Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 2011 Arab spring: the Brotherhood proved to be the leading force

ABCs of Muslim Brothers

In the first of three articles, Jack Conrad looks at the origins, evolution and current reality of the Muslim Brotherhood in Britain, Egypt and internationally

A few days before November 11, The Telegraph ran a shock horror exposé: Muhammad Kathem Sawalha, one of the founders of the Muslim Association of Britain, is a “former Hamas chief”, and the man “behind the pro-Palestine Armistice Day protests”.1

Given that MAB was one of the six principal organisations sponsoring the giant demonstration on November 11, the aim of this wafer-thin story was clear - rally bigoted opinion behind Suella Braverman and her grandstanding call for a police ban, demonise everyone taking part on the day as soft on terrorism and shift the entire official narrative to the point where opposing anything Israel does can be defined as anti-Semitic (the western establishment has colonised, taken over, perverted leftwing anti-racism and now wields it as a big stick against the left … and others not to its liking).

A few preliminary points: Sawalha was undoubtedly one of the founders of MAB in November 1997: indeed he helped run it till 2007. Yes, once, long before that, he counted amongst the leading Hamas cadre on the West Bank. Having fled to Jordan in 1990 to escape arrest by the Israeli colonial authorities, he eventually settled in Britain. Reportedly he served on Hamas’s political bureau between 2013 and 2017, dealing with foreign relations. Almost needless to say, however, he was not the main man “behind the pro-Palestine Armistice Day protests”. Doubtless, he has attended protests, doubtless he has promoted protests, but that hardly makes him Mr Big when it comes to organising protests. The very suggestion owes more to Ian Fleming, James Bond, SMERSH and Live and let die fantasy, than the humdrum reality of masses upon masses of people coming onto the streets of London protesting against ethnic cleansing in Gaza and the impending danger of genocide.

The usual suspects enthusiastically ran with the Telegraph’s Mr Big story: eg, the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Jewish Post and News and - no surprise - Spiked! (ie, the former Revolutionary Communist Party, which along with Frank Furedi’s Roots & Wings website, nowadays are unmistakably far-right). Though a cynical piece of news management, with origins presumably in Suella Braverman’s Home Office and MI5, it makes a ripping good yarn.

A final preliminary point: Marxism does not reject terror, or for that matter, therefore, terrorism. We reject individual terrorism: ie, acts of violence isolated from the mass socialist and democratic movement. Not because of moral objections, which we definitely have: no, rather because we consider isolated acts of violence, even protests divorced from the mass movement, to be ineffective and often self-defeating: eg, the danger of spy cop infiltration, one oppressor easily being replaced by another, public alienation, etc. Hence, while the fact that the Tory establishment relentlessly hammers on against Jeremy Corbyn, demanding that he call Hamas a terrorist organisation, demands abasement to that categorisation, not least when it comes to the BBC, we are perfectly clear. What Hamas did on October 7 was both an act of resistance to Israeli settler colonialism … to what it has been doing in terms of ethnic cleansing and systemic oppression of the Palestinian people for well over seven decades now. It was also an act of terrorism. So what? The word does not scare us. Far from it.

All states have and are willing to resort to terrorism … if necessary. We too. Our movement looks back, though not unthinkingly, to the Great French Revolution of 1789-93 and the Jacobin terror against royalists, aristocrats and moderate republicans. We also more than excuse the march to the sea conducted under general William T Sherman in the final stages of the US civil war, the second American revolution. The northern army burnt, looted and terrorised its way through the confederate state of Georgia in November-December 1864. We certainly defend the red terror unleashed by the Bolshevik-Left SR government against the white terror during the Russian civil war.

Indeed we explicitly threaten the capitalist bourgeoisie, the military high command, the judges, the royals and anyone else in this country tempted to rise up against an expected, or a realised, CPGB majority in the House of Commons with our version of red terror. We will confiscate your property, we will imprison you, we will hold your friends and relatives hostage ... if you dare take up arms against us, if you dare sabotage or connive with foreign intervention.

An international

So who and what is MAB? According to its anodyne website, the organisation aims at serving society “through promoting Islam in its spiritual teachings, ideological and civilising concepts, and moral and human values”. Hence, we are told, MAB pledges to tackle “the complex and intractable issues affecting our society”: eg, violence, drug addiction, rising crime, educational failures, the spread of racism and Islamophobia. So far, so boring.

The MAB is not counted amongst the larger Muslim organisations in Britain. In comparative terms it is quite small - perhaps 600 members in “20+ branches across the UK”.2 A clear majority of British Muslims have family origins in the Indian subcontinent - predominantly Pakistan and Bangladesh. MAB members come mainly from Middle East. Of course, because it wants to relate to, and draw strength from, other Muslims, MAB works “hand in hand with sister … organisations, civic institutions, and political bodies”. Eg, it is affiliated to the Muslim Council of Britain, which groups together over 500 national and local organisations under its umbrella.

The MAB boasts of supporting “just causes and demands” worldwide. Hence, besides Uyghurs and Chechens, it champions a Palestine “free from the river to the sea”. Naturally this ‘one-state solution’ is given an Islamic slant. Not that MAB considers itself anti-Jewish. Palestine “free from the river to the sea” does not serve as code for exterminating Jews. No, it is, as a slogan, a supportable call for the abolition of Zionist Israel, just as the African National Congress aimed the abolition of apartheid South Africa. Wanting an end to Zionist Israel is not anti-Jewish racism, and, of course, wanting an end to apartheid South Africa was not anti-white racism. In point of fact, MAB makes great show of its attempts at “dialogue and cooperation” with Jewish individuals and organisations.3

The MAB is, of course, the British section of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the most conservative estimates credit with having a global membership running into several millions. That is what gives MAB its particular importance, not its claimed 600 members and 20-plus branches. The Brotherhood is ubiquitous in Sunni Arab countries and under this or that name is particularly powerful, not only in Egypt, but in Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Algeria too.

After the Arab spring in 2011 there can be no doubt whatsoever about the popular support enjoyed by MB in Egypt. The Brotherhood played the leading role in the Tahrir Square protests in Cairo, which triggered the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.4 The MB’s Freedom and Justice Party went on to become the largest parliamentary bloc with the 2011‑12 elections: it gained 37.5% of the vote. Mohamed Morsi, its leader, then won the presidential race in May-June 2012. In the final run-off he got 51.73% of the vote.

Despite the June 2013 army coup which overthrew Morsi and put Abdel Fattah el-Sisi into power, MB is far from being a spent force. Though there are some 60,000 political prisoners, shadow leadership bodies operate from abroad and the organisation remains largely united.5 There are pro-MB satellite TV stations such as Rabea TV, safely based in Turkey. Cadres have been well trained ideologically too.

Israel’s war on Gaza can only but add to the possibility of MB toppling the Sisi-army-kleptocratic regime and returning to power. Note the unofficial pro-Palestinian demonstrations on October 21 2023. Notwithstanding a heavy police presence, many thousands managed to force their way into Tahrir Square. Brotherhood chants and slogans were unmistakable: ‘Bread, freedom, social justice’.

Not surprisingly, the Brotherhood draws strength from historic figures such as Hassan al-Banna, its founder, and Sayyid Qutb, its most renowned thinker (who western paid persuaders claim is the ideological mentor of the Taliban and al Qa’eda). They faced persecution by the enemies of Allah and his messenger and yet stayed true to the holy cause. Their writings are read again and again (more about them in part two).

There is also, it should be noted, a loose international Brotherhood which provides logistical and moral support. Formally it is headed by Mohammad Badie, the eighth supreme guide of the Egyptian MB. However, like many other MB leaders he was summarily thrown into jail following the Sisi coup. On April 28 2014, after a trial lasting no more than a few minutes, in which he was not permitted to present a defence, Badie was sentenced to death along with 682 others. So for perfectly understandable reasons MB spokespeople often prove rather touchy when it comes to discussing global links. Nonetheless, regional groupings are freely reported in Europe, North America and the Middle East.

StWC and Respect

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 2001 it was, presumably, MAB’s global links that brought it to the attention of the likes of John Rees - at the time the leading figure in the Socialist Workers Party and vice-chair of Stop the War Coalition. Having taken over the reigns of the SWP from Tony Cliff he was eager for the big time and glory (he is still an StWC officer, but now leads the somewhat diminutive Counterfire group and presents programmes for the Islam Channel - widely watched by British Muslims).

Al Qa’eda’s spectacular suicide attacks on New York and Washington DC were, of course, a world-historic moment.6 Not because they dealt a body blow to US imperialism. No, on the contrary, George W Bush and the US neocons, gung ho militarists, calculating oil company executives, toxic media commentators and two-faced social-imperialists alike found exactly what they were looking for: an opportunity to violently unleash Samuel P Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis upon the world.7

In what Edward Said aptly dubbed a “clash of ignorance”, Muslims were demonised as fanatics, hate-mongers and bloodthirsty irrationalists.8 Correspondingly, western powers were equated with modernity, civic rights and an obligation to export so-called democracy. Though there was not a shred of evidence linking Saddam Hussein to 9/11, the countdown for Operation Iraqi Freedom began. The charred, dismembered and smouldering bodies of Iraqi conscripts that littered the road to Baghdad in April 2003 showed that US imperialism is just the flipside of al Qa’eda - only infinitely more destructive and infinitely more dangerous. Military and civilian deaths resulting from the whole Iraq farrago total well over 100,000.9

Such a horribly misjudged modern crusade admirably suited Bush and the neocons; ditto the liberal interventionists in Britain - above all Labour prime minister Tony Blair. There was a grotesque ‘left’ chorus backing them too: Nick Cohen, Christopher Hitchens, Alan Johnson, Norman Geras, David Aaronovitch, the Euston Manifesto, Harry’s Place and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. This was to be the beginning of the new American century and victory for the ‘superior’ civilization.

Meanwhile, in the name of combating war and Islamophobia - and breaking out from the sectarian ghetto - various leftwingers sought to align themselves with, even partner, mainstream Islam (naive conspiracy theorists uncovered what they saw as a “global” leftist-Marxist-Islamic alliance designed to bring about the fall of “democratic capitalism”10). The courtship, at least in Britain, began in 2002, when MAB was invited to become one of the principal sponsors of the anti-war movement. After some initial hesitation it decided that taking part in protests alongside atheist leftwingers was not haram. The huge February 15 2003 march was jointly sponsored by MAB, StWC and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It is still counted as Britain’s biggest protest demonstration ever.

MAB agreed an even closer political relationship with the left through Respect - also known as the unity coalition. Respect was, in fact, far more than a coalition: it was an officially registered political party with individual membership, a directly elected executive, an annual conference, a detailed constitution and what passed for a programme. The original hope had been to harness the post-September 11 2001 anti-war movement and make a dramatic electoral breakthrough. It was not to be. No national trade unions were won, nor any Labour Party wards or constituencies. Indeed Respect was one of those typical cross-class unpopular fronts and a disaster for the SWP waiting to happen.

An eclectic range of freelance personalities decorated its leadership: eg, George Galloway, Yvonne Ridley, Salma Yaqoob, Ken Loach and Linda Smith. However, from Respect’s formation in January 2004 till the November 2007 split (when the SWP stormed out, ridiculously claiming that they were being witch-hunted), it was John Ress who was captain and commander. Eg, SWP members did most of the donkey work and provided most of the conference votes. While committed Muslims were few and far between at a rank-and-file level, Respect was described as uniting “secular socialists and Muslim activists”.11 A wish which excused the SWP voting down standard leftwing principles one after another at Respect conferences: eg, opposition to immigration controls and a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.

True, the traditionalists in MAB’s leadership soon asserted themselves. Anas Altikriti was replaced as president by Omer El-Hamdoon. Nonetheless, Altikriti headed Respect’s Yorkshire and Humber slate for the European elections in June 2004. Respect secured a magnificent 1.9% of the vote, finishing in seventh place (well behind the British National Party and the Greens, but just ahead of the English Democrats). Altikriti went on to found the British Muslim Initiative, along with Azzam Tamimi and Muhammad Kathem Sawalha. He described BMI as an external faction of the Muslim Brotherhood to me. And despite being ousted from MAB leadership Altikriti and his co-thinkers staged a comeback in 2018, when he was re-elected president. Hence the return of MAB placards on demonstrations and renewed willingness to cooperate with the leftwingers who lead StWC, CND and the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.

New foundations

While it constantly references the Koran, Mohammed and the first caliphs, the Brotherhood is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. So there are medieval foundations, but many ruptures have occurred and therefore new foundations and new orientations have been established. In fact, the ‘mother movement’ in Egypt, is best seen as starting off as a strand of the independence movement: Islam being infused with and shaped by national feelings, the two forming an ambiguous and contradictory unity.

Though dominated by the Mamaluk class of slave-warriors till the early 19th century, Egypt constituted an integral part of the Ottoman empire. However, Albanian mercenary troops rebelled and put their leader, Muhammad Ali, into power. He ruled as khedive (viceroy) of Egypt and Sudan from 1805 to 1849. British forces occupied the country in 1882 - putting down Egypt’s nationalist army and popular democratic movement in the process. The British considered it politic to maintain the Muhammad Ali dynasty and Egypt’s place within the disintegrating Ottoman empire. Only in 1914 did Egypt officially became a British protectorate.

Prior to the outbreak of World War I anti-British agitation was confined to elite circles and had little impact. However, with the British administration conscripting one and a half million Egyptians into labour gangs and requisitioning crops, buildings and animals, discontent steadily rose … till boiling point was finally reached. In March 1919, after demands for independence had been flatly rejected, strikes and mass demonstrations erupted throughout Egypt. It amounted to a national uprising. British military installations were attacked and at least 3,000 Egyptians were killed, as ‘order’ was painfully restored.

Yet, given the balance of forces, the British had to make concessions. Independence was granted in February 1922. However, this status was purely formal. The extravagant, incompetent, debauched, pro-fascist king had to be flattered, bribed and occasionally threatened, but British rule continued. With the bureaucracy and the big capitalist and landlord classes safely in harness, a form of neocolonialism could be imposed. Mired in debt, the Egyptian state remained hopelessly dependent on the City of London. Egypt continued to be both a “market for British manufactured goods and a cotton plantation to service the Lancashire mills”.12 In other words economic development was skewed and capital accumulation proceeded mainly in the interests of Britain. To underwrite that exploitative relationship British naval bases in Alexandria and Port Said were maintained by binding treaty, along with an army garrison on the Suez Canal. In the event of war British forces were to be free to move anywhere across Egypt.

The Society of Muslim Brothers (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) was founded under these conditions of bitter disappointment in 1928 by al-Banna and six employees of the Suez Canal Company. A primary school teacher and son of a small landowner, who also served as the local imam, Banna inserted Egyptian national shame into a wider narrative. Islam was portrayed as having been corrupted over the course of many centuries. That is what led to the occupation of Egypt by British infidels. That is what led to the carving up of the Ottoman empire in the aftermath of World War I. The nadir being the abolition of the caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Attatürk in 1924.13 A catastrophe for the religiously pious.

We shall deal with its specific early history in the next part of this article, but suffice to say, in the meantime, winning hearts and minds has always been seen as a necessary precondition for re-establishing the caliphate by the Brotherhood: first in Egypt and other Muslim countries; eventually over the whole world.

So narrow nationalism is eschewed. While Egypt is expected to play the leading role, the ambitions of the Brotherhood are universal. Amongst the stated key aims is building “khilafa” (basically unity between Islamic states) and “mastering the world” with Islam. Each MB national section being obliged to draw up programmes for “Islamising” government after what are called “realistic studies”.14 However, for those who might imagine that MB as hell-bent on immediate world conquest, it should be stressed that the Brotherhood has always calculated that it would be too risky to rule over a population which has not internalised Islamic law. The findings of the Carnegie think tank are worth quoting too. With Donald Trump clamouring to declare MB a terrorist organisation, Michele Dunne and Ander Miller argued that this would be a mistake: “The Muslim Brotherhood does not fit the legal definition of a foreign terrorist organisation. There is no credible evidence that, as an organisation, it is using violence to pursue political aims, and it has not deliberately targeted Americans.”15

There is with the Brotherhood the looking back to a largely mythical past with which to radically refashion the present. There is also the currying of favour from established state powers. MB looks benignly upon those who preside over what are called “true” Islamic governments. They deserve “support and help”.16 That never included upstarts such as Mubarak, Assad or Gaddafi, but the Saud, Hashem, Thani, Sabah, Nahyan and other such ‘authentic’ Arab dynasties are another matter. Time legitimises. Time consecrates. “What is grey with age becomes religion” (Shiller).17

Considerable benefits have come in return for “support and help” - hence the description of MB as an “ideological protectorate of Saudi Arabia”.18 An exaggeration, no doubt. Nonetheless, there was abundant evidence showing the closeness of the MB-Saudi relationship. Eg, the Islamic University of Medina, generously financed by the Saudi monarchy, was from its beginning, in 1961, a centre of Brotherhood teaching (approximately 70% of its 22,000 students were non-Saudi).19

All that came to a shuddering stop with the Arab spring and the election of Morsi. The house of Saud feared for its own safety and cut off links with MB. Within Saudi Arabia itself the Brotherhood was banned and many arrests were made. Anyone guilty of supporting or promoting MB ideas faces a prison sentence “of no less than three years and no more than 20 years”.20 However, Qatar, and to some extent Turkey, have filled the gap. Refuge, funds and TV platforms have been provided.21

Hence, as Barbara Zolliner, of the Carnegie Middle East Center, reports, the Brotherhood “has proven to be highly resilient, and there have even been signs of internal renewal, underlining that the regime’s policies [of severe oppression] may be futile and counterproductive. If this continues, it could eat away at Sisi’s legitimacy and even the stability of his regime.”22

  1. The Telegraph November 6 2023.↩︎

  2. www.mabonline.net/about-us/our-structure.↩︎

  3. web.archive.org/web/20120119221236/mabonline.net/?page_id=2.↩︎

  4. theworld.org/dispatch/egypt/110207/egypt-muslim-brotherhood-tahrir-square.↩︎

  5. www.newarab.com/news/egypt-had-least-60000-political-prisoners-nyt.↩︎

  6. On September 11 2001, two planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon in Washington, while flight 93, targeted against the White House, crashed on a Pennsylvania field.↩︎

  7. See SP Huntington The clash of civilizations and the remaking of the world order London 1996.↩︎

  8. E Said The Nation October 18 2001.↩︎

  9. www.iraqbodycount.org/analysis/numbers/warlogs.↩︎

  10. DJ Jonsson Islamic economics and the final jihad Longwood FL 2006, p413.↩︎

  11. Socialist Worker November 20 2004.↩︎

  12. D Hopwood Egypt, politics and society: 1945-1990 London 1991, p17.↩︎

  13. see www.ummah.org.uk/ikhwan.↩︎

  14. www.ummah.org.uk/ikhwan.↩︎

  15. carnegieendowment.org/2019/05/03/nine-reasons-why-declaring-muslim-brotherhood-terrorist-organization-would-be-mistake-pub-79059.↩︎

  16. www.ummah.org.uk/ikhwan.↩︎

  17. F Schiller The death of Wallenstein act 1, scene 4 – see www.gutenberg.org/files/6787/6787-h/6787-h.htm#2H_4_0006.↩︎

  18. South Asian Analysis Group, paper No3571, December 28 2009.↩︎

  19. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_University_of_Madinah.↩︎

  20. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muslim_Brotherhood.↩︎

  21. www.counterextremism.com/content/muslim-brotherhood-qatar.↩︎

  22. carnegie-mec.org/2019/03/11/surviving-repression-how-egypt-s-muslim-brotherhood-has-carried-on-pub-78552.↩︎