03 June 2005




The Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian State in the Balance of Democracy

By Amin Al-Mahdy


The Political Egyptian map is going through a critical and shaky transitional period in which all probabilities are possible. The weight of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt cannot be avoided as a political reality. This article is an attempt to explore the political horizon for the role of this group and to analyze its interaction with the Egyptian regime and the prospect of the democracy in the context.


The beginnings of the Muslim brotherhood are of some ambiguity which led to different interpretation to its birth. These interpretations depend on some secret introductions or what is known as conspiracy theory. Some isolate the beginnings of this group from the context of the modern Egyptian history, subjecting the history of the Group to fragment understanding which certainly leads to wrong analyses.


The establishment of the Muslim brotherhood group comes within the social and political history of Egypt since the end of both the first modern state founded by Mohamed Ali (1805-1880) and the second modern state (1919-1952). The social and political modernization in Egypt was subject to a conflict between modernization advocates against the backdrop of the European Renaissance, in particular the French Revolution, and those who believed that the nation’s salvation is closely tied to the origins of the Islamic civilization in the sense of reviving the Caliphate. Some of the latter camp adopted ideas related to the redeemer and the inspiring leader which is a fascist curve if we agreed that Fascism is restricting “Home” to one idea or one person.   


The first camp was led by “Al-Omaa” party and the institution of Ahmed Lotfy Al-Sayed. It comprised also the constitutional Al-Wafd and Al-Aharrar parties, Al-Wafd avant garde, socialist currents, and other political, economic and cultural groups like the bloc of Ismail Sedky, the first patron of Egyptian capitalism, as well as Industries’ Federation, Renaissance Group and Bread and Freedom Group. This camp was led by the growing middle class under the civil state and the liberal economic and political experiment.  The first string for this class encompassed the foreign communities, the nationalized Egyptians, traders, employees, high school and European universities graduates, judges, metropolitan Copts, some of Al-Azhar graduates who rebelled against the religious education in addition to families of political history.


On the other hand, the traditional camp was under the leadership of the National Party and whatever stemmed from this party or revolved in its orbit like General Aziz Al-Masry who was the nanny of King Farouk when he was a crown prince, Ali Maher Group, Masr Al-Fatah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iron guards and Free Officers of the July Revolution. The base of this camp was the social class that failed to be participants in Egypt’s modernization or the modernization failed to reach out to them. This bracket included some of the countryside residents, owners of small-scale agricultural properties, Al-Azhar and religious schools graduates, other confused and overwhelmed categories as well as some other politically ambitious groups from the civilians and the militants. This current was support by King Foad and later by his son King Farouk. Both dreamt of inheriting the Ottoman Caliphate. Egoistic bruises and injuries were the answer to the traditional military camp as the society was continuing to be built and the renaissance project for the modernizing camp was established. Idealistic ideas got over any social and economic perspective due to the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate at the hands of the European conspiracies (from their point of view). Great Britain was the most prominent power among European allies and it was Egypt’s occupier.


The modernizers made a bet on the victory of the allies in World War II, while the traditionalists made their bet on the Nazi Germany, Ottoman ally in World War I, to win. Traditionalists shouted loud: “Move forward Rommel”. They named leader of Nazism: “Haj Mohamed Hitler”.  In this manner the conflict won new broader dimensions, especially with the increase of the social gap between the cities and towns and the classes which is the virtue of capitalism at its very early stages.  


Individualism, reticence and charisma of Sheikh Hassan Al-Banna played a role in the ambiguous start of the Muslim Brotherhood Group in Ismailia Governorate in 1928. It is a colonial city. The ambiguity of the Group framed its gradual evolution from an association calling for ethics to a political organization that later won followers from an expeditionary group. This expeditionary group was transformed into a special organization to be the secret separate military wing. The wing was directly under the Supreme Guide Hassan Al-Banna. Some of the leaderships did not know about its existence. They were behind terrorist acts resulted in the death of the two Egyptian prime ministers and a judge. The militant wing attacked the properties of the foreign communities and the nationalized citizens at the top of which were the Jews. The terrorist acts were accomplished in collaboration with Masr Al-Fatah Group every year on November 2, to commemorate Balfour permission. Coptic, economic, legal and mass media properties were attacked by same kind of terrorism.  The characters of the Supreme Guide in addition to the ideological deformity resulted in an organizational, intellectual and structural deficiency that still accompanies the march of the Brotherhood until this day. I have to mention here that the number of terrorist acts committed by the National Party before the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood. A young guy called Ibrahim Al-Wardany killed Egyptian Prime Minister Boutros Ghali out of racist nationalist and fascist motives in 1909. Enayat Al-Saryder also killed the British citizen, Lee Stake, which resulted in the fall of Al-Wafd government in 1923.


The Muslim Brotherhood, like all other religious radical groups, depends on the simple marginalized youth. For this youth, religious ideology represents an ideal choice between becoming a ruler or a martyr in heaven. It is like all reclusive religious groups that go through three phases; First Phase: the missionary that starts with evangelization of salvation that bears guardianship and compulsion after it becomes part of an organizational force, Second phase: a fierce clash with reality which is the terrorism stage as it realizes the complexity of reality and the difficulty of changing it and Third phase: the transformation to a duality of religiousness and realism that usually slips into opportunism.


The most important incident in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood is when major Mahmoud Labib (he was the right arm for general Aziz Al-Masri when he was fighting with the Ottoman against Italy in Libya) together with seven low-rank soldiers that included Gamal Abdel Nasser and Khaled Mohey El-Din in 1943 went to pay allegiance to Sheikh Hassan Al-Banna, the Supreme Guide for the Muslim Brotherhood on the Holy Quran and a gun to give birth to the nucleus of the Muslim Brotherhood Officers. The sickness of Mahmoud Labib and later his death in 1950 gave Gamal Abdel Nasser the leadership of the Group where most of it became members in the private organization that Abdel Nasser trained some of its cadres. He himself attempted to kill Prime Minister Hussein Serry on the eve of changing the name of the organization as some minority currents were included to the “Free Officers”.


The Group supported King Farouk against the majority Al-Wafd party. When the people demonstrated shouting: “Al-Nahas or the Revolution… the people are with Nahass,”, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Azhar students demonstrated: “God with the King. The King was leading the Army. Al-Wafd however deemed the Army as a symbol of national independence. That explains why fascist groups became so active in the Army at the top of which were members of the Muslim Brotherhood that was seen as the upcoming Islamic Caliphate Army.  When July Coup d’Etat took place, there were only two Copts at the General ranks and five at the rank of brigadier general. The traditionalist camp pressured the King, the Army leadership and the rightist wing of Al-Wafd Party in order to engage in Palestine war as it was believed that liberating Palestine is the first step to establish the Islamic Caliphate and weaken the competitor which is the Hashemite family. When defeat was the result, revenge hysteria mounted to cries for war. 


World War II, as a key international factor, re-arranged the world arena at the expense of attracting two untraditional polarities from outside traditional Europe and that weakened the British and French influence. The American policy in return sought filling in the vacuum which started at that time when McCarthyism was ruling the political minds in the US. McCarthyism did not mind supporting the fascist military coup d’etat. As a result, traditionalists in Egypt won an international and regional support that was not available at the domestic level. And it was closer to a surgical interference.


Sheikh Hassan Al-Banna paid his life as a price for the last prominent operation in the phase of terrorism that started 1945. It was the assassination of Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmy Al-Noukrshy because he signed a truce agreement following the Arabs’ defeat in the 1948 war. There was no hope to change the result. It was also another evidence of the intellectual inefficiency of the Muslim Brotherhood especially that Noukrshy was one of those who were sentenced to death by the British occupation in the 1919 Revolution. His partner was Prime Minister Ahmed Maher who was also assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood when he declared the war on Germany in 1945. It was a superficial procedure, a condition for Egypt to be a member at the United Nations’.  The terrorism phase came to an end with the killing of Ibrahim Abdel Hady.


The leaderships of the Muslim Brotherhood learned from what had happened. The book of the second Supreme Guide of the Group, Counselor Hassan Al-Houdiby titled “Callers not Judges” was issued.  The Muslim Brotherhood had a representative to “Ansar Al-Salam” – Advocates of Peace. The representative was Sheikh Al-Tamimey. Ansar Al-Salam was founded by Youssif Helmy. However, the private wing and the Officers’ group went on their path ignoring the “civilian” political wing. May be the Cairo arson on Jan 26, 1952 was one of the stations on this path as Abdel Nasser sealed the investigation records after he became the Minister of the Interior. He hailed the arson in a booklet titled the “Revolution’s Philosophy”. It was the arson that toppled Al-Wafd party government and paved the way for the Coup d’Etat. He also released all prisoners of terrorism. Nasser excluded the Muslim Brotherhood from the decision of shutting down the political parties.


Nasser punished the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood by sentencing them to death, torturing and relentless humiliation after his controversial assassination attempt in 1954. In my opinion, the political environment in the shadow of a fierce military republic could not take competitors after the salvation from all the other political forces especially that he made the Sheikhs of the Muslim Brotherhood close to the authority.  Those Sheikhs had only to send a letter of allegiance so that accusations against them be dropped. Most of them were members or sympathizers of the secret organization, most of which are from the bottom of the social rural class. Since that day and for half a century, the religious jihadist speech and the conservative rural culture became the social political culture for the military July republic. Abdel Nasser used Masr Al-Fatah Group to make up for the shortcoming of the Muslim Brotherhood’s vision. This way the cultural exception of the Egyptian society before the coup d’etat became the creed of the regime. Openness to Arabism and socialism did not change this reality. In fact, this openness policy remained as a method for regional influence and a way to consolidate the pillars of the authoritarian central state. The evidence for changes is that in the same year, 1961, when socialist nationalization for economy and finance took place, law 103 was issued to structurally organize the Sunni Al-Azhar institution. The Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar position was transformed from an official responsible for behavior of the students and other sheikh teachers to an officer of Islam. A sectarian scientific university was founded. Al-Boo’th Islamic city was established which brought all students from Africa and Asia for free Islamic education to become leaders of extremism. Later, one party was founded titled socialist union. That was the same period when the idea for fundamentalist Arabicization for Alegeria was initiated by the Muslim Brotherhood Sheikhs. Gaza was handed to them where Al-Azhar university was established, together with some religious schools, was built. A decision by two sheikhs from Al-Azhar to confiscate the novel of Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, Sons of our Ally, was taken. The two Sheikhs are Al-Sayed Sabek and Mohamed Al-Ghazaly.


A narrow-minded eastern Arab Islamic front with military aggressive frame of mind was formulated against s western Christian imperialist Zionist and “Infidel front. The main issues of freedom, progress and peace were diminished.  That was reflected, among civilians and sheikhs, on the organizational and intellectual structure of the Group as the Muslim Brotherhood leadership was interchangeable among members of the secret organization. It went through a context of extremism and fundamentalism towards the abyss of the current social and political climate in Egypt where two third of the most radical and fundamental organizations globally were formed.  It is ironical that the west under the leadership of the US named this situation stability.


Polices met the aspired results over these long decades (with more results than needed). For example, to name it but few, Muslims in Egypt were divided between the Al-Shafa’a and Al-Hanafy sects. They are the most two flexible sects of Islam. Religion and sectarian pluralism was an obvious advantage of the Egyptian life. Shiite Ashoura commemoration and Al-Hussein 40 days remembrance were celebrated in the district of Al-Azhar in Egypt. Peaceful Sufism was a pillar of the Egyptian social life. Celebrations of Sufism are filled with art and joy.  Muslims used to receive blessings from Christian priests. Easter Palms were hung in all Egyptian houses without any sensitivity. In addition to this, Nile, Cotton, Flower, Science, Teacher, Worker, Farmer and Scout Days were national feasts. Egyptians from all sects were exercising at the Jewish clubs. But under the July republic, Copts, Jewish, Bah’ais and all other religions and sects became the security mandate. Lieutenant General Saad Al-Din Al-Sharif was appointed to chair the “legal association” of the Sufis which was one of the biggest religious groups in Egypt. All national days were cancelled except Sham El-Naseem (marking advent of spring of the Pharaonic origin), religious feasts and the military faked victory celebrations. Religion became obligatory in schools for public education when Islamic schools before did not exceed seven in total together with three high institutes only. Today, there are almost 7000 Islamic schools and institutes. Islamic education constitutes third of the public education. Sheikhs were invited to all censorship institutions. Their number became six times the number of lawyers in Egypt. Nothing in the laws and regulations condemns Fatwas, (religious opinions) incitement to killings and hatred or criminal suicide bombings which are taken over as a mission by the publications authorities, official mass media and mosques. Friday prayers party is loudly taking the responsibility of massing up against democracy, science, peace, women, the West (civilization) and any other different faith and sects including some other Muslim sects.


Building mosques is not subject to any law, including real estate and general property laws. No matter how the mosque consumes electricity and water, the general treasury pays for it when millions of Egyptians live in cemeteries and two million homeless children are wandering in the streets of Egypt. It is worth mentioning that there are three Islamic entities in Egypt operating at the ministerial levels; Ministry of Wakfs, the Sunni Al-Azhar institution and Dar Al-Eftaa (an institution responsible for issuing Islamic Fatwas).


The authoritarian central state monopolized the approach of the one single interpretation for religion and ethics. It subjected science and knowledge to serve faith. Corruption found its way to everything. Efforts were crowned by making the Islamic Shaar’a the main source of the constitution and legislation. Decision-making institutions excluded Christians and women from influential positions. Extension for the president’s term was named “paying allegiance”. Political parties’ law stipulated as a condition agreeing on applying Islamic Shara’a and resigning to the military republic. Many anti-civil laws and anti-human rights conventions courts were built. The highest court in Egypt approved separating an academic researcher from his wife after declaring him an infidel.


What can the Muslim Brotherhood add except continuing the road to darkness and backwardness leading to a state like Taliban? The state has tried over the past few years to raise the level of the tool partner to be an included partner especially that the Muslim Brotherhood is of prominence on the map of chaos that was caused by the Arab regimes in Palestine, Sudan, Lebanon, Algeria and Iraq. They are the global seats for the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has an experience in dealing with the terrorist groups remotely. That was evident when Farag Fouda was assassinated. They first paved the way for promoting the idea that he is an infidel. Later they defended the killers in courts whom statements were red-handed except Sleem Al-Awaa. Such evidence elects them to be a perfect tool for chaos. It is difficult to explain how a military religious state asks a religious group to be a civil party? The situation is close to a deception. Or is it the old problematic issue in the ancient Egyptian history; the conflict of the priests and the temple under the military feudalism aiming at using the society and forging its awareness and will.


I admit that Al-Wasat party experiment and abandonment of radical violence need more effort at the study and dialogue levels. I believe that opportunity is still there.


I also believe that if one of the conditions of the civil state and democratic life is to redistribute power or authority and wealth on the desperate burdened Egyptian society and to decentralize corrupt political and economic authority, civil state and democracy also mean returning the spiritual needs and moral strength to the free personal will. And this should be stipulated to contront the state before the Muslim Brotherhood.




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