Since the start of the ill-named “Arab Spring,” the Muslim Brotherhood has been very much in the news.
Coming to power through democratic elections in Egypt and Tunisia, they were toppled within a short time by the people, who discovered their true intentions.
There were some in the West – but not all – who saw the light as well.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has ordered a comprehensive review of the movement, its values and the way it works, its activities in Britain and its impact on the country’s interests. The decision was made because the Brotherhood is allegedly behind terrorist operations in Egypt, and because some of its members have fled to England, where they keep on directing terror operations.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia have already branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Curiously, Washington, which staunchly supported Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi to the end even though massive demonstrations opposed his regime, is still favoring his group, to the extent that it “punished” Egypt for its coup by withholding part of its military assistance. A State Department official told a Kuwaiti paper a few weeks ago that the Muslim Brotherhood was not a threat to America.
This is not a view shared by most Arab countries, where distrust of the movement is deeply ingrained. It is, after all, the source of modern political Islam, a codeword for using Islam to restore the caliphate, through violent means if needs be. It is also considered to be the source of all Islamic terrorist organizations, which are born of its ideology and created by leaders coming from its ranks.
The Brotherhood set up sister organizations in all Arab countries as early as in the ’30s with a view to taking power. They have used force in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Algeria and Tunisia.
The Brotherhood was dissolved in Egypt in the time of King Farouk, and again in the time of president Nasser.
Muslim Brotherhood members assassinated [former president Anwar] Sadat; [ousted former president Hosni] Mubarak persecuted them and now they have once again been declared terrorists.
In Syria, the Brotherhood tried to topple president Hafez Assad in the ’80s and he massacred them by the thousands.
In Tunisia, its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, was expelled in the ’80s and fled to England, where he tried to organize a revolution to topple Tunisian president Ben Ali. He failed, and harsh measures were taken against the Brotherhood.
In Algeria, it was poised to take power after its victory in the 1992 elections. The army stepped in, leading to a bloody civil war that claimed more than 300,000 victims.
In Libya, the Brotherhood set up “the Libyan fighting group,” aiming to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. It failed, and those who were not arrested fled to Afghanistan.
In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, it fell under the spell of rigorous Wahhabi Islam, which fitted its ideology perfectly. However, it did not lose sight of its main goal – setting up an Islamic regime in Arab countries – and it attempted to recruit youngsters to help restore the caliphate. Eventually this led to a bitter conflict between the Brotherhood and the Gulf states, with the exception of Qatar.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz “Ibn Saud” met in 1936 with Hassan el-Banna, founder of the Brotherhood, who was making his first pilgrimage to Mecca.
Though deeply impressed by the piety of the organization, Abdulaziz never let it set up a branch in the kingdom because he believed its political orientation would pose a threat to the regime.
A devout Muslim himself, the king never wanted to export his brand of Wahhabism, and often fell afoul of the religious establishment by steering his foreign policy with pragmatism.
His successors – Saud, Faisal, Khaled and Fahed – did welcome with open arms the Brotherhood members fleeing Nasser’s wrath (after they tried to assassinate him); they repaid their kindness by setting up local cells, infiltrating schools and universities and spreading their creed.
King Saud and then-crown prince Faisal let the Brotherhood persuade them to establish the World Islamic League in 1962 to propagate Islam in the West and set up Islamic centers and mosques in Europe and in the United States. That is how, with Saudi funding, the Brotherhood laid the foundations of its world organization, which recruited new members among Arab minorities in the West with a view to infiltrate and undermine regimes from within.
It took 9/11, and the fact that 16 of the 18 perpetrators were Saudis, to shake the kingdom out of its complacency.
The Brotherhood was expelled and its activities were banned.
In Kuwait and the other Gulf states, where it had been welcomed as well in the ’50s, the Brotherhood was allowed to establish local branches, and promptly started subversive activities.
There too, the rulers understood the danger and put hundreds of members behind bars.
Today, only Qatar is steadfastly refusing to turn against the Brotherhood.
The organization is solidly entrenched in the small country and pulls the strings behind the Al Jazeera channel, which has been vocally supporting sister movements trying to rise to power following the “Arab Spring.”
This is at the core of the present rift between Qatar – still rooting for Morsi and the Egyptian Brotherhood – and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the Emirates, which are pouring financial help onto the new regime in Egypt. This rift is weakening the Gulf defense council in its stand against the Iranian threat. However, Qatar feels secure because of the support of the United States, which maintains key military bases in the country and still backs the Brotherhood.
Cameron is the first Western leader to address the problem. His task force, headed by Sir John Jenkins, current ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a distinguished diplomat, will sift through official and restricted documents and has even solicited contributions from the general public. A report is expected before July.
Still, it is strange that the famed security services of England do not have all the facts at their fingertips. After all, the Brotherhood was created in 1928 in Egypt – then under British rule. British officials allegedly encouraged Hassan el-Banna, to counter the rise of nationalist movements.
Furthermore, Ibrahim Munir, secretary-general of the world organization of the Brotherhood, has been living in London for the past 30 years, and it is from London that he has been managing the offices of the organization.
It is to London that Rachid Ghannouchi went when he was expelled from Tunisia in 1981, though he returned to his country to lead the Brotherhood after the fall of Ben Ali in 2011. Ali Sadr Eldin Bayanouni, leader of the Brotherhood in Syria, lived for many years in England. A number of Egyptian Brotherhood members fled to London after Morsi’s ouster, among them Mahmoud Hussein, secretary- general of the movement.
Cameron’s decision led Ibrahim Munir to seek to move the seat of the organization elsewhere; having been turned down by Tunisia, he hoped to be able to relocate in Austria, but was turned down again. He is keeping a low profile, but was quick to tell the media that the Brotherhood has always been respectful of British laws and that it will be vindicated by the review.
As for Washington, it has yet to comment on the British move.
The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.