Sixty years of the army and the Brotherhood
Next week sees the anniversary of the July 1952 Revolution, the first to take place under a president from the formerly outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, writes Amani Maged
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The honeymoon between Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood ended in 1954 and culminated with the execution of Sayed Qotb, the chief ideologue of the organisation. |
Clockwise from top: Nasser; El-Banna and Qotb; the Free Officers
The 60th anniversary of the 23 July 1952 Revolution that Egyptians are commemorating next week will have a completely different flavour this year. It is the first anniversary to take place during the term of Egypt's first democratically elected civilian president. Moreover, that president is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, from 1952 to the present, has fought a protracted battle with the Egyptian military but was able to take power following the 25 January Revolution.
In the past, one of the rituals of the 23 July commemoration called for the head of state to place wreaths on the tombs of presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar El-Sadat. It is still uncertain whether President Mohamed Mursi will do the same. It would be odd if he did, given the waves of detention and imprisonment, confiscations of property, and other forms of injustice meted out against the Muslim Brotherhood over the past 60 years and in view of the Brotherhood's commitment to eliminating the detrimental effects of military rule.
The words that Mursi delivered in Cairo's Tahrir Square the day before he took the oath of office before the Supreme Constitutional Court are also still fresh in the minds of the Egyptian public. Referring to the ills of the Nasserist period, he said that the Muslim Brothers would never forget the 1960s, which some interpreted as a vow of revenge against the Nasserists.
Today the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military is particularly tense. The two sides are engaged in a vicious tug-of-war struggle in the media and the courts over the addendum to the Constitutional Declaration, the creation of a National Defence Council, and other actions which the Brotherhood claims have been designed to wrest power from the executive and legislature and place it in the hands of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
However, as important as the outcome of this struggle is to the future of the political system in Egypt, it is interesting to take advantage of the anniversary of the 23 July 1952 Revolution to take a look at the origins of this adversarial relationship. Some might argue that it started with the Manshiya incident, in which the Brothers were accused of an attempt to assassinate Nasser while he was delivering a speech in the central Alexandrian square in 1954. But in fact the story begins in the previous decade, well before the 1952 Revolution.
In his memoirs Sadat relates the contribution made by the Muslim Brotherhood and its founding father Hassan El-Banna to the Palestine war. "In 1948, he [El-Banna] went to take part in the events in Palestine, and I went with him. Initially, the government had not decided whether the Egyptian army should become involved, but the government was not in a position to prevent revolutionary youth groups from volunteering for the war. The group that was the most enthusiastic about volunteering and fighting was the Muslim Brotherhood. During this period, new connections developed between the Free Officers and the Muslim Brotherhood's leaders."
Several meetings were held in El-Banna's home. Among those who attended were Nasser, who drew up plans with El-Banna, Kamaleddin Hussein, an officer in the artillery, and some officers who were Muslim Brotherhood members. At the same time, the officers developed contacts with Amin El-Husseini, the mufti of Palestine, and with members of the Arab League. The purpose of these contacts, Sadat relates, was "to form, train and fully equip armed organisations and formations so that they would have all the arms and skills they needed before volunteering to engage in the holy battle [in Palestine]."
The Muslim Brothers insisted that they were fully prepared and that all they needed was permission to travel to the field of battle. The mufti of Palestine and the Arab League were forming volunteer units, and the League announced that it was prepared to equip them and cover their expenditure. As members of the Egyptian army, the officers were in a predicament. They could not take part in the war unless the government officially declared that it was at war and mobilised the army. While the government was still wavering over whether or not to join the war effort in Palestine, Egyptian officers began to contemplate the option of resigning from the army in order to serve as volunteers.
Sadat continues by saying that "the army command was soon flooded with resignation requests. The government continued to hesitate, which only angered them further and increased their rancour." Faced with the dangerous situation in Palestine and the pressures at home, the government decided to send a group of officers from the engineering corps to Palestine to undertake reconnaissance operations. Then, suddenly, some officers received instructions to meet General Othman El-Mahdi, the then chairman of the chiefs-of-staff.
When they reported to his office, they found Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, a noted war hero, who told the recruits that "you are not just going to fight an enemy. You are going to write history." Just as Abdel-Aziz was completing his speech, El-Banna and Sheikh Farghali arrived to deliver morale-raising farewell speeches to the volunteers, who were a mixture of Muslim Brotherhood youth and others.
That early comradeship between the Free Officers and the Muslim Brotherhood soured soon after the 1952 Revolution. Tensions reached a height with the Manshiya incident in 1954, when the finger of accusation pointed to a member of the Brotherhood. The accusation was the prelude to sweeping arrests and detentions of Brotherhood members on the grounds of conspiracy.
Nevertheless, not all historians accept the official version. Cairo University professor of Islamic history and civilisation Ahmed Shalabi, who does not belong to the Brotherhood, maintains that "the Manshiya incident is dubious in itself, and dragging the name of former president Mohamed Naguib into the case was a blunt way of putting an end to his career."
Shalabi relates that on the evening of 26 October 1954 a reception was held in honour of Nasser and his comrades to celebrate the signing of the evacuation treaty with the British. The reception, which took place in Manshiya Square in Alexandria, was held in a huge pavilion that could accommodate various important functionaries and representatives of certain segments of society, as well as members of three major bodies: the Liberation Organisation, the Liberation Directorate and the National Guard.
Shalabi argues that the seating was arranged in such a way that each of the groups of guests had their own designated place and so that there was no free chair available for any infiltrator. As a result, it would have been difficult for an assassin to make his way through the seats unobserved. He then asks, "would it not have been easier to shoot Nasser during the procession when he was in an open car? The route of the procession had been announced beforehand, after all."
"When one contemplates the facts of this incident as reported in the press at the time, one is struck by the distance between the perpetrator and Nasser, who was standing on a podium beyond a wall of nearby people, and by the fact that he was using a low-calibre gun for this horrible purpose... Does it make sense that the perpetrator should have fired eight or nine shots, none of which reached their target? This man, Mohamed Abdel-Latif, was known for his marksmanship, yet not one of his bullets hit his target or any of the people surrounding Nasser, or anyone at all. It is impossible to believe that."
More curiously still, Shalabi adds, was the fact that after the shooting spree the organisers asked people to calm down and resume their places. In a real conspiracy, people would have been told to leave for fear of further attacks.
The newspapers spoke of "severe injuries" having been inflicted in the attack. What they failed to mention was the fact that the injuries had been caused by flying glass and by panicking guests, and not by gunfire. Shalabi also states that there were no traces of bullet holes in the wall facing the assailant and that although arms and explosives were found in the possession of some Muslim Brothers in Alexandria during the subsequent raids, there was no evidence that they had used guns.
"Are we to believe that a group with such experience in planning and in fighting in the Suez Canal and in Palestine would not have used means more appropriate to the situation," Shalabi asks.
From the Manshiya incident, the trajectory of the relationship between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood continued its downward slope, as Nasser stepped up his campaign of clampdowns and detentions against them. True, there was a brief respite under Sadat, who embraced the Brothers for political ends, but it was a short honeymoon. The antagonism resumed in full force under former president Hosni Mubarak, amidst ceaseless propaganda against the "banned group" in the national press and more waves of arrests, confiscations of the assets of Brotherhood businessmen, and political marginalisation.
Then came the 25 January Revolution, which opened up a new horizon for the Muslim Brotherhood and ushered in a new phase of confrontation between it and the military. It is impossible to predict the outcome of the current facedown. Will it draw the curtain on military rule, or is there a different ending now in store?