Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood: widening split between young and old

Egypt's Islamic opposition to autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood, faces a split along generational lines as older conservatives' influence is rising.

Tarek Mostafa/Reuters/File
Mohamed Mahdi Akef, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood for the past six years, said that he will step down in January.

Egypt’s main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is facing a change in leadership that could sideline reformists. That could deprive Islamists of an avenue for participating in Egyptian politics, and some could become radicalized.

Mahdi Mohammed Akef, the general guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for the past six years, will step down in January amid a widening split in the organization.

Mr. Akef, who has held together a group that includes moderates and conservatives, young and old, urban and rural, says that the organization’s internal disagreements are one of its strengths. But his blowup with the group’s 15-man Guidance Council when he tried to appoint a younger, reformist member to the elderly and predominantly conservative council has ignited an unprecedented public debate in Egypt.

The goal of the group, which has never been allowed to form a political party, is to make Islam “the sole reference point for ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community ... and state.”

But within the Brotherhood there are sharp differences over how to oppose President Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime, what rights should be accorded to women, and how strictly Islam should be interpreted.

Old guards and new Brothers

Many of these differences play out along a generational fault line between younger reformists, who seek a more active political role for the banned organization, and older conservatives whose influence is rising.

“Akef is the last of the historical leaders of the group ... the leaders who ... joined the group early on, who have met the founder Hassan Al Banna, who have some sort of historical legitimacy,” says Ibrahim Al Hodaiby, grandson of a former general guide and a writer on Islamist movements.

The Brotherhood’s older members came of age in the 1950s, when the group was at war with the government. It was eventually banned, its members arrested and tortured by the thousands.

This senior group is “directed towards building the organization more than opening up to society,” says Hossam Tammam, editor of the website Islam Online. Their focus is on training new members, proselytizing, and social work.

The Brothers who came of age in the 1970s after the group formally renounced violence, meanwhile, are something different. These men were active on university campuses and in parliament. Today they are willing to form alliances with other movements and parties and are “more likely to produce reformist ideas,” says Mr. Tammam. But while the reformists are younger, the conservative bloc is in ascendancy.

Akef’s successor, to be chosen in January, is expected to be an old-guard conservative.

That worries Brothers like Abdel-Moneim Mahmoud, a young journalist and blogger. He froze his membership after some of his criticisms were not well received.

“The stage we’re in requires the moderate, the reformist side of the group,” he says. “We need a strong political movement ... to stand against this oppressive regime. This is our duty right now. It’s more important than anything else.”

Mr. Mahmoud’s ideas were shaped in 2005, when Egypt, under pressure from the United States, experienced a moment of political opening. The Brotherhood, alongside other groups, participated in street protests calling for political reform and an end to the Mubarak regime. Mahmoud was encouraged to form alliances with outside activists and to give his opinion freely.

But subsequent government repression led the Brotherhood to “tak[e] a step backwards,” says Mahmoud, who explains that “whenever there is freedom, reformist ideas [within the group] will predominate; when there’s tyranny, conservative ones will.”

Tammam says government repression is the glue holding the Brotherhood together. If the Egyptian political system opened up, “the internal differences would become apparent in a way that might lead to the existence of more than one Brotherhood.”

But if reformists within the group are being routed, they’re still putting up a fight. The next general guide will almost certainly put an end to this cacophony and perhaps drive members like Mahmoud out for good. But the internal rift is unlikely to disappear.

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Why It Matters:

The political direction chosen by the Arab world’s oldest and largest Islamist organization could affect the succession plans of President Mubarak. It could also decide the dominant interpretation of Islam in Egypt, a key player in a volatile region.

What is the Muslim Brotherhood?

•Arab world’s oldest, largest Islamist organization

•Established in 1928; has 150,000 members

•Banned from politics, but in 2005 elections 88 candidates running as independents won 20 percent of the seats in Egypt's parliament

•Many believe Egypt’s repression of the group is aimed at smoothing the way for President Mubarak’s son, Gamal, to succeed him

[Editor's note: This version has been updated to correct an error in the number of Muslim Brotherhood candidates who won parliamentary seats.]

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