- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has just announced the results of its internal elections to the 16 member Guide’s Office (which acts a sort of executive branch for the movement). Held in the midst of intense pressure from the Egyptian regime and a hot internal crisis, the election has produced a dramatic turn towards the conservative end of the spectrum. The most dramatic result was the failure of leading reformist Abdel Mounim Abou el-Fattouh and the Deputy Supreme Guide Mohammad Habib to win a place in the Guide’s office. Essam el-Erian, whose defeat in a special election several months ago prompted the latest round of internal crisis, did win a seat — reportedly by joining a slate with conservative leader Mahmoud Ezzat. Otherwise, conservatives focused on religious outreach rather than politics won a thumping majority.
The very fact of the elections is noteworthy, of course. Virtually no other Arab political movement, party, or government holds such free or fair internal elections to positions of real power. Such internally democratic practices in the Muslim Brotherhood may come as a surprise to those who don’t follow the Islamist movement closely, but they are a long-standing feature of the movement’s internal organization. These elections took on added significance when Mohammed Mehdi Akef, Supreme Guide since 2004, vowed to step down voluntarily at the end of his term in January 2010 — another decision rarely made by leaders of Arab movements, parties, or governments.
The results of the elections look like a repudiation from within of the choice by the MB to engage in democratic politics despite regime pressures, and likely signals both a withdrawal from political engagement and possibly some serious internal splits. Such an internal retreat from democratic engagement has seemed increasingly likely, as I warned in late October, as regime repression and political manipulation slammed the door in the face of MB efforts to be democrats. Hopes that free and fair elections would resolve intense internal divides and produce a legitimate leadership appear to be fast fading in the Muslim Brotherhood… just as in so many other recent cases (see: Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, and soon Iraq).
The results seem to have been the opposite of what was intended. Losers — including Habib — have publicly cast doubt on the legitimacy of the elections themselves, which were called by Akef himself rather than by normal channels and for which the Shura Council could not meet in one place due to fears of arrest by Egyptian security forces. A statement of protest has been filed to the MB’s legal committee, and it is not clear whether the results will stand. But MB reformers have reacted with fury. MB blogger Abdel Monem Mahmoud has been writing up a storm about the elections, while fellow MB blogger Abdel Rahman Ayyesh posted on his Facebook page a fiery denunciation of the elections, rejecting their legitimacy and their results, and calls it a catastrophe.
Akef insists that the elections were 100% fair and the results should stand, and efforts are being taken to smooth over the crisis. While the dissenters have real grounds for complaint, there is no real reason to think that the elections were not truly representative of the mood in the movement. Attitudes have evidently always been more conservative outside of Cairo and the politicized youth activists. The reformists have taken a beating due to the limited fruits of their efforts to participate in the democratic process. With the rewards of electoral participation being increased arrests and harassment at all levels of the organization, no influence over legislation, a constitutional amendment explicitly aimed at preventing their further participation, and little international support for their struggles, it isn’t hard to see why they would fail to rally internal support for their cause.
The voting and the results were announced amidst intense media scrutiny. That level of scrutiny is one of the biggest differences from past such elections. In the old days, the MB would carry out its business in secret, with few people even knowing the identities of the members of the Guide’s office. Now, blogs and forums and newspapers and satellite television stations cover the MB’s internal doings in great detail — often with a sensationalist twist which has transformed the MB’s modus operandi. The legion of media outlets hostile to the MB are gleefully egging the crisis on. Habib himself took to al-Jazeera to air his complaints. This is a case where the new media environment is clearly making a significant difference.
It is too soon to know how this will fully play out. The new Supreme Guide has not yet been announced. The pragmatic and politically oriented Mohammed Habib, the presumptive favorite, is very likely out of the running after his failure to win a seat in this election. The best known leader of the conservative trend, Mahmoud Ezzat, has said repeatedly that he does not want the position. Whoever becomes the new Guide will be working with a much more conservative top leadership and a deeply disgruntled and alienated reformist branch. It seems likely that the next Guide will steer the MB to a less politically engaged stance, concentrating on social work and religious outreach rather than public politics — which will please the Egyptian regime, which wants no turbulence as it manages the transition from Hosni Mubarak to his successor (whether Gamal or someone else). It seems highly unlikely that the MB will turn to violence or more radical views, and there are few if any signs of that developing. The real question is whether the frustrated reformists will split from the MB and form a new political movement (as in the stillborn Wasat Party schism of the 1990s) — something the MB has largely avoided in the past, but which now looms large on the horizon.