Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Habib just announced to the media his decision to leave his position as vice-chairman of the Guidance Bureau. His resignation comes amidst the contested 16-member Guidance Bureau election held last week, which revealed certain divisions within the group around the interpretation of its internal code of regulations and which ruled Habib out of his post, held for the past five years. It also raises questions about the up-coming election of the supreme guide of the group to be held next year. But his resignation is far from ending a deeply entrenched and organic relationship with the century-long movement.
Such a long-living movement has developed an intricate web of politics over time, the product of which has been the creation of camps ranging from the most conservative to the reformist trend within the group. Habib has always been dubbed the voice of moderation in the group that represents the most imminent form of opposition in contemporary Egypt.
He had just slept for three hours before flashing back to reproduce his life story. Yet he told his story succinctly using impeccable Arabic that shifted between eloquent colloquial and sinuous classical.
Habib was born the in 1940s in Damietta, a coastal town north of Cairo at the intersection between the Nile and the Mediterranean. Born to illiterate parents, he spoke of his mother. “She had a special character that you don’t find today: A strong will, perseverance and sharp decision making. All this alongside a never-ending sense of humor,” he recalls, laughingly.
“I was very religious since I was a child,” says Habib, who noted that his family didn’t practice Islam with any more fervor than was customary. His tendency to go to every circle of remembrance and every talk by an Imam in Damietta was more of a personal interest. In university, he started reading the letters of Imam Hassan al-Banna, who founded of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928.
“I was very touched. I got attracted to the idea, the approach and the goals of this calling and, above all, the way it was all held together by the genius of al-Banna.” Al-Banna was a school teacher intent on creating a social renaissance based on the Islamic ethos. While his movement was socially-oriented in its embryonic stage, it quickly grew to become involved in Egypt’s politics and nationalist struggle against colonialism. The letters al-Banna wrote are considered one of the cornerstones of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology today.
Habib did not expect to continue pursuing this line of intellectual thought at university. Most of his peers would go as far as high school in their education and then pursue a craft. “I started training as a carpenter since I was 7 years old to secure a job once I was done with school.” But a good performance in thanaweya ‘amma (the Egyptian high school certificate) afforded him entry to the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Assiut in Upper Egypt in 1960. “So I went [to the university] and started studying more. I ranked first in my class in my second and third years of university and was appointed as a lecturer upon graduation.” His academic career was secured with a masters degree followed by a doctoral degree in geology, as well as an ascendancy from assistant professor to professor in 1988 at the same university.
As Habib started to teach, he was introduced to a student who would later become his wife. She was from the coastal city of Port Said and was also in Assiut for her university education. “We were on the same ‘latitude’ and we ended up together,” he jokes, referring to the geographical proximity between their native towns, while it was far away, in Upper Egypt, that they met.
The 1960s of his university years was also a time rife with national anticipation, with many unanswered questions about what the officers of the military coup would do with an independent Egypt. Former President Gamal Abdul Nasser founded the Free Officers Movement that staged the coup d’état in 1952 against the British-supported monarchy in Egypt, a coup which was supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, although clouds of ambiguity shadowed the relationship between them. Habib was also full of questions. He kept delving into Islamic thought, especially with regards to state building.
“I had the chance to befriend Khaled Abdul Qadir Ouda, the son of the martyr, in 1962. He talked to me a lot about his father and the misery that his family lived following his execution. He explained his philosophy to me. I was impressed by this account and highly touched by his death,” Habib recalled. Ouda, the father, was a jurist and Islamist thinker who was executed before a military court in 1954 along with another five members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were then accused of plotting to kill Nasser at a rally in Alexandria. “Khaled’s thoughts about his father’s death informed my vision of Nasser’s regime. I realized it was all about getting rid of the [Brotherhood] to monopolize power.” Khaled Ouda was acquitted in the last military tribunal held in 2006.
The debacle of the six-day-war in 1967 and the Egyptian military defeat by Israel embittered Habib. “There was a sense of deep sorrow, of crying over a lost Egypt,” recounts Habib, reliving the experience for a moment. “Every Egyptian started to fetch after a lost dream. We realized that the regime had duped us. We had to rebel against it and to find other solutions.” Just as 1967 is marked as a year of return to religiosity for Israelis, in gratitude to God for their victory, religion was similarly re-embraced by Egyptians who felt their feelings of loss could be better addressed by men of religion. “This religiosity came at a time of a serious fracture in the conscience and the memory of the Egyptian people,” Habib reflects.
By the end of the decade, Habib had officially joined the Muslim Brotherhood, where he started serving in the guidance office as a member in 1985, until he was nominated as its first deputy to the supreme guide in 2004.
During those years, he was not spared from the endless conflict between the ruling regimes and the movement. In 1981, he was arrested with another 1536 leaders from various political Islamic movements for five months. “I was arrested on 2 September, the same date when I was appointed as a lecturer in university,” Habib notes, in an attempt to trace loops in his personal history. In fact, this detention cost him his university job temporarily, and he only returned to it by a judicial verdict at the end of 1982. In 1995, he was exposed to a military court for the first time, and was sentenced to five years in prison for his affiliation to the Brotherhood. He was also detained in 2001 for one year.
Habib’s work was also that of a typical member of the Brotherhood during those years. He disseminated the group’s ethos and principles to a popular base through social work. In the early 1980s, he founded the Islamic Association for Da’wa (religious calling) and Islamic Development in Assiut with a few colleagues. One of its main activities has been building comprehensive schools with grade levels from kindergarten to secondary level. “All those schools, al-Andalus, al-Aqsa, al-Fardous, and others, are the offspring of the association,” he says.
Looking back at four decades of commitment to the Brotherhood, Habib spoke of the importance of strategic thinking. “I always approached our dealings with our local, regional and international systems strategically. It’s a practice I always put in mind when asking how our group should deal with different circumstances. I guess 44 years of scientific research have given me this edge.” As he spoke, he flipped through media clippings on the Brotherhood gathered by his assistants and started classifying them. One of his key strategies has been to keep a close eye on media perceptions and attitudes towards the movement, and using that information to guide the Brotherhood members in their public stands.
Serving in his term as deputy to the supreme guide for five years now, Habib still has many aspirations. He says he wants to reactivate the internal Shura Council of the movement and to better define its responsibilities, in what could be considered a revival of the principle of consultation, central to Islam as a paradigm for governance. Moreover, Habib strives to create judicial committees that could apply a rights-and-laws-based approach in settling internal disputes and issues.
While he spoke with an expected degree of bitterness about Nasser’s regime, Habib does not think that the current regime has been any kinder to the Brotherhood. According to Habib, it has been operating on the basis of protecting itself against the strongest opposition bloc in the country, in the wake of the weakening of all other opposition movements, in the form of continuous arrests and unlimited detentions. Habib notes a record 130,000 political detainees from the Brotherhood from 1995 to 2009. In this same period, seven military courts have been set up to adjudicate in Brotherhood cases. The last of these was in 2006, where 25 members were convicted, some of whom now face 10-year prison sentences. Institutions promoting international law have condemned the Egyptian government for using military courts for civilian trials.
But all that comes as no surprise to Habib. “Al-Banna had a deep understanding of da’wa. He told us that hard times are going to be met during our confrontation with dictatorships. He said when your movement starts coming to life, you’ll be arrested, tortured and persecuted. He didn’t dupe us or spread false flowers on the road for us.”
Yet, for him and other members of the Brotherhood, the hardships imposed by the current regime are based on absurd assumptions. Habib reiterated what a few members of the Brotherhood have told the media in the past: The regime’s fear of its overthrow by the Brotherhood is misplaced. “If there is a free and fair election with a high level of participation, the Brotherhood won’t win more than 30 percent of the parliament’s seats,” he says confidently.
In the streets of the capital, the Brotherhood remains a banned movement associated with dissent. Yet, a long history and a strong presence in the political landscape has kept it outside the realm of secrecy. Habib works hard to perpetuate this legacy, albeit today by calling for a close observance of the movement’s regulations ahead of making organizational changes or political moves.