84-year Journey from Cairo’s Mosques to Presidential Palace

By Hasan Afif El-Hasan

More than half a century after the 1952 Jamal Abdel-Nasser coup, Egypt has come full circle. The people have the same grievances that led the Free Officers to take the advantage of the people’s complaint to seize power, are now at the root of the Tahrir Square protests. In King Farouk’s era there was great deal of corruption and nepotism and after the 1952 coup a new class of elite made up of officers with no accountability and more corruption was created. Under the monarchy, a small percentage of the population owned almost all the wealth, and after half a century of the authoritarian rule, still few Egyptians own the wealth; there is widespread poverty, massive unemployment, endemic corruption and universal culture of nepotism.   

The charismatic Nasser was loved by vast majority of the Egyptian people because he nationalized the Suez Canal, liberated Egypt from foreign dominance, distributed land, built the High Dam, expanded the education system, provided free health care, rent control and guaranteed government jobs for all university graduates. But Nasser laid the foundation of a brutal police state ruled by military dictatorship. If leadership means selecting the right people to help doing the job properly, then Nasser failed miserably. He gave the Egyptians his first vice president Abdel-Hakeem Aamer, a playboy military man who proved incompetent beyond measure; he appointed Anwar Al-Sadat as his vice-president, another corrupt anti-democratic military man. Nasser allowed Aamer and other coup leaders to form circles of power that put all their energy into competition for control of Egypt’s resources. When the Syrians asked to join a union with Egypt in 1958, Aamer was appointed as Syria’s governor. And after three years of Aamer’s autocratic rule, the Syrians, fed up with his corrupt regime and no accountability, decided to terminate the union, thus Aamer, the right hand man of Nasser was behind the failure of the first pan-Arab unity dream experiment. Nasser got rid of Aamer only after he led Egypt to the 1967 war defeat by Israel.

The Egyptian people today are revolting against the antidemocratic institutions that were created by Nasser and inherited by his successors, Anwar al-Sadat and Husni Mubarak. They put an end to the Orientalist version of the Egyptians’ psych that the Egyptians are apathetic to their oppressive rulers. Their revolt and sacrifices hardly speak of apathy.

Mohammed Morsi, a previous political prisoner and the Muslim Brothers’ candidate for Egypt’s 2012 presidential election was elected with 51.73 % of the vote. He read the oath of office at three different locations, Tahrir Square where Egypt’s revolution was born, Cairo University and before the Supreme Constitutional Court. He declared: “Today, the Egyptian people laid the foundation of a new life: absolute freedom, a genuine democracy and stability.” The question is whether President Morsi will govern as an Islamist or a pragmatist secular. The eighty-four years journey of the Brothers’ movement from the mosques and coffee shops of Cairo to the presidential palace was the longest in history for a political movement.

Egypt’s Muslim Brothers was founded by Hassan Al-Banna, a school teacher by profession, in 1928 as a protest movement against ‘corrupting Western culture influence and British political and economic control of Egypt under the oversight of a decadent puppet monarchy.’ It envisaged bringing Egypt into a life of true strict interpretation of Islam away from the corrupt aspirations and conduct created by the European dominance; and in the long run establishing an Islamic caliphate similar to the system of government under the Rightly Guided Caliphs following the death of the Prophet Muhammed.

The military wing of the Brothers, which does not exist today anymore, distinguished itself as fearless and dedicated in fighting side by side with the Egyptian military in the 1948 war against Israel and along the Suez Canal against the British occupation in the 1950s.

The Brothers had hundreds of thousands of followers when it was banned and many of its members were hanged in 1954 by President Jamal Abdel-Nasser regime after being accused of trying to assassinate Nasser while delivering a public speech in Alexandria. The Brothers denied any involvement in that event and accused Nasser of fabricating the incident to shore up his domestic support. A generation of the Brother’s followers was radicalized including Sayyid Qutb who was executed with many of the movement leaders in 1966. Qutb argued in his books that Nasser’s regime was beyond the bounds of Islam. Qutb called for overthrowing the regime by violent means because it belonged to the category of “pre-Islamic ignorance” [jahiliyya’ in Arabic].

The Brothers distanced themselves publically from Qutb’s radical ideology in the 1970s, renounced violence and cautiously embraced the democratic process. Qutb writings inspired extremist jihadist groups including ‘Al-Jama’a al-Islamyya’ and ‘Al-Takfir Wal-Hijra’ to split from the Brothers accusing its leadership of accepting the status quo and the military regime. A wave of Islamist terror was carried out by jihadist groups. President Sadat was assassinated in 1981, some secular intellectuals were murdered, there were frequent attacks on minority Christian community, and dozens of tourists near Luxor in Upper Egypt were killed in 1997.

After Egypt’s humiliation in the 1967 war and Nasser’s death, the Brothers participated in the debate whether Egypt should be identified as nationalist, Arabist, Islamist or ethnic. President Sadat brought the Brothers back into the mainstream because he sought their support to dismantle Nasser’s socialist programs. The Brothers are enthusiastic about defending private ownership and opposing socialism as an un-Islamic principle. People in Islam are free to practice capitalism in the form of transaction of goods where each party of the transactions retains certain profit as a universal economic system, according to the sociologist Janet Abu-Logwood. After all, the Prophet Muhammed was a merchant before the Divine Revelation. The recent emergence of Islamic finance institutions on a major scale and their success in competing with other international banks suggests that modern capitalism can be combined with Islam. 

The Brothers initially embraced Sadat’s economic policies, ‘infitah’, that appeared to encourage free market initiatives. When the corruption, patronage and nepotism plagued the country, the Brothers could not support Sadat anymore. The gap between them and Sadat became too wide to bridge once Sadat signed the peace treaty with Israel.

Following Sadat’s assassination by radical Islamists enraged by his visit to Israel, his successor, President Hosni Mubarak, reenacted emergency laws which meant people could be arrested at any time at the whim of the regime. The Muslim Brothers was designated as an outlaw organization; its leaders and grassroots who joined for deep conviction were routinely arrested, harassed, shackled and tortured in Egypt’s jails; its leaders were portrayed by the Egyptian ordinary people as martyrs to the cause of freedom. The problem that faced Mubarak’s regime has been that the Brothers and their sympathizers are in all places in society, in universities, all professions, NGOs and local governments. Perhaps the regime was more concerned about the Brothers seeking to help the people, implicitly indicting the regime for its incompetence.    

Muslim Brothers’ strength is their honesty and their kindness which no one can deny. They run wide range of social programs that include education, health and job training. The Brothers earned the respect beyond their core constituency, but Egypt’s complicated problems require compromises even with the Muslim Brothers’ deepest held slogan “Islam is the Solution.” President Morsi will never be able to apply a strict version of Sharia in Egypt under a democratic system of government because he would be restricted by the majority of the Egyptian people. If authority corrupts the Brothers once in power, and they forget why the people elected them, or if they do not compromise, the recent history of Egypt will not be on their side. 

– Hasan Afif El-Hasan is a political analyst. His latest book, Is The Two-State Solution Already Dead? (Algora Publishing, New York), now available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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