Understanding the Deep State: Egypt 23 August 2013

Current Affairs in Context
What is happening in Egypt? It’s an important question that has no simple answer, for two reasons. First, although most newspapers are diligently reporting the events that are taking place (from the army’s ultimatum to the scores killed), their analysis varies wildly. Is it a popular coup or a military coup that ousted President Morsi? Is it a violent crackdown on peaceful protestors or peaceful crackdown on violent protestors? The answers to these questions occupy a diverse spectrum, with some commentators attempting (but generally unable) to sit on the fence.

There is a second reason that to explain what is happening is not simple. Coverage of Egyptian politics in the West only really began with the Arab Spring, and almost no commentators go further back than 2011 in their analysis.  In reality, the events in Egypt are the latest in an on-going story that began eight decades ago. The media doesn’t always like taking account of the big picture, rather snappy and short headlines usually gain more coverage, more shares on social media, and thus more advertising revenue. The Washington Post’s article on ‘23 Twitter Accounts You Must Follow to Understand Egypt’ shows part of the problem. 140 characters, even from 23 diverse accounts, will not give you the full picture. Sometimes there is nothing to do but take a step back, and know your history.

To explain the significance of recent events, you have to go back to the early nineteenth century. Egypt was at this point under British colonial rule, as was much of the world. The Suez Canal made Egypt one of the most important economic powerhouses on the globe. By cutting a path from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, the journey to India from Europe was drastically cut down. Now, instead of circumnavigating the African coast, you head east, south through Egypt into the Red Sea and emerge at the Gulf of Aden with India in sight. The commercial benefit of the Suez Canal can’t be overstated, and the British Empire reaped the profits.

King FaroukColonialism and Corruption
Egypt was ruled by a nominally ‘independent’ government headed by monarchs. During the eighteenth century, Egypt and Sudan were part of the Ottoman Empire. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Muhammad Ali was sent by the Ottoman’s to repulse Napoleon’s forces from northern Africa. Muhammad Ali was successful, but decided to consolidate his rule by declaring himself wali or governor of Egypt and Sudan in opposition to the Ottomans. He continued to rule until the end of his life, and his children took up power after his death.

By the 1920s, Egypt was ruled by King Farouk I, the tenth King of Egypt under the Muhammad Ali Dynasty and the last. However, by now the monarchy ruled in name only, and almost all administration and decision making was done by the British who had comfortably established themselves in Egypt and Sudan in the 1880s.

King Farouk was a deeply unpopular figure, both in Egypt and internationally. He was seen as an indulgent, incompetent ruler with an ineffective government, to the extent that the British and the US were actively seeking ways to have the King replaced (the operation was named ‘Project Fat F**k’ in reference to the King’s obesity).

Egyptians were discontent both with their own inept leaders and the widespread British control. Despite the wealth from the Suez Canal, living standards were poor. Education for the masses was largely absent, and neither the Egyptian government nor the British had any desire to provide healthcare or address the economic issues that plagued Egyptians.

Reform and Revival
It was in this context that one of the largest Muslim reform movements in the world was born – the Muslim Brotherhood. Its founder, Hasan al-Banna was a schoolteacher and Muslim scholar. He was also a charismatic leader who was deeply troubled by the direction he saw Egypt heading. Together with six associates, he founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928.

At this time, there was nothing unique or special about al-Banna’s group. A number of similar organisations existed, small in membership and serving the social and political needs of their few members. In a handful of years however, the Muslim Brotherhood would prove to be singular in articulating the grievances of ordinary Egyptians and winning over support. Its membership grew rapidly, and under Hasan al-Banna’s leadership it maintained an organised and coherent structure.

Hasan al-BannaThe emerging aims of the Muslim Brotherhood were numerous. It was concerned with providing charitable, welfare and educational support to the Egyptian masses, something it still does very successfully. In modern Egypt, many of the countries hospitals are associated with the Brotherhood’s charitable endeavours. It also had grander aims, namely the ending of British rule in Egypt and the establishment of a government that took Islam as both its moral and philosophical compass.The Muslim Brotherhood stressed the unity of Muslims globally, and saw nationalism as part of the divide and conquer tactics of European imperialists.

It is the Brotherhood’s goal of establishing a government informed by Islamic principles that has opened it to criticism, both historically and in the contemporary world. Detractors argue a government established on Islamic principles is by default autocratic, violent and repressive. The Brotherhood responded by articulating that their conception of a government based on Islamic teachings would be democratic and committed to the ideals of justice. For others, the notion of an Islamic government was an innovation within the Muslim tradition. More than a few Muslim scholars argued, and many still do, that the message of Islam was not concerned with political power but rather spiritual morality. To this, the Brotherhood responded that the spiritual/political divide was a colonial introduction and political and spiritual goals were not contradictory.

Troubled Waters
By the late 1940s, it is estimated over two million Egyptians were part of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hasan al-Banna had successfully articulated the grievances of Egyptians while also ensuring that the movement provided solutions to the problems faced on a day to day basis through the provision of welfare and educational projects. Both the Egyptian monarchy, as well as the British, viewed the Brotherhood with increasing suspicion. They were organised, articulate and clearly revolutionary. It seemed only a matter of time until the Brotherhood grew to such an extent that they could not only threaten the status quo, but successfully overthrow the existing power structures.

In 1948, the Muslim Brotherhood was officially proscribed. Membership to the organisation was illegal and many key Brotherhood figures were arrested and imprisoned. Soon after the ban, the Egyptian Prime Minister was assassinated by a university student associated with the Brotherhood. Some believed the assassination was intentionally planned, something Hasan al-Banna strongly denied. He condemned the assassination as an act of political terrorism against the tenets of Islam. Nonetheless, in early 1949, Hasan al-Banna was assassinated while waiting to meet a government official. The movement may have died out at that point, as many movements led by charismatic figures do once their leaders are killed (and charismatic leaders are almost invariably killed). Yet the organisation managed to stay coherent and continue.

The Free Officers Movement
In 1952, Egypt would go through upheaval. The Free Officers Movement, a secret organisation of military officers in the Egyptian and Sudanese army, staged a coup d’état. King Farouk was overthrown and Egypt was declared free of British rule. The soldiers of the Free Officers Movement were Arab nationalists, inspired by the pan-Arab nationalism that was popular in the era, they promised to oversee the installation of a democratic government.

The Brotherhood figures initially supported the coup, which seemed to offer a solution to many of Egypt’s problems. The proscription against the Brotherhood was lifted.

The two movements central to understanding modern Egypt were now in play. The Free Officers Movement and the Muslim Brotherhood.

They could not be more different. The Free Officers were Arab nationalists, an elite and small movement, who’s power stemmed from control of Egypt’s substantial military firepower. They were also secularists, who felt Egypt needed to break free from its past (which included  Islam). The Muslim Brotherhood by contrast had a distaste for nationalism, motivated instead by Islamic teachings of unity of mankind and the Muslim ummah. The Brotherhood was anything but an elite movement, instead consisting of the grassroots of Egyptian society and often the poorest. Their power was in the sheer mass of their supporters and members.

Two Visions of Egypt
It seems almost inevitable that these two movements would clash. And indeed modern Egyptian history is essentially a story of the power struggle between these two competing visions of Egypt. Despite the ‘honeymoon’ period immediately following the 1952 coup, the Brotherhood and the Free Egyptian Officers were soon in opposition.

The Brotherhood opposed the secular constitution put forward by the Free Officers Movement as the basis for Egypt’s new government. In response, they were once again outlawed. Thousands of its members were rounded up and placed in prison, many in concentration camps. Large numbers of the Brotherhood died in prison, those who were eventually released spoke of the horrific torture they faced. The Brotherhood remained an illegal organisation until the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

In the few short years crossing the 1940s to the 1950s, the Brotherhood had been banned twice, imprisoned en masse and lost its founder and its leader. However, the movement  managed to recover from the brink of annihilation. They accepted their new situation and decided to operate quietly. The Brotherhood still expanded their welfare and charity projects throughout Egypt however, and through the decades their membership grew by millions. Being officially linked to the Brotherhood would still result in a prison sentence however.

The Deep State
The Free Officers Movement effectively ruled Egypt thereafter. The first President of Egypt was Muhammad Naguib, followed by Gamal Abdel Nasser, followed by Anwar Sadat. All three were members of the Free Officers Movement that oversaw the 1952 coup (pictured above). Sadat was followed by Hosni Mubarak, who was then a senior military figure. When individuals refer to the deep state of Egypt, it is the embedded military elite within Egypt to whom they refer.

This chain of military Presidents was only broken with 2011 revolution. The election that followed resulted in Muhammad Morsi winning the position, the candidate forwarded by the Muslim Brotherhood. Much of the political manoeuvering done by Muhammad Morsi while in power was to remove the means by which the deep state controlled Egypt, something that officials within the Freedom and Justice party were open about.

Opposition protests to Morsi’s rule however provided the perfect opportunity for the military to once again take control. The speed at which the military reacted to anti-Morsi protests, in comparison to their inaction over the 2011 Tahrir Square protests against Mubarak, reflect their vested interests. This is how Egypt finds itself in 2013. The military once again is in control. The Brotherhood is once again effectively an illegal organisation with its leaders imprisoned. The release of Hosni Mubarak promises to put Egypt in reverse and undo the work of the 2011 revolution.

It would be wrong to give the impression that Egypt is divided by secular nationalists who support the deep state and the religious who support the Brotherhood. If the 2013 coup shows anything, it is how complicated the situation is. The Salafi al-Nour party gave their support to the military coup. And likewise, many secularists in Egypt see the Brotherhood as the only realistic opposition to military control.

The immediate future of Egypt rests in the Brotherhood’s hands. They can either return to operating in opposition, continuing their work at the grassroots until an opportunity presents itself to remove military power once again. Or they may decide that this time, they won’t back down. Neither future seems particularly bright however. Yet just like the Arab Spring, sometimes events take a course that no one can predict.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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