Foreign Affairs

The Return of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

Nearly three months after the fall of Mubarak, Egypt remains in a state of crisis. A newly emerged, de facto political alliance between the governing Army Council and the Muslim Brotherhood is posing a dire threat to the youthful forces of secular, democratic pluralism, in which so many Western hopes had been invested.

Western commentators ponder historical parallels. Is Egypt now like some Eastern European country in 1989, still suffering the inevitable birth pangs of an emerging pluralist democracy as it throws off the shackles of tyranny? Or are we seeing a repeat of the European 1848 “springtime of the nations”, fated to be snuffed out amid bitter disappointment?

A more frightening but apt comparison is Egypt itself in the fateful year of 1952. In that year, a political crisis in the old Egyptian constitutional order, accompanied by massive civil disturbances, led to intervention by the Army on a “temporary” basis to restore stability. The military regime established in 1952 has ruled Egypt ever since

This year offers numerous parallels with 1952. In both years, the interim Army council is led by a respected if rather colourless senior military officer. (Then, it was Mohammed Neguib; today, Mohammed Tantawi.) In both years the Army council promises to hold parliamentary elections within six months, and to withdraw from the political scene upon the election of a new government. In both years the country is administered in the meantime by an Army-appointed civilian administration headed by a well-known, respected politician holding the title of prime minister.

The disturbing part is that in 1952, every one of these developments was part of an elaborate facade. The facade was only gradually dismantled—it would be two years before Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser, the real coup leader all along, would step into the full light of day as the new power in the land.

In 1952 the forces of parliamentary democracy and secularised civil society had been well established for thirty years. It took Nasser months of careful plotting to out-manoeuvre and finally crush them. Today, after sixty years of oppression, those forces are struggling even to find a place to stand in the politics of the “new” Egypt. They are proving much easier to dispose of.

In the immediate wake of Mubarak’s fall, hopes were high that the thousands of young, liberal-minded Egyptians who had emerged to demonstrate against him in Cairo’s Tahrir Square would form the core of new parties that would take the lead in a reformed, democratic Egypt. But the machinations of the ruling military council, Nasser’s political descendants, are ensuring that no new groups will hold significant power in post-Mubarak Egypt.

As widely reported, the timing of parliamentary elections for September this year, as approved in a carefully managed recent referendum, will leave any new parties insufficient time to organise properly. On top of that, in the last week of March the Army announced extremely onerous requirements for the registration of any new political parties.

The upshot is that the dominant forces in the “new Egypt” will be the Army itself and the equally old-established Muslim Brotherhood. The old Mubarak party machine, which in the old regime ruled Egypt in alliance with the Army, still pervades government bureaucracies and will also remain influential.

The emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood (technically illegal under Mubarak) as a fully-fledged political player is in line with the changed position of the United States, which has direct relations with the Army. The USA provided Egypt under Mubarak with aid of around $1.3 million a year—principally military aid for the Army—on the tacit understanding that the regime would continue to keep the Brotherhood away from the levers of power.

That position has undergone a radical shift. After many years of assiduous lobbying of US officials and Washington foreign policy wonks by Brotherhood representatives, President Obama now says that the Egyptian Islamists should have a “seat at the table” of power in Egypt. The Egyptian Army has taken him at his word. The Army’s management of arrangements for forthcoming national elections more or less guarantees a powerful position for the Brotherhood in the new parliament. It is the new groups that were so prominent in the Tahrir Square demonstrations after January 25 which will be left out in the cold.

The parliament elected in September will be responsible for drafting a new constitution for the country. A strong Brotherhood presence will produce a constitution based on an even bigger role than at present for sharia—Islamic law.

Needless to say, this is extremely bad news for all non-Islamist and minority groups, including Egypt’s indigenous Coptic Christians (about 10 per cent of the population), human rights activists, writers, intellectuals, and so on. And of course for women.

It also raises significant national security issues for Australia, along with much of the rest of the world. Every year, thousands of Muslim students from around the world—including from some of Australia’s near neighbours—flock to Cairo to sit at the feet of the scholars of Al Azhar, the Islamic world’s oldest and most prestigious university. They will now find themselves among Islamists who are in the throes of converting mass support into real political power. For many of the students, this may well turn out to be a heady revolutionary experience—one that they could want to take home with them.

The Muslim Brotherhood has the financial backing of Saudi Arabian and Gulf sheikhs possessing untold wealth. It already operates on a huge scale in Europe and the United States, as well as in the developing world, through dozens of front groups. It also has a below-the-radar presence in Australia. To the extent that the Brotherhood now acquires direct access in Egypt to the resources of a fully fledged nation-state, it will be an even more formidable global actor.

The Obama administration is largely discounting the risks inherent in all this and acting on the basis of a benign view of the Brotherhood. The cautionary tale of the Americans’ dealings with Nasser, as outlined below, suggests that the consequences of being wrong about this may well be severe, far-reaching and of long duration.

Politically influential observers such as the New York Times, which recently expressed surprise at the emergence of friendly relations between the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood, would also do well to look more closely at the history of both these institutions, both in the recent and not so recent past. 

The New York Times ruefully commented on March 24 that the emergence of the Brotherhood’s “links” with the military regime is a development that “surprises many”. In truth, the development of a closer relationship between the Army and the Brotherhood has been under way for years.

The Brotherhood is well represented in the military, certainly among the junior officer corps and perhaps much higher than that. How high is anyone’s guess. Increasingly, officers identify the Army’s core mission with the cause of Islam, rather than with an inclusive Egyptian national identity. Coptic Christian conscripts in the Army complain of relentless pressure by superior officers to convert.

The involvement by Army units in violent anti-Coptic activities since the fall of Mubarak is one sign of Islamisation. At least one desert monastery has in recent weeks been assaulted by army tanks and armoured personnel carriers, bearing soldiers firing live ammunition. (This event was filmed and can be viewed on YouTube.) About a dozen demonstrators in a recent incident in Cairo were killed by unknown gunmen, and others wounded, while army units looked on. Most of the victims were Copts.

The Army and the Muslim Brotherhood go back a long way. Theirs is an old relationship, if also often a turbulent one. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was a full partner in the 1952 coup that established the regime. Some of Nasser’s little military circle of conspirators were themselves Brotherhood members. Huge Brotherhood street gangs paved the way for public acceptance of the 1952 coup by instigating most of the violence and destruction that destroyed public order.

The falling-out only came in 1954, when the Brotherhood complained that it was being cheated of the full share of power that it believed was its due. Brotherhood members among the plotters would later claim that Nasser had promised to implement sharia law in Egypt, but reneged on his pledge. In 1954 he turned on his old comrades, jailing them by the thousands and torturing and executing many.

The roots of Nasser’s relationship with the Brotherhood in fact went back to the 1930s. This was when the fascist group to which Nasser belonged (called the Greenshirts) and the Muslim Brotherhood first began to co-operate in conducting relentless warfare against Egypt’s parliamentary democracy—and against the 1923 constitution which had established that democracy.

Street violence and assassination were everyday matters for both groups. While the Greenshirts emulated the European fascist movements of the time, the Brotherhood openly admired the political techniques of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. At one stage, the Greenshirts and the Brotherhood even considered amalgamation.

They were brought together by their mutual enemies. What they most hated about the Egypt of that time was that it offered the Muslim world an attractive liberal nationalist model, a tolerant, democratic alternative to both pan-Arabic ethnic chauvinism and pan-Islamic religious extremism.

An Egyptian Harvard scholar, S.S. Hasan, writes in his book Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt that, in the Egypt of the 1920s to the 1940s: 

an entire generation of upper-class politicians … were imbued with the European ideal of separation of state and church [in Egypt, state and mosque]. They believed in a western-style democracy, which would help Egypt achieve a more just and egalitarian society. 

In recent years a number of Egyptian books and documentaries have explored the pre-revolutionary “golden age” that so infuriated the violent reactionaries of the Greenshirts and the Brotherhood. It was a time when Egypt won renown as a cosmopolitan haven for diverse ethnic groups—Italians, Greeks, Jews, Armenians and many others—who had made their home there for over a century. It was also a golden age for the Christian Copts, whose leaders had played a prominent role in the country’s liberal nationalist movement that won independence from the British in 1919.

One of the routine libels levelled by the Brotherhood and others against the liberal democratic politicians of Egypt was that they were puppets under the control of evil Coptic schemers. The Brotherhood also seethed with hostility towards the enormously productive intellectual and artistic life of those years. A new and uniquely Egyptian style of modernism, known as “Egyptianism” or “pharoanism”, inspired an entire generation of writers, artists and film-makers. One of the icons of that cultural moment is a marvellous sculpture by Mahmoud Mokhtar which is still to be seen at the entrance to Cairo University, called The Renaissance of Egypt. It depicts a peasant girl lifting the veil from over her face with one hand, and gently awakening a sleeping sphinx with the other. Such works remain inspirational for many of today’s young Egyptians. To the Brotherhood though, all this was tinged with blasphemy and decadence. 

It was during the worldwide depression of the 1930s that the ethnic and religious fanaticism of the Brotherhood and the Greenshirts began to take hold on the life of Egypt, with ultimately catastrophic social, economic and cultural consequences. As Max Rodenbeck records in his history of Cairo (Cairo: The City Victorious), “tolerance succumbed to violence as Fascists and religious extremists rallied to radical visions of an Egypt ‘purified’ of alien influence”. In early 1952, mobs organised by the Muslim Brotherhood burnt to the ground much of downtown Cairo. Many hundreds of buildings were destroyed and thousands of people were left homeless. Six months later, the supposedly temporary military intervention to restore “stability” announced itself.

The Nasser-led regime which emerged did not take long to devastate the entire Egyptian economy, and its civil society, even more thoroughly than the great fire of early 1952 had destroyed Cairo. Egypt would never recover. The regime’s destructive power prepared the perfect wasteland conditions for the Islamist recruiting sergeants of the 1970s and beyond.

Ahead of the coup, the British had been Nasser’s main concern. With more than 80,000 troops stationed on the Suez Canal, they still had sufficient military strength in place in Egypt to thwart his ambitions. Uncertainty about their intentions gave him pause. He knew well enough that the British would not mind the removal of the Egyptian monarch of that time, King Farouk, who was a corrupt and highly disruptive force in Egyptian politics. He also knew that the British would probably appreciate the need for some kind of temporary military intervention to restore stability and order, following the violence, assassinations and arson that had burnt down much of Cairo.

But Nasser’s ambitions went much further than a temporary intervention to depose the king and restore stability. He wanted to do away entirely, permanently, with the constitutional order and parliamentary democracy that he had been fighting against since the 1930s. This is where the Americans came in. It was to counter the latent British obstacle to his ambitions that Nasser successfully sought their co-operation.

In the months immediately following the initial military intervention, Nasser assured the Americans of his ardently pro-American sympathies. He told them that under his leadership, Egypt would be a leading participant in a US-led security alliance of Arab states, against the Cold War intrusions of the Soviet Union in the region. He also assured American officials that his intentions toward Israel were nothing but friendly.

His strategy should have been obvious. As Michael Thornhill (author of Road to Suez: Battle of the Canal Zone: The Egyptian Emergency, 1951–54) writes: 

From the earliest hours of the coup onwards, Nasser had been extremely anxious to prevent Britain from intervening in the internal affairs of Egypt ever again. His strategy was to cultivate close relations with American officials. The aim was to make Washington’s influence a “trump card” over the British “veto”.

This entailed flattering certain US diplomats and spies (the CIA was well represented in Cairo) by introducing them into the innermost sanctums of the military government. The approach was a brilliant success.  

In the crucial period from 1952 to 1954, American officials gave Nasser their support and encouragement, and played interference to neutralise any threat to his ambitions emanating from the British. Some of the Americans did worry occasionally about whether he could be trusted. But they reasoned that even if he did not entirely keep his promises, by maintaining a close relationship with him they would be in a position to moderate any tendency to extremism.

History shows they were wrong in every respect. Once the Americans had served Nasser’s purpose by helping him seize power in Egypt, it did not take him long to generate an almost elemental wave of anti-American and anti-Western hatred and resentment that spread throughout the Arab world and far beyond, lasting right up to the present day. Needless to say, he also made war on Israel. 

Despite the availability of much specialist scholarship on the matter, the American decision to support Nasser’s coup and their involvement in his subsequent successful bid for total power have not received adequate attention from general historians. This is a pity. The starting point of many of the American scholars who write about it is the assumption that the relationship with Nasser soured because of something that America did wrong, such as not giving Nasser more military aid without strings. But the big mistake was simply the decision to support Nasser in the first place. More than a mistake, it was a world-historical blunder.

Like the Americans today, the British, as the main foreign power on the scene in 1952, were somewhat worried by the military intervention but overall took a positive view of initial developments. As Michael Thornhill records, Prime Minister Ali Maher confidently assured them that elections would soon be held and that within a year army support could be dispensed with altogether.

Eventually, the British smelt a rat. Embassy officials warned the Foreign Office in London that Naguib could be heading a “Kerensky-type regime”—one that would “later be swamped by extremists”. (Kerensky was the hapless Russian prime minister briefly in office before the communist takeover by Lenin and his Bolsheviks in 1917.) 

But the British government was weary of the imperial burden and financially exhausted. And in Egypt in 1952, there was an entirely new element for them to worry about: the Americans.

While the British fretted, the American officials at the Cairo embassy, both State Department and CIA, were in full and continuous communication with Nasser behind the scenes, encouraging him to seize power. They were pleased with themselves at having identified the “coming man” and took evident pleasure in helping him outsmart the British.

A critical moment came several weeks after the coup, when US officials in Cairo had Secretary of State Dean Acheson issue a statement from Washington (on September 3, 1952), which publicly praised recent developments in Egypt. British officials thought Nasser would be likely to interpret this as a blank cheque from the Americans to adopt radical policies. They were furious. They were also right.

On the night of September 5—just two days after the American statement—Nasser rounded up virtually all leading politicians—about sixty in all—pending their show trials and imprisonment. These men would be the last democratic politicians imbued with democratic ways that Egypt would ever know, up to and including today.

But Nasser was only warming up. Four days after the arrests of the foremost participants in Egypt’s political life, on September 9 he had a law passed which compelled the political parties to deposit all their funds with the new regime. Now he started to plan for the abolition of political life in Egypt altogether.

Nasser set about stirring up the same fears of public disorder that had caused the coup to be welcomed in the first place. “Nasser’s plan for avoiding a return to old-style parliamentary politics,” writes Thornhill, “was to mount a psychological campaign that made the likelihood of widespread disorder appear inevitable.”

In these machinations to crush parliamentary democracy, American officials were fully complicit. Thornhill tells the tale from the archives: 

On 21 March [1953], [State Department official William] Lakeland and the head of the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs section, Parker Hart, visited Nasser at his home. A two-hour long meeting ensued in which Nasser explained his tactics of letting the situation deteriorate “in order to demonstrate to the people what would be in store for the country if party elections were carried out now”.  

As the US ambassador now informed Washington, the plan was for Nasser’s junta to stand aloof while Naguib and the other party groups damaged each other in polemical exchanges. The upshot would be a “resurgence [of] public sympathy for the ‘clean’ revolution leaders”, so allowing the junta to reverse the trend towards parliamentary democracy.

At this point, Nasser organised mass union demonstrations of support for the junta. “Sure enough,” writes Thornhill: 

the next day the junta used the demonstrations to justify a reassertion of its control over the country. At seven p.m., a statement was issued announcing the cancellation of elections, the banning of political parties, and the reinstatement of censorship.  

In all this, US ambassador Jefferson Caffery seems to have experienced the occasional enjoyable frisson to be gained from the old sport of twisting the tail of the British lion. While not approving all of Nasser’s methods (of course!), he nevertheless felt that Nasser was—as he put it—the “only man in Egypt with strength enough and guts enough to put over an agreement with Britain”.

The visiting State Department senior official, Parker Hart, struck a more poignant note. He observed that Nasser “could go one of two ways—toward a dictatorship or toward team leadership. I find myself uncomfortable in the thought that his mentality would more naturally veer toward dictatorship.”

Tawfik el-Hakim, a well-known Egyptian writer of the time, would later lament that he, like so many other Egyptians, in welcoming the deposition of King Farouk had failed “to pay sufficient attention to the grievousness of the loss of our constitutional life”. The regime which came to power with US support would soon abolish all vestiges of civil society that were not dependent on the state. Over the next several years, it proceeded to destroy economic property rights and the rule of law. All significant private businesses, and all publishing houses and media, were seized by the state. Thousands of Egyptians were ruined overnight. Many journalists and writers were sent away to camps for years. 

Nasser’s regime established the security service that to this day terrorises the civilian population of Egypt. It established the desert gulag where countless thousands have been incarcerated, tortured, brutalised and killed.

Instead of fostering the pro-Americanism in Egypt that he had promised US officials, Nasser entered the embrace of the Soviet Union. Egypt crawled with thousands of Soviet military personnel, university professors, technical instructors and of course KGB agents.

Using powerful radio transmitters, and exploiting the rapt attention of the international media, Nasser generated virulent anti-Western hostility not only throughout the Middle East but throughout the Third World. 

Under Nasser, the Egyptian model would again prove infectious. But it was a very different kind of model from that of the golden pre-revolutionary age. By the 1960s, so-called liberation movements from all over Africa and the Middle East were setting up shop in Cairo. Saddam Hussein, then on the run after his first political murder in Iraq, found refuge there. When Gaddafi seized power in Libya in 1969, he claimed Nasser as his inspiration. As Rodenbeck writes, by the time Nasser died in 1970, “most Arabs lived under totalitarianisms inspired by his”.

David Pryce-Jones writes that Nasser’s Gulag was “the first application of mass terror in the Arab world”. The great medieval Citadel that overlooks Cairo, built by Saladin in the twelfth century, was just one of the places spoken of in those days in hushed tones of horror. Others were in the desert. The Swiss journalist Hans Tutsch wrote that the shocking tortures inflicted on prisoners under Nasser surpassed anything yet seen in the region.

In school textbooks and the media, even in public monuments, memories of the parliamentary democracy, growing economic prosperity and cosmopolitan culture that had flourished in Egypt in the decades before the revolution were systematically obliterated. In place of those memories the regime fostered a violently intolerant and aggressive ethnic chauvinism, driving into the exile the elites of the country’s most resourceful and creative minorities—Greeks, Italians, Armenians, Jews and others.

The first Coptic Christian immigrants to the West, including Australia, arrived in the wake of Nasser’s measures: Australia’s gain, but Egypt’s great loss. Indeed, much of the country’s entire commercial elite fled at this time; a brain drain that continues to this day.

The results were surely predictable. As the Egyptian historian Samir Raafat lamented to John R. Bradley, the author of Inside Egypt, “What is a country and its people without its cultural elite, [and] without the institutions that produce such an elite?” Elsewhere, Raafat recalls the arrival at this time of “moribund platoons of ‘you pretend to pay, we pretend to work’ public sector employees and supervisors”. Productivity “plunged to an all-time low and stayed there. A trio of expensive Arab-Israeli wars completed the country’s economic downfall.” What was left of the glorious architecture of Cairo’s golden age, lovingly recalled by Raafat in his books and journalism, was soon crumbling, “covered in the grime of a smoke-belching transport system and … state-run cement factories”.

By the 1970s the regime had created the world’s most productive environment for the creation of Islamist extremism. University campuses were jammed with students who had rushed to take up Nasser’s promise to give a university education to anyone who wanted one. (The student-to-staff ratio was more than 650 to one.) Graduates who emerged in the 1970s with worthless degrees were especially easy prey for a resurgent Muslim Brotherhood, waxing fat on the flood of petrodollars generated by the OPEC cartel’s oil price hikes. 

Like Nasser before them, the Brotherhood now seeks out American officials to offer comforting assurances. They say that they are a changed organisation—that they are more interested now in social services than politics, that they are against violence, believe in democracy, and that they are shedding the old reactionary views about, for example, the role of women and non-Muslims in an Islamic society.

How reliable are these assurances? There is no shortage of scepticism from people who have deep knowledge of Islamist movements. For example Professor Bernard Lewis, a doyen of Middle Eastern studies, said a few weeks ago: 

I don’t think [the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt] is in any sense benign. I think it is a very dangerous, radical Islamic movement. If they obtain power, the consequences would be disastrous for Egypt. 

It could very well also be disastrous for the rest of us. But well-placed US defenders of the Brotherhood say its representatives should be taken at their word. They are impressed by the efforts of Brotherhood people to “build bridges”, such as the launch five years ago of the initiative titled, “Re-Introducing the Brotherhood to the West”. They are impressed that the Brotherhood has gone to the trouble of building a very professional English-language website, that they make some of their people available to Western journalists, and that their op-eds now even appear in the New York Times. And in any case, they say, even if the organisation does not live up to the promises of its more sophisticated, English-speaking spokesmen, developing close relations with the Brotherhood will enable the USA to moderate any tendency to extremism.

All these people should read more history. American officials in Cairo thought Nasser was OK because he used to like eating hot dogs with them while watching movies starring Esther Williams. At least the American officials who supported the seizure of power in the early 1950s by the Nasser–Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy had one or two legitimate excuses for taking a fascist at his word. They did have a Cold War to worry about. And the coup of 1952 was their first real foray into Egyptian politics. What did they know? Not much. Sixty years later, there are no such excuses.

 Peter Day recently returned from a visit of several weeks to Egypt. He is working on a book on Egypt, with a focus on its Coptic people. This article forms the basis of a book chapter.

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