer has not yet come.
“I believe the conservatives are still a bit too strong to allow a reformer to come to power yet,” argued Khalil al-Anani, the leading Brotherhood expert at the Al-Ahram Foundation in Cairo. He put Habib forward as the most likely candidate, arguing that his ability to work as a moderate would likely see him take the helm.
Western media on the other hand would like to see el-Erian take over the Brotherhood. He speaks English, is friendly with journalists and is reform-minded like his counterpart Aboul Fotouh. The doctor says that he is a firm believer in the Brotherhood cause and these reports of a split within the Brotherhood don’t cause him much concern.
“It is not important to me and not a matter I put much thought into,” he said.
In 2006, much ink was spilled over rumors of a break in the ranks of the Brotherhood, but the Islamic group appeared stoic in the face of criticism, saying that debate is vital to the future of their organization and the country as a whole.
Ali Abdel Hafez, a professor in Assiut in southern Egypt, published a book detailing what he perceived to be stiff policies within the banned Islamic group. Hafez, who quit the group in 2003, said he presented his ideas before leaving, but was refused any discussion on his proposals.
Habib said he reviewed portions of the text, but Hafez continued his assault because he “had an agenda” to break the group.
“This talk about an ‘alternative movement’ or split is wrong,” said Habib.
Ibrahim el-Houdaiby, 25, a member of the Brotherhood board of directors, said at the time that the organization is based on democratic principles and debate is open for all, but at the end of the day each member must adhere to the majority, similar to democratic nations across the world.
“We sit and discuss many ideas all the time, so it is surprising to me that someone could say we are totalitarian,” el-Houdeiby said.
“In the end, like any other democratic institution, we vote on the route our group wants to go. As members of a very large organization there are some things that not all members like or agree with, but at the end of the day we have to support and show solidarity.”
Although Egyptian media have been quick to point out a row within the Brotherhood, the most powerful opposition to President Hosni Mubarak and holders of approximately 20 per cent of seats in parliament, the conflict, Habib argued, is not as big as the media make it out to be.
“I like discussion, especially within the group context,” Habib said.
“But people must understand how we make our decisions before they start attacking us. It shows that people outside the group are trying to undermine us. This can only be a good thing for Egyptian politics and society.”
In the end, as Habib glides to the door, holding out his hand, one thing has become obvious: the Brotherhood is answering questions about their future.

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