The truth about the Muslim Brotherhood

Secularist politics is weak in Egypt partly because the Brotherhood was often used as an attack dog against it.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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‘What if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power?’

That’s the question now being asked about Egypt, and not only by Washington and Israel, who fear the emergence of ‘another Iran’. Amongst apparently liberal commentators, too, initial excitement about the uprising is giving way to panic over the possibility that an intolerant Islamic state could be erected on the sands of Mubarak’s eventual withdrawal from politics.

There is a great irony to this Western fretting over the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood will elbow aside more rational, secularist forces and take control in Egypt. Because at various times in recent decades, the Brotherhood was exploited to precisely those ends – the quashing of secular political movements – by the very Western institutions and their Arab allies who now worry that it will come to power.

Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood went on to become the most influential political Islamist group in the world. Its offshoots include Hamas in the Palestinian territories and many of the Islamic factions that emerged from the Afghan-Soviet War of 1979 to 1989, which the Brotherhood played a key role in.

From the outset, the Brotherhood, socially conservative and anti-communist, was seen as a potentially useful tool by Western actors keen to keep a check on radical anti-colonialist movements. The immediate precursor to the Brotherhood, in the early 1920s, was an Islamist-leaning organisation called the Society of Propaganda and Guidance, which was tacitly supported by the then British colonialists in Egypt. They considered the Society to be a useful counterweight to anti-colonialist groups keen to expel British forces. The Society’s journal, The Lighthouse, met with British approval with its articles denouncing Egyptian nationalists as ‘atheists and infidels’ (1).

One graduate of the Society was Hassan al-Banna, later founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. From the late 1920s to the early 1950s, Britain and the Muslim Brotherhood had a complex relationship, flitting between hostility and covert working together to achieve shared interests. As Robert Dreyfuss points out in Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, both the Brotherhood and British intelligence forces were, if for quite different reasons, suspicious of the growing nationalist movement for Egyptian independence (2).

In 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser took power in Egypt, in a military coup that ousted the West’s man on the ground, King Farouk. Nasser, who was later president from 1956 to 1970, instituted a secular republic and later ‘Arab socialism’. In the early period of ‘Nasserism’, the anti-Nasser Brotherhood continued to be looked upon by elements in the West, first Britain and later the US, as a potential rein on Nasser’s power and ambitions. In his book Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism, John K Cooley describes how Washington’s foreign-policy regime viewed Nasser’s Soviet-friendly Egypt as a ‘handmaiden of communism’ (3). In the late 1950s and early 1960s, US observers were keen to work with the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia and others in developing an ‘anti-Nasser, anti-Soviet Islamic Pact’ (4).

To this end, the Brotherhood, along with other Islamist groups, started to receive ‘covert, usually modest, American aid, when they were engaged against local or Soviet communists’ (5). As Cooley says, the fact that Islamist groups such as the Brotherhood were ‘resolutely anti-communist’ led to America’s ‘flirtation with these Muslim groups that had politicised their religion’ (6). (Washington’s focus was, of course, changeable during this period. So during the Suez Crisis of 1956, it temporarily backed Nasser, by chastising Britain, France and Israel for launching a war against Egypt following Nasser’s announcement that he would nationalise the Suez Canal.)

In the late 1950s and the 1960s, Nasser brutally suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood. He banned it, imprisoned thousands of its members, and in 1966 executed its leader, Sayyid Qtub. Yet following the Six Day War with Israel in 1967, in which the Arab armies, including Egypt’s, were swiftly humiliated, Nasser started to face serious opposition at home from secular leftists and radicals. There was violent streetfighting. In response to this challenge to their authority, the rulers of Egypt made amends with the Muslim Brotherhood, with an eye for unleashing the Islamists to take on the secularists.

In 1970, Anwar Sadat, who became president after Nasser suffered a fatal heart attack, sought to patch things up with the Brotherhood. He released its members from prison and encouraged them to face down the leftists. The French expert on Islam, Gilles Kepel, refers to this as ‘Sadat’s gamble’, where the express aim was to ‘encourage the emergence of an Islamist movement [that was] socially conservative’. Sadat wanted this movement to ‘hold the line against more radical groups whose goal was to subvert society’ (7).

As John K Cooley says, Sadat ‘relied upon Islamists to fight Communist influence in Egypt’ (8). Sadat later had a direct and fatal experience of the blowback that can come from ‘flirtation with Muslim groups’ for cynical political ends: he was assassinated in 1981 by Islamic Jihad, one of the very forces he had pushed forward to challenge secular radicalism in the 1970s.

‘Sadat’s gamble’ – the cultivation of Islamism as a battering ram against leftism – is a microcosm of various Western flirtations with Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, over the past five decades. The Western backers of Sadat supported his deployment of the Muslim Brotherhood to attack those who sought to ‘subvert society’. Because for Washington, this was an opportunity to move Egypt away from its Nasser-era cosiness with the Soviet Union and fully into the Western, anti-Soviet camp. Indeed, in 1972 Sadat expelled all remaining Soviet military personnel from Egypt. And later, in 1978 and 1979, he allowed the Muslim Brotherhood, at Washington’s request, to become major ‘recruiting sergeants’ for the ‘army of zealots’ – the Mujahideen – that was being funded and backed by Britain and America to take on the Soviets in Afghanistan (9). This was of course the high point (low point?) of Western sponsorship of radical Islamists against alleged greater evils.

Others, outside of Egypt, also indulged in variants of the ‘Sadat gamble’. The Likud rulers of Israel in the late 1970s took the decision to try to ‘contain the Palestine Liberation Organisation by enhancing the position of an anti-PLO alternative’ (10). And who did they turn to in search of that alternative? The Muslim Brotherhood. As Quintan Wiktorowicz catalogues in his book Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach, Likud allowed the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood ‘space to organise, space that was not provided to the PLO’ (11).

The reason why Israel tacitly supported Islamist elements in the Gaza Strip and other Palestinian territories is because it saw them as ‘a counterweight to the PLO’, a secular, radical guerrilla outfit which was viewed as ‘a greater threat to Israeli interests and security’, says Wiktorowicz (12). The Brotherhood networks that were given a green light by Israel in the 1970s and 80s later became Hamas, which Israel now considers a mortal enemy. Israel, too, has learned that the Islamist gamble frequently leads to Islamist blowback.

Today, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the radical organisation it was at various times in the past. It is increasingly pragmatic. To the extent that it retains influence in Egypt, it is as a result of the hollowing out and weakening of secularist politics – a process that was exacerbated by the various uses of the Brotherhood by the West and its allies to harry secular radical forces between the 1950s and the 1980s. Anyone who takes a serious look at the Brotherhood’s history would surely conclude that the last thing the Middle East needs is more Western intervention – even if this time it’s done in the name of promoting secularists to dampen the fortunes of the Brotherhood, in a perfect inversion of the ‘Sadat gamble’ that was employed by everyone from America to Egypt to Israel in the past.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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