Muslim Brotherhood at a crossroads home

As the leader of Egypt's opposition steps down, questions of the party's identity and purpose frame the debate over a successor

Jack Shenker

There are several recurring themes one becomes wearily familiar with when following the erratic world of Egyptian politics. Sensational revelations about Zionist/Iranian plots to destabilise the nation are a permanent fixture, as are empty policy statements parroted by government spokesmen and stoic silence from the regime on any issue that actually matters.

One thing you don't often hear about, though, is resignation speeches – it takes a lifetime's work acquiring wasta (connections, or influence) to ascend to the top of any of the country's numerous greasy poles, and once politicians are up there they tend to be remarkably unenthusiastic about climbing back down.

Yet a resignation speech is exactly what the papers here have recently been chewing over – and it's all the more remarkable coming from the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mahdi Akef, who at 80 years old is about to become the movement's first ever leader not to hang on to his position for life. Akef himself is not blind to the significance of this exotic event: "In Egypt there are no former officials ... there are only dead officials," he observed wryly when asked why the announcement that he would step down in January 2010 had created such a furore.

There are other reasons too why people are interested in Akef's resignation, but on these he is more reticent. That's because his removal, and the consequent succession battle within the party, will reveal much about the present character – and future direction – of Egypt's largest opposition force, one of the most influential Islamist political groupings in the region. The Muslim Brotherhood's 8th supreme guide will be chosen by its 100-strong shura council, which is itself 80% elected by the movement's rank and file membership. Analysts are therefore hoping the next few months will offer a unique insight into how strong the support bases are for each of the various factions jockeying for prominence within the movement.

Such an insight, if it materialises, couldn't be timelier. The Brotherhood has just emerged from a bruising few months, in which it mobilised 200,000 on to the streets of Alexandria in protest at the Egyptian government's closure of the Rafah border crossing during the Gaza war; the following day a Muslim Brotherhood MP threw his shoe at a rival from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) during a heated parliamentary session (to the delight of nearby photographers). Events across the border in Gaza exposed both the Brotherhood's strengths and weaknesses; it has an unparalleled capacity to turn out demonstrators in large numbers, yet regime oppression of the group is increasing – the Brotherhood believes that 1,700 of its members were arrested for Gaza-related activities.

Moreover, the leadership seems out of touch with the relatively decentralised industrial actions sweeping the country, and even more confused over how to align itself in relation to both the US – where President Obama is reportedly considering opening new lines of dialogue with the organisation – and the NDP, which is itself thinking about a replacement for President Hosni Mubarak, a fellow octogenarian. Akef may be popular within the Brotherhood but he leaves behind a movement fundamentally unsure of itself. The succession battle could relieve some of this uncertainty and breathe some much-needed coherence into the organisation.

So what does the succession battle look like? That all depends on your perspective, and how you frame the faultlines running through the organisation. It's been popular to characterise the Brotherhood in recent years as a group balanced between an authoritarian conservative clique at the top and a youthful, tech-savvy cadre below who are agitating for more engagement with non-Islamist forces and undermining the more reactionary impulses of the leadership (such as the 2007 policy platform which denied both women and Coptic Christians the chance to become president and proposed a new religious council that would ensure the compliance of all legislation with sharia law). Much has been made of these "Brotherhood bloggers", but although they are an important element in the organisation their influence has been exaggerated by a media infatuated by modern buzzwords like Facebook and Twitter. As one young Brother, Abd al-Mun'im Mahmoud, remarked, there are those within the Brotherhood "that use technology and are open-minded about the world. I am with [this] group, but we are a minority. The problem with those analysts attracted to our language is that they fell in love and started running behind us. That is not the Brothers."

What is the Brothers is a far deeper, more potent and cross-generational divide between those who see the primary reason for the group's existence as one of political participation, and those who want to disengage with politics, and concentrate on da'wa (evangelism). Recent events have strengthened the hand of the latter, religiously conservative group, who argue that the organisation's flirtation with the formal electoral process (the Brotherhood won 20% of contested parliamentary seats in 2005, despite being officially outlawed) has brought them nothing but grief. Government-led security crackdowns and legal assaults have left many leading pragmatists and reformers in the other camp languishing in jail, most notably Khayrat al-Shatir, a millionaire businessmen and staunch proponent of engagement with western governments, further reinforcing the credibility of those who want to "retreat back into the bunker" and focus on core values, activism in the social sector and ultimately the survival of the group.

Electing a reformist leader like Essam al-Arian or the imprisoned al-Shatir would be a clear statement of intent for the movement, but such an outcome is highly improbable. The momentum now is with the da'wa­-orientated tendency, led by figures such as Mohammed Morsi and the party's general secretary, Mahmoud Ezzat. The sort of tentative engagement with groups and processes beyond the Brotherhood's own sphere that has characterised Akef's tenure at the top would likely wane if either of these two triumph, and the result would be not only a more inward-looking society, but also a blow to those who defend the Muslim Brotherhood using the "firewall" theory – arguing that a strong, legitimate and well-engaged moderate Islamist group integrated into formal politics can only be a good thing in the battle to stop radical Salafist jihadism spreading in countries like Egypt.

There are alternatives – such as the pragmatic conservative Mohammed Habib, the current deputy supreme guide, who can talk the language of secularism and remains committed to political engagement. His chances of success remain to be seen. What we do know is that despite the Brotherhood's supreme guide being, in Joshua Stacher's words, more of a bureaucratic CEO than an eminence grise dominating policy from above, this succession battle will play an important part in shaping the Brotherhood's future, and consequently the fortunes of political Islam in the Middle East.

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