Meet the Brothers

Dear Folks,

Well I am glad that this week is nice and quiet, and I can enjoy some time to relax and enjoy myself. I have been mesmerised by Colonel G’s eccentric appearance on television. He really is quite the fool. However today I will not be discussing Libya, but Egypt and Syria’s band of Muslim Brothers.

In relation to Egypt, it is the Muslim Brotherhood or al-Ikhwan which have received the most attention regarding likely leadership candidates . They have deputies who run as independents, since the group was outlawed in 1954. Now with elections expected to be held in September,  it is an opportune moment for the Brotherhood to show us what its plans are for the future of Egypt. In The African Report, analysts predict that the Brotherhood could win between 20-40% of the votes in a free election. But according to Tariq Ramadan, the Brotherhood is not playing a role in the reform surge in Egypt, but it is backing Mohamed El-Baradei as the leader of the political transition: “The Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership has signalled that now is not the time to expose itself by making political demands that might frighten the West, not to mention the Egyptian people”. This is to say the least unusual mutterings from a group that has worked hard to maintain a position within the country’s political landscape.

Egypt is the home of the Brotherhood which was set up in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, who is the grand father of Tariq Ramadan. The group believed that resistance to imperialism could emerge through the prism of Islam. The idea was to preach and explain Islam on a person to person basis, thus changing the whole society in time i.e  push Islam into the mainstream.

To date, the Brotherhood is closely associated with Sayyid Qutb, who was their leading thinker. He was born in 1906, and travelled to Cairo in 1920 to attend teacher’s college or Dar al-Ulum, after which he taught and worked in the Ministry of Education. His ideas were profoundly sharpened after visiting the United States in 1948 on a two-year scholarship. For Qutb, the US was morally corrupt and driven by capitalism. In churches, he could not understand the willingness of ministers to allow young men and women to mix. He came back to Egypt determined that it not embrace these same social mores.

In 1952, he joined the Brotherhood and worked in the publication office. Gamal Abdul Nasser, and members of the Free Officers, were initially supportive of the Brotherhood. However, Nasser was not prepared to Islamicize the country’s constitution and the two factions parted ways. In October 1954, whilst Nasser was giving a speech, a Brotherhood member, Mahmoud Abd al-Latif fired eight bullets, but Egypt’s new man of the hour did not even receive so much as a scratch.

This gave the signal to Nasser to slam the door shut on the Brotherhood, and thus, thousands were arrested and put in prison, including Qutb, who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour. It was in prison that he wrote Milestones, which attacks the concept of secular rule, western materialism and firmly places God’s law above all else. For Qutb and his supporters, Nasser and the new ruling class were kufar or infidels. In 1964, he was released from prison, and spent his time working to gather a force or vanguard of Muslims to restore the place of Islam. However, just two years later, Qutb and forty or so other Islamists were formally charged on conspiring against the Egyptian government. Qutb was found guilty and sentenced to death in August 1966. Qutb’s raw and blunt interpretation of Islam appealed to many across the Arab world. A new generation grew up inspired by his message.

In Syria, the Brotherhood posed more of a challenge to the country’s ruling minority of Alawites. As far as Syria’s Ikwan were concerned, they represented the country’s “moral majority”, and believed that the Alawites posed a threat, due to their involvement with the Baathist movement which favoured the separation of religion and state. In the mid-60s, the Brotherhood formed an underground resistance movement in the towns of Hama and Aleppo. Recruits were gathered from high schools and universities from across the country.

In 1970, Hafez al-Assad came to power, and as previously mentioned,  fears existed that as an Alawite he would undermine the position Islam within Syria. In 1976, Hafez took the decision to intervene in Lebanese affairs on the side of the Christian Maronites. The Brotherhood suspected that Hafez was bent on creating an alliance of minorities. In the same year, the leader of Syria’s Brotherhood, Sheikh Marwan Hadid was arrested. He was a radical imam and a successful recruiter for the group.  In protest, he went on a hunger strike, and  died as a result of his actions in June 1976.

In the late seventies and early eighties, Syrian security forces and the Brotherhood went head to head in a series of clashes. In June 1979, Islamists attacked a military academy in Aleppo, killing 83 cadets.  The regime quickly learnt  that the Brotherhood would not negotiate or compromise with the authorities and Syria’s president Hafez put his brother Rifa’at incharge of suppressing the Islamist threat.

In 1980, 25,000 troops were sent to the city of Aleppo, which was considered an Ikwan stronghold. Up to 8000 people were arrested, and Rifa’at threatened to execute a thousand a day, until the town was cleansed of Islamists. However, the Brotherhood were not afraid to retaliate, which they did in June, by throwing hand grenades and firing machine guns at President Assad as he was receiving a dignitary. A month later, on July 7, a law was passed making it an offense punishable by death for membership  in the Ikwan. Yet this had little effect, as more Syrian officials were targeted for assassination.

With the patience of the military growing thin, and after a bloody tit for tat  battle lasting a few months, it decided to take on the Brotherhood in the town of Hama in April 1981. Instead of conducting a raid for known Islamists, the army decided to make a warning that no one could forget by killing women and children at will. In Eugene Rogan’s book “The Arabs”, he describes accounts by journalists at the time who remember seeing “bodies of all ages, 14 and up, in pyjamas, gelebiyehs [native robes], in sandals or barefoot”. Over the course of two years, the death toll between the soldiers and the Brotherhood exceeded 2500.

Once again the Islamists answered by planting bombs in Damascus between the months of August to December. The largest attack took place on November 29  when massive car bomb was detonated in the capital killing 200 people. What maddened Hafez al-Assad even more was the threat from Islamists that he would share the same fate as Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in October 1981.

Without a moment too soon, the Syrian government went to war against the Islamists. At the beginning of February 1982, the military was under no illusions that it had to bring the Islamists to their knees. The city of Hama was the final battleground. There are no precise figures regarding the numbers  killed. Some say between 10 to 20 thousand. and others believe it was closer to 40 thousand. Whatever it was, it was near genocide, and it exacted an immense toll on the Brotherhood from which to this day has not managed to recover. Syria is by far one of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East today, where even the nearest wisp of dissent is snuffed out.

However,  back to Egypt for a moment, it should be noted that following the removal of Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood achieved a goal they probably thought was impossible. Now we shall have to see if it will be true to its word that it does not plan to put forward any candidates in the presidential elections, but will allow opposition groups to settle on a consensus candidate. A senior member of the Ikwan’s Guidance Bureau told the BBC that: “We want a civil state, based on Islamic principles. A democratic state, with a parliamentary system, with freedom to form parties, press freedom, and an independent and fair judiciary,”. Let’s see if they stick to the script.

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