Britain and the Muslim Brotherhood: Collaboration during the 1940s and 1950s
An edited extract from Mark Curtis’ latest book, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam (Serpent’s Tail, 2010)
The Second World War witnessed the continuing growth of the Muslim Brotherhood, which developed under Hassan al-Banna’s leadership into an Islamist mass movement. It had become the largest Islamic society in Egypt and had set up affiliates in Sudan, Jordan, Syria, Palestine and North Africa. Aiming to establish an Islamic state under the slogan ‘The Koran is our constitution’, the Brotherhood preached strict observance of the tenets of Islam and offered a religious alternative to both the secular nationalist movements and communist parties in Egypt and the Middle East – forces which were becoming the two major challengers to British, and US, power in the region.
Britain had regarded Egypt as a linchpin of its position in the Middle East ever since it declared a ‘protectorate’ over the country at the beginning of the First World War. British firms dominated foreign investment and the commercial life of the country, while the British military base in the Suez Canal Zone had become the largest in the world by the time of the Second World War. British dominance of the country was, however, increasingly challenged both by a growing nationalist movement and by the religious forces of the Muslim Brotherhood, while London’s ultimate ally in the country was its ruler, King Farouk, who assumed the throne in 1936.
The Brotherhood had called for jihad against Jews in the 1936–9 Arab Revolt in Palestine, and had sent volunteers there after an appeal from the mufti; it had also been assisted by German officers in constructing its military wing. The organisation regarded the British as imperialist oppressors in Egypt, and agitated against the British military occupation of the country, especially after the Palestine rebellion. During the early years of the Second World War, British strategy towards the Brotherhood in Egypt mainly involved attempts to suppress it. Yet at this time the Brotherhood, which was allied to the political right, also enjoyed the patronage of the pro-British Egyptian monarchy, which had begun to fund the Brotherhood in 1940. King Farouk saw the Brothers as a useful counter to the power of the major political party in the country – the secular, nationalist Wafd Party – and the communists. A British intelligence report of 1942 noted that ‘the Palace had begun to find the Ikhwan useful and has thrown its aegis over them.’ During this time, many Islamic societies in Egypt were sponsored by the authorities to oppose rivals or enhance the interests of the British, the palace or other influential groups.
The first known direct contact between British officials and the Brotherhood came in 1941, at a time when British intelligence regarded the organisation’s mass following and sabotage plans against the British as ‘the most serious danger to public security’ in Egypt. That year al-Banna had been jailed by the Egyptian authorities acting under British pressure, but it was on his release later the same year that the British made contact with the Brotherhood. According to some accounts, British officials offered to aid the organisation, to ‘purchase’ its support. Theories abound as to whether al-Banna took up or rejected the offer of British support, but considering the relative quiet of the Brotherhood for some time after this period, it is possible that British aid was accepted.
By 1942 Britain had definitely begun to finance the Brotherhood. On 18 May British embassy officials held a meeting with Egyptian Prime Minister Amin Osman Pacha, in which relations with the Muslim Brotherhood were discussed and a number of points were agreed. One was that ‘subsidies from the Wafd [Party] to the Ikhwani el Muslimin [Muslim Brotherhood] would be discreetly paid by the [Egyptian] government and they would require some financial assistance in this matter from the [British] Embassy.’ In addition, the Egyptian government ‘would introduce reliable agents into the Ikhwani to keep a close watch on activities and would let us [the British embassy] have the information obtained from such agents. We, for our part, would keep the government in touch with information obtained from British sources.’
It was also agreed that ‘an effort would be made to create a schism in the party by exploiting any differences which might occur between Hassan al-Banna and Ahmed Sukkari,’ the two leaders. The British would also hand over to the government a list of Brotherhood members they regarded as dangerous, but there would be no aggressive moves against the organisation. Rather, the strategy decided upon was that of ‘killing by kindness’. Al-Banna would be allowed to start a newspaper and publish articles ‘supporting democratic principles’ – this would be a good way of, as one of the attendants put it, ‘helping to disintegrate the Ikhwani’.
The meeting also discussed how the Brotherhood was forming ‘sabotage organisations’ and spying on behalf of the Nazis. It was described as ‘a narrow religious and obscurantist organisation’, but one which ‘could bring out shock troops in a time of disturbance’, including ‘suicide squads’. With an estimated 100–200,000 supporters, the Brotherhood was ‘implicitly anti-European and in particular anti-British, on account of our exceptional position in Egypt’; it therefore ‘hoped for an Axis victory, which they imagined would make them the dominant political influence in Egypt.’
By 1944, Britain’s Political Intelligence Committee was describing the Brotherhood as a potential danger, but with a weak leadership: al-Banna, it felt, was the ‘only outstanding personality’, without whom ‘it might easily crumble away’. This rather dismissive analysis of the Brotherhood would be revised in the years to come, as the British cultivated and collaborated with it in the face of growing anti-colonialism in Egypt.
Thus, by the end of the Second World War Britain already had considerable experience of colluding with Muslim forces to achieve certain objectives, while officials also realised that these same forces were generally opposed to British imperial policy and strategic objectives: they were temporary, ad hoc collaborators to achieve specific goals when Britain lacked other allies or sufficient power of its own to impose its priorities. This policy of British expediency would significantly deepen in the postwar world as the need for collaborators increased in a much more challenging global environment.
After the end of the Second World War, the Brotherhood was one of two mass-based political parties in Egypt, alongside the Wafd Party of moderate nationalists, and King Farouk continued to find the Brotherhood useful as a bulwark against radical economic and social ideas. The Brotherhood is known to have passed information to the government to help in its continual round-ups of real and suspected communists, especially in the unions and universities. It was, however, always an uneasy co-existence amidst increasing opposition to the British presence and a stream of violence which shook Egypt after 1945.
Confrontation soon escalated between the Brotherhood – bent on expelling the foreign ‘occupier’ and ultimately seeking the establishment of an Islamic state – and the British and the palace. In the Suez Canal Zone, bomb attacks against British troops were common, and the authorities regularly claimed to have uncovered Brotherhood arms caches. The Brothers also attempted various assassinations: between 1945 and 1948, two prime ministers, the chief of police and a Cabinet minister were among those who died at their hands. In December 1948, following the authorities’ alleged discovery of Brotherhood arms caches and a plot to overthrow the regime, the organisation was dissolved, a decision the British had apparently requested the Egyptian government to take in order to clamp down on their anti-British activities. Three weeks later, Prime Minister Mahmud al-Nuqrashi, who had given the dissolution order, was assassinated by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘secret apparatus’, its paramilitary, and terrorist, unit that carried out bomb attacks against the British in the canal zone.
By January 1949, the British embassy in Cairo was reporting that King Farouk ‘is going all out to crush’ the Brotherhood, with a recent sweep rounding up and arresting over 100 members. The following month Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna himself was assassinated. Although the killer was never found, it was widely believed that the murder had been carried out by members of the political police, and either condoned or planned by the palace. An MI6 report was unequivocal, stating that:
The murder was inspired by the government, with Palace approval … It was decided that Hassan el Banna should be eliminated from the scene of his activities in this way since, so long as he was at liberty, he was likely to prove an embarrassment to the government, whereas his arrest would almost certainly have led to further troubles with his followers, who would have no doubt regarded him as a martyr to their cause.
Yet the alibis were already being spun. Three days after the murder, the British ambassador, Sir Ronald Campbell, met King Farouk and recorded that ‘I said I thought the murder might have been done by Hassan al-Banna’s own extreme followers out of fear or suspicion that he was giving things away’. King Farouk, for his part, also concocted a tale of responsibility lying with the ‘Saadists’ (a breakaway group from the Wafd Party, named after Saad Zaghoul, a former party leader and prime minister). Britain’s senior diplomat in Egypt was clearly conniving with al-Banna’s murderers to cover it up.
In October 1951, the Brotherhood elected as its new leader the former judge, Hassan al-Hodeibi, a figure not publicly associated with terrorism, who made known his opposition to the violence of 1945–9. Hodeibi was unable, however, to assert his control over the organisation’s sometimes competing factions. The Brotherhood renewed its call for a jihad against the British, calling for attacks on Britons and their property, organised demonstrations against the occupation and tried to push the Egyptian government to declare a state of war with Britain. A British embassy report from Cairo in late 1951 stated that the Brotherhood ‘possess[es] a terrorist organisation of long-standing which has never been broken by police action’, despite the recent arrests. However, the report otherwise downplayed the Brothers’ intentions towards the British, stating that they were ‘planning to send terrorists into the Canal Zone’ but ‘they do not intend to put their organisation as such into action against His Majesty’s forces’. Another report noted that although the Brotherhood had been responsible for some attacks against the British, this was probably due to ‘indiscipline’, and it ‘appears to conflict with the policy of the leaders’.
At the same time, in December 1951, the files show that British officials were trying to arrange a direct meeting with Hodeibi. Several meetings were held with one of his advisers, one Farkhani Bey, about whom little is known, although he was apparently not himself a member of the Brotherhood. The indications from the declassified British files are that Brotherhood leaders, despite their public calls for attacks on the British, were perfectly prepared to meet them in private. By this time, the Egyptian government was offering Hodeibi ‘enormous bribes’ to keep the Brotherhood from engaging in further violence against the regime, according to the Foreign Office.
Then, in July 1952, a group of young nationalist army officers committed to overthrowing the Egyptian monarchy and its British advisers seized power in a coup, and proclaimed themselves the Council for the Revolutionary Command (CRC), with General Muhammad Naguib as chairman and Colonel Gamal Abdal Nasser as vice-chairman. The so-called ‘Free Officers’ removed the pro-British Farouk and swept aside the old guard, promising an independent foreign policy and widespread internal change, notably land reform. A conflict between Naguib and Nasser gradually led to Naguib’s deposition in late 1954 and Nasser’s assumption of full power. The Muslim Brotherhood, pleased to see the back of the King’s pro-Western regime, initially supported the coup, and indeed had direct links with the Free Officers. One of them, Anwar Sadat, later described his role as the pre-coup intermediary between the Free Officers and Hassan al-Banna. ‘He was clearly one of the Free Officers on whose association with them the Brethren counted to help further their political aims,’ Britain’s ambassador to Cairo, Sir Richard Beaumont, later wrote, after Sadat had succeeded Nasser as president in 1970. The Brotherhood leant the revolutionary leaders important domestic support, and good relations were maintained for the rest of 1952 and throughout most of the following year.
In early 1953, British officials met directly with Hodeibi, ostensibly to sound him out on his position regarding the forthcoming negotiations between Britain and the new Egyptian government on the evacuation of British military forces from Egypt; the twenty-year agreement signed in 1936 was shortly due to expire. Since some of the British files remain censored, it is not known precisely what transpired at these meetings, but Richard Mitchell, the principal Western analyst of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has documented what the various parties – the British, the Egyptian government and the Brotherhood – subsequently said about them. Mitchell concludes that the Brotherhood’s entrance into these negotiations was at the request of the British and presented difficulties for the Egyptian government negotiators, providing ‘leverage for the British side’. The British, in seeking out the views of the Muslim Brothers, were in effect recognising their voice in the affairs of the nation, and Hodeibi, in agreeing to the talks, was perpetuating that notion and thus weakening the hand of the government. The Nasser regime condemned the meetings between the British and the Brotherhood as ‘secret negotiations … behind the back of the revolution’, and publicly accused British officials of conniving with the Brothers. They also charged Hodeibi with having accepted certain conditions for the British evacuation from Egypt which tied the hands of government negotiators.
From the limited information available, British strategy appears to be traditional divide and rule, aimed at gaining ‘leverage’ over the new regime in pursuit of its own interests. The British cultivation of the Brotherhood could only heighten tensions between the regime and the Brotherhood and strengthen the latter’s position. Internal British memos indicate that British officials told Nasser about some of their meetings with Hodeibi and other members of the Brotherhood, naturally assuring him that London was doing nothing underhand. However, the very fact that they were taking place surely instilled doubt in Nasser’s mind over the trustworthiness of the Brotherhood. At this time, British officials believed that the Brotherhood and its paramilitary groups were ‘at the disposal of the military authorities’ and that the Brotherhood wanted to make the regime pay some kind of price for its support for it, such as introducing an ‘Islamic constitution’.
The files also contain a note of a meeting between British and Brotherhood officials on 7 February 1953, in which an individual by the name of Abu Ruqayak told the British embassy’s oriental counsellor, Trefor Evans, that ‘if Egypt searched throughout the world for a friend she would find none other than Britain’. The British embassy in Cairo interpreted this comment as showing ‘the existence of a group within the Brotherhood’s leaders who were prepared to cooperate with Britain, even if not with the West (they distrusted American influence).’ One handwritten note on this part of the embassy’s memo reads: ‘The deduction … seems justified and is surprising.’ The memo also notes that the willingness to cooperate ‘probably stems from the increasing middle class influence in the Brotherhood, compared with the predominantly popular leadership of the movement in the days of Hassan al-Banna.’
The apparent willingness of the British and the Brotherhood to cooperate with each other would become more important by late 1953, by which time the Nasser regime was accusing the Brotherhood of resisting land reforms and subverting the army though its ‘secret apparatus’. In January 1954, government and Brotherhood supporters clashed at Cairo University; dozens of people were injured and an army jeep was burned. This prompted Nasser to dissolve the organisation. Among the long list of accusations against the Brotherhood in the dissolution decree were the meetings the Brotherhood had held with the British, which the regime later elevated to amounting to a ‘secret treaty’.
In October 1954, by which time the Brotherhood was seeking to promote a popular uprising, its ‘secret apparatus’ attempted to assassinate Nasser while he was giving a speech in Alexandria. Subsequently, hundreds of Brotherhood members were arrested and many tortured, while those who escaped went into foreign exile. In December, six Brothers were hanged. The organisation had been effectively crushed. One of those arrested, and horribly tortured, was Sayyid Qutb, a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council, who was sentenced to twenty-five years hard labour, and who would by the 1960s become one of radical Islam’s leading theorists, writing from Nasser’s jails.
After the failed assassination attempt against Nasser, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a personal message to him saying: ‘I congratulate you on your escape from the dastardly attack made on your life at Alexandria yesterday evening.’ Soon, however, the British were again conspiring with the same people to achieve the same end.
Three years into the new regime, Nasser’s domestic reforms included widespread land redistribution benefiting the rural poor, and moves towards enshrining a constitutional form of government to replace arbitrary rule. In July 1955, the outgoing British ambassador to Cairo, Sir Ralph Stevenson, noted that the regime was ‘as good as any previous Egyptian government since 1922 and in one respect better than any, in that it is trying to do something for the people of Egypt rather than merely talk about it.’ Stevenson argued to Harold Macmillan, foreign secretary in Anthony Eden’s new government, that ‘they [the Egyptian leaders] deserve, in my view, all the help that Great Britain can properly give them’. Nine months after this memo was written, the British decided to remove Nasser.
The British and Americans were by now involved in a variety of coup plots against Syria and Saudi Arabia, as well as Egypt, as part of a much bigger planned reorganisation of the Middle East to counter the ‘virus of Arab nationalism’. According to a top secret Foreign Office memo, US President Eisenhower described to the British the need for ‘“a high class Machiavellian plan to achieve a situation in the Middle East favourable to our interests” which could split the Arabs and defeat the aims of our enemies’.
In March 1956 Jordan’s King Hussein removed the British General John Bagot Glubb as commander of the Arab Legion, a move which Eden and some British officials put down to Nasser’s influence. It was then that the British government concluded that it could no longer work with Nasser and that serious British and US planning to overthrow the regime began; Eden told his new foreign secretary, Anthony Nutting, that he wanted Nasser ‘murdered’. This was before the latter’s decision to nationalise the Suez Canal in July 1956, an act which ‘would inevitably lead to the loss one by one of all our interests and assets in the Middle East,’ Eden explained in his memoirs, fearing the possible domino effect of Egypt’s action. ‘If we allowed Nasser to get away with his Suez Canal coup the consequence would be to put an end … to the monarchy in Saudi Arabia,’ explained the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, Ivone Kirkpatrick, fearing that nationalist forces there would be inspired by Nasser’s successful defiance of the West in Egypt.
Many British files on the ‘Suez crisis’ remain censored but some information has crept out over the years on the various British attempts to overthrow or murder Nasser. At least one of these plans involved conniving with the Muslim Brotherhood. Stephen Dorril notes that the former Special Operations Executive agent and Conservative MP, Neil ‘Billy’ McLean, the secretary of the ‘Suez group’ of MPs, Julian Amery, and the head of the MI6 station in Geneva, Norman Darbyshire, all made contact with the Brotherhood in Switzerland around this time as part of their clandestine links with the opposition to Nasser. Further details about these Geneva meetings have never emerged, but they may well have involved an assassination attempt or the construction of a government-in-exile to replace Nasser after the Suez War. In September 1956, Ivone Kirkpatrick was in contact with Saudi officials in Geneva who told him of ‘considerable underground opposition to Nasser there’; indeed, his fear was that Nasser’s take-over of the Suez Canal would ‘put an end to the Egyptian resistance’, likely to mean the Muslim Brotherhood.
Certainly, British officials were carefully monitoring the anti-regime activities of the Brotherhood, and recognised it as capable of mounting a serious challenge to Nasser. There is also evidence that the British had contacts with the organisation in late 1955, when some Brothers visited King Farouk, now in exile in Italy, to explore cooperation against Nasser. King Hussein’s regime in Jordan gave Brotherhood leaders diplomatic passports to facilitate their movements to organise against Nasser, while Saudi Arabia provided funding. The CIA also approved Saudi Arabia’s funding of the Muslim Brotherhood to act against Nasser, according to former CIA officer, Robert Baer.
In August 1956, the Egyptian authorities uncovered a British spy ring in the country and arrested four Britons, including James Swinburn, the business manager of the Arab News Agency, the MI6 front based in Cairo. Two British diplomats involved in intelligence-gathering were also expelled. They had, as Dorril notes, apparently been in contact with ‘student elements of a religious inclination’ with the idea of ‘encouraging fundamentalist riots that could provide an excuse for military intervention to protect European lives’.
In October, Britain, in a secret alliance with France and Israel, launched an invasion of Egypt to overthrow Nasser, but was stopped largely by the US refusal to support the intervention. The invasion was undertaken in the British knowledge that the Muslim Brotherhood might become the primary beneficiary and form a post-Nasser government; memos indicate that British officials believed this scenario a ‘possibility’ or ‘likely’. Yet, in an echo of their assessment of Kashani’s potential as a leader in Iran, British officials feared that a Muslim Brotherhood takeover would produce ‘a still more extreme form of government’ in Egypt. Again, this did not stop them using these forces.
A few months after the British defeat by Nasser, in early 1957, Trefor Evans, the official who led the British contacts with the Brotherhood four years earlier, was writing memos recommending that ‘the disappearance of the Nasser regime … should be our main objective’. Other officials noted that the Brotherhood remained active against Nasser both inside and outside Egypt, especially in Jordan, from where a ‘vigorous campaign of propaganda’ was being mounted. These memoranda suggest that Britain would continue to use these forces in the near future – and indeed they would.
For references, see Chapters 1 and 3 of Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam
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