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Brothers and Officers: A History of Pacts

[Former Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, left, receives a high medal from Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, Egypt, 14 August 2012. Egypt's president has given awards to the nation's two top military commanders, two days after he ordered their retirement. Photo Source: AP] [Former Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, left, receives a high medal from Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, Egypt, 14 August 2012. Egypt's president has given awards to the nation's two top military commanders, two days after he ordered their retirement. Photo Source: AP]

The politics of the past two years have generated widespread interest in the historical relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Egypt’s wielders of power, especially at a time when observers are eager to understand the prospects for accommodation (or adversity) between the MB and traditional bureaucratic powers inside the Egyptian state, such as the military establishment.

For instance, the circumstances surrounding the election of President Mohamed Morsi in June 2012 have raised numerous questions about the MB’s relationship with Egypt’s military rulers. During the lead-up to the announcement of the election results, it seemed that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was bargaining with the Brotherhood over the future of the country. While official results were due on 20 June, their announcement was postponed to 24 June with little transparency on why the official vote count was being withheld and what was happening behind the scenes.

MB statements at the time suggested that the SCAF was holding the results hostage until the group accepts the continuation of military leaders’ reserved powers as per the constitutional annex that SCAF had issued on 17 June 2012 shortly before the end of voting. Before it was annulled last August by President Morsi, the annex to the Constitutional Declaration set limitations on presidential authority and granted the SCAF legislative powers in light of the dissolution of parliament in mid-June. In its official response that same month, the MB vowed to fight for presidential powers and called on its supporters to occupy Tahrir Square in protest of SCAF’s constitutional annex. Eventually, official results were released declaring Morsi’s victory. The MB’s nominee ended up swearing the oath to the Supreme Constitutional Court, thus implicitly recognizing the dissolution of parliament and the SCAF-sponsored constitutional framework that the Brotherhood supposedly rejected. Morsi became Egypt’s first elected president after the January 25 Revolution, yet one question remains lurking in the background: at what price?

The lead-up to Morsi’s election is by no means the first time observers have been left to speculate about underhanded deals between the Brotherhood and Egyptian authorities. Since the days of the monarchy, the relationship between the MB and Egypt's power wielders has been subject to debate and controversy. While the MB has conventionally been known as a strong oppositionist voice that has been subjected to the wrath of successive Egyptian rulers in the form of marginalization and repression, others argue that the story is much more complicated.

Since the toppling of Mubarak, many have speculated about whether covert pacts and understandings between the Muslim Brotherhood and the SCAF have been in place, and if so, what did they entail? Complicating any investigations of such allegations is a political environment in which the Brotherhood and its adversaries have constantly been exchanging politically motivated accusations of collaboration with the country’s military leaders. The historical context and the events of the past year, however, are quite revealing.

Little has changed about the opaqueness with which decisions are taken inside the MB’s organization, according to Khalil al-Anani, scholar of Middle East Politics at School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. Anani writes, “Not surprisingly, they are involved in negotiating, compromising, and brokering the future of the country behind the scene.”

Many reports have claimed that during the turmoil of the eighteen-day uprising in February 2011, members of the MB’s Guidance Bureau met secretly with then-Vice President Omar Suleiman, reportedly to work out an agreement that would clear out Tahrir Square of protesters calling for the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime. Details about this meeting were disclosed by MB spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan as well as Brotherhood member Haitham Abu-Khalil, who would later leave the group, allegedly in protest of the MB’s meeting with Suleiman. Mohamed Habib, who served as an advisor to the General Guide until 2010, identified the Brotherhood's negotiators as Saad al-Katatny, the former speaker of the house, and would-be President Mohamed Morsi. Brotherhood leaders were asked by Suleiman to withdraw from Tahrir, Habib explains, in exchange for the release of prominent MB figures Khairat El-Shater and Hassan Malek. The alleged deal eventually fell through when the MB's youth refused to evacuate the square. El-Shater would later be released on 2 March 2011 and it remains unclear whether or not his release was part of a similar deal with the SCAF.

[Muslim Brotherhood MP Abdel Fattah Eid in a conversation in parliament with Mahmoud Mohy Al-Din, minister of investment under Hosni Mubarak. Photo from wikimedia commons]

Following Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt’s military leaders made a host of gestures toward the majority of Islamist movements in the country. For instance, SCAF released Aboud and Tarek El Zomor of the Islamic Jihad group who had been convicted of involvement in the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat.

Shortly after Mubarak stepped down, SCAF appointed Islamist-leaning figures, like Tarek al-Bishri and MB member Sobhi Saleh, to serve on the committee tasked with preparing the constitutional amendments. The amendments were later ratified in a national referendum on 19 March 2011.

Deepening the perception that the Brotherhood and the SCAF were joined by some kind of agreement, the MB ceased its participation in contentious public protests after the toppling of Mubarak. The Brotherhood, moreover, praised and defended the performance of Egypt’s military rulers, despite the continued prevalence of repressive practices of which MB activists were victims in the past, including military trials of civilians. The group’s support for the military evoked images of the Brotherhood’s pro-King Farouk demonstrations, which it organized in 1937 in order to counter the Al-Wafd Party’s demonstrations supporting El-Nahas against the Palace.

Articulating this widespread perception at the time, Egyptian novelist and revolutionary writer, Alaa Al-Aswany wrote, “Why did they [the Muslim Brotherhood] make an alliance with Ismail Sidki, 'the butcher of the people', and support King Farouk, shouting 'God is with the king'? Why did they support [former President Gamal] Abdel Nasser when he put an end to the democratic experiment and abolished political parties, while their own organization was exempted from the abolition? Why did their leader say in 2005 that he supported Hosni Mubarak?”

History was repeating itself, or at least so it seemed from the perspective of many members of Egypt’s non-Islamist political community.

The Brothers and the Officers After Mubarak

In the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s toppling, the MB, along with other Islamist movements and figures, took an active role in using religious rhetoric to build public support for the SCAF-sponsored constitutional amendments. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood boycotted almost all revolutionary protests, such as those demanding retribution for individuals killed by security forces during the 2011 uprising, an end to military trials of civilians, and the bringing to justice members of the former regime suspected of wrong-doing.

Besides turning a blind eye to the illegal status of the MB, SCAF permitted the group, as well as Salafist movements, to form political parties under dubious legal circumstances, since the political party law bars the formation of parties based on religion.

On its part, the Brotherhood boycotted the 8 July 2011 sit-in. The three-week sit-in called for the purging of the judiciary and the bringing to justice of Mubarak and those responsible for killing protesters during the 2011 eighteen-day uprising. After criticizing the July sit-in, the Brotherhood later called for mass protests on 28 July under the banner, “The Friday of Unity.” The protests were quickly dubbed by observers “Friday of Kandahar,” because they were dominated by Islamist groups and their followers, who called for an Islamic state and support for the army.

In November 2011, then-Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmi, presumably on behalf of SCAF, proposed to political parties a document containing principles that would have governed the drafting of a new constitution for Egypt. One draft of the controversial document, which came to be known as al-Selmi document, granted the military a privileged position of power and rendered it above parliamentary accountability and oversight. The Brotherhood called for public protests on 18 November 2011 in rejection of al-Selmi document on grounds that it robbed the prospective constitution-writing assembly of its powers. Ironically, central elements of al-Selmi document, such as those setting the military’s budget and activities above the reach of conventional parliamentary oversight and accountability, eventually made their way to the MB-sponsored constitution that was ratified in a national referendum in December 2012.

[Then-Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim talks at the Egyptian Parliament on 7 February 2012. Ibrahim denied that police had fired birdshots at protesters during deadly clashes between security and demonstrators. At top the speaker of Parliament Saad Al Katatni. Photo Source: AP]

Despite the MB’s initial anti-SCAF posture in November 2011, as security forces began attacking unarmed protesters around the Ministry of Interior building in the infamous Mohamed Mahmoud battles of 19-24 November 2011, the Brotherhood chose not to support protesters. As clashes ensued in Cairo and elsewhere, forty-one people died and over one thousand were injured. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood skirted serious criticism of the SCAF, and pushed forward its election campaign in preparation for the beginning of voting on 27 November.

Throughout the course of the People’s Assembly elections, which lasted until mid-January 2012, the MB refrained from actively opposing a host of abuses that were taking place under the auspices of military leaders, most notably during the period between 16 and 19 December 2012. At the time, security forces used deadly violence against protesters in an attempt to force an end to an anti-SCAF sit-in near the cabinet building. Shortly, thereafter, news reports circulated with remarks by a Brotherhood spokesperson stating that the group is willing to support a “safe-exit” for military leaders in the future.

In late December, an MB member filed a lawsuit against three members of the Revolutionary Socialists after they had criticized SCAF in a public lecture. The lawsuit alleged that they were trying to incite chaos throughout the country.

By the end of election season, the MB-led coalition became the largest bloc in the People’s Assembly, the parliament’s lower chamber, winning more than forty-five percent of the seats that were up for grabs.

In early January 2012, protests broke out demanding that the military hand power over to the newly elected People’s Assembly, the only democratically elected, representative body in the country. In response, the MB rejected any early handover of power and affirmed its commitment to the SCAF sponsored timetable, which had set 30 June 2012 as the deadline for an “end” to military rule.

The MB also undermined the efforts of many revolutionary activists and figures who tried to use the first anniversary of 25 January 2011 to launch a second wave of the revolution and build support for a swift end to military rule. The MB spoke out against such efforts, describing them as a plot to spread chaos throughout the country. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood turned the 25 January 2012 public rallies into festive “celebrations” in order to counter subversive voices that sought to promote opposition against the SCAF at these gatherings. Days later, in an unprecedented move, MB activists stood in for Central Security Forces (CSF) troops to shield the parliament building, where MPs were convening, from protesters and marchers who were trying to voice their grievances to their newly-elected legislators.

The MB once again supported SCAF and its sponsored government following the massacring of seventy-four people in Port Said Stadium after a soccer match held on 1 February 2012 without any intervention on the part of police forces tasked with securing the game. Subsequently, the MB bloc in parliament defended the government while security forces were attacking demonstrators who had gathered around the Ministry of Interior building to protest what they viewed as criminal negligence of police personnel present at the game. People’s Assembly speaker Saad al-Katatny reiterated the government’s claims that no birdshot pellets were being fired at the protesters, while some Brotherhood MPs claimed the protesters were infiltrated by hired thugs. This came at a time when overwhelming video evidence and eyewitness testimony proved otherwise.

The Brothers and the Wielders of Power in History

While some MB positions after the 2011 uprising could be construed merely as alignment with the SCAF, there is a widespread perception that the group’s actions were driven by covert agreements with Egypt’s military rulers.

In the past, the MB had not managed to make substantive political gains, such as winning seats in parliament, without the regime’s consent or some sort of understanding with the wielders of power. The MB’s election agreements with centers of power date back to as early as 1942, when the Brothers and Al-Wafd struck a deal involving electoral concessions and social reforms. Richard P. Mitchell describes the agreement in his book The Society of the Muslim Brothers:

“[Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-]Banna declared himself a candidate for the district of Ismai`iliyya, the birthplace of his movement, but no sooner had he done so than [Wafdist leader and Prime Minister at the time Mostafa al-] Nahhas summoned him and called upon him to withdraw. Without much debate, he consented, but ‘at a price’ which included (1) freedom for the movement to resume full scale operations; and (2) a promise of government action against the sale of alcohol and against prostitution. [Al]-Nahhas agreed, and very shortly ordered restrictions on the sale of liquor at certain times of every day, during Ramadan and on religious holidays. Similarly, he took steps to make prostitution illegal and immediately closed down some of the brothels. He also permitted the resumption of some of the activities of the Society, including the issue of some of its publications and the holding of meetings. The issue of elections thus muted, in March [al-]Banna pledged his support to the Wafdist Government” (p. 27).

Similarly, in 1950, according to Mitchell (pp.80-82), MB leaders promised electoral support for Al Wafd party in exchange for the release of Brotherhood prisoners and resumption of their activities.

Recently uncovered evidence indicates that the MB showed a great deal of pragmatism in their willingness to cooperate with Western powers during World War II, including Germany and Britain. For example, according to a document dated 18 August 1939 published by Al-Ahram newspaper on 30 December 2006, the MB received a sum of 2000 LE to organize pro-Nazi protests. Specifically, a letter by Wilhelm Stellbogen, director of the German News Bureau in Cairo and a German military intelligence officer stated that the Muslim Brotherhood were asking for more money than what was agreed to initially to organize the protests.

In his book Secret Affairs: Britain's Collusion with Radical Islam, British journalist Mark Curtis claims that the British government had started financing the MB by 1942. Curtis writes, “In December 1951, the files show that British officials were trying to arrange a direct meeting with [then MB Guide Hassan al-]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.”

[Individuals attack the Cairo headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood on 27 October 1954 after putting it to the torch in retaliation against an attempted assassination of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Alexandria. Photo Source: AP]

In the immediate aftermath of the 1952 “Revolution,” the MB and the Free Officers Movement maintained cordial ties. The MB supported the revolution and received preferential treatment from Egypt’s new military rulers. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood was the only group that was not subject to the decision to disband all political parties in January 1953.  It was not long after, however, that the MB quickly clashed with Gamal Abdel Nasser, who accused the group of attempting to assassinate him in 1954. The group was banned and thousands of its members were arrested. Brotherhood activists and leaders suffered greatly under Nasser’s rule, being subject to repressive tactics, imprisonment, torture, and, in some cases, execution.

While Nasser’s reign was one of repression and marginalization for the Brotherhood, Sadat’s rule witnessed a noticeable improvement in relations between the MB and Egyptian authorities. As Sadat shifted the orientation of the Egyptian economy toward greater liberalization and free markets, he opened political space for Islamist movements as means for undermining leftist opposition and Nasser’s sympathizers, especially inside college campuses. In 1971, Sadat began releasing MB members and the group was allowed resume its activities and to publish a monthly magazine, al-Da’wa.

During this same period, the regime supported the formation of Islamist student groups inside public universities as a means of countering leftist student activists who opposed Sadat’s economic liberalization measures and indecisive foreign policies toward the United States and Israel. The Brotherhood benefited greatly from the regime’s pro-Islamist posture, and many believe that it was in this context that a new generation of MB activists emerged on the political scene.

In the 1980s the MB were further incorporated into Egyptian political life. Under the early phases of Mubarak’s rule, the Brotherhood was allowed to contest elections through a variety of political alliances with licensed opposition parties. Through its alliance with Al-Wafd Party, the Brothers won eight seats in parliament in the 1984 elections, and thirty-seven seats in 1987 through its alliance with the Socialist Labor Party.

In 1991, the relationship between the Brotherhood and the Mubarak regime came under significant strain when Egyptian authorities raided Salsabel, a computer information systems company. The raid allegedly uncovered information on a Muslim Brotherhood scheme to topple the regime. A large number of MB members were arrested and prominent MB leaders faced military prosecution, including Khairat al-Shater and Hassan Malek. The charges were dropped and the case was closed but the incident marked a new wave of repression against the MB, which was effectively shut out of parliament in 1995 in legislative elections marked by state-sponsored violence and fraud.

Strains on the MB eased off by 2000, when the group managed to secure a modest, but visible representation of seventeen members in parliament. A few years later, international pressures for democratization, particularly by the George W. Bush administration, prompted greater space for oppositionist politics in Egypt. During the same period, protest movements like Kifaya enhanced and amplified domestic pressures for political reforms.

[Muslim Brotherhood leaders Mustafa Mashhour, right, and  Mamoun el-Hodeiby, left, walk during the funeral of Brotherhood General Guide Mohammed Hamed Abul Nasr. 20 January 1996. Photo Source: AP]

In a move that was not unprecedented in Egypt’s modern political history, the regime resorted to the MB in order to undermine the secular opposition. At a time when opposition movements were attempting to forge broad electoral alliances to cohesively counteract the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP)’s dominance in parliament, the MB struck an election deal with State Security and the NDP in 2005. Leaked documents uncovered by protesters who raided State Security offices in March 2011 show that the MB, through prominent figures like Al-Shater and Mohamed Morsi, coordinated its 2005 electoral plans with the NDP. Then-MB General Guide Mahdi Akef acknowledged that such meetings occurred, though he refused to characterize MB’s contacts with security officials in the lead-up to the 2005 vote as a “deal.” In response to allegations by former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq that the Brotherhood engaged in underhanded bargains with the Mubarak regime, the MB released a statement in June 2012 acknowledging that they had met with regime representatives in 2005, but refused their offer to strike a deal. Former MB leader Mohamed Habib, on the other hand, admitted that a deal did take place allowing the group to field 161 candidates. Abdel Hamid El Ghazali, the former general guide advisor confirmed that a deal took place, but claims that the regime eventually abrogated it.

As one situates allegations of SCAF-MB cooperation in this historical context, it becomes rather difficult to dismiss the likelihood that deals between the two sides took place, as tentative as the evidence remains so far. In an article dated 15 January 2012, Al-Dostor Al-Asli newspaper leaked the terms of an alleged deal between the SCAF and the Brotherhood whereby the MB would guarantee safe exit of SCAF personnel, and support a presidential candidate acceptable to the military and the Brotherhood, in return for sharing power in government. While these allegations emerged at a time when the MB had gone through great lengths to defend SCAF’s performance, their accuracy is difficult to establish.

Analysts are hesitant to describe MB-military understandings as a “deal” since evidence so far has proven to be circumstantial. Early in January 2012 Ashraf El Sherif, a political science professor in the American University in Cairo, told Jadaliyya, “I believe there is a path of joint understandings and bargaining between the MB and the SCAF.”

“[The] MB accepted the SCAF conditions: a system whereby the 'deep state' of the military and its security institutions will retain control over the key issues: foreign policy, strategic decisions, top economic policies and interests while the MB will be given the services ministers,” said El Sherif.

Numerous members of the Muslim Brotherhood have publicly denied that they had forged pacts or agreements with SCAF. However, the politics and statements surrounding the rifts between the Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF during the first half of 2012 suggest that earlier “promises” between the two sides may have been broken.

For example, the recurrently shifting positions of the MB over the SCAF-appointed El-Ganzouri government and whether or not it should resign are quite revealing. Until the spring of 2012, there were minor quibbles between SCAF and MB over the fact that Egypt’s military rulers had refused to allow the MB-dominated majority in parliament to form a government. The tensions, however, were subtle until 25 March 2012 when MB openly attacked SCAF in a formal statement accusing it of hindering the revolution. MB leaders claimed they were threatened by SCAF to dissolve parliament. SCAF responded by threatening MB with a 1954-like scenario.

Within the context of these confrontations, the Brotherhood announced it would field a presidential candidate despite earlier promises that it would not participate in the presidential race. An FJP delegation to Washington defended this decision in early April 2012 and attributed it to the fact that SCAF allegedly told the MB that their ‘reign on the country stops at parliament,' perhaps contrary to prior communication between both parties.  During their summer 2012 face-off with the military council, statements by MB members allude to promises they had been given by the SCAF. For example, al-Shater was quoted in June 2012 in the Wall Street Journal as saying:  “We came to think positively of the SCAF [the ruling military council] and accept its promises to share power…Those promises were not fulfilled."

A “New” Egypt?

Not long after Mohamed Morsi won the presidential elections, Egypt’s most senior military leaders, including Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and General Sami Anan were retired on 12 August 2012. What at first glance appeared to be a monumental revolutionary move, may well be seen as a backdoor agreement between the MB with other military leaders within SCAF when reading between the lines.

It is difficult to believe that President Morsi could have retired Tantawi and Anan without some firm understandings with other senior military leaders. The aftermath of SCAF’s “exit” from politics is even more suggestive. For instance, no senior military officer has been tried for wrongdoing committed during the transitional period. In fact, Tantawi and Anan were offered the highest state honor in the wake of their retirement. When pressed about the government’s reluctance to address the military’s past crimes, Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, like other senior officials, commended the army for its role during the transitional period, implicitly absolving the military of any wrongdoings. What is more, the military’s longstanding political and economic privileges, not only have remained untouched by the MB-controlled presidency, but also have been institutionalized in the new political order, thanks to the new constitution. The constitution, which was prepared by a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated constituent assembly, provides basis for military trials of civilians and sets the military’s budget and activities, including its revenue-generating economic enterprises, above the reach of conventional parliamentary oversight. In other words, the “new” political order in the country is one that seems to be governed by a partnership between the Muslim Brotherhood and long-standing bureaucratic centers of power entrenched inside the Egyptian state—a partnership that speaks to a long history of pacts between the Brothers and successive wielders of power in Egypt.

Jadaliyya Features

Egypt Map and Stats

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Population(July 2016 est.): 94,666,993
GDP($US trillions, 2016 est.)$1.105 
Unemployment: 13.1% (2016 est.); Youth Unemployment (ages 15-24): 34.3% (2013 est.)
Internet Users (/million, 2015)31.767 (35.9%)
Exchange Rate(2016 est.)$342.8 billion 
GDP Growth Rate(2016 est.)2.51% 
Military Expenditures(2015)1.73% of GDP 
Health Expenditures (/GDP, 2014)5.6% 
Population Growth Rate (2016 est.):  2.51%
Age Structure (2016 est.)0-14 years: 33.21%; 15-24 years: 19.24%; 25-54 years: 37.47%; 55-64 years: 5.91%; 65 years and over: 4.17% 
Literacy (2016 est.): 73.8%