Since the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, America’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood has been driven by American interests in Egypt. Only during a brief period at the start of the Cold War and following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 did Washington actually seek to engage the Brotherhood directly, and only then as a tool in the fight against Moscow.
while the Arab Spring has created momentous, historic changes in the Middle East, some features of politics in the Arab world remain unchanged.Nonetheless, while the Arab Spring has created momentous, historic changes in the Middle East, some features of politics in the Arab world remain unchanged. One of these is the obsession with the operation of sinister forces behind the scenes, most notably the machinations of the US government and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Accusing one’s political opponents of being CIA puppets has proven to be a popular tactic in the past and now, with the rise of Mohammed Morsi to the presidency of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has become a target of rumors accusing them of being agents of American power.
An examination of the initial US response to the Arab Spring shows that it was actually caught completely off guard by the tumultuous events in Tunisia and Egypt. Contrary to claims that it was working behind the scenes to bring about Mubarak’s downfall, the US was slow to respond to crises which unfolded very quickly.
Since coming to office in July, Morsi has been subject to attacks from his opponents—many of whom conveniently ignore their own background in the Egyptian military and Mubarak-era political elite, which historically maintained strong ties to the US—that imply that he is an agent of the US government. These attacks are simply part of the power struggle in Egypt. In parallel, there have been outbursts of paranoia within the US about Brotherhood ‘infiltration’ of the US government (and society) that eerily mirror the rumors in Egypt, and are reminiscent of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious witch-hunts of the 1950s.A Brief History of the US and the Muslim BrotherhoodThere is considerable evidence to show that since the early 1950s, the US has periodically maintained contacts with the Brotherhood, depending on its perceptions of the political outlook of Cairo and the state of its relations with Nasser and subsequent Egyptian rulers.
When the Free Officers’ Movement overthrew the dissolute King Farouk in 1952, the Brotherhood initially aligned itself with the new regime, which had promised to cater to its desires for a more equitable system of governance that also incorporated Islamist views. At the time, the Eisenhower administration—eager to establish good relations with Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation and site of the strategically vital Suez Canal—sought to win over all major sources of power inside Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
In 1953, a delegation of Islamist scholars, including Said Ramadan, the son-in-law to the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan Al-Banna, traveled to the US under the pretext of attending a “Colloquium on Islamic Culture” at Princeton University. Robert Dreyfuss, an investigative journalist and author of Devil’s Game: How the US Unleashed Fundamentalist Islam, quotes a declassified US document that explained the purpose of the conference: “On the surface, the conference looks like an exercise in pure learning. This in effect is the impression desired.” However, the document maintains that the objective was to “bring together persons exerting great influence in formulating Muslim opinion in fields such as education, science, law and philosophy and inevitably, therefore, on politics….”Viewed through today’s lens, bringing together a colloquium of Islamist scholars in the US might appear odd. But in 1953 the fundamental driving force of US policy was anti-communism, a position shared by the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, as Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author of A Mosque in Munich, which examined the early links between US intelligence and the Muslim Brotherhood, points out, “Ramadan, like others in the Muslim Brotherhood, strongly opposed communism for rejecting religion” and this, in turn, “made him a natural ally of the US.” It seems that another purpose of the conference was to sound out Islamists—like the Brotherhood—to see if they could be useful US allies in the Cold War. Indeed, as Talcott Seelye, a US diplomat who has been stationed throughout the Middle East, told Dreyfuss, “We thought of [political] Islam as a counterweight to communism…. We saw it as a moderate force, and a positive one.” Given this, it was not surprising that following the conference, a professor from Princeton and a senior official at the Library of Congress arranged for the fifteen delegates, including Ramadan, to visit the White House on 23 September, where they met with President Eisenhower and posed for a photograph in the Oval Office. Unfortunately, beyond this brief visit, there is no other information available that documents what else occurred during Ramadan’s stay.
The relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and Nasser, on the other hand, quickly soured after some initial cooperation. As Dreyfuss points out, “The Brotherhood saw Nasser as a hateful secularist who had abandoned Islam and who was too willing to cooperate with communism—beliefs that endeared them to both London and Washington.” This divergence of views meant that before long Nasser and the Brotherhood would have a falling out, especially since Nasser refused to cater to its wishes. The tension between the two came to a head on 26 October 1954, when a member of the Brotherhood tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Nasser. In the aftermath, the regime declared the Brotherhood illegal and arrested many of its leaders. He would later order that the organization’s chief ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, be hanged in 1966 after a show trial, despite having offered him a ministerial post after the 1952 revolution.The relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and Nasser, on the other hand, quickly soured after some initial cooperation.
Ramadan fled to Switzerland following Egypt’s crackdown on the Brotherhood in 1954. He set up the Islamic Centre of Geneva that would serve as a hub for the Brotherhood’s international activities, and then went on to West Germany. His activities were largely unknown until July 2005, when Johnson wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal that was based on archival research that suggests that Ramadan worked with the CIA. In the article, Johnson reveals that “the Muslim Brotherhood formed a working arrangement with US intelligence organizations” but before long the “US lost its hold on the movement.” Nevertheless, German documents show that the US persuaded Jordan to issue Ramadan a diplomatic passport and that “his expenditures are financed by the American side.” Swiss archives also confirm that Ramadan worked for the US: “Said Ramadan is … an information agent of the British and Americans.” Nevertheless, following West Germany’s refusal in December 1963 to allow Ramadan to participate in a CIA propaganda campaign against the Soviet Union, evidence of the CIA’s involvement with Ramadan dries up.
When Nasser died in September 1970, his successor, Anwar Sadat, took a very different approach to ruling Egypt’s fragmented society, which had been devastated both militarily and economically through war with Israel. On top of this, Sadat found himself opposed by both Nasserist and communist factions that disapproved of his policies. This meant that Sadat’s most logical ally in the country was the Brotherhood. As a result, he gradually began to release members that had been jailed under Nasser. But whatever support Sadat had gained through his overtures to the Brotherhood was wiped out when he signed the Camp David peace accords with Israel.
Not only did the Egypt-Israel peace agreement shatter Sadat’s relationship with the Brotherhood, it also entrenched a growing view inside the US government that the Brotherhood was not only an obstacle to peace but also a danger to American interests. This appeared to be confirmed in September 1981, when sectarian clashes erupted in Cairo that led Sadat to order a crackdown. On 6 October—only a month later—a radical Islamist terrorist group not connected with the Brotherhood, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, assassinated Sadat at a military parade.
Sadat’s toleration of the Brotherhood continued under his successor Hosni Mubarak, at least at first. Like Sadat, Mubarak did not have a power base, and he needed the Brotherhood in order to work toward national reconciliation. This was evident in Mubarak’s release of many of the political prisoners detained after the September 1981 riots. While Mubarak was always careful not to get too close to the Brotherhood, he did allow them to participate in parliamentary elections as independents. But when the Brotherhood fared particularly well in the 1987 election, winning 36 seats, Mubarak had the courts declare the results null and void and blocked them from participating in the political process. In response, the Brotherhood simply turned its attention to trade syndicates, where it found considerable support. This, in turn, led to another crackdown in the mid-1990s, when the Egyptian government introduced new measures to dilute the power of officials affiliated with the Brotherhood in some syndicates, and simply took over others by installing government ‘guardians.’
Throughout the 1980s, Islamists, like those in the Muslim Brotherhood, took on new relevance for the Reagan administration’s cold warriors following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Throughout this period, the CIA and Pakistani intelligence worked closely with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Pakistani branch, Jamaat-e-Islam, to keep the Red Army tied down inside Afghanistan. In spite of criticism that the US operation helped unleash the forces of radical Islam that led to the creation of Al-Qaeda, influential US policymakers still view the operation as a major success. Years later, a journalist from Nouvel Observateur asked Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, if he regretted the Afghanistan operation. He answered, “Regret what? The secret operation was an excellent idea…. What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”But regardless of its ties to Islamic militants in Afghanistan, the US remained cautious with respect to Egypt, lest it upset the delicate balance of forces that kept Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel intact. In the end, America’s fear of upsetting the Egypt-Israel peace would be the driving force of US policy toward Egypt until the waning days of the Mubarak regime. Diplomatic cables from the 1980s and 1990s, made available through WikiLeaks, tell us that the US Embassy in Cairo sought to maintain limited contacts with the Brotherhood, while in turn the Brotherhood, fearful of bad publicity and a government backlash, asked American diplomats to obtain official permission for future meetings. Later, it became US policy to restrict diplomatic contacts to Brotherhood members who were sitting members of parliament or officials of professional syndicates in order to comply with the letter of the law, if not its spirit. As one cable from 1999 explains, “We call on them in their capacities as syndicate leaders, not as members of a banned group.” The cables also display a considerable degree of skepticism regarding the Brotherhood’s intentions and motives, hinting in many instances that American diplomats suspected that the organization’s public commitment to non-violence, democracy, and equality for Egypt’s Copts was only a façade.
This would not change much under President George W. Bush. After 9/11, the Bush administration adopted an ambitious agenda of democracy promotion throughout the Middle East. However, the Brotherhood’s great electoral success in Egypt’s 2005 elections—where they won approximately 20 percent of seats, up from 3 percent in the 2000 elections—and Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian territories a few months later, proved quite embarrassing to the US and slowed its push for democracy in the region. Like previous administrations, when faced with a choice between national interests in maintaining the status quo and the promotion of democracy, the former has always been paramount. It would take the events of 2011 to turn decades of American policy on its head.
An “Orderly Transition”American pressure to oust Mubarak and advocacy for democratic change in the midst of the Arab Spring has stoked suspicions in some quarters. Nonetheless, despite recent accusations that the US has been secretly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, that key US officials are “sympathetic” to the Brotherhood’s aspirations or have links to Islamic organizations, and that the Obama administration secretly financed Morsi’s presidential campaign, we should take claims of this nature with a grain of salt. It is worth recalling the ponderous US response to the outbreaks of the uprisings against Tunisia’s Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
American pressure to oust Mubarak and advocacy for democratic change in the midst of the Arab Spring has stoked suspicions in some quarters.
The US was caught completely off guard by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, though there were certainly indicators that unrest could occur in Tunisia, thanks to the corruption of Ben Ali’s family and senior officials. There was no way anyone could have known that the tragic death of a young Tunisian man, Mohammed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 in protest at the confiscation of his fruit cart by municipal officials, would be the spark that set off a chain of events that shook the world. By the time Bouazizi died of his wounds in early January 2011, few in Washington truly understood the implications of what was taking place in Tunisia. As word of Bouazizi’s self-immolation spread, anti-government riots broke out across Tunisia. It was not until 7 January that the US acknowledged the unrest, calling in the Tunisian ambassador to criticize his government’s handling of the riots and urge restraint. Despite the timing, it was likely pure coincidence that US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, traveled to Qatar amid the unrest, and gave a speech that pressed Arab leaders to “further open their political systems,” since it had become clear that progress toward reform had “stagnated.”Meanwhile, the situation inside Tunisia was deteriorating rapidly, with the New York Times reporting on 11 January that as many as fourteen people had been killed. This prompted the State Department to reiterate to the Tunisian government the Obama administration’s “concerns not only about the ongoing violence, the importance of respecting freedom of expression, but also the importance of the availability of information.” But the violence continued and by 13 January an additional sixteen people had been killed, prompting Ben Ali to indicate that he would step down at the end of his term. This was not enough. That day, the Tunisian military made it clear that it would not put down the uprising by force. Abandoned by the military, Ben Ali fled into exile with his family.
The US government was shocked, and before long President Obama criticized the CIA for failing to predict the uprising in Tunisia and Ben Ali’s abrupt departure. According to American journalist Mark Mazzetti, US officials “focused their criticism on intelligence assessments last month [January 2011] that concluded, despite demonstrations in Tunisia, that the security forces of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali would defend his government,” but this clearly did not happen. Indeed, as one US official observed, “Everyone recognized the demonstrations in Tunisia as serious … What wasn’t clear even to President Ben Ali was that his security forces would quickly choose not to support him.” Indeed, US officials were open about how surprised they were by Ben Ali’s departure, with Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitting on The Daily Show on 3 February that Ben Ali’s overthrow had “taken not just us, but many people, by surprise.” Going further, Mullen said, “To a great degree I think the timing of it certainly caught us [by surprise]—as [unrest] moved from Tunisia … to the really difficult challenge that is there right now in Egypt.”