July 1 2011
Can the organisation withstand the winds of change? The Muslim Brotherhood’s reputation for unity is in tatters as four splinter groups seek to form their own parties
Alluding to the Muslim Brotherhood as Egypt’s “most organized” political force might soon become a redundant cliché. The 83-year-old organisation is metamorphosing – some might say disintegrating – into five political parties. It is a far cry from the Islamist group that has, since 1948, survived repeated attempts by the state to weaken it while retaining, on the surface at least, its monolithic structure.
In post-revolution Egypt the Ikhwan (Brothers) is no longer simply the Gamaa’a (Organisation). It faces no existential threat from a dictatorial regime or police state and now has a political party, Freedom and Justice. Officially approved on 6 June, it is led by three ex-members of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council. Soon it could be joined by four other parties spawned by members of the group: El-Nahda (Renaissance); El-Riyada (Pioneer); Haraket El-Salam Wa Al Tanmiya (Movement for Peace and Development) and the youth-led El-Tayar El-Masri (Egyptian Current).
None of the four have been licensed yet. First they will have to meet the requirements of the Political Parties Law, issued in March by the Military Council, Egypt’s de facto rulers since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster on 11 February. The new law stipulates that any political party seeking a license must first garner 5000 supporters from ten or more governorates.
El-Nahda expects to apply for a license within ten days, according to its founder Ibrahim El-Zaafarany, a senior member of the Brotherhood who resigned from the organisation two months ago. El-Zaafarny, who is also secretary general of the Doctor’s Syndicate in Alexandria, was a leading member of the MB’s reformist wing. Many reformers are now working outside the organization, having left it to form their own parties.
Khaled Dawoud, also from Alexandria, describes the dissidents as the generation that gave the Muslim Brotherhood “the kiss of life in the 1970’s”. After 35 years in the organisation Dawoud is now busy trying to set up El-Riyada, which he describes as a “centre left” party. His co-founders include several reformist members of the Brotherhood though Dawoud insists the would-be party’s membership will be drawn from across the political spectrum.
Unlike El-Zaafarany Dawoud didn’t resign from the MB. But, he says, all too well aware that the MB’s reigning mindset was opposed to the “proposals for reform and calls for revising thoughts and ideas” he and others have submitted to the leadership over the years, he realised he would have to work outside the group’s official framework.
A number of Muslim Brotherhood leaders have been quoted as saying that any member who joins a party other than the group’s Freedom and Justice will be expelled. The statements were reiterated on 24 June in response to consecutive announcements of new would-be parties created by MB members.
Whether the organisation, facing the biggest internal rift in its history, will act on its threats is unclear. It would mean losing members and damaging its reputation as a united front. It has already expelled Abdel-Meneim Aboul-Fotouh, 60, a popular figure in the Brotherhood who decided to field himself as a presidential candidate against the group’s policy.
But insiders say the real reason Aboul-Fotouh was thrown out of the organization is because his ideas clash with those of MB strongman and second in command, Khairat El-Shater. The group may well not have the stomach for mass expulsions.
Aboul-Fotouh and El-Shater epitomise the decades old conflict between reformists and hardliners in the group. It is a battle that has surfaced repeatedly in the past – in the MB’s December 2009 internal elections reformists, including Aboul-Fotouh, were purged from the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council – but which was never allowed to spiral out of control in the face of the Brotherhood’s prioritizing of unity when threatened by security clampdowns.
No longer threatened by a police state differences within the group are now emerging from the shadow. In the words of Hossam Tamam, a Brotherhood expert: “The revolution has shown that the exceptional solid unity of the MB can’t be sustained forever.”
The MB might not be disintegrating, he told Al-Ahram Weekly, but departures from the group should not be underestimated.
Speaking to the Weekly on Tuesday, MB leader Essam El-Erian denied that large numbers are leaving the organization. “They’re only five or six,” he claimed. But that seems a serious underestimate. The dissidents may well number hundreds.
Hamed El-Dafrawi, founder of the would-be party the Movement for Peace and Development, described the Brotherhood as being in thrall to “a ‘secret organisation’ mentality”.
“They haven’t been able to transcend this mindset, hence the departure of frustrated members.”
But how different are the platforms of the splinter groups emerging from the MB? Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, a researcher into Islamic movements, says some of the would-be parties reflect disagreements within the organisation “over administrative matters” rather than ideology. Part of the conflict is a reflection of the struggle “between three different generations in the Brotherhood: the leadership, mid-management and the young people who were part of the revolution and gained media exposure”.
The MB’s young cadres, often hailed as co-heroes of the revolution for remaining in Tahrir Square until Mubarak’s ouster, were until recently invisible to the public and the media. They ignored their leadership’s orders during the revolution to withdraw from Tahrir Square and later joined the 25 January Youth Coalition alongside leftists, secularists, liberals and independent groups.
Emboldened by this experience and the media attention they gained, the Brotherhood’s youth wing held its first public conference in March despite the leadership’s opposition, sharing with the public their views on the organisation’s policies.
The conference demanded that if the MB did form a party it should be allowed to operate independently from the parent group’s hierarchy. Their demands were ignored and the Freedom and Justice party was duly formed, led by three unelected senior Brothers.
“The MB’s youth groups have every right to believe the leadership owes them a lot for improving the MB’s image during the revolution,” says Tammam. “They should have been absorbed and given space to work on a more influential level in the organisation, even as consultants, but they were snubbed.”
With reformists and younger cadres walking out of the organisation it’s unclear how this will affect the Brotherhood’s popularity, an urgent consideration if legislative elections are held in September.
In the 2005 parliamentary poll the Brotherhood won 88 seats, becoming the biggest opposition bloc. The vast majority of these ex-MPs haven’t left the organisation and are now part of the Freedom and Justice party, subscribing to a manifesto which Tamam describes as “obsessed with Islamic sharia and the issue of identity and Islam”.
Their popularity might be put to test now that Egyptians are more willing to engage in politics. In last March’s referendum on constitutional amendments 41 per cent of registered voters went to the polls. This contrasts sharply with a voter turn out of less than 10 per cent in the 2010 elections.
“I’m afraid for the Brotherhood,” says Dawoud. “If they don’t do damage control and introduce reform they’re at risk of disintegrating. There’s a revolution in Egypt but it hasn’t reached the MB yet.