Myths and realities: The Muslim Brothers and armed activism

Will the Muslim Brotherhood keep its policy of peaceful activism?

The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned in Egypt [EPA]

The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (MB) made a political decision in the late 1960s to abandon local armed activism. Some of the ideological, theological, philosophical and instrumental reasons for this decision were outlined in a book authored by the second supreme guide of the MB, Hassan al-Hudaybi, entitled Preachers not Judges (1969).

In light of the July 2013 military overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president and the bloody crackdown on his supporters and others, will this policy continue to be upheld?

Paramilitary phase

During its 86 years of history, the MB in Egypt had a 25-year paramilitary phase between 1940 and 1965. By 1946, the MB had two main armed apparata and both played important roles in the 1952 coup. The Special Apparatus (SA, al-Nizam al-Khass) was established around 1940, mainly as a response to the failure of the 1936 Arab Uprising in Palestine. Its members were mostly civilians who had received varying levels of paramilitary training. In preparation for the 1952 coup, the SA secured the Cairo-Ismailia highway and was tasked with blocking the advance of British troops in the Suez Canal zone, if they decided to militarily support the monarchy in Cairo.

The Units Department (UD,Tanzim al-Dubbat al-Ikhwan or Organisation of Brotherhood Officers) was mainly responsible for propagating the ideology of the MB in the army and the police force as well as for recruiting officers. During the 1952 coup, Lt Colonel Abdul Munim Abdul Rauf, a leading figure in both the UD and the Free Officers, laid siege to Ras al-Tin Royal Palace in Alexandria, and exchanged fire with the Royal Guards. By the end of July 26, 1952, battalion 19 led by an MB military commander forced King Farouk to abdicate.

Head to Head – Has political Islam failed?

Between 1952 and 1954, Egypt went through a chaotic transition period not very different from the 2011-2013 one. One part of the country wanted a military leader who provided bread and security in exchange for loyalty. Another part wanted parliamentary constitutionalism and basic freedoms.

By 1954, the MB switched positions and supported parliamentary rule, which turned out to be the losing side in the political battle. In the middle of the military regime’s crackdown and organisational fractures, a small SA cell led by a young operative attempted to assassinate Nasser. The plot failed, and six MB members were executed, including the assassin, the organiser, and popular political figures who were not involved in the conspiracy, most notably renowned MB lawyer, Abd al-Qader Audeh.   

The attempt to assassinate Nasser has been well-publicised; but part of the SA story has never been. What is less known is the belief held by a major segment of SA operatives that Nasser’s revolutionary anti-colonial rhetoric represented the SA ideals much more than the indecisive and gradualist approach of al-Hudaybi. In that context, many SA leaders and operatives supported Nasser’s camp against the MB leadership.

Other MB members involved with the SA joined Nasser’s government. Ahmad Hasan al-Baquri, a de facto leader of the MB between 1949 and 1951, became the Egyptian minister of religious endowments between 1952 and 1959. Abdul Aziz Kamil was an influential member of the Guidance Bureau who had been recommended by Hassan al-Banna (the MB’s founder) to succeed him. He was also one of three members in a committee that reviewed the command-and-control structure of the SA, after two high-profile assassinations in 1948. Kamil became a deputy minister and then also the minister of religious endowments under Nasser. Pro-Nasser lower and middle-ranking SA operatives were also appointed in various governmental positions.

The 1952-1954 developments did not mean the end and/or the cooptation of the SA, however. A much smaller, relatively amateurish version of the SA surfaced in 1964; activists were inspired by the writings of Sayyid Qutb, an intellectual within the MB who produced two works after witnessing a massacre of political prisoners committed by the security guards of Tora Prison in June 1957: an updated version of his interpretation of the Quran, In Shadows of the Quran, and another book entitled Milestones.

By 1965, all of the organisation’s members, suspected members, and thousands of other unrelated individuals were arrested in a crackdown known as the “1965 Organisation” military tribunals. By August 1966, Sayyid Qutb, accused of attempting to overthrow the regime and inciting a rebellion, was executed on the orders of a military judge.

Counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation efforts

After the execution of Qutb and Nasser’s death four years later, the MB in Egypt took a decision to forgo domestic political violence, as well as to later engage in status-quo politics within the rules laid out by Anwar al-Sadat’s regime. It condemned armed attacks against the regimes of Sadat and Mubarak, and when Sadat was assassinated in 1981, it compared him to Uthman ibn Affan, the third Caliph in Islam widely perceived in Sunni Islamic tradition as a martyr, and called his assassins heretics.

Inside Story – What is the future of the Muslim Brotherhood?

In the 1990s, during a low-level insurgency led by the Egyptian Islamic Group (EIG) and the Egyptian al-Jihad Organisation (EJO), the MB offered “assistance” to the Mubarak regime to combat these groups. These political positions aroused the ire of a younger, radical generation of Islamist activists, represented by Ayman al-Zawahiri’s 1993 book, The Bitter Harvest of the Muslim Brothers, in which he criticised the MB’s pragmatic behaviour and gradualist ideology in general and the post-1970 changes in particular.

When the “de-radicalisation” process of the EIG ensued in 1997 with their unilateral ceasefire declaration, the MB supported the transition. In 2002, the leadership of the EIG renounced its radical literature, and declared that it replaced its curricula with those of the MB, to signal an acceptance of non-violent gradualist reformismOverall, from the 1970s onwards, the MB presented itself as a transnational movement that upholds the “correct” form of Islamist sociopolitical activism, which is anti-jihadi and anti-takfiri. From the 1980s, the MB was perceived as an alternative and a rival to Saudi-style Wahabbi form of Islamism.  

The future  

Generally, military coups that target democratically elected governments are accompanied by high-levels of bloodshed. In the Egyptian 2013 version, the repression led to the death of at least 3,248 individuals, the injury of 18,535 and the arrest of 41,163.

The post-coup context is certainly conducive to violence, but the leadership of both the MB and the pro-Morsi National Coalition for Supporting Legitimacy insist that they will use only non-violent civil resistance to challenge the military-dominated regime.

Organisational fractures under heavy repression, offshoots, disaffected members, and mutiny against the leadership has happened before (for example in 1954 and 1964-1965).

Generally in times of crises, the majority of the Brotherhood’s grassroots and mid-ranks rally round their leadership. And if their leaders are consistent in their non-violent message, the grassroots, however angry and desperate, do follow.

Today the environment is much more brutal than that of 1954 and the grassroots’ capacity to use arms is much more limited compared to past crises. Some of the expelled Brotherhood’s former member have been fiercely critical of the leadership line and have stressed the necessity of armed action.

Omar Ashour is Senior Lecturer in Security studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in University of Exeter. He is a Non-Resident Fellow at Brookings Doha Center.

Follow him on Twitter: @DrOmarAshour