By Emad Nassif
The series of country-wide raids carried out earlier this month, in which some 13 members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) were rounded up, aroused controversy aplenty. The group’s deputy chief, Mahmoud Ezzat, was taken from his Cairo home, and senior Brotherhood members Essam al-Erian and Abdel-Rahman al-Berr, both of whom belong to the reformist current in the MB, were detained. Security officials said the detainees had been participating in banned political activity.
The authorities frequently crack down on the officially outlawed but tolerated MB, Egypt’s main opposition group A statement by the group suggested the arrests were linked to the political activity expected ahead of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for next April, November, and 2011 respectively. After fielding candidates as independents in the 2005 legislative polls, the Islamists hold a fifth of the seats in the current Parliament.
The recent arrests were the first since Mohamed Badie, 67, an associate professor of pathology at Beni Sweif University, was chosen as the group’s new General Guide last January, replacing Mohamed Akef, whose tenure was undermined by deep divisions between conservatives and reformists.
In his first announcement, Badie used politically correct rhetoric and said the group believed in gradual reform and peaceful methods of change. “We reject and condemn violence of all sorts, whether it is practised by governments, groups or individuals. The Brotherhood believes that the regime should protect personal freedom and shura [consultation] or democracy. The MB is not an adversary of the regime, despite the measures it [the latter] takes to clamp down on the group and confiscate its money. The basis of citizenship is equality among Egyptians in rights and duties. The MB strongly denounces all forms of sectarian violence…Christians and Muslims constitute a unified cultural and social texture.
“We are not in a state of antagonism with Western peoples, but with those regimes that accept to grant their people democracy and freedom yet deny us these rights,” he went on.
Conservatives vs reformists
Observers argue that the election of the Guidance Bureau (the 16-member executive body of the group) was by no means a mere systematic circulation of power. Rather, it marked the culmination of the long-lasting conflict between reformists and conservatives. The reformers, it was said, are led by Mohamed Habib, Akef’s first deputy-who resigned from office on 31 December in protest at the manner in which the election was held-and the conservatives by Mahmoud Ezzat. Until recently-before the conservatives held sway over the group-Habib had been viewed as the heir apparent.
Indeed, the election of the Guidance Bureau held in December deepened the rift between the two sides. Habib and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh-another leading reformist figure-failed to secure seats. Essam El-Erian, a third reformist leader, was elected among the bureau’s members.
Analysts and experts on the Islamic movement provide different explanations of these latest developments. Ammar Ali Hassan, a specialist in Islamic groups, disclaims arguments that the Egyptian security apparatus has a hand in the divide. He says: “I cannot imagine the security apparatus standing behind the dispute between the reformists and conservatives.”
“The security devices cannot interfere in the election of the Guidance Bureau or choose who should or should not become a member. The regime, however, has used the discord for its own interest.
Diaa’ Rashwan, an expert on political Islam and analyst at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, sees the latest development as normal and that within such a large political group the presence of currents and wings is by no means odd. “Both the reformists and conservatives strive to tighten their grip on the group.” Dr Rashwan says. He says he cannot judge whether the State did or did not interfere in the conflict, but he believes that the conservatives’ victory came in the State’s interest because this wing focuses on dawa (preaching) rather than integrating the group into mainstream politics. “The reformists give the State a serious headache because of their readiness to get involved in politics.” he concludes.
Ibrahim al-Hudeibi, son of late General Guide Ma’moun al-Hudeibi and a researcher on Islamic jamaat, believes that the current development reflects a process of settling accounts between the MB and the regime. According to Hudeibi, the MB has three wings: the reformists (adhering to the ideas of the group’s founder Hassan al-Banna); the salafists (followers of Sunni ideas); and Qutbists (devoted to the group’s theoretician Sayed Qotb, the founder of Islamic Jihadism). “The vote was marred by irregularities and the sole hope is sticking to institutionalisation,” he says.
On his part, political analyst at the Al-Ahram Centre Amr al-Shobki argues that, were the Brotherhood ever to withdraw from political life, it would not have a harmful impact on the current political mobility, since it was not expected that they would fight for reform. “The change began gradually, since the presence of various generations created differences and disagreements in terms of how to view political issues. The nature of the Egyptian regime led to a kind of coercive coexistence; the latest election reflected an approach of outright marginalisation through which Habib, who performed as the link between the reformists and conservatives, was toppled.
“The MB has to separate religious and political discourse if its future is to be in any better shape,” he added.