The “lethal ideology” was among the most significant expressions President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi coined in 2020 in reference to radical Islamism. It appeared in his exclusive interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro during his three-day visit to Paris last week. The expression perfectly captures the nature of a scourge that has inflicted itself on Egypt, the region and the world since Egyptian ideologue Hassan Al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928.
Among the president’s most salient points in his interview with the French newspaper was the fact that in Egypt, as in France, terrorism has exacted an extremely heavy toll. Countless civilians, both Muslim and Coptic Christian, members of the armed services and the police, and members of the judiciary, have fallen victim to brutal acts of terrorism. This is why Egypt continues to warn the international community against a “lethal ideology” that knows no national borders or homeland and why the president has ceaselessly campaigned for closer international coordination in the fight against terrorism.
This stance is not new for Egypt. Seven decades ago the government was already alert to the dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood organisation and its deadly extremist thought and the threat it posed to society through its exploitation of religion for political ends. As early as 1938, the organisation underwent a radical shift from proselytising to politicking. Then it took advantage of the circumstances of World War II to open channels of communications with like-minded groups in neighbouring countries.
By the end of 1948, the clash between the Egyptian government and the Muslim Brotherhood had reached a zenith. After a chain of bombings that began in the middle of that year, primarily targeting businesses and other economic establishments owned by Egyptian Jews, the government, headed by prime minister Fahmi Al-Nuqrashi, swept into action against the Muslim Brotherhood and its terrorist designs.
It was the assassination of Cairo chief of police Salim Zaki on 4 December 1948 that accelerated the banning of the organisation. A Muslim Brotherhood member hurled a bomb from the roof of the Faculty of Medicine in Cairo at a police regiment deployed to contain a demonstration organised by Muslim Brotherhood students. Zaki, who commanded the regiment, was killed instantly.
Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide Hassan Al-Banna scrambled to forestall the ban. On 4 December 1948, he sent a letter to king Farouk making various accusations against Al-Nuqrashi in the hope of turning the king against the prime minister. As historian Hoda Shamel Abaza relates in her important work on Al-Nuqrashi, the king handed the letter to the chief of the royal court, Ibrahim Abdel-Hadi, who then handed it to Al-Nuqrashi. This may have been the final straw that led to a decision by the Muslim Brotherhood’s paramilitary wing, the Special Apparatus, to assassinate Al-Nuqrashi later that month.
In his letter to Farouk, Al-Banna said that “amidst the din of grave incidents that strike to the core of the present and future of the nation and its very being, His Excellency Al-Nuqrashi Pasha has declared an all-out and unjust war against the Muslim Brothers. By military decree he has banned some of [their paramilitary organisations]. With the same powers, he has arrested their secretary-general and some of the members of their organisation without charges or investigations, and he has ordered various ministries and agencies to relocate any employees who have contacted the organisation, if only by phone or telegraph, to participate in acts of charity and social services.”
“However remote the places and deep the gulfs between them, these employees have had no choice but to move for their lot is to obey orders. Nevertheless, such brutal transfers that are indicative of a spirit of retaliation and inculpation are painful to watch and are perceived as an injustice by their superiors and their subordinates alike,” Al-Banna wrote.
Al-Nuqrashi and Abdel-Hadi
AGAINST THE BROTHERHOOD: The letter goes on to complain about the suspension of the Muslim Brotherhood’s daily newspaper for an indefinite period “on a baseless and worthless pretext” and to argue that under proper circumstances the newspaper could reproach the censors for their attitudes towards it, their intransigence, and their refusal to listen to its many complaints.
After complaining about the government’s decision to dissolve his organisation and “to visit misery and destruction on all who have made contact with it,” Al-Banna then protested against Al-Nuqrashi’s attempt “to incriminate the Muslim Brothers in connection with the recent incidents,” referring to the assassination of the police chief and previous arson attacks.
He appealed to the wisdom, generosity, and compassion of the then Egyptian monarch to either “instruct the government to act correctly or to relieve it of the burdens of government so that they may be undertaken by people more capable.”
Shortly afterwards, Al-Banna requested a meeting with deputy minister of the interior Abdel-Rahman Ammar. Ammar then drafted a memorandum saying that he had agreed to meet with Al-Banna because he had “claimed that he had important information that he wanted us to convey to His Excellency the prime minister.”
The deputy interior minister went on to relate that Al-Banna had told him that “he had learned that the government had issued a decree to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood or was about to do so, and that he wanted to convey to His Excellency the prime minister that he had resolved once and for all to relinquish involvement in political affairs and to restrict the activities of his organisation to religious affairs, as was the case when the Muslim Brotherhood was first established.”
“He said that he wanted, with all his heart, to cooperate closely with the prime minister in support of the government in all matters and that he would instruct his followers in all parts of the country to act accordingly. He expressed his sorrow over the crimes committed by individuals that he believed had been infiltrated into the Muslim Brotherhood and said that he mourned the loss of Salim Zaki Pasha who had been a dear friend of his and with whom he had a cooperative relationship characterised by complete mutual understanding.”
“He then praised Al-Nuqrashi Pasha, expressing his conviction in His Excellency’s integrity, dedication to the service of the nation, and commitment to justice. He added that if he could meet with His Excellency after a two-year interval of estrangement caused by slanderers he would be able to convince His Excellency that it was in the interest of the government and the people to preserve the great edifice that the Muslim Brothers had worked so hard to build over many years and that it distressed and pained him to think that this edifice could collapse at the hands of His Excellency Al-Nuqrashi Pasha, who was so dedicated to the service of his country.”
Concluding his report, Ammar related that Al-Banna had “said that he was ready to bring the Muslim Brotherhood back to its foundations, which had nothing to do with politics or political parties and were based exclusively on serving the faith and disseminating its teachings. He added that he wished only to retire to his home and devote himself to reading and writing and the virtuous life. Then he burst into tears and said that he would return to his headquarters to await instruction from the prime minister for whom he prayed for well-being and success.”
The memorandum was dated 8 December 1948. The letters and meetings failed to achieve their desired end. The decision to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood was handed down the same day. Some 20 days later, on 28 December, Al-Nuqrashi was heading to the lift leading to his office at the Ministry of Interior in Cairo when a student wearing a police officer’s uniform shot him three times in the back.
In the course of the following investigations it came to light that the student, Abdel-Hamid Ahmed Hussein, had been on a list of Muslim Brotherhood youth who were members of the Secret Apparatus and were wanted by the police. However, according to historian Abdel-Rahman Al-Rafei, Al-Nuqrashi had personally intervened to prevent Abdel-Hamid’s detention.
The student’s father had served as an employee at the Interior Ministry, and after the father died in poverty Al-Nuqrashi had issued instructions to enable the son to complete his education free of charge.
Al-Nuqrashi’s decision to ban the Muslim Brotherhood was the first attempt on the part of the Egyptian state to deal firmly with the organisation. But as we know, it would resurface time and again later to wield its “lethal ideology” in the practice of politics in Egypt.
*The writer is a political expert.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly