Nasser and the Brotherhood

Mohamed Salmawy, Monday 15 Jan 2018

Tharwat Al-Kherbawi has spoken the last word on Nasser’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood in an authoritative work that has no equal

The eminent thinker Tharwat Al-Kherbawi is without doubt an excellent authority on the Muslim Brotherhood and both the public and secret sides of their way of thinking, the workings of their policies and the events of their history. With these masonic-like organisations, the part that lies below the surface is much larger than the tip of the iceberg they make visible, and it is this part that presents a constantly lurking peril that threatens destruction and loss of human life.

Al-Kherbawi knows quite a bit about the hidden part of the Muslim Brotherhood iceberg. He was once an active member of the quasi-underground organisation. He had risen through its ranks until he attained leadership positions, but when he discovered the organisation’s real nature he left. He is thus in the unique position of being able to assess matters pertaining to the Muslim Brotherhood with a degree of precision and insight unavailable to others without his first-hand experience.

This is why his recently published work on the relationship between president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood is so important.

“Was Nasser a Muslim Brother?” published as part of Akhbar Al-Youm’s “Book of the Day” series, is a relatively short work (134 paperback size pages). But it is a solid and exhaustive investigative study that probes its subject from all angles and contains previously unpublished documents and testimonies concerning the relationship between Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood.

This question was raised by the Egyptian television series Al-Gamaa written by Wahid Hamid and which, in one episode, portrays Nasser performing the oath of allegiance to the organisation. Al-Kherbawi’s book establishes incontrovertibly that this never occurred. On the other hand, we should stress that this does not detract from the credit due to Hamid for having chosen a crucial political and social issue in our contemporary history as a subject for a television serial at a time when the overall banality and inanity of our television dramas have sunk to an all-time low. Hamid’s treatment was refreshing in the respect it showed for the intelligence of television audiences.

Moreover, in contrast to the usual run of screenplays about crime, deception and infidelity that are forgotten once the thrill has passed, his series succeeded in sparking the interest of viewers to the extent that some of the subjects broached in his series remained topics of conversation and sustained viewers’ inquisitiveness for months afterwards. With regard to the contention that Nasser had joined the Muslim Brotherhood at an early phase in his life, many disagreed. But then whenever has there been a rule that says we have to agree with the way writers treat historical subjects through artistic media?

Shakespeare had his fictional version of the Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, kill herself out of love for Anthony whereas Bernhard Shaw cast Cleopatra as a young temptress toying with the elderly Caesar from Rome and Ahmed Shawki, in his famous play about her, portrays her as a patriot determined to defend the honour of her country and who, when faced with defeat, committed suicide rather than allowing the queen of Egypt to be dragged through the streets of Rome bound in chains.

Whether we agree or disagree with how a playwright or screenwriter treats his subject, as long as he does not unwarrantedly falsify established facts, then he should be entitled to give rein to his freedom of creativity. This is what Hamid did. He relied on existing sources that testified that Nasser had declared allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide. While I doubted the veracity of those testimonies, because all of Nasser’s history belies them, I was still glad that Hamid’s series brought the subject to public attention and I was glad when Al-Kherbawi’s study came along to close the file on the matter by furnishing the conclusive proof. I wish we would subject all of our history to that kind of study and scrutiny, because there is a lot that needs to be revisited.

Al-Kherbawi, in his work, ignored no source of relevance to Nasser’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, including Nasser’s own testimony. Nor did he take such testimonies at face value. He inspected them closely, applying a lens available only to him, a lens shaped by his detailed knowledge of the nature, conventions and internal regulations of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some testimonies have failed to stand the test of this type of examination in spite of the importance of the persons who gave them. Al-Kherbawi took pains to unearth and analyse previously unknown sources and testimonies alongside the already existing sources. Taken together, they all establish that Nasser’s purpose in approaching the Muslim Brotherhood was to forge an alliance that would serve the national cause. Nasser backed out of that alliance the moment he realised that organisation’s true nature. However, he never had never gone so far as to declare allegiance to the supreme guide or join its ranks.

I, personally, see no harm in the fact that Nasser allied with the Muslim Brotherhood at a certain stage of his youth. He was a young patriot dedicated to the cause of liberating his country from colonialism, corruption, ignorance and backwardness. It was only natural for him to look for allies among all the organisations that called for national independence. The Muslim Brotherhood waved the nationalist banner at the time, and so too did the Wafd Party and Misr Al-Fatah (Young Egypt) Party. Nasser approached all three, but ultimately, he was not convinced by any of them.

Instead, he opted for a different course that would promote a drive for modernisation, industrialisation, social justice (although not in accordance with the Marxist conception that was prevalent at the time) and national liberation at home, and Arab nationalism and non-alignment abroad. In all events, what is important historically is not whether Nasser joined the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wafd or Misr Al-Fatah, but rather the fact that he left all those organisations and went his own way.

The value of this leader, who is unparalleled in the modern history of the Arab nation, resides in the idea he proposed. The Nasserist idea presented an alternative to all those organisations and it ultimately prevailed in this region as well as in the rest of the Third World in the mid-20th century, altering the international map and ushering in a new phase of history. The world after Nasser was unlike the one that had preceded him.

A particularly valuable aspect of the study, “Was Nasser a Muslim Brother?” is the spirit of detached objectivity that enabled its author to free himself of the Islamists’ blinkered approach to Nasser as the dictator who put them in prison and stood in the way of their irredentist imperial dream.

Unhampered by such biases, Al-Kherbawi was able to give us a truer picture of that unique leader whose achievements for the Arab world surpassed those of all other leaders. This scientific spirit lends the book such a degree of credibility that we can say that it is the last word on the question of the relationship between Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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