Re-engaging the State: The Muslim Brotherhood, the Sadat Regime, and the Quest for Islamic Government in 1970s Egypt


[This is the sixh in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Good Governance in Islam: Classical and Contemporary Approaches held in Herndon, VA. These notes have only been lightly edited and represent my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the organizers.]

“Re-engaging the State:
The Muslim Brotherhood, the Sadat Regime, and the Quest for Islamic Government in 1970s Egypt”

Dr. Abdallah Al Arian, Assistant Professor, Dept of History, Wayne State University

What only a few years ago would have been a theoretical discussion has become a practical question about enacting Islamic modes of government as we stand at the cusp of a new era. My purpose is to provide a historical context. I argue the Islamic movement in the seventies is the root of what is happening today. Hasan Al-Banna formed his activist movement on the heels of the intellectual movement of Jamal-ad-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, and Rashid Riddah. We need to fill in the gap between a movement that rejected party politics in the 1940s and today has the most powerful party organization. Most of the studies of the seventies ignore this dynamic link to focus on Sayid Qutb and the jihadists instead, but the generation in the forefront today came of age in that period.

The Muslim Brotherhood had been imprisoned or removed from the scene for decades. At one time it had a million followers, but when Sadat took power there were only a few dozen people released from prison. In rebuilding the movement, should they revive the old model or restrict their scope. Some argued to disband the organization and become a loose movement while others argued that an even more hierarchical structure was required. This internal debate took focus away from substantive questions of good governance, except that debate involves to what degree they wish to address questions of politics.

The influx of a new generation into the movement drives a taking up of the questions of Islamic governance. Following the collapse of the secular nationalist project, high school and university students entering the movement have a natural curiosity about the relevance of Islam beyond the traditional vision of the MB. The summer camps of the university religious movements of Gamaa Islamiyya would invite Ghazali, Sharawi, and a wide array of the various schools. No one ever felt they had to make a choice among these schools, but that they could attempt to reconcile the differing views. This was a strength, although some see it as a weakness.

There are also institutional developments that are a leap forward. The 70s youth movement for the first time was not only intellectually involved but engaged in seeking leadership positions in the universities’ student unions, etc. Here we see the rise of many leaders we recognize in recent developments. They were not elected to institute some kind of Islamic student environment, but rather to serve their fellow students in a manner informed by their Islamic perspective. They carried this forward after their university experience, even to the Egyptian parliament for which they ran as independents.  The MB needed to incorporate or co-opt at a least a part of this movement and the old guard recruited many university students into the MB which, for many students, was a way to keep their movement going after they left the university system to go into the professional syndicates and even to the parliament. MB leadership saw this as essential to the future of the MB, favoring continuing the ban of the MB in political parties, but conceding that there could be circumstances under which running for office as independents or forming a political party might be possible. By the late 70s the earlier hostility or at best ambivalence towards political action was receding before an interest in engaging the state on policy matters.

The other side of the story is the posture of the state. Sadat was not sitting back quietly watching these developments. He adopted the posture of being the “believer president,” making the state a competitor with the MB for the first time in history. Out of this emerges the debate over whether Islam is a source or the source of legislation even as Sadat in practice moves away from Islamic influence, such as the Jahan’s laws (named for his wife) on family law.  This divergence of state rhetoric from state action draws the movement into the state arena. Being the electoral powerhouse, it is inevitable that they would accept democratic legitimacy.

Discussant: Muhammad Faghfoory

Many opposition groups cannot transform themselves into a political group capable of ruling (like Fatah). What are the prospects for the MB. What kind of transformation has the leadership gone through? What are specifics of continuity and change? How does the Ikhwan define itself at this point and where does it want to go from here. Because MB was formed by non-clerics, how does it see the clerical class and what is the attitude of the clerical class towards it? Have they learned anything form the experiences in the Muslim world like Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain? What challenges do they face now and in the future and are they prepared to meet them? Democracy is a home grown phenomenon that cannot be important. Does the Ikhwan have any understanding of an efficient, workable, native, and Islamic democracy?

Discussant: Yahya Michot

I lived in Egypt during 4 years during this period and I is true that the extremists are the best allies of the Orientalists. What of Shaikh Kushk?

Al-Arian: All the questions deal with the current period rather than my period of study. I don’t think there was a plan because the events of last year were unpredicted. They are asked to be revolutionary when they were as surprised by the revolution as anyone else. They have no vision of a parallel government. They will only try to reform the existing institutions. Even ideology has been subordinated to pragmatism in recent years. No major ideologues have arisen within the organizational hierarchies in recent years. You have Islamic technocrats who try to use Islamic principles to meet the needs of the time. We continue to see an intellectual diversity. There is a crossover. People look at ash-Shattir who is at the heart of the Ikhwan yet he has some salafi outlooks. The questions of bai`a and the role of the murshid remain, all of which demonstrates that there is no comprehensive program. Shaikh Kishk was one of the most popular preaches of the time and a bridge between official Islam and the movement, and Sadat was aware of that. No one knows how things will play out in the future.

General Discussion

You seem sympathetic to the Ikhwan—not that there’s anything wrong with that—but they have not produced any coherent ideas. They have no scholars, nor even ideologues. Half their articles published ten years ago were reprints of al-Banna. I see more ideas among the Salafis than the Ikhwan. I think the notion of governance is very weak and even what you call self-governance is more like self-discipline. To me yakîn is really what the Qur’an calls imân. We need to see how the concepts of irfân, imân and burhân. I think we must acknowledge that magic was instrumental to Sufism at the highest level.

Do MB leaders still talk about khilâfah? Mursi recognized Egypt as a nation-state not just in his oath but in his speech. How do they bridge the two notions? Darûrah (necessity)? One of the names of Allah is al-Qawiy. How will this inform him when he meets with Obama (or Tantawi).

It is amazing someone not here in the seventies could see something so clearly. The division between the generations of the sixties and the seventies remain important. People who became international have a different focus than those who remained local (even if they obtained a degree elsewhere). The seeds between the revolutionaries and the reformers were also planted then. It was in the eighties that the decision that it is permitted to run for parliament was made and to have a women’s organization.  The nineties wee important for the figures who appeared afterwards. People who were imprisoned took a different path than those who went to the masjids and into television.

Can you relate salafi tendencies to al-Albani, Qaradawy, etc.?

We cannot make a clear comparison between Iran and Ikhwan because of differences in the religious establishment of both parties.  Hizb-ad-da`wa attempted to combine Sunni and Shia approaches but it went nowhere. Why are we hooked on democracy? I am not looking for democracy; I am looking for justice and respect for human life.

What are the major intellectual influences from the period? How were they were influenced by salafism and the Gamaa Islamiyya? What makes that generation more likely to break away.

To what extent are the governed ready for the governance?

Ahmad: We need to make a distinction between personal, social, and political transformation in Sufism, in the MB, and in the Qur’an.

A social movement is a different animal from a political movement and needs no ideology.

The intense struggle between jama`at al nidhâm and jama`at al-siyâsi played a role. That debate influenced Ikhwan to get into politics and learning how to do so. I think you should also go into what is going to happen to the MB in 5-7 years after things settle down especially as they may be affected by the salafis and visa vis the military. They have been put into a trench where they cannot benefit from the experience of Turkey. I thought what happened to Erdogan in his recent visit was a shame. The book by Mitchell was aided by meetings put on MSA. It is a shame we could not have bought his library.

A good question on ideology was raised. What is wrong with a movement like Ikhwan that as soon as people mature they are kicked out of the movement? I think it I resistance to criticism within the movement. This is why thought developed outside the movement. Hopefully in the new era they would learn to get past that.

I’m the last person to compare Iran to Egypt. As the religious establishment was a dangerous bridge between the old and new regimes in Iran, the military or perhaps some other group could be a dangerous bridge in Egypt.

Al-Arian: I think the MB deserves a lot of criticism, but they have been criticized for the wrong reasons. They are hierarchical, secretive, inward looking, suspicious of external society and enslaved to al-Banna’s sometimes outdated focus. But the question of the commitment to democracy is not justified. I don’t think are committed to the khilafah in the way of hizb-at-tahrir. The people who did these things in the 1980s and 90s came of age in the 1970s. Abou-Fattouh’s time as a student leader was a campaign issue. The summer camps was a youth-led initiative, There was no overriding trend because of the suppression of the Ikhwan and the collapse of Nassarism they wanted to hear from everyone. I do not say there are three trends within the MB, but that they have absorbed many different influences. There was no major ideological influence, only ideas like maqasid ash-sharia. It could benefit a lot from the Turkish model, which also consists of Muslims trying to engage in good governance. In Egypt a leader in his 80s tried to pass power onto a son in his 40s by-passing a generation of people in their fifties and sixties whose exclusion would be unnatural in any society.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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