Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Mehdi Akef and Marc Lynch in Cairo, October 2007.
Mohammed Mehdi Akef, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, has just announced that he will not seek a second term and will step down within a few months. This announcement by the 81 year old Akef creates an extremely interesting and important moment in the history of the Brotherhood. The change in leadership has potentially wide-ranging implications for moderate Islamist movements throughout the Middle East. Will he be replaced by a politically-oriented reformist or by a religiously-oriented conservative? Will he be replaced by an Egyptian or by a non-Egyptian from the global Brotherhood movement? And will his successor retain Akef's strong hostility to al-Qaeda style jihadism and commitment to participation in the political process?
It may surprise people to realize that Akef will be replaced in an internally democratic process. As I understand the process, the Supreme Guide is elected by the Brotherhood's Shura Council, which has 100 members -- 80 of them elected by the membership of the organization and 20 of them holding ex officio membership (i.e. current and former members of the Guidance Council). Since the Muslim Brotherhood remains by far the largest and most politically significant mainstream Sunni Islamist movement, this internal election may be one of the most significant in the Middle East's so-called "year of elections."
Mehdi Akef, who took over as Supreme Guide in 2004, has always been something of a cipher. His public speeches tend toward the uncompromising, with a hard line on Israel, the United States, and most public issues. He has repeatedly inflamed controversies with his fiery rhetoric, offering plenty of fodder for Brotherhood-bashers seeking to demonstrate the organization's true radicalism. Indeed, one of my suggestions to the Muslim Brotherhood in a Foreign Policy magazine article a few years ago for improving relations with the U.S. was that Akef personally should keep his mouth shut.
At the same time, he has presided over a Supreme Guide's office dominated by pragmatic, politically-oriented reformers who have charted a difficult but quite impressive path through Egypt's political turbulence. Under Akef the Muslim Brotherhood participated fully in the 2005 Parliamentary elections, and then remained committed to the democratic process despite intense regime repression and repeated provocations (including wide-scale arrests of its members and the wholesale banning of its candidates from municipal and upper-house elections). Under Akef, we've seen the emergence of a new generation of young, reformist Brotherhood members and bloggers. And under his guidance the Brotherhood has consistently and rapidly condemned al-Qaeda terrorist attacks everywhere (though, consistent with the widespread Arab and Muslim distinction between terrorism and "resistance to occupation", his MB refused to condemn Hamas violence and was conflicted on the violence in Iraq).
Over the last few years, the Brotherhood has come under really intense pressure from the Mubarak regime -- which most interpret as punishment for its too-successful participation in democratic elections. A number of its senior leaders have been arrested and tried in state security courts, including the still-imprisoned moderate icon Khairat al-Shater. Muslim Brotherhood watchers have been trying to judge the internal trends within the organization under these pressures: has the repression weakened the hands of the pragmatists, whose advocacy of democratic participation has offered few rewards? Is there a rising "salafi" trend within the movement, which prefers to back away from politics and focus on dawa, religion and social services?
This makes the selection of the new Supreme Guide extremely significant. The choice of a reformist leader, such as Abd el-Monem Abou el-Fattouh or Essam el-Erian, would be a powerful signal of the commitment to the democratic game and moderate doctrine. The selection of a conservative, dawa-oriented leader would signal frustration with politics and a more inward-looking organization -- and could potentially drive the reformist trends within the movement to split off in frustration. Mohammad Habib, the current Deputy Supreme Guide, would most likely signify continuity with Akef's tenure, balancing the two wings. A choice from outside Egypt, as advocated by European MB leader Kamal Helbawi, might signal a move away from the internal focus on Egyptian politics and a revitalization of the fairly weak and loosely-connected global organization.
The leading Muslim Brotherhood reformist blogger Abd al-Monem Mahmoud wrote a thoughtful post the other day asking about the future of the reformist trend in the Brotherhood. The election of a new Supreme Guide may be one of the most important signals as to the answer to this vital question.