ANALYSIS: Muslim Brotherhood succession debate reveals fractures
Cairo - In Egypt, even opposition leaders rarely step down from their positions voluntarily.
When rival factions from Ayman Nour's Ghad Party clashed in November, they nearly burnt to the ground the party's offices in a landmark downtown Cairo building.
In April 2006, the deposed leader of the Wafd Party occupied the party's headquarters with a band of armed henchmen. When rivals arrived and tried to eject him, violent clashes ensued and a fire broke out. Twenty-three people were injured.
So it is perhaps no surprise that when 81-year-old Mahdi Akef recently confirmed that he would not seek to renew his six-year term as the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, the story stayed in the news for days.
Akef, whose term will end in January 2010, would become the first supreme guide to step down. All of his six predecessors were replaced only upon their death.
The Brotherhood is officially banned in Egypt, and its members are regularly arrested. For these reasons, members say, the supreme guide has been selected by the 13-member General Guidance Office, whose decisions were subsequently endorsed by the rest of members.
In an interview with the regional Arabic daily al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper following his decision, Akef implied that he sought to set an example. Egypt, he said, "always has a 'late official,' not a 'former official'."
Akef's resignation thus throws into question whether the group will be able to elect a new guide democratically.
Essam al-Arian, a senior member of the group, told the German Press Agency dpa that elections would be held to replace Akef, in accordance with the group's internal statutes, which specify that the supreme guide should be elected by the Brotherhood's 100-member Shura Council.
According to this process, or "voting by consensus," as the Brotherhood calls it, the council presents a list of eligible candidates from within the Shura Council as well as a list of eligible voters.
A three-member committee elected from the Guidance Office then meets individually with eligible voters separately to cast their ballot.
The group defends the secretive voting process as necessary because of the government's frequent arrest campaigns against the group, which remains banned in Egypt.
Were the group not banned, said Abdel-Galil al-Sharnoudi, editor of the group's website, they would select a supreme guide "in the National Stadium, in front of millions of Egyptians."
But Khalil al-Anani, who studies political Islam and who has written books about the Brotherhood, said that it is the narrowness, not the secrecy, of the Brotherhood's mechanisms for choosing a new leader that need to be reformed for the group to claim it is democratic.
"The supreme guide should be chosen through general elections that include representatives of all generations and trends within the group, not just the Shura council," al-Anani told dpa.
Al-Anani said the current system limits the possibility for change within the group since competition is limited to the conservatives who constitute the majority of the Shura Council.
Moreover, al-Anani said, the small number of "reformers" on the council also have no hope of becoming supreme guide because their supporters are either too young or too disorganised to make their voice heard, and even the reformers are eager to present the group as unified.
Most observers identify Deputy Supreme Guide Mohammed Habib and General Secretary Mahmoud Ezzat as likely contenders to replace Akef in 2010.
While Ezzat has a reputation within the group as preferring to focus on "dawaa," or religious evangelism, Habib has a reputation as being more politically orientated.
Al-Anani said that if the two of them got equal votes, Ezzat would likely concede to Habib, whose political experience and pragmatism make him more popular inside and outside the group.
For younger members of the Brotherhood, Akef's decision may herald the beginning of internal reforms they have long sought.
Ibrahim al-Hudaybi, a young Brotherhood activist whose grandfather and great-grandfather were both supreme guides, applauded Akef's decision, but said it "should be the rule, rather than the exception."
"Even inside the guidance office, they know that the group benefits from the diversity of its members," he told dpa. "They will never be able to exclude any forces inside the group."
Habib, the deputy supreme guide, dismissed the importance of the recent reports, saying they were recently republished, a year after Akef's first announcement that he would not seek a new term.
"The matter is thus not on the table for the group now. We will wait until January and see. If Akef insists on his decision, we will take it from there," Habib told dpa.
It was perhaps cautious response from a man often named as a likely successor. But, al-Sharnoudi noted, the Shura Council can also choose not to accept Akef's resignation and insist that he stay on.
"The Shura Council is not likely to accept Akef's resignation easily," he told dpa. "His fiery and emotional statements aside, Akef is a leader, and all the Brotherhood agrees on his efficiency and great value." (dpa)