Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood will name a new leader on Saturday after its first leadership vote since 1994, ending a divisive election period that laid bare divisions between so-called conservatives and reformists in the Arab world's largest opposition group. Then, it will be official: Former veterinarian’s union chief Mohamed Badie will take over as the organization's Supreme Guide.
The change in leadership also includes a shift on the Brotherhood’s governing Guidance Bureau, where conservatives recently unseated prominent reformists. The upheaval comes at a delicate time, with increasing signs that that 81-year-old Mubarak's son, Gamal, is being groomed to succeed him in a presidential election scheduled for next year.
Mr. Badie is expected to consolidate conservative influence within a group that has been subject of a withering government crackdown in recent years. His election has sidelined a younger generation of reformers who had hoped to transform the stodgy Brotherhood from an organization focused on religious outreach and social welfare projects into something more like a modern political party. The Brotherhood is technically banned by the Egyptian government but is officially tolerated.
Brotherhood leaders, including ousted reformers, insist little will change under the new command, which will continue to control 20 percent of Parliament.
“If you monitor the Brotherhood’s activities you will see that they are going to continue as they have been,” says Essam El Erian, the one well-known reformist to win a seat on the Guidance Bureau. “The new Guide will not add or take away anything.”
But others worry that the new conservative leadership will alienate young, reform-minded members by making the movement less inclined – or less capable – of political activism against the 28-year-old regime of President Hosni Mubarak and could lead to a splintered and weak Islamic opposition.
Egypt’s government has come down hard on the Brotherhood since 2005, imprisoning thousands since election wins made it a major player in Parliament. This month’s internal vote was meant to show off the group’s democratic bona fides, but that display has been muddied by infighting among the leaders and uncertainty about the future.
Surviving, not winning
In addition, the new leaders lack political experience, says Khalil Al Anani, an analyst at the government-linked Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. After years of government repression, Mr. Anani expects their primary interest will be in keeping the organization alive and its members out of jail.
“There is no indication that they have the ability to build coalitions with other political parties in Egypt,” he says of new leaders like Badie who have had little public role until now. “Their main goal is the survival of the movement.”
The Brothers appear divided over issues of both style and substance, with lines drawn over social issues like the political role of Christians and women and organizational issues like coalition building and how to interact with the media.
Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, a journalist at the independent daily Al Destour and once a high profile Brother with a blog entitled “I am a Muslim Brother,” says the biggest source of conflict was the group’s 2007 political party platform, which “said the Brothers would accept a Coptic Christian or a woman running for President.”
It was the first party platform ever presented by the group, but was withdrawn “to change some of these progressive ideas,” says Anani. It has not been reissued since, and observers say the new leadership is in no rush to either raise these issues again or make noise about trying to form a legal party.
“Conservatives are interested in political engagement but are not as capable of it,” says Ibrahim Houdaiby, a political analyst and former Brother. “They have less experience of working and interacting with people who are not Muslim Brothers.”
Like many current and former Brothers with reformist leanings, Houdaiby points to ousted Bureau member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh as a leader who was comfortable working across ideological lines.
Aboul Fotouh himself says the group will not radically change and that the real problem is Egypt’s oppressive stance towards the Brotherhood, including a ban that's been in place since 1954. Such measures “lead to the presence of some narrow-minded people in our organization,” he says.
“There are people who are so narrow-minded and conservative about so many things that they scare everyone away,” he says. “They say everything is haram,” or religiously forbidden.
Battle for the mainstream
Mahmoud takes the ouster of men like Aboul Fotouh as evidence a consensus among conservatives that they were “not really committed to the principles of the organization.”
Assem Shalaby, head of the Brothers media office, sums up this attitude when he calls the terms "conservative" and "reformist" inaccurate.
“What is more accurate is to say that some in the group, like Aboul Fotouh and El Erian, have a long history of working outside the Brotherhood framework,” he says.
But the election has raised questions about where the Muslim Brothers want to put their focus: political activism against the Mubarak regime, the spiritual improvement of the members, or a little bit of both?
Both conservatives and reformists see themselves as representative of mainstream Brotherhood opinion.
“I represent the mainstream of the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Aboul Fotouh, who says the mainstream is “moderate” and “likes to communicate with society and the other.”
But Shalaby says that balancing “public work and organizational work” is the “essence” of the Brotherhood, and that reformists like Aboul Fotouh have shirked their internal responsibilities.
It is that tension that Anani says could weaken the organization going forward, as conservative leaders focus on organizational goals and reformists push for activism against the regime.
“The next general guide will be weak and won’t have the ability to control the movement,” he says.
But Houdaiby strikes a more optimistic tone. He thinks the Brotherhood could grow from these divisions as “people start to think critically about what they want from the organization and its leaders… it could make them feel a greater stake in it. The real question is: Will these two wings be able to adopt a clear and unified strategy for change?”