The Brotherhood and Nasser

The Free Officer revolution had the advantage of timing, having organized in the wake of Egypt’s embarrassing loss in the war of 1948. Egypt’s collective ego had been bruised by the conflict, and the Brotherhood’s unyielding support of the Arab struggle had served to legitimize the organization to the masses. The 1948 war also led to government crackdowns on supposed dissidents. In November of 1948, Cairo Police’s Special Branch captured documents detailing the existence, structure, and membership of the Brotherhood’s clandestine “Special Organization”.[1] The period following Israel’s war of Independence saw the Brotherhood’s relationship with Cairo’s police force become more turbulent and violent, as accusations of foul play led to the first of many official embargos of the Muslim Brotherhood in December 8, 1948.[2] On February 12, 1949, Hassan Al-Banna was shot outside the Young Men’s Muslim Association, dying shortly after reaching the hospital.[3] His death crystalized the Brotherhood’s resolve.

Al Banna shot

The ousting of King Farouk meant at least two things for the Brotherhood. One, it represented the possibility for political advancement. The Brotherhood had spent years bolstering their membership through stiff competition from other groups such as the Wafd and the Labor Party. The removal of King Farouk signaled the possibility of political advancement through the successful cooperation with the new regime formed by the Free Officers. Second, it removed the uneasy relationship the Brotherhood had with the concept of royal power. The inherent power held by established monarchies are often at odds with Islamic ideals. Religious power holds legitimacy in the divine, in much the same way as Monarchies derive theirs. The monarchy and religious orders in effect “share” by aligning their goals to coincide with the others. In the case of the Brotherhood, the Egyptian monarchy had “forfeited” their claim to divine legitimacy by tolerating the British Occupation. This concept of “power sharing” between established structures of power and the Brotherhood’s Islamic ideal is explored more deeply in the writings of Sayyid Qutb and Abdul Ala Mawdudi in chapter three.

Bottom row from left to right are Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mohammed Naguib, Abdel Hakim Amer and Anwar Sadat. Public Domain image

Bottom row from left to right are Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mohammed Naguib, Abdel Hakim Amer and Anwar Sadat.
Public Domain image

King Farouk’s removal from power was not immediately followed by the ascension of Nasser. The first elected President of Egypt, Mohammed Naquib, formed the new Egyptian government with the cooperation of the Free Officers. However, this new government was designed to exclude participation of the Brotherhood.[4] Their exclusion from participation from the government is ironic, mainly due to the membership of all of the Free Officers in the Muslim Brotherhood before the revolution. According to Kamal Helbawy, the Brotherhood was even instrumental in the planning of the revolution itself: personified in the delay of the coup d’état until the Free Officers gained the approval of the new leader of the Brotherhood, Hassan al-Hudaiby.[5] Perhaps because of their participation in helping plan the revolution, the Brotherhood was exempt from a ban on political parties in 1953, a precursor to the establishment of the Arab Socialist Union.[6]

Nasser not compatibleFollowing the strong-armed exit of Mohammed Naquib from the Presidency of Egypt, and the ascension of Nasser to power, the Brotherhood’s aspirations of cooperation with the new regime dissolved even more, as the Brotherhood realized that the secular, Arab-Nationalist agenda of Nasser was not compatible with the Brotherhood’s ideal Islam-based society. These two opposing views would lead to a direct conflict between the two entities. Nasser’s bold vision of an independent and modern Arab world clashed with the Brotherhood’s traditional approach steeped in culture and Islam. Though the Brotherhood would eventually begin to modernize itself as an organization, it had yet to adjust to the modernization brought by Nasser. The Brotherhood would find itself enjoying the afterglow of the revolution, but only briefly, before again being persecuted.

Gamal Abdel Nasser Image courtesy of Bibliotheca Alexandrina and Gamal Abdel Nasser Foundation (Nasser Archive Website) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gamal Abdel Nasser
Image courtesy of Bibliotheca Alexandrina and Gamal Abdel Nasser Foundation (Nasser Archive Website) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As discussed above, the Brotherhood had found common ground in contested Palestine with those Egyptians who could not identify with their Islamic message. Conversely, the nationalistic policies of Nasser acted as the repelling agent that alienated the Brotherhood away from the “non-Islamist” Egyptian. To clarify, Nasser’s message emphasized independence and pride, primarily in the “Arab-ness” of Egypt, and not its “Muslim-ness”. By doing so, Nasser’s message distance itself from that of the Brotherhood, thus alienating the Brotherhood’s Islamic message and placing it secondarily to the National Pride of Egypt. In the way that the Brotherhood could attract the “non-Islamist” Egyptians through its position on Palestine, Nasser’s policies polarized the Brotherhood farther away from attracting those Egyptians. The integration of Islam into Egyptian culture was taking a backseat to the integration of Egyptian identity into Egyptian culture.

Prominent in the discussion of the Brotherhood’s overt transition into political rhetoric is the influence of prominent Islamist author and theologian Sayyid Qutb. Discussed in more depth in a later chapter, it is important to highlight his participation and influence on the Brotherhood during Nasser’s regime. Qutb had written extensively on the encroachment of Western ideals into Islamic society, having travelled to the United Sates for study in his youth. His critique of the Nasser regime is important in that to highlights the deficiency of Nasser’s message to emphasize the role of Islam in all aspects of Egyptian society. According to Qutb, America was living in a state of ignorance or [jāhilīya] in Arabic.[7] Qutb critiqued America’s Western values, referring to them as jāhilīya, however his critique was not solely aimed at the U.S. Nasser’s regime held some of the qualities that Qutb criticized, particularly Nasser’s focus on nationalism.

the Brotherhood proven ability to mobilize support, even under the restrictive policies of King Farouk, threatened Nasser.This alienation of the Brotherhood’s message from Egyptian society acted as the main disassociation between the Brotherhood and Nasser’s regime. Though the Brotherhood’s message appealed to the masses in a cultural way that played on Egyptian symbols and religion, it was lacking in the modernized principles present in Nasser. Regardless of Nasser’s appeal, the Brotherhood proven ability to mobilize support, even under the restrictive policies of King Farouk, threatened Nasser. Intelligence reports surfaced, accusing the Brotherhood of successfully integrating within the Egyptian military and police force.[8] After a failed attempt on his life in October of 1054, Nasser instituted massive crackdowns on the Brotherhood, resulting in the arrest of over 7,000 suspects for sedition, mostly Brotherhood members including their leader Hassan al-Hudaiby, and the looting and destruction of the Brotherhood’s headquarters and provincial offices. The Brotherhood was again officially banned and forced to continue their activities in secret.


[2] Ibid., 25.

[3] Ibid., 23.

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