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December 12th 2013 print

Daryl McCann

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Rise and Fall

In their short time in office, the Islamic Brotherhood threw all soothing talk of consensus and democracy to the wind. What emerged was a regime for which President Obama retains some apparent sympathy, putting him in marked contrast to the Egyptian people

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: Evolution of an Islamist Movement
by Carrie Rosefsky Wickham
Princeton University Press, 2013, 384 pages, US$29.95

dec cover small 2013The unanswered question accompanying almost every page of Carrie Rosefsky Wickham’s The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood will turn out to be the solution to the country’s malaise. Wickham’s book, to be fair, was published before the majority of Egyptians, in partnership with General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi, swept Mohamed Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) from power. The reader knows what the author cannot know: the extraordinary events of July 3, 2013. What The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt shows, however, is that an associate professor of political science in an American university can provide a most valuable compilation of names, dates and events, while remaining surprisingly obtuse about the totalitarian nature of the phenomenon she is describing. The kindest evaluation of Wickham’s tone would be “studiously detached” so that we might connect the dots for ourselves.

Founded in 1928 by schoolteacher and Islamic scholar Hassan al-Banna, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood began as an attempt to address the problems of modernity. The movement pursued a different course from that of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey. By the time Atatürk died in 1938, the political situation in the Republic of Turkey was secular and relatively democratic. The caliphate and sharia courts had been abolished in 1924, Islamic law separated from secular law in 1926, and legal equality granted to women in the same year. Bernard Lewis’s The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961) captures the challenges and triumphs of Kemalist Turkey’s embrace of freedom and modernity.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has, in recent years, been doing his level best to undo Atatürk’s legacy. It came as no great surprise, therefore, that the Islamist Erdogan attempted to build close ties with the Morsi government in Egypt during the latter’s one-year tenure. Was Hassan al-Banna, who lived a life of relative obscurity, being proved right by history—and Atatürk, one of the twentieth century’s larger-than-life figures, proved wrong? Before one could properly reflect on the matter, extraordinary upheavals in both Turkey and Egypt turned everything on its head again. The brutal, protester-bashing Erdogan has now lost much of his previous credibility as a reasonable leader, at least amongst Turkey’s urban population, while Morsi and his coterie are now under lock and key. Still, the future remains difficult to read. The Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt and elsewhere—including the West—will not go gentle into that good night; and in all likelihood might not go at all.

The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Jam’iyyat al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin), beginning as “a small religious and charitable society”, always had the goal of reconfiguring Egypt in its own image. Drawing on the research of Richard P. Mitchell in The Society of Muslim Brothers (1969), Wickham informs us that the number of Brotherhood branches grew from two in 1929 to 2000 by 1949: “by the mid-1940s, the Brotherhood had grown to encompass an estimated three hundred to six hundred thousand members”. Infused with religious devoutness, al-Banna considered the secular orientations of the new Egyptian university and the literary and social salons, newspapers and magazines in Cairo as a threat to traditional Islamic values. Contemporary films and music also appalled his pious sensibilities. Egypt’s political elite in the inter-war era particularly outraged him because of “the free mixing of their women with unrelated men at private parties”. Egypt’s salvation, according to al-Banna, necessitated a retreat from Western-flavoured modernity.

The word retreat, of course, never passed his lips. Instead, al-Banna, the “Supreme Guide”, decided that an Islamic order (al-nidham al-islami) under the strict auspices of sharia “embodied all of the virtues of democratic and socialist systems in the West while avoiding all their defects”. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) had extra cause to delude itself about being superior since the USA, Europe and Australia were, at the time, in the throes of the Great Depression, and the notion of “Western decline” had a ring of truth to it. There is a terrible legacy to this. Modern-day MB operators, with their sharp suits and carefully trimmed beards, were able to convince the Obama administration that their so-called mild Islamism—that is to say, an apparent reluctance to hijack American planes and crash them into buildings—made them not only “strategic partners” but also “progressive”. The Brotherhood convinced Obama because he wanted to be convinced, but also because MB folk believe their hype and so make good salesmen. They did not—and still do not—consider their total commitment, total ambition and total everything to be reactionary, let alone totalitarian. Tomorrow belongs to them.

The Nazi reference, alas, is not gratuitous. Wickham makes brief references to the “deep vein of anti-Semitism” that informs the Muslim Brotherhood, and yet spends no time discussing the vast inter-connections between the MB and the Nazis during the 1930s and the Second World War, the notorious Haj Amin al-Husseini and his sojourn in Hitler’s Berlin being an obvious case in point. The MB’s developing version of liberation theology, during Hassan al-Banna’s time at the helm, involved not only sabotaging the British war effort, but also translating and widely disseminating Hitler’s Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Brotherhood, as Wickham notes at one point, views Jewish people as “inherently corrupt and duplicitous, cursed by God, and described in the Quran as an existential enemy of Islam and the Muslim people”. The MB has always rejected what is most worthwhile about Western civilisation while at the same time embracing its worst aspects.

Latter-day Brotherhood apologists such as Tariq Ramadan—see Paul Berman’s The Flight of the Intellectuals (2010)—pretend that Hassan al-Banna eschewed violence. Yet the Supreme Guide set up a commando or militia group known as the Secret Apparatus (al-jihaz al-sirri) in 1943 which attacked not only British military installations, but also Egyptian police and government targets. Al-Banna sent his military units off to fight in Israel’s War of Independence, although the Secret Apparatus killed more Jews in the homemade Egyptian pogrom of 1948. The Brotherhood, that erstwhile religious and charitable society, became gun-crazy at this point, one of its members murdering in cold blood Egyptian Prime Minister Nuqrahi Pasha. The police in turn gunned down Hassan al-Banna in February 1949. The Egyptian government—not for the last time—dissolved the Brotherhood, but in 1951 the organisation was given—again, not for the last time—one more chance to reform itself. A “respected judge”, Hassan al-Hudaybi, was appointed the new Supreme Guide, and a new quietist phase commenced. It lasted a couple of months.

Although our author does not mention it, in 1952 supporters of the MB burnt down a large section of the trendiest part of Cairo, which included theatres, nightclubs and other symbols of the decadent West. Wickham takes up the story in July 1952, when the MB celebrated—along with most Egyptians—the Free Officers coup. The Brotherhood, as delusional as ever, decided they were the “inspiration” for the rebellion and called for the application of sharia. They also began campaigning for General Muhammad Naguib to head the new “revolutionary” government, even after he had lost out to Gamel Abdel Nasser in a power struggle. On January 13, 1954, Nasser dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood. On October 26 that same year a member of the Secret Apparatus attempted to assassinate Nasser in an open-air rally, and by the end of the year Nasser’s regime had destroyed the MB headquarters “and tried a thousand Brotherhood leaders in court”—six were subsequently hanged. We might well detect a certain familiarity in this chain of events.

The period of Nasser’s rule, 1954 to 1970, was not a good one for the Muslim Brotherhood. Nasser’s “Arab Awakening” promised Egyptians (and Syrians, Iraqis, Jordanians, even the Lebanese) a different way to defeat the scourge of Western imperialism—an Arab adaptation of socialism. Nasser initiated land reform, propped up uncompetitive industries, took the Soviet Union’s side in the Cold War, claimed victory in the Suez Crisis, and gave every indication of being a political genius, right up until Israel crushed the Egyptian Armed Forces in the 1967 Six-Day War. One of the tragedies of Nasser’s time in office was that, despite genuine popularity amongst his people, he failed to build a genuine democracy in his country. Today General al-Sisi is faced with the very same challenge: construct a workable, secular democracy or set the scene for the long-term revival of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood would no doubt argue that the real tragedy of the 1954–70 era was the regime’s persecution of men such Sayyib Qutb. Certainly the regime’s mistreatment of Qutb (he was eventually hanged on August 29, 1966) added credence to the ideologue’s rejection of “systems based on man-made laws, whatever their orientation”. In his tract Signposts Along the Path, Qutb condemned all secular political arrangements—democratic Western ones included—as displaying, to use Wickham’s words, “wilful ignorance to God’s sovereign power”. There can be only one alternative to such unawareness (jahiliyya) and that is “the imposition of a system of Islamic law derived from the texts of the Quran and the Sunna”. Moreover, Qutb encouraged Muslim youth to launch a holy war (jihad) with the “ultimate objective of establishing a system based on the laws of God”. Here, for all to see, is the direct antecedent of Osama bin Laden.

Nevertheless, Wickham cautions against seeing the Muslim Brotherhood in its entirety as “single-mindedly bent on seizing power to achieve a set of fixed goals”. To do so, she contends, would be a “gross oversimplification” and “indeed a caricature”. While Qutbists within (and without) the MB movement espouse “the idea of an irreconcilable division between Islam and jahiliyya, Muslim and kafir (non-believer)” and “fully embrace the concept of revolutionary Islamic activism”, there have always been more moderate tendencies at work within the movement. For instance, Sayyid Qutb’s Signposts has to be weighed against Hassan al-Hudaybi’s Preachers, Not Judges (1969), which allows for more flexibility. Devout Muslims, counsels Preachers, Not Judges, may live according to the “laws of God” even in the absence of an Islamic state. Al-Hudaybi additionally makes the case for the Brotherhood to pursue Islamist objectives in Egypt by means of gradualism. What we are talking about here, however, is the difference between stealth jihad and violent jihad—the ultimate goal remains unchanged.

Anwar Sadat came to power in 1970 after the death of Nasser. In an attempt to boost his authority, Sadat purged his regime of hard-line Nasserists—that is to say, secular socialists—and styled himself as the “Believer-President”. A general amnesty for the Muslim Brotherhood ensued. Despite courting the MB, he would have preferred its adherents to limit their activities to “the narrow domain of social and charitable work”. Once off the leash, of course, there was little chance of that.

The Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded Islamist or Salafi contingents were soon demanding the prohibition of alcohol and Koranic-style punishments for serious crimes—stoning adulteresses to death, and so forth. In early 1980, they succeeded in pressuring Sadat into reversing his prized “Jehan’s Law”, legislation intended to expand the rights of women in marriage and divorce. Sadat’s attempted alliance with Islamist university students similarly backfired. The young Islamists’ high-minded extremism “led to instances of physical violence and psychological intimidation” against their “freewheeling”—let us say more normal—cohorts. Many of these activists eventually found their way into the Muslim Brotherhood, “infusing it with new blood”. Sadat, murdered by violent jihadists in 1981, was also an enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood by the time he died.

The Hosni Mubarak years, 1981 to 2011, were like a re-run of the Sadat era, albeit with a different ending to the tale. As Sadat did before him, Mubarak reached out a hand to the Muslim Brotherhood—and by 2005 he was describing it as the enemy of Egypt, a progenitor of terrorism. In between, however, a number of Muslim Brotherhood members participated in parliamentary elections and increasingly passed themselves off as patriotic Egyptians who believed in democratic reform for its own sake. These were the “reform” Brothers, not to be confused with an older generation of traditionalists who disparaged parliamentary democracy. Wickham is, not surprisingly, ambivalent about the MB’s focus on party politics, refusing to rule out the exercise as a simple ruse on order to obtain absolute power in the manner of Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler. The word party, the historian Richard Pipes informs us, means “part”, as in the Tories are part of the Westminster political system. The Bolsheviks, like the National Socialists, might have claimed to be a political party but in reality they were a movement: rather than planning to be one segment of the political spectrum, they were aiming to take over the whole show. Mubarak fell from power in 2011, and very soon after that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Council founded the FJP, choosing Mohamed Morsi to be its public face.

The last chapter in The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is titled “The Brotherhood in Egypt’s Transition”. Wickham ends her book before President Morsi signed into law an Islamist constitution on December 26, 2012, and well before 14 million liberty-loving Egyptians took to the streets on June 30, 2013, demanding the resignation of Morsi and his coterie. Thus, she is still able to say: “Whether or not the Brotherhood will attempt to hijack Egypt’s democratic transition for illiberal purposes remains an open question.” As John Lewis Gaddis called a volume about the Cold War once it was all over and the Soviet archives were opened—We Now Know. It is true that Wickham concluded her narrative before Egypt rebelled in a manner analogous to Eastern Europe in 1989. It is also fair to add that she attempts to chronicle the “evolution” of the Muslim Brotherhood in a scrupulously even-handed, information-rich, academic fashion. Still, her lack of prescience is bewildering, her inability to see the forest for the trees truly astonishing.

Wickham’s blindness begins with her preparedness to allow the Muslim Brotherhood—and so-called “mild Islamists” in general—to define who they are, when she should be doing the defining. Thus, The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt links Egypt’s FJP with Morocco’s Justice and Development Party because both of these Islamist parties have publicly declared their intention to follow “a path of non-violence in pursuit of their objectives”. Wickham then makes the distinction between the Muslim Brotherhood and a militant “national resistance” entity such as Hamas (not to mention an overtly terrorist outfit like Al Qaeda). For a scholar to differentiate between the two makes sense, but then to ignore the Muslim Brotherhood–Hamas nexus—there are just four brief references to Hamas in the entire book—is risible.

One of the reasons General al-Sisi—along with 80 per cent of the population—turned on Morsi was the government’s close connection with Hamas. The Morsi administration, in the opinion of al-Sisi, facilitated the advance of militant jihadists in the Sinai, undermining the sovereign integrity of the Arab Republic of Egypt and endangering the lives of the Egyptian Armed Forces. In early August this year, for instance, Islamist terrorists in the Sinai murdered sixteen Egyptian soldiers. The mourners at the funeral started up a chant: “The Brotherhood and Hamas are one dirty hand.” The vast majority of the people of Egypt—who might be expected to know a thing or two more than Carrie Rosefsky Wickham or even Barack Obama about these things—are utterly convinced “mild Islamists” and violent jihadists exist together on the same spectrum. Can all of those 68 million anti-Brotherhood Egyptians be guilty of Islamophobia—as the be-suited Tariq Ramadan would like us to believe?

During his one year in power Morsi did not even begin to govern the country as a leader for all Egyptians. The Big Pharaoh blogger captured the horror of the MB in power when he labelled the Muslim Brotherhood a “cultic organisation with a fascist twist”. One protester in the aftershock of the June 30 Revolution summarised the experience of MB rule like this: “We were in an occupation by the Brotherhood worse than the British occupation.” An article in the Washington Post on October 9 reported that the most popular song in Egypt was a ditty titled “We Are a People, and You Are a Different People”. The lyrics admonish the reviled Muslim Brotherhood with lines such as these: “Take your yelling and your screaming and your fatwas / And go far away from our land.”

In their short time in office, Morsi and crew threw all their soothing talk of consensus and democracy to the wind—even the purported moderates amongst them, such as Essam el-Erian, deputy leader of the FJP, were suddenly breathing fire. There was their new Islamist constitution, the persecution of Coptic Christians, martial law decreed in various places, the strangling of the media, moves to emasculate the judiciary, the deterioration of conditions in the Sinai, presidential pardons for jailed Islamist terrorists (including those who murdered Sadat), the appointment of former terrorists as governors, rapprochement with the theocratic-fascist regime in Tehran, and the appointment of General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi—an assumed MB sympathiser—as the Supreme Commander of the Egyptian Armed Forces. Serious mistake.

The Big Pharaoh, using an expression first coined by H.A. Hellyer, refers to the dramatic events of July 3, 2013, as a Popularly Legitimate Coup. How else can you describe 14 million people on the streets of Egypt at one time pleading with the Egyptian Armed Forces to rid them of Morsi?

President Obama has always had a soft spot for the Muslim Brotherhood but—in the parlance of Osama bin Laden—he has, as it turns out, backed the weak horse. Obama has turned his back on the people of Egypt, and they appear very keen to turn their back on him—only a Republican administration might repair the damage sometime in the future. Non-Islamist secularists and leftists in Egypt must look to conservative Americans to form a common cause. The Muslim Brotherhood might be experiencing hard times in Egypt, but its cadres still have their hooks into the American Left (or New Class), and that includes the White House. This is a paradox that would be completely lost on the author of The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—Wickham’s book is heavy on detail and surprisingly light on understanding and insight.

Daryl McCann wrote on the Kennedy assassination in the November issue. He has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au