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Book review: A secret history of Brotherhood founder El-Banna

Helmy El-Namnam explores some of the lesser-known parts of Hassan El-Banna's life, asking whether the Brotherhood's bloody early path was a fundamental building block or a detour

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Wednesday 12 Jun 2013
Hassan El-Banna book cover
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Hassan Al-Banna Allazy La Yaarefuh Ahaad ('The Unknown Hassan El-Banna') by Helmy El-Namnam, Cairo: Madbuly Bookstore, 2013. 259pp.

Followers, disciples and supporters of Hassan El-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, give him many titles and descriptions, including "godly" and "the martyr imam," while his opponents see him as a man of evil, even calling him "Rasputin."

Helmy El-Namnam has authored books that explore Hassan El-Banna's lesser-known characteristics using El-Banna's letters and sermons, the written testimonies of his contemporaries about his personality and many documents that the Muslim Brotherhood had attempted to hide. 

Egyptian writer and thinker El-Namnam was chairman of Dar Al-Hilal, Egypt's oldest publishing house, and held various governmental posts prior to that. His research on the history of the Brotherhood includes a famous book about Sayyed Qutb, the famous Brotherhood thinker who promoted jihad.

Through exploring the events and context that shaped the path of the first small group led by El-Banna out of Ismailiya in Egypt's Nile Delta in 1928, El-Namnam defies many of the historians and researchers who claim that the Brotherhood was founded in 1930. 

Commonly known stories about the founder of the Brotherhood tend to highlight his peaceful nature and the preaching work done in the years before the organisation was founded, and thus denying a relationship with politics or with seeking power.

The author pauses at the "path of blood," founded and overseen by El-Banna himself through a "secret apparatus," as he called the section of the Brotherhood that later became its undeclared militia.  The path of blood is the series of explosions, assassinations and other terrorist actions that the Brotherhood began with the assassination of Ahmed Maher, then Egyptian prime minister, at the entrance to parliament in February 1945.

The assassination followed Maher's famous statement in a closed session which aimed to convince parliament to declare war against Japan and Germany so that Egypt could join the new international organisation that was to be known as the United Nations and could therefore discuss its independence from Britain.

The assassin was young lawyer Mahmoud El-Eisawy, who practiced in the office of one of the leaders of the first National Party of Egypt; accordingly, the whole crime was attributed to the party.

Four decades later, however, Sheikh Sayed Sabiq admitted that the assassination was commissioned by the Brotherhood's secret apparatus, of which Sabiq was an active member. This testimony is supported by another from Sheikh Ahmed Hassan Al-Baqory, who was member of the Brotherhood's supreme council and was nominated to head the Brotherhood following El-Banna's assassination.

Unlike other historians, El-Namnam insists that the path of blood was an integral part of El-Banna's project from the very beginning. The secret apparatus stayed tight under his control and direct supervision, which is why there's no grounds supporting El-Banna's attempt to absolve himself of responsibility for the assassination of judge Ahmed El-Khazindar, who ruled against the Brotherhood members who assassinated prime minister Al-Nokrashy Pasha after Pasha had attempted to dissolve the Brotherhood organisation.

The killings didn't stop – apart from temporarily – until the assassination of Hassan El-Banna himself in retaliation for the secret apparatus's assassination of General Selim Zaki, Cairo governor, in 1949.

The author re-reads and explores the historical events and arrives at new conclusions, some of which are completely contradictory to everyone else's, such as on the Brotherhood's role in the Palestinian war. According to the supreme guide, there were never more than 100 volunteers in the Syrian camp, some 200 in the Al-Arish camp in North Sinai and 600 volunteers in the training camp near Cairo.

Relying on some documents declassified by the United Sates and the United Kingdom, El-Namnam confirmed that the relation between El-Banna and the British occupation went beyond the famous LE500 donation made through the Suez Canal Company in 1928, which caused much debate about the relation between the Brotherhood and the occupying forces.

That is not to say that Hassan El-Banna and his organisation are a British creation. El-Namnam asserts that, instead, the British found a way to employ them in their favour, to weaken the Wafd Party and its national unity idea against the British occupation. The truth is that El-Banna never totally denied these donations and considered that the Brotherhood were in their rights to receive donations.

The documents released by the American embassy reveal that El-Banna had regular meetings with the US first secretary, sometimes alone and other times with other Brotherhood members - none of which were mentioned in his writings or memoirs.

Upon the discovery of these meetings in 1993, they had to be admitted, explaining that El-Banna suggested establishing a bureau to combat communism using Brotherhood men specialised in such matters. However, nothing was official, i.e. they received orders from the US, as per the memoirs of Mahmoud Assaf, who attended one of these meetings.

It is interesting to note, also, that El-Banna's memoirs, published after his assassination in 1950, included some pages about the Brotherhood's role in receiving Egypt's King Farouk upon his return from London following his father's death, calling him the saviour of Egypt. Subsequent editions of the book excluded these pages completely, despite the fact that various Brotherhood publications hailed the king and constantly hailed him as a hero in their publications.

El-Namnam's portrayal concludes with the supreme guide's description of El-Banna's enormous efforts to contain the situation, even offering that the Brotherhood completely abandon all their political efforts following the assassination of El-Nokrashi Pasha, and sometimes regretting having founded this secret apparatus.

Is it true that El-Banna had really hoped to establish an altogether different organisation and a new Brotherhood without a secret militant wing, without any killing? Or was this just an attempt to escape the crisis? The assassination of El-Banna temporarily stopped the violence, but questions remain about the Brotherhood's true purpose and path, 80 years later.

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