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Nasser, myself and the Muslim Brotherhood

Marking 60th anniversary of Egypt's July Revolution, Ahram Online republishes chapter of memoirs by Revolution Command Council member Khaled Mohieldin on origins of relations between Free Officers, Muslim Brotherhood

Khaled Mohieldin , Monday 23 Jul 2012
Khaled Moheidin (Top row - Right) in a photo with other Free Officers
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Views: 9163

As we neared the end of 1944, we were anxiously groping for a way for Egypt and for ourselves. One day, Abd El-Munim  Abd El-Rauf came to me saying that we should meet with another officer who shared our anxieties and who was seeking answers to the same questions. So he took me to see Gamal Abd El-Nasser. This was the first time I met him.

A little later, Rauf proposed that he introduce me to another officer. He took me to the Tea Island at the Zoological Gardens, where I met Major Mahmud Labib. Later I found out that he was in charge of the Muslim Brotherhood's military wing.

At this meeting I was accompanied by Usman Fawzi. Mahmud Labib began to talk cautiously, addressing the issue of religion in an unhurried manner. He was aware that our prime motivation was the nation and so he spoke about nationalism but with Islamic overtones.

I was persistent in trying to extract from him specific answers to the questions that had preoccupied me for so long: How we could liberate the nation and what was the position regarding the negotiations?

He was very shrewd and cautious in his replies as he did not want to lose me by answering in the controversial manner of the Muslim Brotherhood. He said, "Egypt will be liberated by its men; the young men in the armed forces are its striking force," and similar phrases.

Usman Fawzi immediately sensed the Muslim Brotherhood overtones in the conversation and on the way back he said, "This is a very dangerous and harmful organisation." However, I was happy with the meeting and said that the nation needed sacrifice and that the Islamic trend could imbue youth with the spirit of sacrifice.

Usman Fawzi was adamant and never attended any other meetings I had with Mahmud Labib. However, on another occasion he attended a meeting I had with Gamal Abd El-Nasser. It was Abd El-Munim Abd El-Rauf who introduced me to Gamal Abd El-Nasser and then we (Gamal and I) each met separately with Mahmud Labib.

There developed an odd relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and a military group that was formed that comprised a large number of officers. We no longer met in public. We held organised meetings in private homes. We usually met in the home of Magdi Hasanayn and sometimes in that of Officer Ahmed Mazhar (now a well-known film star).

These meetings were often attended by Gamal Abd El-Nasser, Kamal El-Din Husayn, Husayn Hammuda, Husayn El-Shafi, Salah Khalif, Abd El-Latif Bughdadi and Hasan Ibrahim. Relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and this group of officers were highly sensitive: the Brotherhood had unexpectedly discovered a treasure trove of officers who were ready to do anything for the nation.

Those officers, however, did not all maintain the same level of loyalty to the Brotherhood. Salah Khalif and Husyn Hammuda, for example, were committed body and soul to the Muslim Brotherhood. The others, however, were just seeking a direction.

We were not against the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, we supported them – but without total commitment. Nasser, for example, believed that the Muslim Brotherhood only wished to exploit officers as tools to achieve political status and influence within the army and that they would never offer anything to the national cause.

At the meetings, Gamal was persistent in his question: if you have half a million members and four thousand cells, why should we not be calling strikes against occupation, and mass movements and demonstrations?

I was always a point of controversy at those meetings. Meanwhile, Usman Fawzi kept supplying me with books, asking me to turn my attention to social issues. It seems that he had then become actively involved with the communist movement, for he brought me a green book printed in Arabic, by Roger Garaudy, entitled 'Economy: Motivator of History.'

I read the book voraciously to discover that many answers were beginning to fall in place, and I began to associate Egypt with Egyptians, the nation's freedom with that of the citizen, and the nation's social issues began to take up a major part of my thinking.

At our meetings, I continuously asked Mahmud Labib: What is the programme of the Brotherhood? He would answer: Sharia (Islamic law). Then I would say: We are all Muslims and we all believe in Sharia, but exactly what shall we do to liberate the nation – will we wage armed struggle or shall we accept negotiations?

What shall we offer the people in the areas of education, housing, and agriculture, as well as the various other social issues? Mahmud Labib was very elusive in his answers, but I persisted in my questions. Finally, he brought to us Mr. Hasan El-Banna, grandmaster of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Truthfully, Hasan El-Banna had an exceptional ability to convince his listeners and infiltrate their hearts. His arguments were solid and he was widely read. At our first meeting, Abd El-Nasser and I expressed our views. When we spoke, he shrewdly and calmly made us understand that the Brotherhood had granted preferential treatment and did not require of us the complete loyalty it demanded of ordinary members.

He said, "We, the Brotherhood, are like an immense hall that can be entered by any Muslim from any door to partake of whatsoever he wishes. Should he seek Sufism, he shall find us ready. Should he seek sports and scouting, it is there. Should he seek battle and armed struggle, he shall find us. You have come to us with the issue of 'the nation'. So, I welcome you."

We debated matters with him and he was very patient. I emphasised the necessity of announcing a programme, saying, "We cannot win the people without having a clear programme that offers practical solutions to their problems." He said, "If I were to draw up a programme, I would please some and anger others. I would win some people and lose others, and I do not want that to happen."

We had several other meetings with Hasan El-Banna. Though he had numerous strong arguments, they remained neither sufficient nor convincing to most of us. Nasser was firm in his suspicions that the Brotherhood only wanted to exploit the officers for its own interests.

I continued to read the books brought to me by Usman Fawzi and I constantly demanded that there be a clear programme for the Brotherhood, defining its national objectives and its position and demands of the various social categories. In my arguments, I began to lean to the left and I became the odd man out in a group supposedly affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a final effort, Hasan El-Banna sought to link us with the Brotherhood via a strong bond. He decided that Nasser and I should join the Brotherhood's Secret Division. Perhaps it was because we were the most active and effective in our group and, consequently, winning us over completely would mean ultimately winning over the whole group.

Or perhaps it was because we talked much about the nation and nationalism and therefore he believed that by having us join the Secret Division, which was concerned with weaponry and armed action, he would be satisfying our patriotic enthusiasm and ensuring closer ties with the Brotherhood.

Anyway, we were contacted by Salah Khalifa, who took the two of us to a house in Darb Al-Ahmar toward Sayyida Zaynab. There we met Abd El-Rahman El-Sanadi, head of the Brotherhood's Secret Division at the time.

We were taken into a totally darkened room where we heard a voice (I think it was that of Saleh Ashmawi) and, placing our hands on the Quran and a gun and repeating after the voice, we took an oath of obedience and total allegiance, for better or worse, to the Grandmaster, swearing by the Book of God and the Sunna (traditions) of the Prophet. Although these rites were meant to stir the emotions, they had very little impact on Nasser and myself.

In any case, we began to work in the Secret Division and we were taken for training at a place near Helwan. Since we were officers, it was only natural that we were more knowledgeable about weapons than our training instructors. Nasser was not too happy with the situation and we felt alienated from the Brotherhood.

A strong tide of patriotism swept Egypt in 1946. There were huge popular movements under the slogans of the National Students and Workers Committee. As rowdy demonstrations took place, martyrs fell and clashes with the regime intensified, the government decided to bring in the army to confront the demonstrations.

As a member of the cavalry, I was ordered to Masura to confront the demonstrations there. Sarwat Ukasha was with us on this mission. Our force was garrisoned in the house of Nur family, on Al-Bahr Street near the Cinema Royale, where we stayed for about a month and a half.

There, Sarwat Ukasha and I had many long discussions: How could we shoot citizens demonstrating to demand independence? How could we consider ourselves nationalists if we allowed the government to exploit us into crushing this national movement against occupation? We promised ourselves never to allow the army to be used against the people.

But the demonstrations in Mansura quickly intensified and became widespread. When a student was shot dead by police, the whole town rose as one and the police were unable to control or break up the demonstrations. Mansura's police chief called on the army to disperse the demonstrators.

The commander of our force was Lieutenant Colonel Abd El-Khaleq Kamel. Sarwat Ukasha and I went to see him and said, "We cannot deploy our troops without a written request by the chief of police clearly stating his inability to maintain law and order in the town. He should withdraw his men and leave matters in our hands."

Of course, the police chief refused to submit this written request since it would have been an admission of his incompetence and failure. We said to Lieutenant Colonel Abd El-Khaleq Kamel, "If you want us to deploy our troops in the town, then the police must withdraw completely."

Again, the police chief refused. Thus we were able to extricate ourselves from a very awkward situation in which our military duties as officers were in direct confrontation with our national obligations. Our troops played no role in suppressing the demonstrations. We remained there for a month and a half without work and then we returned to Cairo.

Once more I resume the story of our relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. Political events were developing rapidly. The Muslim Brotherhood had unmasked its political features. It now acted as a political group, abandoning all purely religious claims.

Since it was in need of a daily journal, and given the severe shortage of printing paper, the Muslim Brotherhood sought rapprochement with Ismail Sidqi, and having done so, it was able to secure the support it needed.

The Muslim Brotherhood had also opposed the National Students and Workers Committee, and attempted, in collaboration with Ismail Sidqi, to set up a counter group. We began to feel that the Muslim Brothers were like all other politicians. They pursued their own individual and collective interests at the expense of the principles they propagated, and the interests of the country.

I had long discussions with Gamal Abd El-Nasser about our relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. He voiced his fears that the Brotherhood was exploiting us, as officers, to serve their own interests and not those of the nation. We acknowledged that we had involved ourselves with the Brotherhood more than was necessary and we should withdraw.

However, I cannot say that, on such-and-such a day, we withdrew from the Muslim Brotherhood. I can only say that we were filled with suspicions and became disdainful and less enthusiastic. Nasser and I began to distance ourselves from the Brotherhood and, perhaps feeling that we did not have sufficient loyalty and allegiance, it also began to distance itself from us.

By 1947, my and Nasser's relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood had faded altogether, although I still maintain close ties with Usman Fawzi, who, from time to time, continued to supply me with books. By then, Usman Fawzi had definitely become a member of the communist organisation Iskra (Russian for "spark").

It was in January, or perhaps February, 1947, that I met a friend, Ahmed Fuad, who was a district attorney. We ran into each other at the Cairo Boat Club, where I enjoyed rowing, whereupon Ahmad Fuad said, "Let's sit down. I want to talk with you for a while."

We chatted for some time, but from the very first moment I felt that Usman Fawzi had something to do with this meeting.

From: Memories of a Revolution: Egypt 1952, Khaled Mohieldin, member of the Revolution Command Council, Cairo: AUC Press, 1995. 259pp.

The above chapter was re-published courtesy of Khaled Mohieldin's daughter and with the consent of the publisher.

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