The press conference was set to start at noon, but at one the long table at the front of the tightly packed room remained empty. The cameramen were still jostling to set up their equipment, jamming their heavy tripods into what remained of the spaces along the walls.
It almost didn’t matter, everyone knew the story they were there for. It was all about the man who would finally take his seat at the table at 2 PM: The Muslim Brotherhood’s General Masul, the General Guide, Mohamed Badie. It was September 2010 and parliamentary elections, were on everyone’s minds, as they are today. Especially when it came to predicting the power of the Muslim Brotherhood in those elections.
Mohamed Badie Abdul Mageed Samy, a highly educated man with roots in labour rights and a strong commitment to outreach, is poised to become one of the most influential powers in the ‘new Egypt.’ Yet, his rise from relative obscurity to the forefront of national politics has left many Egyptians perplexed. Liberals view him as an uncompromising religious conservative and even within the Muslim Brotherhood some doubt his ability to lead. Will Mohamed Badie succeed in uniting the Muslim Brotherhood and forming a parliamentary majority?
Badie is a mild mannered 68-year old professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Beni Suef. He was born in 1943 in El-Mahalla El-Kubra, a town that for its textiles as well as for a potent streak of political activism. Strikes in the small industrial town in 2008 gave birth to the youth wing of the Kefaya party, known as the April 6 Youth Movement for the date of one massive strike. The group’s social media saavy would become ubiquitous five years later in the uprising to topple President Hosni Mubarak.
Badie’s decision to support the demands of the Egyptian people rather than with a pan Islamic identity has won the organization more understanding and appreciation than it enjoyed prior to the revolution. But several decades earlier, Mohamed Badie and Mahalla had become known to a president or two. In 1965, Badie arrived in Cairo to begin his studies in veterinary medicine. Not even nine months later he was arrested for political activism, as a member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and sentenced to 15 years alongside the controversial and more militant breakaway leader, Sayyid Qutb. He served nine of those years before a new Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, showed leniency and freed Badie along with other Muslim Brotherhood members (Qutb, instead, was executed by hanging in 1966).
Wasting no time, Badie returned to his studies and to his political work, serving in the Ikhwan (Brotherhood) administration in Mahalla and later representing the group’s educational association in Yemen. In 1996, he became a member of the Brotherhood’s governing council, the Guidance Bureau.
Badie became the eighth General Masul Guide or chairman of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in early 2010. Arab media, as well as supporters and critics of the Brotherhood, followed closely the selection process that led to his appointment illustrating the continuing importance of the Egyptian branch in the region.
Badie enjoys the staunch support of organized labour, having served as the Secretary General of the General Union of Veterinarians and as the Treasurer of the Union of Medical Professionals, which makes him favorable to poor and working class voters. Still, his appointment in 2010 still came to many as a surprise, it sidelined many better known leaders in the organization, such as Abd al-Moneim Abou el-Fattouh and Mohammed Habib.
With the Muslim Brotherhood daily gaining ground in Egyptian politics, some wonder if there couldn’t be a worse time for the generally more conservative Badie to be leading the organization. After all, he was the one who smuggled the controversial chapters of Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones out of prison. Some even wondered whether he would cause the splintering of the organization.
On the night of December 31, 2010 a bomb ripped through the al-Qiddissin Church in Alexandria killing 23 people and injuring dozens more. Al-Qaeda took responsibility for the attack, rattling the soul of Egypt and unnerving its two major religious communities. In the critical days that followed the attack, the Muslim Brotherhood, under Badie’s leadership, released multiple statements of solidarity, calling for national unity and inter-religious harmony.
Three days after the attack, Badie released a message titled, “One Nation in the Face of Sedition”, stressing that Islam calls for love, peaceful coexistence, fraternity and tolerance. Badie also condemned the attackers and demanded that if apprehended they be punished to the full extent of Egyptian law. His swift and straightforward reaction earned him widespread praise for contributing to defuse sectarian tensions in Egypt.
In the weeks that followed, Egyptian Muslims and Copts took to the streets in small marches and rallies for solidarity under banners that read Ana Masry, I am Egyptian. Muslims also sat in churches and joined masses all over the country on January, 6 2011, Coptic Christmas Eve, declaring that if they were attacked again, Muslims would die alongside their Coptic fellow Egyptians. They were met with the barricades, batons and tear gas of Egyptian State Security forces.
Three weeks later, Ikhwan were in Tahrir Square supporting calls for the end of Mubarak’s rule, tolerating social interactions that staunch religious conservative would have viewed as unacceptable, such as men and women marching, singing, and camping in the square alongside each other.
Badie’s decision to support the demands of the Egyptian people rather than with a pan Islamic identity has won the organization more understanding and appreciation than it enjoyed prior to the revolution. Moreover, Badie’s activism—the fact that he has experienced police brutality and detention and still steadfastedly demanded political change—means that he has strong political credentials for reforming the status quo.
The principles that made him the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood may well end up carrying him into a more central and critical role on the national stage. There are others waiting in the wings if he can’t handle the job, Kheiraet al-Shater is widely seen as the best candidate to lead the Muslim Brotherhood party and possibly even the country. He is much more media-savvy than Badie and promises to develop good ties with foreign investors.
When Badie finally took his seat at that late to start press conference back in September 2010, he resembled the man he always does, quiet, calm, loath to making any fiery statements. He announced coolly as he always did that it was forbidden for the Muslim Brotherhood to run for office or positions in government. He said it was haram and he would not budge on this issue. However, the Ikhwan was allowed to throw its support behind dozens of candidates and was expected to gain as many as 30% of the seats in the upcoming elections for parliamentary representatives.
Two months later, in November 2010, the Brotherhood’s candidates would be nearly wiped out in one of the most corrupt and rigged elections in Egypt’s history and would spend the rest of the year reeling from their losses. Today, as the ballots are counted, their support is estimated to be garnering them as many as 70% of the seats in parliament.