Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 October - 31 November 2012
Issue No. 1120
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

What comes next?

How far will the newly elected chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party succeed in confronting the challenges facing the party, asks Amani Maged

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Mohamed Saad Al-Katatn

Mohamed Saad Al-Katatni's victory over Essam Al-Erian as the new chief of the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in the party elections came as a surprise to no one, not even Al-Erian. Perhaps, like some others, he attributed the large majority won by Al-Katatni to the support of the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau and the Shura Council, the upper house of Egypt's parliament.

With his solid credentials in promoting Muslim Brotherhood principles and values, Al-Katatni is the best able to preserve and strengthen the Brotherhood and its status. As long as the FJP remains the political arm of the Brotherhood, it is only natural that the group's leadership will work to keep that arm sound and as close to it as possible.

This is not to imply that Al-Erian is not close to the Brotherhood also, but there are questions of degree, and for this reason all observers expected Al-Katatni to win in the party elections.

Observers are also of the opinion that if Al-Katatni wins in the next People's Assembly elections and is chosen again as the speaker of the parliament, thereby being forced to resign as FJP chairman, Al-Erian would still not stand a chance of gaining the post since the Brotherhood would likely appoint someone closer to it.

Nor is there any doubt that in the run-up to the elections Al-Erian committed a series of mistakes that resonated both within the Brotherhood and in public opinion. His comments with regard to the prosecutor-general, to recordings in the office of the president, and about the country's political elites and the left were not welcome at a time when the Brotherhood is trying to build bridges with other parties.

His unwarranted campaign against Jihan Mansour also stirred up a needless furore. Had he avoided such behaviour, he could have obtained more than the 32 per cent of the votes he won.

At the same time, Al-Katatni had other strengths. For one thing, his electoral platform was clearer than that of his rival, and it helped confirm the impression among many FJP delegates that he was the man for the job at this juncture in the Party's lifespan.

However, not everybody shared this opinion, and former Brotherhood member Kamal Al-Halbawi, long the group's spokesman in Europe, said that while Al-Katatni had gained experience during his term as People's Assembly speaker "he had created many problems with various political leaders, which means that life [as FJP chairman] will not be easy for him."

Al-Halbawi, who resigned from the Brotherhood in April in protest against the leadership's decision to field Khairat Al-Shater as its presidential candidate, added that if he were still a member of the group he would have voted for Al-Erian, despite the fact that Al-Katatni's platform was the better.

He said he was inclined to support the reformist movement within the Brotherhood, which, for him, was the main criterion in deciding who to vote for. Al-Erian was supported by the reformists, while the conservatives and hardliners, as epitomised by Khairat Al-Shater and President Mohamed Morsi, backed Al-Katatni.

There have been reports, as yet unconfirmed, of a wave of resignations among Muslim Brotherhood youth members in response to the Al-Katatni victory. Before the elections there were indications that this might happen, and now it appears that Brotherhood and FJP leaders are trying to stem the trend.

Quite a few Brotherhood youth members have not been mollified, however. To them, Al-Katatni's victory in the elections has only served to confirm that the Brotherhood leadership is determined to persist in the policies it has pursued over the past two years and that led them to resign in the first place.

They charge that the Guidance Bureau is determined to promote the conservative Qutbist trend, referring to Brotherhood theorist Sayed Qutb, within the organisation's higher echelons and to eliminate the reformists, as exemplified by Al-Erian.

They also accuse the Guidance Bureau of instructing FJP convention delegates to vote for Al-Katatni. Under normal circumstances, Al-Erian would never have lost against Al-Katatni, they said, and had the contest been put to a public referendum Al-Erian would have won hands down.

But this was not the case. Instead, the elections were orchestrated in favour of Al-Katatni in order to perpetuate the old policies and in spite of widespread expectations that Al-Katatni would prove detrimental to the party, its popularity, and the morale of Brotherhood youth.

Muslim Brotherhood conservatives and the Guidance Bureau and the Shura Council deny that any vote-steering took place and insist that Al-Katatni was the right choice as FJP leader at this time.

Al-Katatni, they say, has the ability to restructure relations between the FJP and the other political forces, in confirmation of which they point to the fact that Al-Katatni has already invited Mohamed Al-Baradei, Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh and other political figures to join him around the negotiating table in order to remedy the current political polarisation in the country, especially needed in the wake of the "Friday of Accountability" demonstrations and the rise in ill-feeling between the Brotherhood and the other political forces.

Against the backdrop of such tensions within the Brotherhood and the FJP against the domination of hardliners and conservatives, it remains to be seen whether Al-Katatni's leadership will succeed in mending fences and readying the party for the next People's Assembly elections.

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