Egypt: Cradle of Arab Resistance

Egypt: Cradle of Arab Resistance

The 1919 revolution even brought children out on to the streets. The small town of Mahmudiyya 90 miles north west of Cairo was no exception. The 13 year old Hassan Al Banna[1] then a face in the crowd, was soon to become a major figure in Egyptian history, founding an Islamic mass movement whose profound effect reached across the Arab/Muslim world and beyond. The organisation whose full name is “The Society of the Muslim Brothers” is often referred to as the Muslim Brotherhood or in Arabic “Al Ikhwan”.

Al Banna was nurtured by a father, who led prayers at the local mosque and taught Quran, supporting himself and his family by repairing watches. This earnest atmosphere of modest piety, would permeate the life of Al Banna until his early death at the hands of an assassin. Although he became a leader of a mass movement, he continued to work as a schoolteacher. An early influence beside his father was the Sufi Hasafiyya Order. Many see the Muslim Brotherhood as a modern version of a Sufi Order. It is true al Banna himself said the Brotherhood was a Sufi truth as well as a salafi message, a sunni way, a political organisation, an athletic group, a cultural-educational union, an economic company, and a social idea[2].  The comprehensive nature of the movement and its hierarchical structure, have also drawn comparisons with fascist and communist organisations in Europe.   

Al Banna shared the nationalistic sentiments and anti-imperialist instincts of many of his compatriots. He felt bitterness at the sight of British forces in the Canal Zone and the poverty of the Egyptian workers, while teaching and carrying out Islamic da’wa in Isma’iliyya. Indeed the delegation of poor labourers, who came to Al Banna for leadership, thus stimulating the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood, specifically mentioned their humiliating condition and the status of Arabs and Muslims as hirelings of foreigners.

While Al Banna recruited Muslim scholars, as he did persons from every  section  of Egyptian society, he was dismissive of the Islamic establishment based at Al Azhar. He found established mosques of limited use in building the movement; his alternative strategy of going into the back street coffee houses and villages, paid off with a massive growth in the organisation.

The Brotherhood’s relation with other political forces in Egypt was problematical from the start. Although Al Banna wisely resisted the blandishments and bribes of the British, he had illusions in the young King Farouq. Indeed the young King was popular when he came to the throne, and not the obese and corrupt figure he later became .The 4th conference of the Brotherhood in 1937 was called to mark Farouq’s coronation; it ended with the mass ranks of the conference swearing allegiance to the King outside his palace.

The Brotherhood’s closeness to the Palace brought them in conflict with the long standing nationalist force the Wafd. When links were made with Wafd, it was always with the right of the party, those who supported the old feudal order. To many commentators[3] the Brotherhood was a “Pasha’s party”. More importantly a promising young Army Officer called Gamal Abdul -Nasser[4], after a brief flirtation with the Brotherhood, had reached the same conclusion[5].

Al Banna’s vision of an Islamic order had an immediate appeal to many Egyptians.  He lamented the gap between rich and poor, bemoaned the influence of imperialism, capitalism, communism and western culture; yet did not have a consistent strategy with regards to the other forces in Egypt. The country has highly politicised with the Wafd and the Communist Party both being able to command substantial support[6]. The Brotherhood abhorrence of both these parties prevented tactical alliances, allowing the British, and the King as their proxy, to retain power all through the troubled 1930’s and 1940’s.

In 1936 Wafd  Prime minister Al –Nahhas got the British to agree to withdraw their armed forces to the Canal Zone. Although this zone was a substantial territory, and the British military base was the largest in the world[7], the British dragged their feet in actually implementing the agreement.The phoney independence granted by Britain and rejected by most Egyptians, was shown to be a complete sham when the British intervened in 1942, by sending tanks to the King’s palace to influence his choice of Prime Minister. This not only deepened the Egyptian masses contempt for the British and the King, the fact that imperial power’s favourite for Prime Minister was Wafd leader Al Nahhas, also weakened the Wafd and all the  parliamentary parties.

During the British Occupation Cairo was a major base for British forces. The young British soldiers, who joined up to stop the Nazi invasion of their homeland, tended not to be dyed in the wool imperialists. The abysmal failure of the traditional officer class at Dunkirk[8], and anger at the previous decades of economic injustice stoked the fires of class antagonism. Many rank and file soldiers wanted to get home and build a better society there, rather than occupy foreign countries. The brief existence of an overwhelmingly left -wing Cairo Forces Parliament, which in February 1944 voted to for nationalisation of  the banks, land, mines and transport in Britain, showed the way British public opinion was moving. In April, the military authorities closed down the Forces Parliament, censoring all press reports and posting the principal servicemen involved. Unrest amongst the soldiers in Egypt resurfaced with a mutiny in 1946, which affected all the Royal Air Force and most of the Army bases in Egypt and Palestine[9].The central demand of the conscript soldiers was to be allowed to go home. Anti-imperial sentiments amongst British reserve soldiers persisted, and surfaced again when Britain attacked Egypt in 1956.  

As soon as the World War II ended, Egypt’s parliamentary leaders asked the British to withdraw. Britain seemed in no hurry, the imperial power was determined to dominate the Suez Canal, and through it the convoys of  oil tankers carrying Middle Eastern “ black gold” to the rest of the world. The Egyptian street was not prepared for anymore suspect deals between the occupiers and the Parliamentary elite. When the police shot dead protesting students on the Abbas bridge [February 9th 1946], the anger amongst the masses increased.

Although Brotherhood members took part in street agitation, they often refused to join the broad front committees that encompassed the other parties, or formed their own front organisations. Accusations from the other parties of Brotherhood complicity with the British during Al–Banna’s tenure seem unfounded , however suspicions that the Brothers were doing deals with discredited politicians in the Palace were closer to the mark.

An important and controversial part of the Brotherhood’s comprehensive structure, were the military sections. The volunteers sent to fight the Zionists in  Palestine won the Brotherhood kudos, because of their bravery and dedication. Despite the ultimate defeat by the Israelis, the Brotherhood’s spirit of self sacrifice sowed the seeds of a nascent Brotherhood in Palestine[10], which was to have profound effects on the resistance struggle on that front in the future.
The Brotherhood had a youth organisation known as the Rover Scouts, who were often prominent in the street battles with rival parties as well as the Government. The Wafd complaints about “Fascist terror” propagated by the Rovers, were probably self serving and melodramatic; Wafd no doubt gave as good as they got.

The most problematic aspect of the Brotherhood’s military wing was the so-called secret apparatus. Egypt was an occupied country and the Brotherhood had a right to resist. Realistically military preparations and operations have to be kept secret, particularly when the enemy is disproportionally strong. The secret apparatus was feared by many who thought it had a hidden agenda of armed uprising. The apparatus was also implicated in the assassination of prominent Egyptians, and the bombing of foreign companies suspected of being supporters of Israel. Ishak Musa Hussaini[11] maintains that the Brotherhood created “Phalanxes” among the Rovers who were capable of physical combat, and more tellingly swore allegiance to their leaders. Similarly Mitchell [12] quotes Brotherhood leader ‘Awda, saying the secret apparatus had a dual and often contradictory leadership.   Some of the sectional leaders would demand loyalty to a programme, other than that of the leadership’s studied moderation.

In the brief war conducted by Egypt [along with other Arab countries] against the new Israeli state, valiant soldiers were utterly betrayed by corrupt rulers, who could not even supply their troops with functioning weapons. Needless to say the Arab rulers quickly threw away any initial gains made by their armies, when the imperial powers started to exert pressure on them. Having totally surrendered to external enemies, the Egyptian rulers were less forgiving to their opponents at home  

Suppression of the Brotherhood followed the discovery of arms at the farm of one of the Brotherhoods secret apparatus leaders, and the death of an unpopular police chief while smashing a pro- Palestinian demonstration. While Al Banna  tried to negotiate with the authorities, the Egyptian government compiled the case against the Brotherhood based on evidence both real and imagined. Other forces were stirring within the Brotherhood very different from the ever temperate Al Banna.

The assassination of the Egyptian Prime Minister Naqrashi by a member of the Brotherhood’s secret apparatus [December 28th 1948], unleashed a wave of reaction allowing Naqrashi’s successor Abdul-Hadi to suppress the Brotherhood further. Al Banna condemned those members of the Brotherhood who carried out assassinations, as being neither Brothers nor Muslims. An embittered and alienated political current was created, which was to be a source of political terror for decades to come. While Al Banna continued to defend the Brotherhood both from Government fabrication, and excesses of the more extreme “Brothers”, Abdul-Hadi’s government went for the total destruction of the Brotherhood, including mass arrests and the assassination of Al Banna himself [ February 12th 1949]. Hassan Al Banna was a genuine Islamic leader, who built a mass movement of hundreds of thousands over twenty years. Part Sufi sheikh, part populist leader, his sincerity and charm help create a vast network of people, who believed he was their friend[13].

Abdul-Hadi, and the Sa’adist Party overreached themselves, setting in motion forces which would expel the King, his Court, and the British, who propped up the whole crumbling edifice. The sweeping away of  the old order, that the moderate Al Banna had been loathed to do, was to be achieved by forces unleashed by his death. Brotherhood leaders on trial for their lives rebutted accusations of terrorism; their military action had been directed against Britain and Israel, their jihad was against imperialism and kufr. The Brotherhood by this time had 1.5 million members, with thousands in prison. The streets and villages of Egypt continued to simmer. The energy and valour of the masses could find no consistent champion. The Wafd and the Royalist Sa’adist Party, carried on their manoeuvres, the Wafd managing to make an alliance with the Brotherhood, which brought them to power in 1950, after a nervous King Farouq dismissed the increasingly unpopular and oppressive Abdul-Hadi.
Although the Wafd programme looked radical, they focussed on getting the British out, without implementing the social and economic reforms the poor Egyptian masses needed. Wafd also ignored the plight of the Palestinians, who had been comprehensively shafted by the super powers, who wanted a Zionist entity in the heart of the Islamic Ummah. Confronted with British intransigence, and under pressure from the people, the Wafd Government abrogated the treaty with the colonial power [October 11th 1951], and encouraged volunteers to form Liberation Squads to wage guerrilla warfare against the British in the Canal Zone. The movement assumed mass proportions when 50,000 Egyptian workers struck, rather than work for the British in the Canal Zone.

Corruption continued in the palace and the parliament. King Farouq looked to the Brotherhood to form an alliance against the communists, and potentially against the Wafd. Those who succeeded Al-Banna as the leaders of the Brotherhood, had all the great man’s cautious “moderate” strategy, and little of his radical spirit or feeling for the people. While Muslim Brothers at the grassroots joined the guerrillas and facilitated the training of others, the new Brotherhood leader Hudaybi[14] , tried to dampen down the jihad against the British. He declared the Brotherhood’s paper Majallat al Dawa, which was calling for jihad, as no longer the official voice of the Brotherhood. Why the Brotherhood leadership seemed to backtrack at this crucial stage is uncertain. The oppressive atmosphere referred to as “the tribulation” by al Banna may have contributed to Hudaybi’s uncertainty.

While the Wafd government tried to keep control of the mushrooming guerrilla forces, some Army officers were volunteering to train the guerrillas outside of the official government camps. Many of these officers were connected to the Brotherhood, others belonged to a new organisation the Free Officers Movement. This small group of Army Officers was to carry through a revolution, that the more traditional parties like the Wafd, or mass movements like the Brotherhood could not.

The grassroots of the Brotherhood certainly gave money, energy and above all blood in the struggle to expel the British. By December 1951 there were over 300 Brothers fighting a guerrilla war against the imperial power. Despite this Hudaybi announced there was no Brotherhood participation in the struggle. While the masses demonstrated, the Brotherhood leadership visited the obese meddling buffoon King Farouq. 
On January 25th 1952 the British Army attacked the Isma’iliyya Police station, outgunned many of the auxiliary police defending their post died martyrs. Any idea this would cow the Egyptian resistance, was badly mistaken. An explosion amongst the masses, unleashed many hours of ferocious rioting, incinerating anything in Cairo associated with the British and their aristocratic allies. Meanwhile back at the palace the King appointed a new set of Pashas, to replace the last lot, and Hudaybi made more ambivalent statements about the situation. A huge gap was developing between the leaders including Hudaybi, and the masses. The scene was set for a revolution.