The British documentations and records, which were found between 2010 and 2020 and revolved around the history of the UK’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, helped scholars and researchers in understanding and analyzing the relationship and studying its background, its motives and its impact both in the historical and political field.
The records reveal the main characteristics that distinguish the Muslim Brotherhood organization and their connections with the domestic and foreign components, which is a play based on the internal contradictions, the extended secretive contacts, which created a tactic and method that influenced and built the relationships.
In his book “The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: A History of Hostility and Connection”, published by Harvard University, USA, Martyn Frampton says that the years of World War II represented a crucial stage in the formation of the Brotherhood. Moreover, the organization and its leader, Hassan El-Banna, intensified the play on the contradictions between the palace and King Farouk on one hand, the political parties led by the Wafd and the Saadians on the other, the British Embassy in Cairo on the third, and the Germans and Italians on the fourth. The organization built a relationship with all these parties, some in public and others in secret; like the contacts between El-Banna and his assistants with the political officials or the British intelligence agents. These conflicting yet countervailing alliances with the organization didn’t only keep them away from encirclement but also helped the organization gain and benefit financially and politically from all these parties.
The Egyptian government’s strategy before the July Revolution towards the Muslim Brotherhood
Through hundreds of reports and documentations, Frampton shines the light on the strategy that the Egyptian government followed during the 1940s when dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood. Additionally, Amin Othman, the Wafd delegation official, described their strategy as “killing the Brotherhood with sympathy”, meaning that the Egyptian government would offer them subsidies as a way of monitoring them and benefiting from El-Banna’s pragmatism.
Frampton continues to say that Othman informed the Brits that “the financial aid provided by the delegation to the Brotherhood will be paid secretly by the government and some financial assistance will be needed and requested from the British embassy”.
Miles Lampson, the British ambassador in Cairo, was far from trusting the real goals of the Muslim Brotherhood. Due to the public collusion between the organization and Ali Maher Pasha’s government and Maher’s resistance to the attempts to surround the organization that he and the palace used to strike the Wafd party, Lampson’s fears increased.
With the continuation of the refusal from King Farouk to appoint a new government led by the Wafd’s leader, Mustafa El-Nahhas, the British resorted to the option of constraint and restraint and forced El-Nahhas on the king when they surrounded Abdine Palace; this took place during the 4 February 1942 events. After being threatened to be thrown out, a letter of resignation was written and delivered to King Farouk in his palace in a theatrical manner.
Trying to combat all this, Farouk gave in and took a step back and agreed to summon El-Nahhas to form a ministry. As a result, 4 February 1942 became a day of shame to all Egyptian nationalists.
However, from the moment El-Nahhas took over, he faced many hardships. He found King Farouk in a hostile mood, therefore; both of them were in constant confrontations against each other and the young king forced a challenge on El-Nahhas whenever he could. El-Nahhas found himself victorious over the king only in situations when the British would involve themselves and support him, directly or indirectly. But as a price for this support, the British wanted to see movement from El-Nahhas against the Muslim Brotherhood organization, which has become increasingly militarized, besides openly and clearly announcing that the Egyptian government is supporting its allies during the war, in addition to wanting El-Nahhas to move against Ali Maher, whom Lampson described as “the root of all of our problems”.
World War II was in its peak and Cairo was witnessing actions and demonstrations in support of the Axis powers, while the Germans, led by Rommel, were on the outskirts of Egypt.
Lampson, the British ambassador, thought that the conditions were very dangerous and postponing any action was impossible. This was a result of him finding out that the palace had formed an alliance, which utilizes the power of the Muslim Brotherhood, against the British. Moreover, he also saw that El-Banna and his organization could easily go out of control, because they had their own plans and calculations. All what the British ambassador needed from El-Nahhas was to combat this danger.
However, Lampson’s hopes for El-Nahhas were short lived. In his diary, dated 10 February 1942, Lampson described El-Nahhas as “stubborn and unruly”; this was only one week before El-Nahhas was appointed Prime Minister.
El-Nahhas wanted to release some of the detainees, including Ahmed Hussein, the leader of the Young Egypt Party, yet the British refused and were rather annoyed that El-Nahhas was not supportive of the idea of arresting Ali Maher Pasha, but instead chose to keep him in the residence on his farm.
The biggest source of worry for the British was the reports that revealed the increasing discontent within the Egyptian army after the 4 February events. Consequently, Lampson considered the conditions there to be “very dangerous”, especially after reports revealed the formation of a “secret bond” within the Egyptian army, which included soldiers that rejected the British occupation; there were also some hints that King Farouk himself was involved in its founding. Secretly, Lampson mentioned the matter to El-Nahhas. Furthermore, the British kept a close eye, watching the army officers, in particular the younger ones.
Ambassador Lampson was entirely convinced of the “Brotherhood’s misconduct” and hoped that El-Nahhas would play a pivotal role in countering them. Instead, El-Nahhas, like his successor Sri Pasha, seemed unwilling to break down El-Banna and his organization.
On the other hand, the Wafd Party decided on the approach to try to reconcile and co-opt the Brotherhood. So not only did they allow El-Banna to roam freely, but they initially allowed him to run in the Ismailia Parliamentary elections that took place in March of 1942.
In fact, El-Banna and 16 members of the Brotherhood organization ran in the elections, but later withdrew their nominations. This was the result of an agreement with El-Nahhas as part of a deal that included making other decisions, like banning the sale of alcohol in Ramadan. This was in exchange of El-Banna publishing an open message to the government on Al-Ahram newspaper. The message should’ve included El-Banna clearly announcing his loyalty both to the government and the 1936 treaty between Britain and the Egyptian government. El-Banna delivered his end of the bargain.
The deal between El-Banna, El-Nahhas and the Wafd Party resulted in the palace and King Farouk withdrawing their support to the Muslim Brotherhood. Likewise, many of the organization’s members critiqued El-Banna widely and considered and described him as “submissive and deceiving”. Many reports even revealed that there’s a potential of defections within the organization, however; El-Banna quickly reignited his control over the organization. Similarly, the palace’s bitterness towards El-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood was fleeting. In fact, in April 1942, the British discovered that King Farouk has resumed his support to the Brotherhood. To add on, there were reports around a deal between El-Banna and Mahmoud El-Nokrashy, deputy leader of the Saadi Party.
Hence, by early summer 1942, it was evident that the Muslim Brotherhood has consolidated an understanding across the spectrum of the political scene in Egypt. In other words, the organization had established pragmatic relations with the king, the palace, the Saadi Party and the rest of the parties. In a similar manner, the Brotherhood had formed pragmatic understandings with the British, the Italians and the Germans.
The deal with El-Nahhas was another victory for El-Banna’s pragmatic policy style. It seemed that the organization was finally able to focus on expanding especially after it enjoys the unprecedented support and political protection the palace, the Saadi Party, the rest of the parties and the British. The Brotherhood remained the main subject of serious argument between the British and El-Nahhas government, says Frampton.
“Killing the Brotherhood with sympathy”
In mid-April 1942, Ambassador Frampton and his staff from the embassy met with prominent Wafd delegation official Amin Othman to discuss the Muslim Brotherhood organization, who are “dangerously active”.
Othman describes the way that El-Nahhas and his government are approaching and dealing with the organization by saying “it’s the wisest way to deal with the Brotherhood so that they do not work in secret”. Othman continues to reassure the British by making it clear that the government will be ready to arrest the militants if needed.
Frampton says that the British records reveal that Brigadier Clayton, Head of the British Military Intelligence, who attended the meeting, agrees with this argument, but warns El-Nahhas by saying “he must be wary and cautious of strengthening the organization, intentionally or unintentionally, and taking a stronger stance against the organization”.
In spite of the British call to crack down on the organization, prominent politician Othman argued that it could be better to “kill the brotherhood with sympathy”, in simple terms to continue opening channels and connections between them and El-Nahhas’ government as an indirect way of monitoring them, and benefiting from El-Banna’s famous pragmatism.
Othman continues to tell the British that “the financial aids offered by the Wafd to the Muslim Brotherhood will be secretly paid by the government and in that case, some financial aid will be requested from the British embassy”.
This is astonishing, comments Frampton, because it shows that once again, there’s a potential for the actual British support to the Brotherhood, as money flows to them through the Egyptian government. Even though it’s hard to know how much were these payments, it’s clear and it appears likely that the British money provided to El-Nahhas’ government ended up in the Muslim Brotherhood’s closets.
The main question is whether the compromise approach of El-Nahhas’ government may now succeed I curbing the brotherhood. But by the end of 1942 and the beginning of 1943, the British saw little evidence to support this idea. In September, the Brotherhood organization used their new fortune in publishing a weekly newspaper, “The Muslim Brotherhood”, with support from El-Nahhas’ government.
As Rommel, the German leader, advanced in Alamein desert, some Brotherhood students participated in pro-German demonstrations.
One of the British cables states that even though El-Banna sought to especially express that he “wished to avoid any conflict with the government or us (the British)”, the organization’s secret activities suggested something different.
There were reports that indicate that Hassan El-Banna bragged to his followers about their plans to go through with a “widespread rail sabotage”. The embassy renewed its calls to act against the embassy. The diplomats were delighted to see a temporary ban on the Muslim Brotherhood’s meetings and the threat of further action, however; that didn’t last very long.
After a short period of time, El-Nahhas met directly with El-Banna and they arranged a new “settlement” between them.
Frampton says that a special British report prepared about this meeting revealed that El-Banna insists that his movement is purely religious and does not wish to be political.
El-Banna promised that the Brotherhood won’t hold any meetings in Cairo and promised to support El-Nahhas’ government. In exchange for that, he requested that the organization be allowed to continue its advocacy work, as he described it.
However, as the British indicated, El-Banna paired the offer with an implicit threat that even if the government rejected the deal, the Muslim Brotherhood would continue all its activities.
In December of 1942, the British Military Intelligence produced a lengthy and revealing analysis about the organization, under the title “The Muslim Brotherhood… Reconsideration”.
This document, as Frampton explains, provides a great deal of details on the way the British viewed the organization and their development during the Second World War.
In many ways, the document illustrated the extent of their confusion about the organization. It also includes wrong information, like that the organization was established in 1930. It also contains many descriptions about El-Banna including that he was a “coward” and he was “cautious” and that “those who met him acquired the impression of an ambitious, sly person, hiding behind the mask of simplicity.”
The document described the Muslim Brotherhood as an “extremist organization” with a “radical vision”. There were also references included about the “moral and material support” that the organization received from Ali Maher Pasha and the palace. The British officials also compared the organizational form of the Muslim Brotherhood to the organization of “Nazi Fascist Groups”.
The British thought that the Brotherhood members were involved in the planning of the sabotage of the vital infrastructure and communications. The document also referred to many reports that indicated that the organization had developed “suicide squads”, after El-Banna claimed that in September of 1941 that he had 2000 armed men at his disposal.
The document also mentioned that the organization was preparing to start working with the Germans and the Italians. It also included that there is a chance the Brotherhood may rise as a competitor to the Wafd over power in the future. But this particular point was a cause of deep disagreement between the British officials.
Ambassador Lampson offered a more skeptical opinion when thinking about the Brotherhood’s long-term outlook. In his opinion, while there wasn’t a shadow of a doubt about the “attractiveness” of the Brotherhood to the “simple religious Muslims”, its extremist vision doesn’t fit with the rising trend of the modernization in Egypt.
Lampson used to think that the “attractiveness” of the organization is mainly based on “xenophobia’, and considered it “unlikely to exchange a large nationalist party like the Wafd with such a narrow, obscure and religious organization’
In January of 1943, due to the pressure caused by the British ambassador, El-Nahhas’ government reinforced its ban on the organization to host meetings in Cairo, with an exception of a weekly meeting, where it’s allowed to discuss religious matters only.
However, El-Banna expressed his desire to reach a new deal with the government, and in parallel, he signaled to his supporters to declare a stronger position, as a way to put more pressure on El-Nahhas.
Taking the law by force
Once again, the elusive approach taken by the Brotherhood organization seemed to be paying off. El-Nahhas later hinted about his willingness to lift the restraints and restrictions off the organization, under one condition and that is that El-Banna should publicly apologize to the Wafd Party due to his previous criticism of them. The organization were also required to participate in government propaganda, along with presenting all their organization and their financial affairs to be under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior Affairs. These conditions weren’t clear in El-Banna’s head, therefore; he sought to evasiveness again, hoping to secure a meeting with El-Nahhas, to improve the terms of their understanding. But due to El-Nahhas’ sickness and disputes within the organization, followed by Makram Ebeid Pasha’s criticism towards El-Nahhas and him publishing the “Black Book” on corrupt practices within the government, the hoped for meeting didn’t happen.
At that time, the British Intelligence noticed that certain leaders of certain branches within the Brotherhood were ready to “take the law into their own hands”, if their headquarters weren’t re-opened.
Despite London’s concern about El-Nahhas’ weakness to face the organization, and despite El-Nahhas’ political troubles, the British felt “obligated’ to stand by the Prime Minister. They also warned King Farouk against taking advantage of the “black book’ crisis and trying to overthrow El-Nahhas.
Frampton also points out that the crisis between El-Nahhas and Makram Ebeid gave Hassan El-Banna a golden chance to save his understanding with El-Nahhas. The organization put out a “strong critique” on both Makram and the “Black Book”, and El-Banna presented his full support to the trapped Prime Minister.
This development was very unfortunate in the eyes of ambassador Lampson. He noted that in order to consolidate El-Nahhas’ British-backed government, the government “must seek support from the reactionary xenophobic organization”.
In the end, El-Nahhas allowed the re-opening of the organization’s headquarters in Egypt and continued to offer and provide them with financial aids.