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The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: Reading through Official UK Documents (3)

The conflict between the palace, the UK and civil political forces in Egypt on how to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood remained a source of disputes and bad decisions. On 16 May 1943, four ministers in El-Nahhas’ government attended a meeting with the Brotherhood at its headquarters in Cairo. The UK documents reveal that this meeting discussed, among other matters, offering a high office in the Ministry of Interior to Ahmed El-Sokkary, one of El-Banna’s powerful men, and finding a high office for Hassan El-Banna in the Ministry of Education.

In London, some diplomats criticized the decision of El-Nahhas’ government to pay “financial subsidies” to the Brotherhood, but others saw long-term benefits in maintaining communication with the Brotherhood. In July 1943, a report by a British intelligence agent operating in Cairo proposed that while Britain should continue to support the Wafd Party, it should also “establish sympathetic unofficial relationships with Hassan El-Banna”. The initiative aimed at collecting information to better understand the Brotherhood. Some government officials, Frampton said, promoted the idea that those channels with the Brotherhood can help to change the Brotherhood towards the political and social liberalism and encourage it to become more modern.

In this manner, the report provides an early example of a concept that got great impetus over the next decades, which is that “the dialogue with the Brotherhood may lead to a change in its behaviour and ideology towards political liberalism”. 

The note of the intelligence caused disputes in British Departments. Edwin Arthur Chapman-Andrews, a diplomat in the British Foreign Office, described that note as “interesting” but its results are “superficial”. He also described the attempts to establish relationships with the Brotherhood as “ridiculous” and referred to the Brotherhood members as “ignorant”, “rigid”, “a miserable group” and not having “a single heavy weight” within the Brotherhood. In Chapman-Andrews’ opinion, the only real importance of the Brotherhood was that it would make “ready-made killers”. Therefore, there was a need to monitor the Brotherhood. 

Moreover, Chapman-Andrews continued to reject the idea that the Brotherhood would ever amount to a significant political force, explaining that “It’s dangerous to predict in politics, but I feel that the Brotherhood will never count in the Egyptian policy as a party, like the Wafd Party”. 

Cairo settled down throughout the rest of World War II after the German troops had been expelled from Alamein. Many British officials started to ask whether they should continue to support El-Nahhas’s government. For example, Chapman-Andrews argued that Britain should try to retreat again from any direct interference in the Egyptian domestic policy.

However, Ambassador Lampson insisted that the British interests were served better by maintaining the alliance with El-Nahhas because “there is no practical alternative to the existing government”. This view prevailed over some time after the UK Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and the Prime Minister Winston Churchill endorsed Lampson’s assessment. Thus, King Farouk’s hands were tied again regarding the dismissal of El-Nahhas.

However, the winds of change blew in the late 1944. In October, the long-awaited moment finally arrived. While Lampson was on vacation in South Africa, King Farouk dismissed El-Nahhas’ government. A new government was formed by Saadist leader Ahmed Maher Pasha (Ali Maher Pasha’s brother). That was a smart move from the palace due to Maher’s views in favour of Britain. According to Frampton, the absence of the British Ambassador on a vacation was just a pretext for Britain’s silence on dismissing El-Nahhas. The current in the British government that held El-Nahhas responsible for “the Brotherhood’s wickedness and intrigue” over the last four years prevailed. 

The Brotherhood and establishing a network of interests

Frampton said that telegrams between the UK Foreign Secretary and British Embassy in Cairo and documents revealed that the years that saw World War II were crucial with regard to the establishment of the Brotherhood. The war posed obstacles to the Brotherhood, including detentions, disruption of activities and monitoring. However, the Brotherhood’s difficulties did not last long. El-Banna showed a very good beneficial political tactic, opened channels of communication with the palace, the Wafd and Saadist parties, Britain, Germany and Italy, and kept a margin of manoeuvre that granted him protection under the wings of Britain, the palace and the government. When El-Nahhas was dismissed, the Muslim Brotherhood was more powerful than ever before by the recognition of British intelligence and diplomats.

Britain ended World War II and was determined to maintain its presence in Egypt. In April 1945, the UK Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden went so far as to recommend that Britain retain the responsibility for defending the Suez Canal “in perpetuity”.   

The common view between the British Chiefs of Staff Committee and the British Ambassador in Cairo, Sir Miles Lampson, was that Egypt is the cornerstone of British imperialism. Nevertheless, British officials were unaware of the post-war environment, many variables and new challenges in the Middle East. On the one hand, the allure of Arab nationalism was on the rise and national liberation movements were spreading all over the empire. On the other hand, London’s influence was about to retreat before the United States, the new world power coming across the Atlantic. Thirdly, socialist ideas and the Soviet model were attracting youth and liberation movements, particularly due to the deep social and economic problems in Egypt.

Due of the Soviet danger, the United States decided to put off its aspirations in the region and cooperate with Britain to stop the spread of socialist and communist ideas. The Anglo-American collaboration in the Middle East was boosted in the “Pentagon Talks” in 1945. The American diplomacy concluded that the British and American interests in the region were now “parallel” instead of “competitive”. But at the same time, a number of American officials expressed their regret for what was considered “apparent British failure” to deal with the Middle East, especially with regard to the growing challenge of the Arab nationalist currents.

British policy in line with El-Banna’s aspirations

For its part, Britain sought to “update” the image of the British Empire by inculcating new concepts revolving arout “partnership” instead of “dominance”. The British Labour government, led by Clement Attlee, which came to power in July 1945, expressed its desire for working with “people not pashas”. 

But the irony is that Britain, after the war and despite its announcement of its desire for working with “people” not “pashas”, eventually decided to freeze its support for the Wafd Party and cooperate with the palace and King Farouk for being “the key factor in sustaining stability in Egypt”.

The British movements failed to understand profound changes which Egypt and the Arab region were experiencing socially, economically, culturally, intellectually, and politically. Those changes were noted earlier by British historian Sir Hamilton Gibb, who was one of those who realized at that time that the problems surrounding the Middle East region, including Egypt, changed the influence of the three pillars of the traditional triangular: the “palace”, “Wafd”, and the “British Embassy”.

Gibb said that it was not possible to restrict or control demands for achieving social and national Egyptian goals due to the fact that the political life had become more turbulent and unpredictable. Hamilton Gibb recorded that he heard for the first time in his life the two expressions “social disruptions” and “revolution” in the Middle East. According to Gibb’s analysis, it was no more than a move by the Egyptian army or the Brotherhood. He wrote this while he was observing the growing influence of the Brotherhood. However, his words did not reach Britain only, but the United States as well. 

Martyn Frampton said in his book “The Muslim Brotherhood and the West” that the Brotherhood attracted the attention of American diplomats for the first time during World War II, particularly in the early 1940s. Before that, the diplomats did not pay attention to the Brotherhood. The officials of the American Chargé d’Affaires in Cairo described the Brotherhood that it was involved in “subversive activities”. In their opinion, the Brotherhood was “inclined to give its loyalty to the highest bidder”.

American officials in Cairo believed that El-Nahhas Pasha’s government was the reason behind the Brotherhood’s expanding influence following its agreement with El-Nahhas in 1942, who gave it subsidies and political immunity. Therefore, American officials pledged to monitor the Brotherhood very closely in the future. Frampton said that Washington decided to only monitor the Brotherhood’s activities and let Britain deal with the Brotherhood after the end of World War II because London would be responsible for protecting the West’s interests in Egypt. 

Accordingly, the British government found itself in front of this formidable challenge after the war. Taking into account London’s previous stumble, the task was undoubtedly complicated. The Brotherhood and its founder El-Banna knew that the changed environment after World War II could help the Brotherhood grow and proliferate. El-Banna saw that the world stood at a crossroads: a road heading toward communism and Soviet Russia and the other road heading toward Western democracies, Britain and the United States. The Brotherhood’s choice was to fawn the second bloc, without severing all relations with the first bloc. 

In this charged atmosphere and upon El-Banna’s request, the Brotherhood started trying to form pro-Brotherhood groups in security and army forces and establish a section in the organization specifically for this purpose. At the political level, the Saadist leader headed by the Prime Minister Ahmed Maher won the 1945 election. Following its victory, Ahmed Maher announced Egypt’s entry into the war on the Allies’ side. That was just a symbolic gesture due to the fact that the war was drawing to a close. Maher’s aim was to guarantee a place for Egypt in the San Francisco Peace Conference, hoping that the decision of Egypt’s joining the war on the Allies’ side could be used to pressure Britain to grant Egypt its independence. But Maher paid the price for this step by his life. He was shot dead on his way out of the Chamber of Deputies where he had revealed the decision. Despite the short premiership of Maher, he had placed Egypt’s nationalist demands on the international political agenda.

The Brotherhood used all parties

Maher Pasha was succeeded by his deputy Mahmoud Fahmy El-Nokrashy Pasha, who was determined to proceed with the policies of his predecessor. Frampton said the British Embassy’s documents and telegrams showed from the beginning the dismay of the Embassy from El-Nokrashy Pasha who was described by Ambassador Lampson as “an impatient, strict school principal”. The British departments saw the new Prime Minister as a “nationalist of the most extreme type”, and “it was feared that he would not play ball in the manner desired by the British”.

That assessment was correct. An Egyptian delegation was sent to the San Francisco Peace Conference, and the government publicly announced its intention to secure Egypt’s national aspirations. El-Nokrashy called for “the withdrawal of all British troops” from Egypt. Frampton explained that against this backdrop, the Brotherhood initially gave cautious support to El-Nokrashy’s government and endorsed its position on the national cause. El-Banna insisted that there was no point in negotiating with Britain that, according to the majority of Egyptians, used talks only as a means of prevarication.  

But it was clear that the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, who was pragmatist to the core, also saw that his position is an opportunity to reach out to El-Nokrashy’s government and helped to establish an alliance between the Wafd Party and the Brotherhood. According to many historians, El-Nokrashy’s government hoped that through rapprochement with the Brotherhood it could exploit the Muslim Brotherhood’s members to combat the growing influence of the left-wing Wafd Party and the communists on university campus. 

To this end, Frampton said that the Prime Minister El-Nokrashy Pasha apparently reached an agreement with El-Banna, which provided new funding for the Brotherhood and enabled to build a new headquarters of the Brotherhood. The price was the silence of the Brotherhood on the government’s pursuits of the left-wing and the communists in the campus. The effect of this was to split the student movement into conflicting and divergent currents. In this way, El-Banna chose again the path of realpolitik with the authorities. 

The understandings between El-Banna and El-Nokrashy did not mean that the government believed all promises and pledges of the Brotherhood. El-Nokrashy ordered to increase surveillance of the Brotherhood even during rapprochement with them. Frampton indicated that during this period El-Banna was keen to send a message to the Americans that the Brotherhood is “their best ally” in the region to fight communists.

Frampton also explained that El-Banna’s alliance with El-Nokrashy and his continued declaration of rejecting the communist expansion had piqued some US officials’ interest. Several months later, the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) prepared a long report on the Brotherhood. The report noted that the Brotherhood exploited the building of a Jewish State on the Palestinian territories to expand its influence at home and abroad through communication with officials and Western embassies. 

London, for its part, noted that the Brotherhood became more like an organized political party than an advocacy organization. Frampton said that in that regard Sir Walter Smart of the British Embassy met with Hassan El-Banna in Cairo in 1946, which is apparently the second such encounter between the two. Smart’s report noted that he talked with El-Banna at his home eight months earlier. El-Banna expressed his growing confidence by confirming that “the religious objectives in Islam are necessarily political”, Above all, El-Banna reiterated what Smart called his “old thesis”, that “the Muslim Brotherhood are the most useful British allies in a society threatened by dissolution”. El-Banna stressed that the Muslim Brotherhood are “the greatest barrier against communism” and “the strongest factor for stabilization”.

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