Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 April 2009
Issue No. 941
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Electing guidance

Khalil El-Anani* examines the ramifications of the Muslim Brotherhood leader's decision not to remain in his post

Will the eighth Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide be selected through a vote or consensus? At the age of 81 the current supreme guide, Mahdi Akef, doesn't want to stay on for another term. His leaving the post would be unprecedented. Previous holders have stayed in the post until they died or were otherwise incapacitated.

The MB doesn't really have a voting system. In previous cases the supreme guide was selected by the 13-member General Guidance Office, then endorsed by the rest of the group's members.

It is a system that has served the MB well in the past. The group never experienced a power struggle over its most senior post. Only once was there a hint of a power struggle, when the fifth general guide, Mustafa Mashhour, was named during the funeral of his predecessor in 1996. The move was widely seen as an attempt to block his rival, Maamoun El-Hodeibi. On Mashhour's death in 2002 he was succeeded by El-Hodeibi.

According to recently-amended MB statutes the supreme guide should be selected through a vote in the group's 90-member Shura Council. Each member would be asked to name three candidates for the post, not including himself, and the one with the most votes wins.

Candidates are not expected to campaign since it is assumed MB members are already familiar with their views. As things stand a conservative, rather than reformer, is expected to win. The reason is that most of the MB Shura Council members are from the second and third generations of the group's recruits, known for their conservative politics.

So who are the main candidates for the job?

The MB Secretary-General Mahmoud Ezzat, an ultra- conservative who prefers to focus on doctrinal rather than political matters, is a contender. Another is Mohamed Habib, currently first deputy to the supreme guide, who prefers political to doctrinal work. If the two men run neck to neck Ezzat is likely to concede to Habib whose political savvy makes him more popular both inside and outside the group.

The current supreme guide, Mahdi Akef, is likely to keep a keen eye on the selection process, intervening when necessary to prevent frictions from turning into bad blood.

MB reformers have no hope of winning. Their supporters are either too young or too disorganised to make their voice heard. Even the reformers are eager to maintain the image of unity the group seems to treasure. The young, in particular, are going to be excluded from the vote since they are not represented on the MB Shura Council. Few, then, expect whoever is finally selected to satisfy all MB members.

This need not have been the case. The MB could have overhauled its electoral system in two ways: by allowing the young to vote and by allowing all members aged 40 years and above to run. Admittedly, it is hard for the MB to hold elections due to security impediments, but it may have been able to do so by electronic means, e- mail for example.

MB branches in Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, Kuwait and Morocco all hold fair and free elections for the leadership post. Only in Egypt does the group cling to the old ways. Every now and then you hear people wanting a non-Egyptian as the overall head of the international MB operations. This is unlikely to happen. The Egyptian MB has occupied this role since its inception and is not going to give it up easily.

The new leader will be faced with urgent tasks. One is to steer the MB down a more democratic and egalitarian course, especially with regard to citizenry rights. Another is to make the MB more accommodating of younger generations. A third is to seek a means of coexistence with the regime and the opposition, preparatory to turning the group from an underground religious organisation to a legally functioning political party.

* The writer is a political analyst with Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya magazine published by Al-Ahram.

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