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Akef may stay to lead Muslim Brotherhood

Head of Egypt's opposition group says he will stay beyond his six-year term if it is in the best interests of his banned party.

Mohammed Mahdi Aked, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, may consider extending his term of office
Mohammed Mahdi Aked, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, may consider extending his term of office

CAIRO // Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, has said he could stay on in his position after his six-year term expires in January, as his banned political party goes through a period of turbulence. Mr Akef had announced in April that he would not extend his leadership past January, despite pleas from senior figures in the group. But in an interview with The National, Mr Akef said he would consider an extension if that were in the group's best interests, though stepping down is still his preference.

"The unity and the interest of the Muslim Brotherhood is above my decision and everything else. I'll exert all efforts to make sure that the group is at its best before I leave in January, and will look into my decision and see if it would be better to extend my stay for a few more months, as my brothers here are asking me to," Mr Akef said. He was sitting at his desk in the Brotherhood's headquarters, which overlook the Nile River in the suburb of Manial el Rouda.

Mr Akef, 81, is the seventh leader of the group, which was established in 1928. Despite being officially banned since 1954, it remains Egypt's strongest and largest opposition group. Were Mr Akef to step down at the end of his term, he would become the first Brotherhood leader to do so; all of his predecessors died while holding the leadership. Mr Akef said his decision is a message to the Brotherhood and to the regime: "Leaders shouldn't stay in power forever."

The Brotherhood has joined the current campaign against the possible transfer of presidential power from Hosni Mubarak to his son Gamal, 45. Mr Akef is widely popular among the varying strands of the Muslim Brotherhood, be they reformist or conservative, young or old. According to Hossam Tamam, an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood who wrote a book about Islamic movements around the world, it has been Mr Akef's leadership that has maintained cohesion in the party.

But, Mr Tamam said, fissures within the group are becoming greater and increasingly visible and may be too much for Mr Akef, who favours reform, to handle. That was evident last month when Mr Akef stormed out of the group's headquarters after several top Brotherhood leaders opposed his proposal to promote Essam el Eryan, a reformist within the group, to the Maktab el Ershad, or the guidance office. The maktab is the Brotherhood's politburo and comprises 21 leaders.

Although Mr Akef has taken a pragmatic approach as Brotherhood leader and directed the group towards participating in the country's political system, more conservative members have become increasingly rigid in their opposition to that. "The shift towards political involvement, which favours pragmatism and flexibility over ambiguity, tenacity and rigidity, worked to expose inherent discrepancies," Mr Tamam said.

Mr Akef is known as a "living martyr" among his cadres for having spent 20 years in prison - a term reduced from a death sentence - for being among the group charged with plotting to kill the then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. Mr Akef was released from prison by Anwar Sadat, Nasser's successor, in 1974. However, political analysts and Mr Akef's followers say his greatest achievement is guiding his party to win 20 per cent of seats in parliament in the 2005 elections. Because the group is officially banned, Brotherhood members run as independents.

The Brotherhood runs and votes in all elections as a matter of principle, but asked if the group will run in the legislative elections next year or presidential elections in 2011, Mr Akef said: "Each election has its own circumstances and decisions. "I didn't take the decision on my own in previous elections, but I consulted with the group's leaders and candidates across Egypt, as they know their constituencies better, and they are the ones who usually bear the brunt of security arrests and imprisonment."

The Brotherhood maintains a strict policy of silence regarding where and when they hold their internal elections, fearing arrests. During their annual conference this month, leaders of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) vowed that the Brotherhood would not enter parliament again. The NDP declined to say if President Mubarak, 81, who has been in power since 1981, will run in the 2011 elections.

Mr Akef dismissed the NDP's comments as "propaganda", saying the Brotherhood "plays an important role in Egypt's life, whether in parliament or not". "No one has managed or is able to eliminate us from Egyptian political life, no matter how many they'll arrest. They can't arrest all of us," he said. But he added: "In this despotic state, nobody knows or can predict what will happen tomorrow." The Brotherhood has branches in almost all Arab and Islamic countries.

Abdel Hamid el Ghazali, a senior Brotherhood member and adviser to Mr Akef, said it was imperative he extend his term. "The coming period will be very tough in light of the upcoming legislative and presidential elections, which requires stability inside the group," Mr el Ghazali said. "That is not possible without our guide and leader Akef; we need his experience in these times." However, Mr Akef said his preference was clear: "To leave the leadership and become just one of the group's soldiers." nmagd@thenational.ae