The rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood

  • February 7, 2018
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February 7, 2018

During the days of rioting and demonstrations leading up to the July 2013 coup that overthrew Mohamed Morsi, there were extraordinary claims in the Egyptian media. Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and the first Egyptian president to have been chosen in a relatively open contest, was said to be a western stooge deployed by the US. Washington’s aim, according to this view, was to forge a new Middle East in which existing states, including Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, would be broken up to further a “Greater Israeli Zionist” project formulated by British-American historian Bernard Lewis, an exponent of a “clash of civilisations” between Islam and the west, and secretly adopted by the US Congress.

As Martyn Frampton points out in the introduction to his rigorous yet absorbing The Muslim Brotherhood and the West, the ousting of Morsi by his defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, now president, did nothing to lessen the pervasiveness of such theories. In December 2013, the secular liberal newspaper Al-Dustur carried the front-page headline, “The conspiracies of Washington with the Group of Treachery [ie, the Brotherhood] to assassinate al-Sisi”. In the same month, the British embassy was forced to issue a statement denying that the UK was funding Brotherhood activists in the Nile Delta provinces of Menufiya and Sharqiya. The irony of such fake-news fulminations is that the Brotherhood itself, like most other Islamist organisations, has been constitutionally prone to believe and circulate conspiracy theories about Crusader-Zionist plots against the Islamic world formulated by scholars such as Professor Lewis.

Frampton, a historian based at Queen Mary University of London, covers the Muslim Brotherhood from its found­ation in 1928 by schoolteacher Hasan al-Banna until 2010, before the turbulent events of the 2011 “Arab Spring” that led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak and Morsi’s brief presidency. The infamous massacres at the Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nadha squares in August 2013, when raids on pro-Morsi protest camps by Egyptian security forces are estimated by Human Rights Watch to have resulted in more than 800 deaths, do not feature in Frampton’s narrative. His focus is rather on the diplomatic responses to the movement from the time of the “veiled protectorate” in 1936, when Britain’s high commissioner Sir Miles Lampson (often seen as the last of the grand imperial pro-consuls) sent a telegram to Whitehall recording a “tea party” of some 200 Brothers who were described as “devout young men . . . to the point of fanaticism”.

During the crisis that faced technically neutral Egypt in February 1942 as Rommel approached Alexandria, Lampson famously drove his tanks to the Abdeen Palace, forcing the young King Farouk (whom he usually referred to as “the boy”) to replace a premier thought to be pro-Axis with Mustafa al-Nahas, leader of the liberal nationalist Wafd party. The following month al-Nahas tried to co-opt the Brotherhood by allowing its founder-leader al-Banna to stand as a parliamentary candidate in Ismailiya, where the movement had started.

Hassan al-Banna © ALFRED/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

Many people felt that the Brotherhood had a realistic chance of capturing a seat in the town of its birth, with al-Banna one of 17 candidates sharing a platform calling for the implementation of sharia law. Lampson was sceptical, however, and, doubtless under British pressure, Nahas persuaded al-Banna and his colleagues to withdraw from the election in return for the government enacting a series of measures such as the prohibition of prostitution and curbs on the sale of alcohol during Ramadan.

The deal — if it was such — prefigures the trajectory of the relationship between the Brotherhood and Arab governments as seen by western officials over more than eight decades, ranging from accommodation to confrontation with many intermediate stages. The course of these meandering manoeuvres is meticulously referenced by Frampton through reams of previously uncharted documentation, as well as by the Brotherhood’s own statements and publications. His book fills a crucial gap in the literature and will be essential reading not just for scholars, but for anyone seeking to understand the ever-problematic relationship between religion and politics in today’s Middle East.

Overall the picture that emerges is both nuanced and curiously muddy, a consequence, one suspects, of the Brotherhood’s built-in ambivalence towards the exercise of power. Al-Banna described his movement as “a Salafiya message, a Sunni way, a Sufi truth, a political organisation, an athletic group, a cultural-educational union, an economic company and a social idea”. In some ways the Brotherhood can be seen as a boy-scoutish Muslim self-help movement, redolent of the Victorian writer Samuel Smiles, whose works al-Banna may have encountered in Arabic translation. Yet such a broad scope, attracting members of all social classes, made it a formidable political movement and the foremost source of opposition to British rule in Egypt.

The question of means, however — and particularly recourse to violence — has never ceased to dog the Brotherhood, from the murder of al-Banna in 1949 (by Egyptian security forces, in response to the assumed assassination of an Egyptian minister) and the repression of the movement by the Egyptian leader Abdel Nasser (after an attempt on his life in Alexandria in 1954) to more recent statements by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Brotherhood preacher based in Qatar, in favour of suicide bombings by Palestinian militants. While resistance to Zionist colonisation formed a vital part of its initial appeal in Egypt and the Levant, the Brotherhood has never lost the taint of a more virulent anti-Semitism, exemplified by the inclusion of references to the notorious forgery circulated by the Nazis — The Protocols of the Elders of Zion — in the charter of Hamas, the Brotherhood affiliate now controlling Gaza.

Much of the analysis of the Brotherhood and its affiliates recorded by Frampton turns on the question of whether or not they are committed to democracy, with some officials suggesting they could develop into Muslim-style Christian Democrats, while others point to their implication in violent militancy. While the former tend to argue in favour of dialogue, allowing Islamists to take their chances at the polls, others may cite the precedent of Germany in 1933 — “one man, one vote, one time”.

The examples of Algeria in December 1991, where the army intervened to prevent a likely Islamist victory with tacit approval from Paris and Washington, and of Egypt in 2013, suggest that most existing political establishments have yet to reconcile themselves to this risk. Tunisia, where the Ennahdha party guru Rachid al-Ghannouchi faced down the demands of members for sharia law, appears an important exception, and may be the place to watch.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: A History of Enmity and Engagement, by Martyn Frampton, Harvard University Press, RRP£27.95/$25, 672 pages

Malise Ruthven is the author of ‘Islam in the World’ (OUP)

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