On January 16, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – the largest and most influential Islamist movement in the Middle East – announced the election of a new General Guide, the organization’s top leadership post. There has already been considerable speculation, though relatively little in English, on what this might mean for the Brotherhood and broader Islamist trends in the region. The emerging consensus is that the election of Mohammed Badie, a veterinary professor and purported hardliner, signals Islamist “radicalization” and ideological regression on the part of an organization that had been hailed, until quite recently, as an increasingly moderate force.
Less than two years ago, these same arguments were made when the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, for the first time in its history, elected a leader of Palestinian origin. Hammam Said was seen – correctly – as a fiery pro-Hamas conservative. Analysts Matthew Levitt and David Schenker cautioned at the time that the Brotherhood “can no longer be considered ‘loyal’ to the kingdom.” But a strategic shift did not occur. Instead, once elected, Said toned down the abrasive rhetoric, emphasized domestic issues, and reached out to the Jordanian government.
The current alarmism over the election of the similarly controversial Badie – an associate of Sayyid Qutb’s in the 1960s – is just as likely to prove unwarranted. Unlike many of its secular counterparts, the Muslim Brotherhood has never depended on individuals and personalities, but rather on strong organizational and institutional structures. Moreover, the group has already issued definitive ideological statements on a number of contentious issues, including women’s rights and political pluralism (in 1994). In 2004, it unveiled with great fanfare its “reform initiative,” in which it publicly affirmed many of the foundational components of democratic life.
The precedent of these past documents was evident in Badie’s January 16th acceptance speech. He struck a conciliatory note, and emphasized the Brotherhood's commitment to women's equality under the law, protection of minority rights, and the centrality of democratic reform. Badie’s sincerity in this regard, while perhaps questionable, is beside the point. Perceptions matter. And for a group very much affected by how others perceive it, organizational commitments trump the beliefs of individual leaders. Ever since the attacks of September 11, and particularly since the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda,” the Brotherhood has proven acutely sensitive to outside criticism. This episode is no exception.
Interestingly, in a surprise move that should have been less surprising, Badie appointed the relatively unknown Mahmoud Hussein, rather than the powerful conservative Mahmoud Ezzat, as Secretary-General, one of the group’s most influential positions. As journalist and former Brotherhood member Abdel Monem Mahmoud remarked to me, “it seems Badie wanted to give the impression he will be independent and develop his own source of charisma.”
That said, elections have consequences. The ousting of well-known “moderates” from leadership posts – through electoral manipulations and procedural violations – means that the Brotherhood has lost two of its more forward-thinking politicians, Mohammad Habib and Abdel Monem abul Futouh, who some in the organization had dismissively labeled “Egypt’s Erdogan.”
But had the internal elections yielded a different result, it is unlikely it would have made much of a difference. The Brotherhood, perhaps today more than ever, is a prisoner not of its leaders but of its circumstances. As Mahmoud points out, “[the Brotherhood] won’t leave the political arena, but the question is who will allow it to participate?” Clearly not the Egyptian regime, which has launched one of the most extensive crackdowns on the group since the 1960s. During one particularly repressive spell in 2008, I asked Esam al-Erian, a prominent Brotherhood reformist now in the Guidance Bureau, about the group’s plans for the upcoming parliamentary elections. He laughed: “If things continue as they are until 2010, the Brotherhood won’t have any seats at all!” This is a slight exaggeration but probably not by much. The organization is having its share of internal difficulties – difficulties that are leading some to cast doubt on its commitment to reform – but the Brotherhood’s bigger, more intractable problem is a regime that wishes to erase it from the Egyptian political arena.