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The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: The West’s losing bets on the Brotherhood (4)

The harbingers of the cold war in the 1950s provided the Muslim Brotherhood with a golden opportunity to take advantage of several contradictions. For the first time, the religious character of the Brotherhood was a clear advantage to respond to potential communist threats. This Brotherhood approach has found some supporters amidst the British and Americans and inside the palace and government. Some within the Egyptian circles have become convinced of that logic.  

However, that argument did not convince all British officials. Some of them expressed doubts about the democratic intentions and values of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

British documents revealed that distinguished diplomat Sir Walter Smart continued to consider the Brotherhood as a “xenophobic obscurantist group”. Smart argued that the Brotherhood wanted to avoid clashes, both with the Egyptian authorities and Britain, to facilitate its growth. Therefore, Smart rejected rapprochement with the Brotherhood. He also warned of the risk of encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood “which might one day become too powerful to handle easily”. The disputes between El-Nokrashy and the British, due to the government’s position with regards to the Brotherhood and Egypt’s national demands, led to El-Nokrashy’s resignation and he was replaced with Sidky. Communication was soon established between that government and the Brotherhood, which angered diplomats at the London Embassy. 

Doubts grew further when the new Prime Minister himself made a courtesy phone call to the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters. Then, Sidky approved releasing all Brotherhood’s imprisoned students. He also removed the ban on Brotherhood meetings.  

Reports have been renewed about financial assistance from the government to the Brotherhood. Soon afterward, the Brotherhood was granted a license to issue a daily newspaper and a distribution license. This allowed it to issue the daily edition of the Muslim Brotherhood on the spring of 1946, headed by chief editor Ahmed El-Sokkary — a leader close to El-Banna.

The British Embassy’s assessment was that the Prime Minister and the palace were ready to play “national heroes” by depending on “the most dangerous elements” of Egyptian society, which are the Muslim Brothers. A wave of violence, disruptions, assassinations and burning cinemas prevailed during 1946, along with the impasse of the independence negotiations between Egypt and Britain and the criminal acts of the Jewish gangsters in Palestine. All organizations were captured except for the Brotherhood that accused the Wafd Party of being infiltrated by communists, so that the Brotherhood enhance its communication with Sidky’s government in return for marginalizing the Wafd Party. 

The Brotherhood wished that Sidky’s government would ask it to send its representatives to participate with the government delegation in the negotiations with Britain, but that did not happened. Neither did the negotiations lead to anything. The relationship between the Brotherhood and Sidky’s government has deteriorated due to the Sidky-Bevin Agreement that did not achieve the demands of the Egyptian national movement. With the failure to bring Egypt’s cause before the United Nations (UN) because Britain has the veto right, the national forces agreed to work on cancelling the 1936 treaty amid calls for mass demonstrations.  

According to the British and American documents, against this backdrop, a senior official at the US Embassy, Philip Ireland, held a meeting with Hassan El-Banna to discuss the political situation — the first major meeting between an American diplomat and the Muslim Brotherhood leader.  

Ireland’s notes recorded in the meeting provided a vivid picture of El-Banna as impulsive, nervous, fast-talking and good at repartee. Ireland observed the contrast between El-Banna’s peaceful statements and the Brotherhood’s practices on the ground. The American diplomat said that he asked El-Banna about those contradictions, and then El-Banna answered with a smile and changed the subject quickly. 

Overall, Ireland’s impressions were not positive, referring in particular to “El-Banna’s opportunistic history”. However, the thing that shocked Ireland the most was that El-Banna asserted to him during the meeting that he is able to stop disruptions in Egypt whenever he wants.

According to the American diplomat, El-Banna spent a lot of time during this meeting criticizing his internal opponents, seeking to gain the United States’ support. He condemned the Wafd Party, for example, as including “superficial youth hired by the Soviets”. 

Moreover, in an apparent reference to the American interests, El-Banna referred to Islam as “the great barrier” to communism.

On such basis, El-Banna appealed for an alliance with the United States, proposing that “America and the Brotherhood should become allies in fighting communism”.

In order to reaffirm its role in responding to left-wing ideology in Egypt, in May 1946, the Brotherhood helped defeat a strike among textile workers in Shubra district in Cairo in protest against the living and working conditions. During this period, the Brotherhood repeatedly clashed with leftists on Egypt’s streets, supported by the British, the palace and the government.

Also during this period, the Brotherhood started publicly bragging about its military power to convince the Americans that the Brotherhood is the best ally to defeat the lift-wing movement in Egypt. El-Banna stressed the size and potentials of the Brotherhood, alleging that there are about 600,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and 300,000 members abroad. He also referred to a basic “working group” made up of 25,000 to 30,000 individuals who received “perfunctory” military training.

El-Banna’s attempts to assert that the Brotherhood could be a real asset to the Americans in Egypt relapsed, with waves of clashes, violence and assassination of notable figures, particularly judge Ahmed El-Khazindar, the attempt to bomb El-Nahhas Pasha’s house and the assassination of the chief of the Cairo police Salem Zaki Pasha.

In May 1948, the martial law was imposed, El-Nokrashy was appointing a military governor, new restrictions were placed on civil freedoms, and the relationship between the king and the Brotherhood deteriorated. 

At that time, a diplomat at the American Embassy described the Brotherhood as “Frankenstein”, created by the king to be used against the Wafd. On 8 September 1948, El-Nokrashy issued a military declaration dissolving the Brotherhood and Hassan El-Banna was placed under house arrest. 

However, El-Banna remained defiant against that decision. In an interview with Rose Al-Yusuf, he said that “the withdrawal of a man’s birth certificate does not affect his presence, however, it makes him lose his legal persona”. 

The crime that changed everything on the ground was the assassination of Prime Minister El-Nokrashy Pasha by a member of the Brotherhood. The office of the prosecutor-general who was investigating El-Nokrashy’s assassination was bombed. 

Soon afterward, in February 1949, Hassan El-Banna was killed. The British assumed that the palace was behind the assassination.

Following El-Nokrashy’s assassination at the hands of a Brotherhood member, and then the assassination of El-Banna, a page of an ambiguous long history of contradictions among the Brotherhood in its first formative, the Egyptian authorities and Britain was turned. This page was the basis upon which the relationships between the Brotherhood and the Egyptian state would be built on one hand, and on the other between the Brotherhood and the West over the 1950s till the beginning of the new millennium.

According to the James Heyworth-Dunne’s assessment, a British orientalist at the British Embassy in Cairo during those years, the clash between the Brotherhood and the ruling classes in the Egyptian state was inevitable. The disagreement was not political, but rather ideological and intellectual. However, he warned that “Hassan El-Banna’s ideas could live longer than its owner”.

Frampton shows that similar opinions prevailed in the US State Department. One of the undated and untitled documents concluded that the Brotherhood would never disappear, and “would work underground if necessary” and resort to violence, as evidenced by the development of events.

However, the thing that has been changed dramatically through subsequent decades was that the West has begun since the 1970s to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood organization in the region in an institutionalized manner. The deep Western doubts over the Brotherhood and its intentions, which was a basic feature during the establishment of the relationships in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, were decreased and replaced by betting that the Brotherhood organizations in the region could cooperate with the West based on common relations and interests, particularly in responding to the left-wing movement in the Greater Middle East, from Morocco to Afghanistan.  

The Western documents revealed that with the decline of Arab nationalism post-1967, Western diplomats became convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood’s access to power is “inevitable”; therefore, involvement with it is necessary. Although the US, Britain and other Western countries had a strong relationship with regional governments, London and Washington have established communication with the Brotherhood since the 1970s. That is partly due to the growing presence of the Muslim Brotherhood organizations in Western countries.

In the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, groups and activists of the Brotherhood group established many bodies in Western countries, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB).

But the irony is that after September 11, 2001, these groups gained more political weight. Muslim Brotherhood organizations in the region have followed a new strategy to communicate with the West, claiming to represent the “moderate Islam” and can play a role of marginalizing the most extremist groups such as the Salafi-jihadists or organizations such as Al-Qaeda.

That argument was accepted by officials in Western circles. It is no wonder that the links between the Brotherhood and London and Washington might reach much better levels after September 11, 2001. The British established closer links with the Muslim Brotherhood, believing that they are partners against extremist Islamist groups. During the second term of the George W Bush administration, the Americans re-launched dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was closed after 9/11. Former US President Barack Obama’s administration communicated with the Muslim Brotherhood in a more systematic manner. The administration also started a “Countering Violent Extremism Program” that cooperated with groups close to the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, Frampton shows in his book through hundreds of new documents that the British and American approaches to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood group were far from consistency and were governed by many general provisions, stereotypes and clichés that have been used since the 1930s and have cast a shadow over Western diplomats’ assessments until this day in their relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Among such clichés was the continuous search for “moderates”, even if there are none of them among the Brotherhood organizations in the region. In Western circles, there is also a stereotype of the current divided between “moderates” and “extremists”. Frampton warns that the Muslim Brotherhood elements are aware of these Western clichés and ready to exploit them. Frampton also refutes the West’s foundations for dealing with the Brotherhood organizations throughout a century, that the opening up to the Brotherhood will lead eventually to transfer the Brotherhood organizations to be more moderate and open to democracy. 

Frampton says that things are completely different: “In fact, the most ideologically rigid among the Brotherhood could be the most pragmatic and willing to do whatever it takes to strengthen their cause”. He explains that despite the decades of relationships and openness between the West and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Brotherhood still uses the same language used by Hassan El-Banna about 90 years ago in respect of the view of the West, enmity toward each other, minority rights, democracy and civilian rule. That leads to destroy the ground which was the pretext for the West’s dangerous and troubled relationships with the Brotherhood, which was that those relationships will lead to “the Brotherhood’s democratization”. 

The fact is the long-term relationship with the West has failed to have any intellectual, ideological, or political reforming effect on the Brotherhood.

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