Egypt Independent

Political freedom, competition drives rifts between Muslim Brotherhood factions

As the Muslim Brotherhood prepares to unveil a revised party platform, internal splits along generational and ideological lines seem on the rise as disenchanted members seek to form their own parties and young members demand more say in determining the group’s political future.

Earlier this month, Ibrahim al-Zaafarani, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s legislative body, along with at least 15 young members launched an online campaign to attract supporters to the tentatively-named Nahda or Renaissance Party.

The Renaissance platform, according to the Alexandria-based leader, will be different from that of the Brotherhood’s main party.   

“It will focus more on the economy and will make sure not to adopt certain positions that contradict the values of citizenship,” al-Zaafarani, 59, told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Last month, the Muslim Brotherhood announced that it would form a political party as soon as the military lifts restrictions that ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s regime had imposed. Since then, observers have been wondering whether the group will be able to surmount its discriminatory positions on the rights of religious minorities and women in the new platform.

In 2007, the nation’s oldest Islamist organization issued a political platform that denied women and Copts the right to run for president, eliciting a spiral reaction among liberals, secularists and Christians.

“The existence of these clauses in the old platform discredited the group in the eyes of many people, including some of the group youths. Even if they are removed in the new platform, people will always have doubts,” said al-Zaafarani.

Since the Muslim Brotherhood made the party announcement, different views on its platform and its relationship with the group’s other proselytizing bodies surfaced, foreshadowing possible rifts.

Unlike the group’s stalwarts, many of the young activists are lobbying for the full independence of the party from the group. In the meantime, they are seeking a prominent role in the group’s decision making process. All these views are scheduled for discussion during a public conference on Saturday, called for by The Muslim Brotherhood Youths.

The conference could mark a new stint in generational feuds within the 83-year-old organization. A disagreement about whether the group has official sanctioned the conference has already cropped up.

“The Guidance Bureau [the group’s highest decision-making body] does not and did not approve of this conference and does not know anything about its details,” Mohamed Morsy, the group’s spokesman, said.

But later, Mohamed Akl, a 26-year-old activist, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that “this conference is a Muslim Brotherhood conference.”

At least, 500 young activists are set to attend. 

“Now the group is faced with a new challenge: it is the challenge of freedom,” said Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, a 27-year-old former member of the Muslim Brotherhood. “For a long time, the group managed to ignore internal differences because the whole organization was under threat.”

Experts hold that the divergence in outlook among Brotherhood members stems primarily from the fact that the group has served as an umbrella for contradictory schools of Islamic thought that range from Salafi fundamentalism to liberal Islamism.

But as threats of systematic crackdown, which had long forced the group to sideline conflicting ideological differences in the name of cohesion, are diminishing, internal disputes will lead to the disintegration of the group into many parties that will bear “multiple manifestations” of political Islam, said al-Houdaiby, a grandson of the late Supreme Guide Ma’amon al-Houdaiby. 

The Renaissance Party might be one of the manifestations of Islamism in post-Mubarak Egypt. Al-Zaafarani, a reformist and outspoken advocate of women’s rights, holds that today’s political environment encourages pluralism and that the representation of moderate Islamic thought should not be restricted to the Muslim Brotherhood’s would-be Freedom and Justice Party.

Meanwhile, Renaissance Party founders hope to convince Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, the iconic leader of the Brotherhood’s dovish camp who enjoys a wide appeal among the younger generation, to preside over their party.

Abouel Fotouh could not be reached for comment, but has reportedly said that he has not made a decision on the matter.

Abouel Fotouh and al-Zaafarani belong to the group’s middle-generation bloc that developed a more sophisticated political paradigm thanks to their engagement in competitive politics through student activism in the 1970s, syndicates and parliamentary elections in the 1980s and 1990s.

In part their mingling with other political groups led this generation to espouse more liberal and tolerant views that distinguished them from the group’s old guard, who practiced politics in a more secretive manner in the 1950s and 1960s.

Yet, last year, the internal elections of the Guidance Bureau culminated in the complete alienation of this reformist bloc by the exclusion of Abouel Fotouh and Mohamed Habib in an unpopular vote marred by fraud.

The prospects of political liberalization that followed Mubarak’s ouster may impose tremendous pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood’s new party by intensifying the competition.

As soon as Mubarak fell, a court recognized the moderate Wasat Party, which was formed by a former middle-generation Muslim Brother who broke ranks with the group in the mid-1990s for ideological reasons. The Wasat Party espouses full democracy and recognizes equal rights for Muslims and non-Muslims. 

In an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm earlier this month, Wasat President Abouel Ela Madi said that many of the Muslim Brotherhood members had already asked to join his party.

The Islamist Jama’a al-Islamiya and Salafi groups, which the Muslim Brotherhood usually dismissed as intransigent, have also announced they would form parties.

In his first response to the boom in Islamist parties, Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie said that no member of his group would be allowed to join a political party other than the organization’s official Freedom and Justice Party.

“As Muslim Brotherhood youths, we object to this statement. We are entering a new era of freedom and you cannot have only one party,” said 22-year-old Gafar al-Zaafarani, the son of Ibrahim al-Zaafarani and one of the founders of the Renaissance Party.

“This way, the group is turning itself into a real scarecrow. By saying that, he is implying that the group will be a new dictatorship if it reaches power,” he added.

According to Haytham Abou-Khalil, a 43-year-old engineer who is among the founding members of the Renaissance Party, Badie’s statement was the last episode in a series of many “shocking” acts.

“The party was given a name and a representative very hastily without consulting the group’s followers or even the [Brotherhood’s] Shura Council. The goal was just to compete with the Wasat Party,” said Abou-Khalil, whose Muslim Brotherhood membership was frozen last year after he criticized the group’s outlook.

“Then, the biggest shock came,” said Abou-Khalil referring to Badie’s warning. “This showed that the party is going to act as the organization’s political arm.”

Abou-Khalil is a prominent leader of the Reform Front, a loose entity formed last year by disenchanted Brotherhood members to demand the restructuring of the organization along democratic lines. The Reform Front had expressed vehement opposition to the Brotherhood’s decisions twice so far. Last fall, it opposed the group’s decision to engage in a fraudulent parliamentary race. The tiny reformist wing distanced itself further from the group’s traditional leadership by announcing its refusal of the recently-introduced constitutional amendments, while the Muslim Brotherhood’s official line called for a “yes” vote.

Abou-Khalil said that if the Renaissance Party is not successful, his Reform Front may join the ranks of the Wasat Party. 

For Al-Houdaiby, all of these splits are healthy.

“This development would be great for the idea of Islamism…,” said al-Houdaiby. “Eventually, they [Islamists] will realize that Islam is not an ideology but can be a component of other ideologies or platforms. For example, Islam can endorse socialism or capitalism…We will end up with more sophisticated forms of Islamism.”

For decades, Egyptian Islamists have fixated on traditional Muslim issues and failed to offer solutions to Egypt’s secular social and economic problems. Yet, the model of the Turkish Justice and Development Party, which surmounted questions of identity and proved it could lead the nation towards economic growth and political stability, has inspired the younger generation of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In order to reproduce the Turkish experience, al-Houdaiby explained, the Muslim Brotherhood will have to revisit the relationship between “its ideological religious foundation and political program.”