Mohammed Habib lives in a suburb of Cairo just beyond the ring of tenement housing that is closing in on the city like a noose. His flat is small but well kept, with great towers of stacked books erected from the floor and tables.
This has been Habib’s place of self-imposed exile since he and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood lost a struggle for control of the Islamist group eighteen months ago. It was generally assumed that Habib, as the then-deputy chairman, would be elected chairman when Mohammed Akef, who had held the post for six years, announced he was stepping down. When the vote was held in January 2010, however, Habib was upset by Mohammed Badie, a conservative and relatively obscure member of the Brotherhood’s governing council, known as the Guidance Bureau. Delivering his acceptance speech, according to Habib, Badie referred affectionately to Egypt’s then-dictator Hosni Mubarak as “the father of Egypt,” and he implied the Brotherhood would accept a dynastic transfer of power to Mubarak’s son Gamal. Not long after that, several Badie allies were released from prison after long periods of detention.
Badie’s remarks, to say nothing of the election results, were a surprise to pretty much everyone but Habib. “Four months before the election,” he told me, “I received information through leads within the group that Badie would be the next Supreme Guide. I believe there was an agreement between Badie and his supporters and the government. The rest of us were strongly opposed to Gamal Mubarak and his succession.”
Predictably, Brotherhood leaders deny such a deal was made, though talk of an agreement has circulated within the group. “It’s been mentioned,” said a rank-and-file member who requested anonymity so as to avoid reprimand. “An official on the Guidance Bureau told me. And while I’d rather not believe in such a thing, it may contain a bit of truth.”
I met with Habib in June. Until then, he had kept his account of the transition largely to himself. So much had happened since February, however, when Mubarak and his ruling circle were ousted in a popular revolt, that he decided to come forward in interviews and with writings of his own. National elections have been scheduled for November, and the Ikhwan, as the Muslim Brotherhood is known in Arabic, is expected to win a plurality of seats in Parliament. Almost overnight Egypt, once the wellspring of Arab politics and culture before it was rendered mute by a half-century of one-party rule, has been transformed into a fragile young democracy. At the center of this whirlwind is the Ikhwan, one of Egypt’s oldest political movements, one that has survived decades of persecution by resisting and accommodating sequential fashions of autocracy, from monarchy to secular dictatorship. Now freed along with the rest of the country, and seemingly within reach of unprecedented power, the Brotherhood faces the prospect of implosion. Though it can now openly organize and contest elections, that same process is deepening longstanding fault lines within the group that threaten its dissolution.
“The Ikhwan is behaving as if the entire political system is in its grip,” Habib said. “In fact, there are fissures, and they may be to the very core. There is concern among the younger members that the leadership does not understand what’s going on around it. But their opinions are being cast aside, just as they were under Mubarak.”