Brothers Divided: Illusory Reform in Egypt’s Islamist Opposition

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Ian Siperco

Head of Practice, Middle East and North Africa, Riskline Political and Security Risk Analysis

The strongest opposition movement in Egypt is facing an existential crisis. Long having posed the nation’s most significant political threat to President Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), bitter internal divisions within the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) today threaten to shatter the illusion of a unified Islamist opposition. 

Serious ideological disagreements within the ranks are by no means a recent development. Conservative, reformist and “new generation” wings have been jockeying for position within the Brotherhood for the past two decades. Of these, the young, largely urban, moderate contingent offers the likeliest vision for a more democratic force in alliance with the country’s leftist and liberal opposition. These activists speak of the need to soften fundamentalist ideology and were thus especially appalled by a draft of the Brotherhood’s political programme in 2007, which opposed women or Coptic Christians leading the country and proposed a council of clerics to oversee the drafting of laws. 

Influenced by the continued domination of an aging conservative leadership, this austere political vision — redolent of Iran’s Islamist regime — has been gaining strength among the Brotherhood’s rural membership. As a result, the reformist movement has found itself marginalized within the group at every turn. 

The ideological chasm separating the factions was laid bare in the June 2008 Guidance Bureau elections, where the Brotherhood’s conservative old guard led a campaign to remove reformers from the group’s supreme administrative body. More recently, the rift has found expression in a frenzy over the alleged resignation of the Brotherhood’s 81-year-old Supreme Guide, Mohammed Mahdi Akef. Embodying the internal contradictions that are being played out in the group, Akef – who once told a newspaper he would rather see a Malaysian Muslim head the country than an Egyptian Copt – reportedly clashed with conservative Secretary General Mahmoud Ezzat over the Guidance Bureau appointment of senior member Essam al-Erian, who is associated with the Islamist group’s reformist wing. The Brotherhood’s conservative leadership reportedly blocked Erian’s nomination, thus exposing Akef’s limited influence and weak position within the split. 

The running conflicts within the group that have emerged against the backdrop of these crises have raised important questions about the Brotherhood’s ability to withstand an accelerated regime crackdown ahead of next year’s parliamentary polls. Still smarting from 2005 elections in which the group won an unprecedented 20 percent of the 454-seat National Assembly, President Hosni Mubarak has been targeting reform-minded MB leaders in a flurry of detentions and constitutional amendments designed to restrict the group’s political participation. 

The president’s status quo approach to politics typically favors balancing accommodationist and repressive strategies: facing the Brothers head-on in the lead-up to parliamentary elections, while allowing the group more of a free hand to reflect prevailing public opinion during crises like the Iraq War or the struggle in Palestine. In return for his cyclical leniency, the president expects the Brotherhood to restrain itself from attempting to co-opt the political system. January protests organized by the MB in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza capture the logic of this arrangement. In return for being allowed to demonstrate, organizers quickly silenced chants criticizing Mubarak himself. 

This Brotherhood — an informal institutional player that accepts its restricted role in Egypt’s political theater — has been cultivated by the regime as the primary political opposition to play up the fear in Washington of an Islamist takeover, should the NDP ever find itself out of power. But the relatively moderate MB parliamentary delegation and the more conservative Guidance Bureau frequently overplay their hand with accusations of immorality and despotism that hit uncomfortably close to home. 

For a time after their 2005 parliamentary gains, the group enjoyed semi-protected status as a favored exhibit in the democratic-reform agenda of President Bush. Four years later, Mubarak has rightly calculated that the Obama team prioritizes Egyptian stability and assistance in revitalizing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process over issues of democratic reform. 

With no will or pressure to accept the continued existence of a Brotherhood parliamentary bloc that has been able to embarrass the ruling party and delegitimize abuses of power, many analysts are speculating that in the lead-up to the 2010 elections the regime will seek a return to the electoral system in place in 1987, which limited independent candidates to one seat in each of Egypt’s 48 electoral districts. This means that, at most, independents could constitute 48 of Egypt’s 454 members of Parliament (Egyptian law has long banned the formation of political parties along religious lines, forcing the Brotherhood to run its candidates as independents). 

Cairo’s policy of exclusion does more than close off what little space existed to legitimately influence domestic politics; it also emboldens the group’s aging conservative leadership and makes internal reform less likely. Well aware that the path to power in Egypt rewards moderation, the Mubarak regime is keen to pressure the group to abandon reform, thus thoroughly poisoning the waters for future cooperation with any other political group. Once isolated outside the political mainstream, the government can then take forceful measures against them with little protest from Egyptians sympathetic to centrist Islamists. 

Of course the broader problem is that even if the Brotherhood does reform, the Egyptian government is unlikely to allow it into politics. Whichever faction within the group emerges ascendant in the new decade will face the same barren political landscape. Well past 2010, the group’s willingness to adapt to the status quo is likely to remain a non-negotiable condition for the fragile tolerance of the Mubarak regime.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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