Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1401, (12 - 18 July 2018)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1401, (12 - 18 July 2018)

Ahram Weekly

An American conspiracy?

Did the United States bring about the collapse of the former Mubarak regime by encouraging the political ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood, asks Tewfik Aclimandos

In a previous article I wrote that many journalists close to the Egyptian state, many state actors, and indeed many other influential groups believed that the former Mubarak regime in Egypt was the victim of a sophisticated conspiracy orchestrated by many villains including the Muslim Brothers, the US, Qatar, Turkey, Hamas and Iran. It was this conspiracy, they say, that was behind the 25 January Revolution.

There is plenty of evidence pointing to a decision by the leadership of the Muslim Brothers to topple the regime. The group’s behaviour starting in 2005 tends to show this, along with the kind of messages it was delivering. There were also changes in the group’s leadership with the rise and the increasing visibility of the hawks, plus the astonishing efficiency of its troops during the upheaval itself. 

It might be added that it is natural to attack the enemy when he is in his weakest state. There were deep divisions in the ruling circles of the regime due to the rise of Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, and there was also an increasing slowness in the president’s own reactions. There was deep social and political unrest, and fewer and fewer people depended on the state for an income. Everyone knew Egypt would face a storm with the end of Mubarak’s long rule and because of his unwillingness to address fears around the succession and the numerous economic and social challenges the country was facing.

This does not answer the question of whether the Brotherhood organised the great upheaval or whether it simply exploited it, however. We do not know if there was a detailed plan, or just some guidelines. We do not know if the Brotherhood knew beforehand how it would deal with the military institution and what its ultimate goal regarding it was. However, we do know for sure that the well-planned operations the group organised during the 18 days of the revolution were not the result of improvisation. We cannot know for sure whether the Brotherhood manipulated the youth forces and the opposition parties, as commentators Mustafa Bakri and Abdel-Kader Shuhayeb claim, or whether they simply capitalised on their activities and their eagerness to secure a strong ally. A mix of both is the probable answer.

The accusation against the United States rests on very shaky ground. This is a fascinating story. While the facts are generally true, the narrative as a whole is implausible, to say the least. True, the US administration started a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood. At first it just met with some Brotherhood MPs, but progressively it went further. 

CIA agents met with the Brotherhood leadership both in Egypt and abroad and secured an agreement that once in power the Brotherhood would respect Egypt’s international agreements, including the peace treaty with Israel. Meanwhile, the US started to devote a lot of money to funding human-rights NGO activities in Egypt, thereby knowingly, according to the two authors mentioned above, giving ammunition to left-wing and liberal militants eager to topple the regime. Human-rights issues were an easy way to put pressure on the government and to extract concessions.  

At the same time, many commentators in Western academia started to explain the rise of the extremism that had led to the 11 September 2001 events in New York and Washington. Some raised the Palestine issue, while others preferred to focus either on Saudi Wahabism or on the authoritarian Arab regimes. The story was a straightforward one: these regimes had failed to deliver on social, economic and political issues, causing frustration and despair. They had failed because they were corrupt, undemocratic, secular and distant from their people who were supposed to prefer Political Islam. 

To be fair, many other Western commentators also contested these views, saying that authoritarianism in the Arab world was solid, stable and able to change. When many regimes collapsed at the beginning of this decade, these latter commentators appeared to have been proven wrong, and the former story gained credibility.

Consider this material through the eyes of an Egyptian security official. He was warning in the 1990s of the rise of terrorism and saying that Britain and Germany were wrong to host jihadists organising terrorist attacks against Arab populations and tourists visiting Arab countries. Nobody paid any attention. Then, when these terrorists started attacking Western capitals instead of blaming themselves the Western governments started saying that the Arab regimes were the cause of the situation. They started looking for scapegoats, blaming many people except the main incubator of extremist thought, the Muslim Brotherhood.

 Many people in Cairo today do not understand how “post-modern” individualists in the West working for the constant extension of rights and freedoms can favour the Muslim Brotherhood, which at the very least is illiberal. For many, it is impossible to believe that these people can be genuine democrats, since people espousing such absurd views surely cannot believe in them themselves. Surely, they are acting in the way they do as a result of malign intentions. Surely, they have evil plans.

Now consider the situation from the perspective of a Western leader. At least half of his advisors have been plausibly claiming that Muslim populations have a serious problem with secularism and prefer Political Islam. They add that Political Islam is itself plural, but all its components speak a language the population can understand. These advisors might be imagined as having said that inevitably one of these components will win and that it would be preferable to support the transnational, pragmatic and moderate wing of Political Islam in the shape of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Emissaries of the latter had been claiming that we (the Muslim Brothers) would win with or without you. If you negotiate with us, we will have obligations towards you. If you do not negotiate, we shall be freer to do what we want. Do not repeat the mistake committed by those who bet on the shah of Iran, they said. 

In the Western media the Muslim Brotherhood, allied with many left-wingers and multiculturalists, started saying that those who criticised its programme, tactics and attitudes were displaying “fanatical Islamophobia”. Many experts rightly said that the policies of the Bush administration in the US at the time had antagonised the majority of Muslims. As a result, liberals felt compelled to prove their innocence by showing that they at least did not suffer from Islamophobia and that they believed the Brotherhood’s claims to be democratic. 

If you were a Western leader reading expert reports saying such things while others said that the authoritarianism in the Arab world was solid, what would you do? You would try to avoid putting all your eggs in the same basket, and you would start to consider the Islamist option, especially in countries where the democratic forces were apparently too small to matter. Therefore, you would start talking to all sides, while trying to support a democratic transition.

I have serious reasons to believe that many US emissaries started to say to the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood before the 25 January Revolution that “we do not hate Islam, and we do not hate you. We will not oppose you if you win elections and if you respect Egypt’s international commitments and basic human rights.” Many Arab diplomats who used the traditional arguments against the Brothers with the Americans were surprised to hear the reply that “they have promised that they will abide by the peace treaty with Israel.”

I do not think that such exchanges are proof of a conspiracy in themselves. However, I do think that the Brotherhood considered them to be the green light for its grand design.


The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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