After the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, Kamal El-Helbawy returned to Egypt after spending 23 years as the Muslim Brotherhood's spokesperson in Europe. The 73-year-old arrived with high expectations but became increasingly critical of the group he had defended for years. He resigned from the group during a live TV broadcast on Saturday after the Brotherhood's Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie announced that the group would nominate his deputy, Khairat El-Shater, for president.
"The Muslim Brotherhood committed a big mistake by nominating El-Shater for the presidency. I am very upset by the group’s rambling performance,” said El-Helbawy, explaining why he decided to quit. “The current leadership wants to be in control of all the authorities in the country. They are hungry for power and their will to dominate is no different to that of the Mubarak regime."
El-Helbawy also said that the Brotherhood’s repeated refusal to participate in demonstrations since Mubarak's ouster showed that the group had abandoned any notion of fundamental change. He even went as far as accusing the Brotherhood of reaching an agreement with the ruling military junta to field a “consensual” candidate, who would serve the interests of both.
The veteran had been highly critical of the Brotherhood after the group expelled Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, a leading reformist member, for announcing he would run for president last year. Therefore El-Helbawy's move was not completely unexpected.
Hours after El-Helbawy’s resignation, Brotherhood spokesperson Mahmoud Ghozlan said that the former had been already expelled from the group six years ago because of his opposition to the group's decisions.
Whether El-Helbawy was a member or not, his position raises an important question asked by observers since the revolution: Will the Brotherhood be able to maintain its unity, or will it split due to its leadership strategies?
Mohamed Badie and the leadership hawks
When Mohamed Badie was elected to his position as supreme guide in January 2010 many observers saw this as a huge shift in the balance of power within the group. Badie, considered a conservative hawk, was jailed for nine years in the 1960s for his membership in a Brotherhood paramilitary cell that planned the overthrow of the government. A devoted disciple of Sayyid Qutb – the leading theologian of the Brotherhood in the 1950s and '60s who advocated armed struggle to impose Islamic law – Badie's election was seen as a shift towards more preaching and less politics.
Many reformist leaders who had played a major role in the group since the 70s preferred to – or were forced to – stay on the sidelines under Badie, and as the revolutionaries gained the upper hand during the uprising, some of those figures quit the group. Mohamed Habib, the ex-deputy supreme guide; Ibrahim El-Zafarany, an ex-Shura Council member, and Haitham Abu-Khalil, a leading member from Alexandria, were among those who left.
The figures announced a variety of reasons for their decision, but all agreed on one thing – the group was not democratic enough, and the leadership did not represent all its members.
The splits inside the Brotherhood were not only in its upper echelons.Within a few days of Mubarak's overthrow, a Facebook group called the “Muslim Brotherhood Youth Revolution” was established, calling on youth members to overthrow the group's leaders. The rebels argued that the leadership was not in touch with the "revolutionary spirit" of the times.
In June, dozens of the group's younger members quit to form the Egyptian Current Party alongside liberal political activists.
“The resignation of one or two members from a big group like the Muslim Brotherhood is a natural thing,” said Sobhi Saleh, a leading member of the group at the time.
The presidential debate is pushing the group once more towards a debate between the leadership and its detractors.
Many Muslim Brothers felt sympathy for Abul-Fotouh when he was expelled from the group. Conflicts which had been kept private erupted in public after the presidential election race began on 10 March.
After the January 25 Revolution, the group announced that it would compete in parliamentary elections but would not nominate a member for the presidency.
A day after the official resignation period for presidential elections began; Ghozlan said any member who supported the presidential bid of Abul-Fotouh would be expelled. “We’ve already dismissed a few members for supporting Abul-Fotouh’s presidential campaign,” he said. “The decision not to support him was an institutional one. Therefore, anyone who does so will be dismissed from the group immediately, since we don’t apply double standards."
A couple of days later the family of the late Brotherhood leader Hassan Gouda, one of the founders of the Brotherhood in Beni Suef and a member of the guidance office from 1982 to 2003, announced its endorsement of Abul-Fotouh.
Hassan Gouda's son, Tarek, a current member, stated publicly that he and his family, including his 70-year-old mother, went to the notary office in Beni Suef to submit their recommendation forms. Gouda ignored the threat of being expelled from the group.
Media reports at the time also alleged that MP Yusri El-Bayoumi of the group’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), announced his support for Abul-Fotouh and signed a recommendation form for him.
El-Bayoumi has not denied these reports or that he called on people to submit the relevant forms to enable Abul-Fotouh to run for president.
However, in a statement sent to the Al-Badeel news website, El-Bayoumi said, "I will officially endorse the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate."
Unlike El-Bayoumi, FJP MP Mohamed El-Beltagi publically announced his personal endorsement of Abul-Fotouh.
As the group started to talk about nominating its own presidential candidate, El-Beltagi voiced his opposition to the idea. "I oppose the Brotherhood's proposal to nominate a president from within the group and I think it should own up to its mistake," he said on 26 March.
Before El-Beltagi's announcement, the group's former supreme guide Mahdi Akef was also very critical of the group's developing position during an interview on CBC TV.
In the teeth of opposition
After days of hot debate, the Shura Council, the group's second highest decision-making body, chose El-Shater to run for president. The tight 56 to 52 vote in favour showed that far from all the group's leading members were happy with the decision.
Earlier, sources close to the FJP said more than 80 per cent of its MPs did not support nominating El-Shater for president. Mohamed Morsi, the party head, said "the FJP's opinion on this matter is only advisory and it is up to the Brotherhood's Shura Council to take the final decision."
However, the Shura Council's decision was not taken without obstacles. A meeting held on Saturday 24 March to discuss the group's stance on the matter ended after hours of debate. No official statement was made except to say that another meeting would be held a week later.
After the 24 March meeting sources from inside the group said that the majority did not welcome nominating a presidential candidate. Ammar Ali Hasan, prominent political Islam researcher, who has good relations with the group's leading members, said that the group was facing a crisis. "A group of leading members in the Shura Council are trying to convince other members to vote for El-Shater. The council first voted against the decision with a majority of 81 votes to 27, then another vote was conducted and 62 members gave a no vote. And the final vote came with only 56 votes supporting the nomination. This is definitely a sign that there is something going on, not only in the group's rank and file, but also at the upper level," he explained.
According to Hasan, the Muslim Brotherhood has been facing a growing problem in the past few years with an authoritarian leadership. "The hawks within the group who control all its leading positions are seen by many members as undemocratic. This could have been accepted before the 25 January Revolution, but now everyone needs his voice to be heard and respected and the young and reformist members are no exception," he said. "Nominating El-Shater for president with such a small majority and the popular Abul-Fotouh running against him will make things worse for the group."
Hasan seems to be right about that. After the group's announcement that El-Shater would stand for president a group of young members issued a statement asking the Brotherhood's Shura Council to withdraw its decision and accused the leadership of being undemocratic. The dissidents said they would not support El-Shater and would not vote for him.
El-Beltagi was unhappy with the decision but said he would abide by it. “All I can do is warn my colleagues to be cautious and not to fall into any traps."
With El-Beltagy and others going public with their fears and doubts, Mahmoud Ghozlan issued a short statement on Monday warning all members that "no one has the right to make statements against the [El-Shater] decision or its purpose." The statement was seen as a warning for all members to end the debate and start moving forward.
Will strategies evolved in opposition work in power?
"The group depends on strict compliance with the leadership's decisions. This is how it explained the expulsion of Abul-Fotouh to its members," said Hasan. "The El-Shater decision might lead tens or even hundreds to leave the group, but this does not mean that a major split will happen in the group soon."
Mohamed El-Sorougy, a researcher and member of the group's political bureau, echoed Hasan's opinion in an article published on one of the group's official websites. "The group has passed through many experiences and calamities and was able to overcome them," El-Sorougy said. "The Brotherhood is an Islamic group based on firm perspectives, yet it is realistic and flexible so it has managed to protect itself from the risk of penetration, dissent and deviation."
However, a split between the Brotherhood and its sympathisers, who voted for it in parliamentary elections has begun to open up. "The group's membership is only a few hundred thousand but it gains its strength from many more people who believe in it and sympathise with it. To avoid a split with the man on the street, the Brotherhood will have to revise many of its positions and rethink its current leadership."