The Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood held an impromptu internal election over the weekend to decide on a new makeup of its 16-member Guide's Office. The Office functions as a kind of cabinet, or executive branch, for the banned-but-tolerated Brotherhood. Marc Lynch, rounding up the events of the past 72 hours and citing a plethora of Arabic sources, says that conservative Brotherhood elements appear to have won out over moderates who favor democratic political engagement.
The Brotherhood's 115-member Shura Council decides the make up of the Guide's Office. But the Council doesn't meet in a central location for fear of arrest, according to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, and the election took place in an anxious climate for the Brotherhood.
Earlier this month, 10 senior Brotherhood members were arrested in northern Egypt while holding a meeting. The government of President Hosni Mubarak has been pressuring the Brotherhood with arrests and restrictive new laws since the political wing of the group won control of a fifth of the Egyptian parliament in the 2005 elections, making the Brotherhood the country's largest opposition party.
Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the leader or "supreme guide" of the Brotherhood for the past five years, called the weekend election "100 percent sound." But Mohammed Habib, Akef's deputy and a leading moderate who did not win a seat in the Guide's Office, questioned its legitimacy, noting that a number of Shura Council members were (and remain) imprisoned or were otherwise unable to vote.
Habib had wanted to hold the election in July, after a new Council is set to be chosen, Reuters reported. But Akef called for a special vote, and a majority of the Council agreed to hold it before Jan. 13, when Akef's term ends. He has announced he will step down at that time.
The Brotherhood's English-language Web site, IkhwanWeb, posted the results of the election along with a brief statement from Akef that noted the "difficult circumstances" under which the voting took place.
Lynch noted that Abdel Mounim Abou el-Fattouh, another moderate, also failed to get a seat, while Mahmoud Ezzat, a leading conservative, won a spot.
"The results of the elections look like a repudiation from within of the choice by the MB to engage in democratic politics despite regime pressures, and likely signals both a withdrawal from political engagement and possibly some serious internal splits," Lynch wrote.
Young, reformist Brotherhood bloggers Abdel Monem Mahmoud and Abdel Rahman Ayyesh have reacted to the election with "fury," Lynch said. (Ayyesh was one of three Brotherhood bloggers arrested in July, during a government crackdown.)
Meanwhile, the weekend vote may have also decided the next supreme guide, though neither Akef nor any of the reports I've seen mention who it could be. The results indicate that Habib, formerly the "presumptive favorite," likely won't become the next leader, Lynch wrote, while Ezzat has said he's not interested in the top office.
Lynch doesn't think that the Brotherhood will turn radical or violent anytime soon but does believe that the Guide's Office election was a loss for reformists:
With the rewards of electoral participation being increased arrests and harassment at all levels of the organization, no influence over legislation, a constitutional amendment explicitly aimed at preventing their further participation, and little international support for their struggles, it isn't hard to see why they would fail to rally internal support for their cause.
Back in August, we noted reports of a potential backroom deal between the Brotherhood and Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party that would've led to the Brotherhood withdrawing its parliamentary candidates and supporting Mubarak's son Gamal to succeed his father. In exchange, the government would offer the Brotherhood official recognition. The purported deal would've ended the decades-old government suppression of the Brotherhood, but it never materialized.
In light of this weekend's election, the August deal-that-wasn't (which Habib denied on camera to Al-Jazeera) looks like it may have been an attempt by Habib's moderate/reformist branch to appease their Brotherhood opponents while winning a major victory for the group as a whole. They could've pointed to an end of government repression, finally bringing the Brotherhood into sanctioned participation in society, while (at least momentarily) withdrawing from politics, which in turn may have satisfied the conservative Brothers who are more interested in social service and religious programs.
If the new Brotherhood leadership - including the as-yet-unnamed supreme guide - does not favor running in parliamentary elections, then its possible the more democratic-minded wing will break away in some form, possibly joining other tickets to run in 2010. We'd love to hear what our Egyptian readers think about these developments.