Saudi, The Muslim Brothers, and The Politics of Terrorism

L’Arabie saoudite vient de déclarer les Frères musulmans comme une organisation terroriste. Le royaume est un des principaux soutiens du pouvoir militaire en Egypte qui a emprisonné le président Mohammed Morsi.

Last Friday, the Saudi government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, lumping the Brothers in with Jabhat al Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and al Qaeda. The announcement was not terribly surprising. Riyadh has proven to be Cairo’s staunchest patron since the July 3 coup d’état and both governments have led the effort to delegitimize the Brotherhood ever since. This actually has much more to do with politics than it does with terrorism, which prompted me to tweet :

“I don’t remember Muslim Brothers hijacking those planes… #SaudiArabia”

This was my way of commenting on Riyadh’s rank hypocrisy and with it I was expecting to feel the wrath of at least a few Saudi tweeps, but it failed to strike a collective nerve among them. Egyptians were a different story, however. Perhaps it is the medium. Twitter makes nuance and context hard, but I am not sure that messages like the following need much explication : “@stevenacook Maybe you met some cool MB. I assure you that they lied at you..despise you.. deliberately fooled you with a big yellow smile.” There were numerous attempts to convince me that the Brothers and al Qaeda share the same ideology. Again, there is nothing terribly surprising here. In the McCarthy-esque moment in which Egyptians currently exist, adhering scrupulously to the current anti-Muslim Brotherhood spirit is far more important than analytic rigor and basic historical facts.

There are, of course, connections between the Muslim Brothers and terrorism. Let’s stipulate that the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al Banna, collected weaponry and established the organization’s armed wing called al jihaz al sirri, or “the secret apparatus.” Let’s also acknowledge that the Brothers were involved in various assassinations, bombings, and other acts of violence in the very unstable 1940s and early 1950s. It is also true that after last summer’s sit-in at Rabaa al Adawiyya and the bloody crackdowns that ended the protest, the Brotherhood’s leadership employed the language of violence and martyrdom. For many Egyptians, the significant increase in violence and terrorist attacks in the Sinai Peninsula and places like Cairo and Ismailiyya that followed the July 3 coup proves the connection between the organization and the jihadist groups like Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, Ajnad Misr, and al Furqan Brigade that are perpetrating the violence. Yet there is no actual evidence directly linking the Brothers to these groups.

To make the argument that “the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization” work, the Egyptian tweeps who responded to me seem to accept the following formulation implicitly : Sayyid Qutb was an influential member of the Muslim Brotherhood ; Qutb penned what many consider to be the intellectual framework for transnational jihadism in the voluminous In the Shadow of The Quran and Milestones Along the Way (1964), which is derivative of the longer work ; through these writings and many others, Qutb garnered a significant following, who would become the leaders of contemporary international jihadist groups ; therefore the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization. This account leaves out a few details, however.

As I wrote in chapters III and IV of The Struggle for Egypt, the relationship between Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership, and violence was complex, fraught with doctrinal differences and was shaped by the exigencies of saving the Brotherhood after Nasser’s assault on the organization as he consolidated his power :

When the Free Officers took down the Brotherhood after the attempted assassination of Nasser in October 1954, Qutb was rounded up with the rest of the organization’s leadership. He was sent to Tora prison, where he spent most of his time revising In the Shadow of the Quran and extending the ideas of the influential South Asian Islamist theorists, Mawlana Maududi and Abul Hassan Ali al Nadwi. With Supreme Guide Hassan al Hudaybi effectively muzzled, the Brotherhood was literally adrift, left with neither ideological guidance nor leadership. In time, Qutb and his ideas increasingly filled these vacuums. [When Nasser] released [some Muslim Brothers] from prison in 1957 and 1958, [they] began to organize themselves into cells and looked to him [Qutb] for guidance. When these groups merged into a subgroup of the Brotherhood, they appealed directly to Qutb to become their spiritual leader. Given his background in education, Qutb developed a curriculum for this vanguard that would fuel its ideological ardor. Among the works of classical Islamic thinkers such as Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyya, Qutb included his own Milestones Along the Way

…In July 1965, the authorities discovered the Brotherhood vanguardists and accused them of planning the assassination of President Nasser and the overthrow of the regime. Given the central themes of Milestones—possession of which became a criminal offense—it is abundantly clear why Nasser sought to repress the group. In the context of Qutb’s discussion of jahaliyya [a state of ignorance or impious society] and the absolute sovereignty of God, Egypt’s authoritarian regime—which had become the archetype for the republics of the Middle East—was clearly ripe for jihad. The subsequent military tribunal handed down death penalties to Supreme Guide al Hudaybi, Qutb, and two of his associates, Abdel Fattah Ismail and Mohamed Yusuf Hawwash. Like his sentence in the mid-1950s, al Hudaybi’s punishment was commuted to life imprisonment, but Qutb, Ismail, and Hawwash were hanged in August 1966.

The July crackdown was critical in the future trajectory of the Brotherhood. After the vanguard’s founding in the late 1950s, the Supreme Guide was kept apprised of the group, tacitly supporting its activities from house arrest and acknowledging Sayyid Qutb’s spiritual leadership of the group. Al Hudaybi saw the emergence of the group in strategic terms. With the Supreme Guide under house arrest and his organization largely in disarray, the activism of Qutb’s followers was important in keeping the Brotherhood alive during a period of great stress. After the new round of repression, al Hudaybi was far more circumspect and ultimately distanced himself from the vanguard. The split was intertwined in both politics and doctrine, specifically differences related to concepts such as jahaliyya, the absolute sovereignty of God and, especially, takfir (excommunication)… 

Al Hudaybi well understood that the innovations in Islamist thought that Qutb extended in Milestones and the way Qutb’s followers embraced them could ultimately prove fatal to the longevity of the Brotherhood, which under al Hudaybi sought to avoid direct confrontations with the regime. For the Supreme Guide, the primary goal was the preservation of the Muslim Brotherhood, and thus there was no choice but to reject what the vanguardists had come to represent. Even as Qutb’s followers rejected accusations that jahaliyya, the absolute sovereignty of God, and takfir were central to their thought, the Supreme Guide’s decision to turn away from them had a profound and enduring effect on Islamist politics in Egypt. To Qutb’s followers, al Hudaybi’s rejection of their group compromised the Supreme Guide’s integrity and his claim to spiritual leadership of the Islamist movement.

The ideas contained in Milestones that became central to radical Islamist groups may have crystallized in the early and mid-1960s, but there was little that its adherents could do to operationalize their theological innovations…

…By the late 1970s, the government and the Brotherhood developed a mutual interest in countering extremist groups like al Gama’a al Islamiyya (the Islamic Group) and Takfir wa-l Hijra (Excommunication and Exodus), which murdered the minister of religious endowments in 1977. It is no coincidence that the same year, the book Du’at la Qudah (Preachers not Judges) was published. Written in 1969 under the by-line of the Brotherhood’s then-Supreme Guide, Hassan al Hudaybi—though widely believed to be a collaborative effort by other leading Brothers and al Azhar scholars—the work was a refutation of both the theoretical framework that Sayyid Qutb developed in Milestones and the extremist tendencies that developed subsequently.

Egypt’s experience with terrorism in the 1990s had little to do with the Brothers, though the government claimed—as it is doing now—that there was no difference between violent extremists and the Brotherhood. Yet the leaders of al Gama’a al Islamiyya and al Jihad, which was responsible for Anwar Sadat’s assassination, were either never associated with the Brotherhood or turned away from it because the Brothers were not extreme enough. This was certainly the case of Ayman al Zawahiri and a veritable All Star list of Egyptian transnational jihadis.

The point here is not to suggest that the Brotherhood is a force for democracy and pluralism in Egypt. The organization—contrary to its public rhetoric about progressive political reform—remains consistent in its desire to Islamize Egyptian society and transform it using authoritarian means. Perhaps scholars want to engage in a debate about different interpretations of the Brotherhood’s history and outlook, but the recent empirical record suggests that all the talk of the evolution of the organization was misplaced. Still, this is different from being al Qaeda and Jabhat al Nusra even if the Brothers are availing themselves to Molotov cocktails, sling-shots, rocks, and even rifles in their confrontations with the police. Again, this is not to excuse violence. Egyptian police officers and soldiers have families too. Many of them are caught in the figurative and literal crossfire in the battle over who gets to define Egypt, but that, at its base, is a political struggle and the reason why Riyadh did what it did last week. The Saudis took the step they did because a successful Brotherhood in Egypt is a political threat to their own Islamist and extremist worldview.