Chris Harman


The prophet and the proletariat


The contradictions of Islamism: Egypt

The contradictory character of Islamism expresses itself in the way in which it sees “the return to the Koran” taking place. It can see this as through a reform of the “values” of existing society, meaning simply a return to religious practices, while leaving the main structures of society intact. Or it can be seen as meaning a revolutionary overthrow of existing society. The contradiction is to be seen in the history both of the old Islamic Brotherhood of Egypt in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and in the new radical Islamist movements of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

The Muslim Brotherhood grew rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s as it picked up support from those disillusioned by the compromises the bourgeois nationalist Wafd made with the British, as we have seen. It was further aided by the gyrations of the Communist left under Stalin’s influence, which went so far as to support the establishment of Israel. By recruiting volunteers to fight in Palestine and against the British occupation of the Egyptian Canal Zone, the Brotherhood could seem to support the anti-imperialist struggle. But just as the Brotherhood reached its peak of support, it began to run into troubles. Its leadership based themselves on a coalition of forces – recruitment of a mass of petty bourgeois youth, links with the palace, deals with the right wing of the Wafd, plots with junior armed forces officers – which were themselves moving in different directions.

As strikes, demonstrations, assassinations, military defeat in Palestine, and guerrilla warfare in the Canal Zone tore Egyptian society apart, so the Brotherhood itself was in danger of disintegrating. Many members were indignant at the personal behaviour of the general secretary, Banna’s brother in law Abadin. Banna himself condemned members of the Brotherhood who assassinated the premier Nuqrashi. After Banna’s death in 1949 his successor as “supreme guide” was dismayed to discover the existence of a secret terrorist section. The seizure of power by the military under Nasser in 1952-4 produced a fundamental divide between those who supported the coup and those who opposed it until finally rival groups within the Brotherhood ended up physically battling for control of its offices. [57] “An all-important loss of confidence in the leadership” enabled Nasser eventually to crush what had once been a massively powerful organisation. [58]

But the loss of confidence was not an accident. It followed from the unbridgeable divisions which were bound to arise in a petty bourgeois movement as the crisis in society deepened. On the one hand, there were those who were drawn to the notion of using the crisis to force the old ruling class to do a deal with them to enforce “Islamic values” (Banna himself dreamt of being involved with the monarchy in establishing a “new Caliphate” and on one occasion gave backing to a government in return for it promising to clamp down on alcohol consumption and prostitution [59]); on the other, there were the radical petty bourgeois recruits wanting real social change, but only able to conceive of getting it through immediate armed struggle.

The same contradictions run right through Islamism in Egypt today. The reconstituted Muslim Brotherhood began operating semi-legally around the magazine al-Dawa in the late 1960s, turning its back on any notion of overthrowing the Egyptian regime. Instead it set its goal as reform of Egyptian society along Islamic lines by pressure from within. The task, as the supreme guide of the Brotherhood had put it in a book written from prison, was to be “preachers, not judges”. [60] This meant, in practice, adopting a “reformist Islamist” orientation, seeking an accommodation with the Sadat regime. [61] In return the regime used the Islamists to deal with those it regarded, at the time, as its main enemies – the left: “The regime treated the reformist wing of the Islamist movements – grouped around the monthly magazine al-Dawa and on the university campuses by the Islamic Associations – with benevolence, as the Islamicists purged the universities of anything that smelled of Nasserism or Communism”. [62]

Egypt was shaken by a wave of strikes, demonstrations and riots in all its 13 main cities in January 1977, in response to the state putting up the price of bread and other main consumption items. This was the largest uprising in the country since the 1919 nationalist revolt against the British. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Associations condemned the rising and sent messages of support to the state against what they called a “Communist conspiracy”.

For such Islamist “reformism” what matters is changing the morals of society, rather than changing society itself. The stress is not on the reconstitution of the Islamic community (umma) by a transformation of society, but on enforcing certain sorts of behaviour within existing society. And the enemy is not the state or the internal “oppressors”, but external forces seen as undermining religious observance – in the case of al-Dawa “Jewry”, “the crusade” (meaning Christians, including the Copts), “communism” and “secularism”. The fight to deal with these involves a struggle to impose the sharia (the legal system codified by Islamic jurists from the Koran and the Islamic tradition). It is a battle to get the existing state to impose a certain sort of culture on society, rather than a battle to overthrow the state.

Such a perspective accords neatly with the desires of the traditional social groups who back a certain version of Islamism (the remnants of the old landowning class, merchants), with those who were once radical young Islamists but who have now made good (those who made money in Saudi Arabia or who have risen to comfortable positions in the middle class professions) and to those radical Islamists who have lost heart in radical social change when faced with state repression.

But it does not fit at all with the frustrated aspirations of the mass of the impoverished students and ex-students, or with the mass of ex-peasants who they mix with in the poorer parts of the cities. They are easily drawn to much more radical interpretations of what the “return to the Koran” means – interpretations which attack not just extraneous influences in the existing Islamic states, but those states themselves.

Thus a basic text for the Islamists in Egypt is the book Signposts, written by one of the Muslim Brothers hanged by Nasser in 1966, Sayyid Qutb. This does not merely denounce the bankruptcies of the Western and Stalinist ideologies, but also insists that a state can call itself Islamic and still be based on anti-Islamic barbarism (jahiliyya, the name given by Muslims to the pre-Islamic society in Arabia). [63]

Such a state of affairs can only be rectified by “a vanguard of the umma” which carries through a revolution by following the example of the “first Koranic generation” [64] – that is, which withdraws from existing society as Mohammed did when he left Mecca in order to build up a force capable of overthrowing it.

Such arguments went beyond seeing the only enemy as imperialism, and instead, for the first time, attacked the local state directly. They were very embarrassing for the moderates of the neo-Muslim Brotherhood, who are supposed to revere their author as a martyr. But they have inspired many thousands of young radicals. Thus in the mid-1970s one group, al Taktir Wal Higra, whose leader, Shukri Mustafa, was executed for kidnapping a high religious functionary in 1977, rejected as “non-Islamic” existing society, the existing mosques, the existing religious leaders and even the neo-Muslim Brotherhood associated with Dawa. [65] Its attitude was that its members alone were genuine Muslims and that they had to break with existing society, living as communities apart and treating everyone else as infidels.

At first the Islamic Associations in the universities were very much under the influence of the moderate Muslim Brotherhood, not only condemning the uprising against the price increases but even disavowing Shukri when he was hanged later in the year. But their attitudes began to shift, particularly when Sadat began the “peace process” with Israel late in 1977. Soon many of the university activists were embracing ideas in some ways more radical than Shukri’s: not only did they turn aside from existing society, they began organising to overthrow it, as with the assassination of Sadat by Abd al-Salam Faraj’s Jihad group in October 1981.

Faraj spelt out his harsh criticisms of the strategies of different parts of Islamic movement – those sections who restricted themselves to working for Islamic charities, those (the neo-Muslim Brotherhood) who try to create an Islamic party which can only give legitimacy to the existing state, those who base themselves on “preaching” and so avoid jihad, those who advocate withdrawal from society on the lines of Shukri’s group, and those who saw the priority as fighting against the external enemies of Islam (in Palestine or Afghanistan). Against all of them, he insisted immediate armed struggle, “jihad against the iniquitous prince”, was the duty of all Muslims:

The fight against the enemy at home takes priority over the fight against the enemy abroad ... The responsibility for the existence of colonialism or imperialism in our Muslim countries lies with these infidel governments. To launch a struggle against imperialism is therefore useless and inglorious, a waste of time. [66]

Faraj’s argument led straight to a perspective of insurrection against the state. But this did not stop there being significant differences within his own group between the Cairo section, built round the prime objective of destroying the infidel state, and the other section in the middle Egyptian city of Asyut, who “considered Christian proselytism the main obstacle to the propagation of Islam”. [67]

In practice this meant the Asyut group directed most of its fire against the Coptic minority (mostly poor peasants) – a policy which had already been followed with horrific success by the jamaa students earlier in the year, when it ignited murderous inter-communal fighting first in the middle Egypt town of Minya and then in the Cairo neighbourhood of Al-Zawiyya al-Hamra: “The jamaa did not hesitate to fan the flames of sectarian tension in order to place the state in an awkward position and to demonstrate they were prepared to supplant the state, step by step, so to speak.” [68]

The Asyut section of jihad was, then, following a tried and proven method of gaining local popular support through a strategy of encouraging communal hatreds. This enabled it briefly to seize control of Asyut in the aftermath of the assassination of Sadat. By contrast, the Cairo activists, with their stress on the state as the enemy, “enjoyed no networks of complicity or sustenance, and their isolated act – the assassination of Sadat – was not followed by the uprising of the Muslim population of Cairo so ardently sought by Faraj and his friends”. [69]

Instead of the assassination leading to the Islamists being able to seize state power, the state was able to take advantage of the confusion created by the assassination to crush the Islamists. As thousands were arrested and many leaders executed, repression significantly weakened the movement. However, the causes which had led so many young people to turn to the Islamists did not disappear. By the end of the 1980s the movement had regained confidence and was starting to grow rapidly in some quarters of Cairo and Alexandria. This was coupled with an effective terrorist campaign against the police and the security forces.

Then in December 1992 the state launched a new and unprecedented campaign of repression. Slum areas in Cairo, such as Imbaba, were occupied by 20,000 troops with tanks and armoured cars. Tens of thousands were arrested and death squads set out to kill those activists who escaped. The main mosques used by the radical Islamists were blocked with concrete. Parents, children and wives of activists were arrested and tortured.

Again as in the early 1980s the campaign of state terror was successful. The Islamist movement was not able to, and did not even try to, mobilise support in the form of demonstrations. Instead, it moved to a totally terrorist strategy which did not seriously shake the Mubarak regime, even if it did virtually destroy the tourist industry.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood has continued to behave like a loyal opposition, negotiating with the regime over the gradual introduction of the sharia into the state legal code and holding back from protests at the repression.




57. R.P. Mitchell, op. cit., p.145.

58. Ibid., p.116.

59. Ibid., p.40.

60. Book by Hudaybi, quoted in G. Kepel, op. cit., p.61.

61. Ibid., p.71.

62. Ibid.

63. See quote in Ibid., p.44.

64. Ibid., p.53.

65. For details, see ibid., p.78.

66. For a long account of Faraj’s views in his book, The Hidden Imperative, see ibid., pp.193-202.

67. Ibid., p.208.

68. Ibid., p.164.

69. Ibid., p.210.


Last updated on 17.6.2002