On 1 April 2008, I learned that the authorities in Egypt had ordered Alhiwar TV channel to be removed from Nilesat, the Egyptian-owned satellite, one of three through which Alhiwar was being transmitted to the Arab world. Just one day earlier, I had finished recording a set of six programmes with Muhammad Mahdi Akef, who was at the time the General Guide (or top leader) of the Muslim Brotherhood. The programmes were for my weekly Morajaat (biographical) series on Alhiwar. He spoke to me about his childhood, his youth, and his participation in the Egyptian resistance against the British occupation of Egypt and the Zionist occupation of Palestine. Above all, though, he told me about the twenty years that he spent in prison from 1954 to 1974.
Early on in his term of imprisonment, he complained jokingly to senior members of the movement incarcerated with him that upon completing his prison sentence it might already be too late for him to get married. Omar Al-Tilimisani, who became the third General Guide of the Brotherhood, told him: “Don’t worry. The girl you will marry is already in her mother’s womb.” Indeed, a year after he was released twenty years later, at the age of 47, he married a twenty-year-old woman who had not yet been born when he was sent to prison by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime.
Last Friday, 22 September, Muhammad Mahdi Akef passed away in an Egyptian prison at the age of 89. He is famous for being the first to hold the title of “ex-General Guide” since no one before him had left office while still alive. Traditionally, the post-holder was there until he died, but Akef campaigned several years before being elected for the term of office to be restricted to six years renewable for one term only. Following the death of his predecessor, Ma’mun Al-Hudaibi, in 2004, Akef was elected as the 7th General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. Upon the expiry of his first term in 2010, he refused to be nominated for a second term and was succeeded by Muhammad Badi’, the current General Guide who is now serving a life sentence in prison.
Despite his age and health problems, the military junta imprisoned Akef soon after the military coup in July 2013 that toppled Dr Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically-elected civilian president in the history of Egypt. The coup authorities refused to release him despite repeated appeals from lawyers and human rights organisations. He was sent to jail by a military court on the pretext that he showed contempt for the country’s judiciary.
Akef was born in 1928, the year in which the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt by Hassan Al-Banna. He joined the movement at the age of 12 and remained a loyal member until he passed away, getting to know Al-Banna and working closely with him. He impressed the group’s founder when he first met him and was encouraged by him to pursue his education in the field of sport. Akef was physically well-built and had been an eager sportsman. At the age of 17, Al-Banna recruited him to serve in the group’s secretive “special organisation”, a quasi-military setup designed for special missions, primarily against the British troops occupying Egypt and against the Zionist invasion of Palestine.
He was jailed by all successive governments in Egypt since the movement was first persecuted in 1948. Akef’s only crime was to be involved in the struggle for his country’s independence and for his people’s emancipation from the shackles of despotism. In 1954 he was among the thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members who were detained by the country’s military ruler, Gamal Abdel Nasser, after he fell out with the movement which had helped him to topple the monarchy only two years earlier. Twelve of them were sentenced to death, including Akef who was number seven on death row. Following the execution of numbers 1 to 6, the regime ordered the sentences of the six remaining defendants to be commuted to life imprisonment with hard labour.
Despite the length of his incarceration and the hardships he experienced, this was not a man who bore grudges. When a group of angry and frustrated young Brotherhood prisoners reacted to the severe persecution and torture with the idea of “takfir” (excommunication), he was one of those who engaged them in lengthy discussions to dissuade them from going down that dangerous path.
Three years after his release in 1974, Akef travelled to Saudi Arabia where he worked until 1983 for the World Association of Muslim Youth (WAMY). He was responsible for the organisation of Muslim youth camps around the world. However, he could not continue in the job because of what he perceived as a change of direction by the Saudi-sponsored organisation under the guise of what was called at the time “Saudisation”, the official policy of replacing foreigners with Saudi nationals in key posts. Going to Europe in 1983, he spent four years in Germany heading the Islamic Centre in Munich. While there, he became increasingly involved with the Brotherhood’s International Organisation. This was a loose body coordinating the various chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood around the world.
The time he spent in Europe exposed him to those aspects of Western life, such as democracy and civil liberties, which impressed him and had an impact on his thinking. It is not unlikely that the experience played a role in determining the direction taken by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt a decade later.
Upon his return to Egypt in 1987 he was elected to the movement’s top leadership body known as the Guidance Bureau. During that same period, he won a parliamentary seat and served for three years as part of a sizable Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary bloc of thirty-seven MPs. The Brotherhood had still not been allowed to run independently for parliament but did so through a special arrangement with the opposition socialist Labour Party with which it forged a political alliance.
Parliamentary life provided the right environment for the Brotherhood to develop, for the first time, well-documented official positions about democracy, human rights, women’s rights and minority rights. The role played by Akef in this process was well-known and came to be a source of concern for the authorities. The movement seemed to be receiving a facelift, showing it to be tolerant and engaging, something which was bound to embarrass a regime bent on banning it and others from participating in any form of political activity.
In the mid-1990s the Muslim Brotherhood suffered a series of major blows. The first was an internal dispute that led to the split of a group of young leaders. Akef was associated with that dispute because he was commissioned by the Guidance Office to instruct a group of young men in the organisation, who had already been involved in the Trade Unions, to explore the prospects of setting up a political party. He himself was strongly in favour of the idea of creating and registering a political party to be used as a platform for political activities while the parent group remained focused on religious and educational missionary activities.
Enthusiastic about the project, and rather than submit their findings to the group’s leadership as required, the young men went all the way and applied for the registration of a political party. They were told that they had not been given the mandate to do so and were instructed not to appeal should the application be met with rejection from the Egyptian authorities. Apparently, the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood did not want to be drawn into confrontation with the regime that banned the formation of new political parties. The application was turned down and the young men did not heed the advice of their elders and insisted on appealing. The Mubarak regime accused the Brotherhood of playing games and of embarking on some sort of a division of labour. Insisting that the dispute within the group was not genuine, the regime was bent on curtailing the movement before legal proceedings ended with it being given a licence to participate in politics.
In 1996 the regime launched an onslaught on the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing it of plotting against the government. Akef and several of his comrades were tried before a military court and given jail sentences of various terms; he served three years in prison. While behind bars, he heard of the deepening crisis within the movement but there was little he could do from his prison cell.
Although he sympathised with the young men who eventually split from the Brotherhood and formed Al-Wasat Party, he disagreed with their action. He was adamant that working from within to change things for the better was their best option. Nevertheless, he maintained good relations with them and provided the channel through which communication between them and the movement was resumed later on and even developed into cooperation.
When I interviewed Akef, he spoke to me about his vision as leader of the Muslim Brotherhood; he wanted above all to empower the new generation. He found himself leading a rapidly growing movement with a broad base of young men and women but one that had still been restricted by old ways and an ageing leadership. I was talking to a man already in his eighties but who spoke with the zeal and ambition of the youth. Young men in the movement loved him because of his approach. They felt that he related to them and understood their needs and grievances. He always spoke to them about the need for what he called “renewing the blood of the movement” and delegating responsibilities to those who are capable.
Akef was already eighty-five years old when he was detained by the current military regime in Cairo four years ago. His health had been deteriorating and continued to do so until his death. It is very likely that he was sent to prison because the regime feared his potential to unite the Brotherhood, to heal any rifts occurring within it, and to halt the drainage of its talented young men afflicted with loss of hope, loss of direction and frustration in the wake of the major blow that their movement was dealt by the counterrevolution that killed the Arab Spring. Without the wisdom and vision of leaders such as Muhammad Mahdi Akef, the Muslim Brotherhood organisation was left orphaned, in distress and in a mess.
Upon hearing the news of his passing away, his family readied themselves for his funeral. However, the authorities banned them from holding the customary congregational prayer. His brief funeral procession, from the prayers to the burial, was only allowed to take place at 2am on Saturday. Less than a dozen people were allowed to take part and only his wife, his daughter, his grandson and his lawyer were allowed to attend.
To many people, this must have been reminiscent of the restricted funeral allowed for the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan Al-Banna, who was assassinated by agents working for the British-supported monarchy in 1949. Only Al-Banna’s father and a group of close female relatives were allowed to attend. The assassination of Hassan Al-Banna never achieved its intended goal of finishing off the movement. Similarly, the death of Muhammad Mahdi Akef or his assassination — he was denied medical treatment — will likely play a role in reviving the Muslim Brotherhood and inspiring sympathisers and supporters across the world.
Like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, whose iconic image was created by the Apartheid regime he fought against for many decades, Akef has been turned into an icon by one of the most brutal regimes of our times. Just as Mandela was an inspiration to many people globally, Akef will always inspire young people in Egypt and around the Muslim world in their struggle for freedom and dignity. Perhaps the only difference between Mandela and Akef is that the former managed to take that “long walk to freedom” while Akef was released from prison only to be carried to his grave.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.