Democracy from within: FJP elections and the influence of the Brotherhood

Amid skepticism over the genuineness of the poll, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing is set to hold its first open internal elections to select a new president next week.

The Freedom and Justice Party’s general assembly is scheduled to convene on 19 October to choose the president of the nation’s largest and most influential political organization. So far, six party members have withdrawn applications for the post.

The winner will succeed Mohamed Morsy, who relinquished the party’s leadership earlier this year upon his ascent to the presidency.

Hopefuls include two heavyweight party leaders: Essam al-Erian, the party’s vice president, and Saad al-Katatny, the party’s secretary general and former speaker of the now-dissolved Parliament.

Besides these two big shots, the list includes three low-profile leaders: Sabah al-Saqqary, assistant secretary general for the party’s women’s secretariat in Cairo; Khaled Auda, a middle-rank leader in Cairo; and Walid Khattab, a member of the party’s media secretariat.

Yasser Samy, a party co-founder from Kafr al-Sheikh, has also withdrawn an application.

At press time, none of the six had yet submitted the application with the required supporting documents, party media adviser Ahmed Sobei said. Applicants had until 10 October to complete their forms and secure the nominations of at least 100 members of the party’s general assembly.

Even if all six submit their forms on time, the actual race is expected to heat up between Erian and Katatny.

While FJP leaders insist that the upcoming poll will stand out as proof of the party’s commitment to internal democracy, the group’s detractors dismiss it is a “farce,” contending that the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

Katatny vs. Erian

Detractors expect Katatny to assume the party’s presidency, given his close ties to the Brotherhood’s influential leaders and compliant nature.

Although such leaders are not among the electorate, Mohamed Habib, a former Brotherhood deputy supreme guide, argues that they have enough leverage on voters to influence their choice.

“The party has not been weaned yet. The Muslim Brotherhood still carries it on its shoulder and takes it up or down,” Habib says.

As most voters are already Brotherhood members, Habib expects their loyalty to the group’s leaders to influence their choice.

“The relationship between the Guidance Bureau, the group’s Shura Council, and the rank and file is based on trust, respect and appreciation. Hence, when the rank and file learns that the Guidance Bureau wants a particular person to win, he strives to fulfill this wish,” Habib explains.

From its moment of inception, the FJP has failed to convince observers of its independence from the Brotherhood’s decision-making machines. In March 2011, it was the Brotherhood’s legislative body, known as the Shura Council that appointed the party’s president, vice president and secretary general.

Throughout the transition period, the party refrained from taking any position that contradicted that of the mother organization. On certain occasions, some FJP leaders found no shame in admitting that they were waiting for the group to decide on certain matters before announcing the party’s stance.

Meanwhile, Habib ruled out the possibility that Erian could win the support of the Brotherhood’s leaders, given his background and character. “Erian can easily act independently from the organization at any point,” Habib adds.

Erian has long been held as one of the representatives of the reformist wing within the nation’s oldest Islamist group. This wing was widely hailed by observers for its espousal of democratic values, openness to non-Islamist political forces, and attempts to stem the influence of conservatives within the group.

However, this camp — which was led by former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh — has been weakened, and the group has fallen entirely into the hands of hardliners since late 2009.

Since the revolution, most of the group’s outcast reformists have become more vocal in their criticism of the Brotherhood.

However, Erian has not toed that line. On the contrary, he has shown a lot of party discipline by adhering to the group’s official discourse. Recently, he has even shaken his old reputation for tolerating other political groups.

In August, he voiced ruthless criticism of leftist forces on his Twitter account, accusing them of receiving foreign funding, being hostile to religion and despising the masses.

Habib acknowledges this change in Erian’s attitude, arguing that he “appears sometimes more royalist than the king,” hoping to appease his superiors.

Nevertheless, this new tone still falls short of changing Brotherhood leaders’ attitude toward him, or convincing them of throwing their backing behind him rather than Katatny, Habib says. “[Katatny] is the most compliant and obedient,” Habib adds.

Some local papers have quoted anonymous sources within the party suggesting that Morsy prefers Erian as party president. However, Habib ruled out such reports, contending that Morsy belongs to the same circles that support Katatny.

Like Morsy, Katatny is considered one of the proteges of the group’s strongman and deputy supreme guide, Khairat al-Shater.

In defense of the group

Hatem Abdel Azim, former FJP parliamentarian and member of the party’s general assembly, refutes all claims that the poll is farcical.

Abdel Azim is one of the FJP general assembly’s 1,017 members entitled to choose the president. The assembly was first elected by the party’s 5,700 founders in 2011.

“Had it been a farce, we would have had one strong candidate running against a group of extras,” he says. “But when the competition is between Katatny and Erian, it cannot be a farce.”

This is evidence that the party is practicing democracy at its best, he says — and that the party leadership “is not appointed by anyone.”

Party leaders have also been dismissing allegations that voters are being mobilized to cast their ballot for the candidate endorsed by the Brotherhood. A member of the party’s committee in charge of monitoring the poll had told the local press that his committee had warned the party’s middle-rank leaders in different governorates against influencing voters’ choice.

“Up until now, I have not decided yet to whom my vote shall go. The matter needs a lot of thought,” he adds.

Angry youths

However, not all members feel well represented in the electoral body. “The general assembly has no one under 40 years old,” says Ismail Hegazy, a 30-year-old FJP member. “The problem is that the election of the general assembly did not take place in the right way.”

He contended that the poll was neither “democratic” nor “transparent,” alleging that the Brotherhood had indirectly interfered with the poll.

“The party is not fully independent yet from the Muslim Brotherhood. We still have a long way to go,” adds Hegazy, who has been a Brotherhood member since 1999. “If the vote was correctly done, women and youth would have been represented in the general assembly.”

The intensive care physician says he thought of nominating himself for the presidency as an act to draw the attention of the party’s leaders to the need to empower youth. “We have a lot of young members of high caliber,” says Hegazy.

He went on to affirm that his cohorts are currently exerting pressure on the group to field more young candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections. “The fact that all the party’s candidates in the last parliamentary elections were over 40 years old was quite a flaw,” he says.

He says members younger than 40 or 35 should constitute at least one-quarter of the party’s candidates.

“If these demands go unheeded, a lot of young members, including myself, will resign,” he says.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weeklyprint edition.

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