CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was swift in its rejection of reports that its leader resigned after a row with conservatives, but the crisis exposed a profound rift among the Islamists, analysts said.
The Brotherhood was reacting to front page reports in the Egyptian press on Monday that Supreme Guide Mohammed Mahdi Akef stormed out of a meeting at the weekend, saying he quit.
Akef reportedly clashed with conservative leaders over the appointment of senior member Essam al-Erian, who is associated with the Islamist group’s reformist wing, to the Brotherhood’s politburo.
The dispute has been brewing since the recent death of Mohammed Hilal, which opened a seat in the group’s politburo. The conservatives reportedly blocked Erian when he was nominated.
On the face of it, analysts said, it was a mere power struggle, pitting an old guard that survived the harsh crackdown by former president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s against relatively new and moderate newcomers such as Erian.
“There was a conflict, that was for sure,” said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on the Brotherhood with the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
“It is an organisational conflict. There is a group that does not want newcomers, and there could be an ideological aspect as well,” he said.
But it fed into a widespread discontent among a younger generation that complains of rigid, antiquated command that stifles views differing from the conservative’s austere political vision.
“There’s a problem of ideas. There’s a conservative tendency that controls the leadership and does not believe in opening up to society in political work,” said Abdel Moneim Mahmud, a journalist associated with the reformist wing.
Mahmud said reformists want to see the Brotherhood, which controls a fifth of seats in parliament after it ran independent candidates to get around a ban on the movement, to take on more political action in alliance with the country’s leftist and liberal opposition.
The reformists were 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, in a manner redolent of Iran’s Islamist regime.
“The conflict is not on strategy in regards to the government,” Rashwan said.
“They have the same strategy of non-confrontation with the regime. But there are differences in ideology, specifically on allowing women to rule, and clerical oversight.”
Akef, who once told a newspaper he would rather see a Malaysian Muslim head the country rather than an Egyptian Copt, has tried to keep all the factions within his tent.
He also seems keen to set a democratic example, being the first leader of the Brotherhood who has promised to step down once his term ends early next year, an unusual move in a country where leaders’ resignations are often published in the form of a eulogy.
“Akef is a balanced man. Without him there will be an explosion in the Brotherhood. He likes different views in his office,” Mahmud said.
“When you say one Brotherhood member discusses dissenting ideas, there’s turmoil. What do you think when the supreme guide resigns,” he added.
Akef, 81, has headed the Islamists since 2004, overseeing their surprise gains in a parliamentary election a year later.
He will leave the Brotherhood at a crossroads, with two of his possible replacements in prison — part of an ongoing police crackdown against the group, which has been banned since 1954.