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EGYPT: Defections Threaten to Crack Muslim Brotherhood

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Jul 28 2011 (IPS) - For the last 40 years, the Muslim Brotherhood’s united front has been the envy of Egypt’s political opposition. But in the six months since the fall of the Mubarak regime, the Islamist group has been racked by unprecedented internal divisions.

“Since the revolution, deep fissures have appeared inside the Brotherhood, which, if left untended, could threaten the group’s long-term political future,” Hossam Tammam, a local authority on Islamic movements, told IPS.

On Jul. 12, Mohamed Habib, a former deputy Brotherhood leader, resigned from the group and joined the Islamist Al-Nahda Party (which has yet to be licensed). Days later, leading Brotherhood figures warned that any member that joined a political party other than the recently-established Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) would face expulsion from the group.

Formally approved by Egypt’s Political Parties Committee last month, the FJP is seen largely as an extension of the Brotherhood (which itself is not a political party). While the FJP claims to be financially and administratively independent of its parent organisation, the two share identical political agendas.

Habib’s defection was not the only of its kind in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the Brotherhood expelled nine leading members of its influential youth wing – which played a prominent role in the Jan. 25 Revolution – for joining another party-in-the-making: Al-Tiyyar Al-Masri, or ‘The Egyptian Current’.

Although not yet officially licensed, Al-Tiyyar is expected to become one of the most formidable youth- oriented parties to emerge in the wake of the revolution. Along with disaffected young Brotherhood members, the would-be party is also expected to draw members from secular protest groups, such as the 6 April and Kefaya movements.

The main reason for the recent spate of defections by the group’s younger cadres is participation in ongoing popular protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Since Jul. 8, demonstrators have returned en masse to the iconic square to protest the failure of Egypt’s ruling military council – which has governed the country since Mubarak’s February ouster – to implement key revolutionary demands. While the Brotherhood leadership has instructed members not to participate (as it did in the first days of the recent revolution), many of its younger members have nevertheless joined the demonstrations.

“We’re participating in the protests because we support the people’s legitimate demands,” Egyptian Current founding member Islam Lutfi, one of the young Brotherhood members expelled from the group earlier this month told IPS.

Along with disagreements over participation in the ongoing protests, many young members also complain that they have no role in the Brotherhood’s decision-making process – despite the prominent part they played in the uprising.

“The group’s youth wing played a major role in the revolution, substantially bolstering the Brotherhood’s image on the street,” said Tammam. “But the group’s leadership has failed to give them a voice, which has disaffected many young members.”

“As long as our input is ignored by the Guidance Bureau (the group’s highest decision-making body), I’ll decide for myself whether to participate in the protests,” said Lutfi, “rather than blindly following dictates issued by the Brotherhood leadership.”

Kamal al-Hilbawi, former UK-based Brotherhood spokesman, criticised the group’s decision to ban members from participating in the current round of protests. Such a policy, he was quoted as saying on Jul. 24, “threatens to alienate the other Egyptian political forces that are demanding the immediate implementation of popular demands.”

Before the revolution, said Tammam, such open criticism of official Brotherhood policy by group members was “unheard of.”

The first serious crack in the group’s traditionally monolithic façade appeared in June, when former Guidance Bureau member Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh was expelled after announcing his intention to run for the presidency. The announcement flouted earlier declarations by the Brotherhood that it would not field a candidate in upcoming presidential elections.

“Aboul-Fotouh’s expulsion from the group was the first sign of serious divisions within the group’s upper echelons,” said Tammam.

A number of Brotherhood members that support Aboul-Fotouh’s presidential bid – including many from the group’s youth wing – have also reportedly been expelled.

While Brotherhood spokesmen say only a handful of members have left the group recently, local press reports suggest the figure could number in the thousands.

“Just as there are no precise figures for the Brotherhood’s membership base, no one knows exactly how many have left the group – or have been expelled – in recent weeks,” said Tammam.

Along with Al-Nahda (founded by former senior Brotherhood member Ibrahim al-Zafarani) and Egyptian Current, two other new Islamist parties – Al-Riyada and the Peace and Development Party (PDP) – also threaten to sap members from the Brotherhood and the FJP. Both Al-Riyada and the PDP are currently awaiting approval by the Political Parties Committee.

“Based on their preliminary political programmes, all these new parties – except Al-Riyada – generally share the same Islamist ideology,” said Tammam. “The differences between them and the Brotherhood appear to be mostly administrative in nature.”

This assertion is borne out by the new parties’ leaders, who are all highly critical of the Brotherhood’s management style.

“The Brotherhood won’t survive if it doesn’t reform its administrative practices,” Riyada Party founder and Brotherhood veteran Khaled Dawoud told IPS. “Egypt’s recent revolution, which saw protesters rejecting authoritarianism and dictatorship, still hasn’t reached the group’s leadership.”

“Even after the revolution, the Brotherhood continues to behave like a secret organisation,” PDP founder Hamid al-Dafrawi told IPS. “This has inevitably led much of its rank and file to engage in activities outside the group.”

In 2005 legislative elections, Brotherhood members captured one-fifth of the national assembly, temporarily making it Egypt’s largest opposition bloc. But whether the group will be able to match that performance in the country’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls – given its apparent state of dissolution – is uncertain.

“We won’t know what toll these internal divisions have taken on the Brotherhood until elections are held later this year,” said Tammam.

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