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Generational tensions surface in Egypt’s Brotherhood

Two Egyptian boys wear headbands reading “Muslim Brotherhood” as they and other supporters attend a Muslim Brotherhood electoral rally on May 18 in the Munib neighborhood of Cairo. Photo: AP/Nasser Nasser

CAIRO – On a recent Sunday evening, at the Groppi tea room in downtown Cairo, the Muslim political activist Islam Lotfy encountered a fellow revolutionary — a proud leftist — and warmly shook his hand. The two men, both in their 20s, served in the vanguard of a nonviolent revolt that ended in February with the ousting of dictator Hosni Mubarak. It was a rebellion by, and in many ways for, Egypt’s youth, and its leaders are now struggling to define the terms of the nation’s “Second Republic.”

There was a time in Egypt when it was perfectly normal for a prominent Islamist and a left-wing secularist to meet publicly as comrades as well as rivals, particularly in the Groppi, a 100-year-old relic of Egypt’s pre-Nasserite, imperial age. Back then, liberals and conservatives, capitalists and communists, and Leninists and Trotskyites colluded and intrigued for political advantage under the authority of a progressive constitutional monarch. In his own way Lotfy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest and most powerful Islamist group, is laboring to revive the trace elements of that era as the country’s first democratic elections loom in the unruly and uncertain aftermath of Mubarak’s departure.

Last week, a cabal of young Brotherhood insurgents, with Lotfy at the helm, announced they were launching the decidedly faith-neutral Egyptian Trend Party in defiance of the movement’s old guard. A few days ahead of the announcement, I interviewed Lotfy about his party and the future of the Ikhwan, as the Brotherhood is known in Arabic, and his conclusions are shared by a growing number of informed observers here: The Ikhwan, he believes, will not survive a democratic Egypt in its current form.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is a charitable organization with moderate teachings,” Lofty told me in between a cascade of political meetings. “It is credible and honest and it is of great value. But it must evolve with the times. It needs to reach out to the people, the entire population. That is our guarantee against dictatorship.”

The day before we met, Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, a senior Brotherhood member known for his liberal views, had been expelled from the group. He had antagonized the leadership by mounting an independent campaign for president, a position it had previously forbidden its members from contesting so as not to stoke fears of an Islamist onslaught. As the head of Egypt’s medical guild, Dr. El-Fotouh was highly regarded, and his sacking — the first such dismissal within the Muslim Brotherhood in nearly 60 years — scandalized Egypt’s political classes. It also fueled speculation that the Ikhwan was fracturing under its own weight.

“We expected they would take action against El-Fotouh,” Lotfy said. “But this was by far the worst thing they could have done. They’ll probably be calling us in next and I expect I’ll be getting the same treatment.”

By “us,” Lotfy means the 200 members of the Brotherhood’s youth cadre who have joined the Egypt Trend party, which has identified itself with such temporal causes as gender equality, affordable health care and a minimum wage. In doing so, they implicitly rebuked the Ikhwan’s own Freedom and Justice party, which because of its extensive social network is expected to win a majority of seats in parliament when national elections are held in the fall — assuming, of course, it can survive the convulsions that are rocking it from within. “There now appears to be a moderate wing within the Brotherhood and there’s no guarantee it would be the only one,” Samir Soliman, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, told me. “The divisions are clear for all to see.”

Generational tensions within the Brotherhood had been simmering for years leading up to January 25, when activists called for a convergence on central Cairo’s Tahrir Square to rally against the brutality and corruption of the Mubarak regime. While young Ikhwanists eagerly joined the movement, manning the barricades alongside secularists and Christians to prevent security forces from dispersing the crowds, their elders carefully avoided it. Only when it was clear Mubarak was on his way out did the leadership conclusively demand his departure.

Even then, say disaffected Ikhwan members, group patriarchs discounted their role in the rebellion and dismissed their requests for greater influence over policy making. In late May, when Freedom and Justice unveiled a platform that incorporated none of their demands for more transparency, greater interaction with secular Egypt and an emphasis on civil liberties, Lotfy and his confederates decided to defect. “We held out as long as we could,” he said, “But when it was clear they were ignoring our positions, we began planning a movement of our own.”

Lotfy describes his fellow dissidents as “Arab in identity, Islamic in culture and rooted in Africa.” It will be a diverse constituency, he vowed, in spirit with Egypt’s once variegated political terrain. “We’re Muslims, but we’re pragmatic,” he said. “If I think a Marxist has some good ideas, about how to fix something, for example, I’ll listen.”

With that, Lotfy excused himself to resume his next cycle of meetings, and with it his ecumenical leap of faith.