The Middle East Channel

How political Islam is winning the war for talent (and gaining a competitive edge)

In 2009 the Muslim Brotherhood's Supreme Guide Mohammed Mehdi Akef voluntarily stepped aside -- the first time a top leader in the movement had voluntarily resigned before reaching death's door. His message, as Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment describes it, was that "we old guys need to step aside -- I'm going to set an example." This month Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Akef's counterpart in the ruling establishment, hinted he would run for a third term in office next year, extending his three decade rule.

Akef's resignation was the high note in a pitch that Islamist groups have repeatedly made: that they are more internally democratic and dynamic than their secular counterparts. It's a cultivated image that glosses over a deeply flawed system, one that can be just as autocratic and hostile to new ideas. But it is giving Islamist groups a competitive edge, especially in attracting and retaining a new generation of talented members.

Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood are the sharpest examples: they recruit young, smart entry-level members, sort them according to interest and expertise, and, in some cases, allow them to rise the ranks, with an emphasis on ideological purity and a populist touch. Through an internal political Darwinism, the process produced leaders who've have been able to outsmart and outmaneuver their secular rivals. It has also energized the lower ranks, where young volunteers then help run rallies, canvass for elections, or take up arms.

"An educated, politically interested young person from some secondary Egyptian city would certainly be attracted to the Muslim Brotherhood over the NDP," said Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It is clear that is where the political dynamism is."

I tested the idea with Ramy Raoof, a 23-year-old digital activist from Egypt's Al Minya province. I asked whether he and his contemporaries -- middle class recent college graduates -- were attracted to the Muslim Brotherhood's mix of ideology, social services, and opportunity for engagement. He steered away from the movement and into an NGO on human rights. But his friends were attracted by the Muslim Brotherhood's pitch.

"The Brotherhood is getting more young people to join them by offering different things," Raoof told me. Those things include college fees, cheap textbooks, and money to defray the cost of getting married.

"But they'll also say, 'Come join us and we will make you general manager of this, or head counselor of that. Some sexy title,'" Raoof explained. "It's part of how they attract people. Some people are looking forward to being leaders, and the Brotherhood use these kind of opportunities to get people to join."

In Raoof and others there is evidence that political Islam is winning the war for talent, attracting a greater share of the young, smart, and politically inclined than the secular establishment. It's partly because for decades, Islamist groups have been the most viable opposition, harnessing public frustration and outlasting secular leftists who've been stamped out by the regime. As the primary opposition, Islamists have been driven by necessity to attract and make room for entry-level activists, who in turn boost their claims of popular legitimacy.

April 6 and Mohamed ElBaradei's National Association for Change are adopting some of the same grassroots tactics and attracting some of the young political talent. But the Muslim Brotherhood has a long lead and an enormous base -- part of the reason ElBaradei has partnered with them to get his movement off the ground.

To say that political Islam may be winning the war for talent requires a working definition of "talent." I don't mean the MBAs and Ivy League graduates, who'd likely find a place in the ruling establishment (in part because they often come from it). I am thinking of the Ramy Raoofs, the dynamic twenty-somethings with ideas and energy but no discernable '"wastah," or connections into the power elite. They are the majority by number, and their hearts and minds are in play. Where they land says much about the momentum and future direction of the Arab polity. Here, attracting "talent" means attracting focused, capable support.

Hezbollah has built itself on that kind of "talent." While it filters doctors into its hospitals and teachers into its schools, in key roles it values street smarts, battle smarts, and emotional intelligence over formal qualifications. Alastair Crooke, a former British diplomat considered close to Hezbollah, says that during the 2006 war their units were led by men in their early 20s, making decisive moves on a largely autonomous basis. Crooke says they are selecting for young people who were "very knowledgeable and very self-effacing. It's not like ticking the box -- have you taken this course, have you had this degree? It's the ability to cast a spell, to cast a web, to have people follow you."

But Lebanon, as usual, is a complicated case study. Within its sectarian system young talents generally stick to their own religious party -- Shiites to Hezbollah or Amal, Maronite Christians to the Lebanese Forces or Phalange, etc. Their bonds of allegiance may be stronger, because they are bonds of faith and ideology. But there is a limit to individual participation in that talent can rise, but the top spot is often held for scions of a political family. There are alternative outlets for activist energy, like civil society groups that promote culture, environmentalism, and the movement for a secular Lebanon. But when it comes to the major political parties, young upstarts are largely locked out.

One way Islamist groups have tapped in to that base is by creating diverse ways to participate; you can be a cleric in Hezbollah or attend one of its rallies in a miniskirt; you can lead your local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood or just collect signatures; you can join the volunteer police corps run by Hamas. That kind of easy-to-reach participation cements support and helps new recruits take the first step into their circle. But once in the system, can fresh faces really rise into leadership? That's where the system gets stuck.

In terms of real meritocracy, Islamists political movements have many of the same deficiencies as the secular establishment: they are largely autocratic, manipulated through patronage and often intolerant of dissent. "There's still a complaint that the younger generation don't feel they have a chance," said Carnegie's Michele Dunne. ''[It can be] the leader for life phenomenon, undemocratic internal procedures, gerentocracies with old men holding onto their seats forever."

Yet Islamists maintain a perceived meritocracy, along with a real opportunity to participate at the low- and mid-level. That gives them a strategic advantage in attracting and retaining many of the region's brightest and most dedicated minds. Having that human capital makes them better equipped and more resilient as the political forces of the Arab world collide.

Lara Setrakian is an ABC News reporter.

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