A dispute within the leadership of Egypt's largest Islamist opposition group went public over the weekend, opening a heated national debate about the ability of political groups to tolerate internal dissent and disagreement.
|Government security forces have often clashed with members of the Brotherhood in addition to arresting several of its senior leadership [EPA]
On October 19, Mohamed Habib, the deputy guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, said that he had been asked by Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the group's 81-year-old supreme guide, to take on many of the leadership responsibilities until 2010.
In January, the opposition group is expected to hold elect a new supreme guide.
Akef's decision is unprecedented in the group's 80-year history and it came after a heated dispute between Akef and members of the Guidance Bureau - the group's highest ruling body.
Last week, Akef, who announced months ago that he will not run for a second term in January, wanted bureau members to approve the appointment of Esam el-Erian, a senior and outspoken member of the group, to the ruling body.
The 55-year-old el-Erian is widely known for his political and media activism on behalf of the group, and is often described by the press as a relatively younger and reformist leader, who wants to take the group into a different direction that is more open towards women, Coptic Christians and other political groups.
| El-Erian is regarded as a reformist within the ruling echelons of the Brotherhood [AFP]
Akef's decision to appoint el-Erian was met with strong opposition by the rest of the Guidance Bureau members. In response, Akef walked out in order to avoid further clashes.
Shortly afterwards, news about the rift was leaked to the Egyptian press, who reported that Akef had resigned.
The resignation was initially denied by his group, but they eventually admitted Akef had "delegated most of his powers" to his deputy, Mohamed Habib, until a new leader is elected in January.
The rift could not have come at a worse time for the group.
The group says hundreds of its members, including top leaders, are in Egyptian jails following a government crackdown on the Brotherhood after it won 20 per cent of seats in Egypt's 2005 parliamentary vote.
Observers believe the split will only serve to further weaken a leadership already under pressure.
In addition, Egypt is gearing up for both parliamentary elections in 2010 and a presidential poll in 2011, and how stable - or united - the Brotherhood is will likely affect opposition hopes to dent the ruling party's hold on the country.
Internal power struggle
The two elections will test the ability of the Muslim Brotherhood to hold its share in parliament and to lead the country's political groups in opposition to the likely presidential successor - Gamal Mubarak, the current Egyptian president's son.
Moreover, the incident has raised fears that the Brotherhood is experiencing a much deeper rift between two camps separated by age and political ideology.
One camp has, to date, been led by an ageing elite born in the first half of the 20th century who witnessed the crackdown on the group by the Nasserite government in 1954.
Many members of the group were jailed and some of the most prominent leaders were sentenced to death.
The old guard, observers say, tend to be more conservative at both religious and political levels - preferring to focus on religious and charitable work while avoiding open political activism.
In contrast, when the group resurfaced in the 1970s, it filled its ranks with a much younger grassroots base that tends to be more politically savvy and more open to working with other minority and political groups.
The Brotherhood's old guard is accused of blocking the rise of younger, reformist leaders within the organisations leadership.
|Akef is the group's seventh supreme guide [EPA]
Akef is the Brotherhood's seventh supreme guide and is regarded as a balanced leader and buffer between conservatives and reformists.
The clash over el-Erian's appointment has deepened fears the rift between both camps is growing at a time when the organisation most needs a unified front to face the government crackdown and difficult political challenges ahead.
"The way the Muslim Brotherhood group manages internal disagreement shows ... the low level of the group's flexibility in dealing with those who disagree with it. The competition between the group wings seems to be a "zero sum" game," writes Khalil al-Anani, an analyst at Egypt's Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya magazine.
"Therefore, very often the conservatives will insist on punishing the reformists organisationally, politically and morally and under the claim of keeping the cohesiveness of the group."
However, Arab analysts and experts have interpreted the split differently, with some saying the it is a sign of strength that shows the group is a democratic organisation that cultivates debate.
They note the group has survived internal disagreements before and proved itself able to remain united as the most disciplined opposition group in Egypt - despite periodic government crackdowns.
"We cannot say that the latest incident will hurt the unity of the group or weaken its solidarity," Alaa Al-Nadi, a researcher on the Egyptian group, says.
"The Muslim Brotherhood has gone through much more harsh turmoil and it came out without any structural collapse or split ... there is not, as widely reported, a conflict between ... the conservatives and the reformists inside the group.
"Such disagreement cannot lead to wide cracks or major splits inside the group because the reformists have not become an influential trend yet."
Capitalising on rift
Supporters suggest that the widespread attention given by independent and government-owned media in Egypt to the latest Brotherhood dispute simply underlines the government's interest in publicising the dispute in order to tarnish the image of group in the eyes of ordinary Egyptians.
They complain that the media coverage of the dispute within the Muslim Brotherhood ignores that fact that most of Egypt's political opposition parties are weak, divided, dominated by individual founders and often split after the death of their founders.
"Most Egyptian parties suffer internal disagreements and divisions and nobody is talking about them... I suspect that the [government] security agencies that have publicised the news about the resignation [of Akef] wanted to give the impression that there is a crack in the structure of the group that could lead to its split," Fahmy Howeidy, a prominent Egyptian Islamist columnist for the independent Al-Shorouk newspaper, says.
Even the ruling National Democratic Party is widely seen as a fragmented political group that only maintains the appearance of unity because it is led by the president and counts most of the ruling elite among its members.
The secretive nature of the Muslim brotherhood makes it difficult for the media and outside observers truly to know what is going inside the group or understand the size of the current rift between its competing factions.
However, it is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood is facing a serious challenge that it needs to overcome in order to save its image and to get its act together before the the parliament election coming up next year.