Echoes of Nasser

Nearly 60 years ago, Egypt's generals tried to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. It didn’t go well.

EPA/Farook Ibrahim
EPA/Farook Ibrahim

It was October 26, 1954, and Gamal Abdel Nasser was regaling a crowd gathered in Alexandria’s Manshiya Square. A Muslim Brother named Mahmoud Abdel Latif squeezed through the crowd and fired eight shots at the Egyptian leader, all of them missing. Perhaps Abdel Latif was a poor marksman or perhaps, as many have since wondered, the assassination attempt was staged — whatever the case, Nasser went on to finish his speech to the thunderous approval of his audience. The extraordinary boost in popularity that the failed assassination attempt gave Nasser and his military comrades provided the regime with wide latitude to crush the Muslim Brotherhood: In Cairo, activists soon destroyed the Brotherhood’s headquarters, while near the Suez Canal, regime supporters sacked Brotherhood-affiliated businesses.

Nasser used the "Manshiya incident," as it came to be known, to justify repression of the Brotherhood. Three days after Abdel Latif missed him, Nasser denounced Supreme Guide Hassan al-Hudaybi; the press, meanwhile, warned darkly that the Brotherhood’s paramilitary organization — al-jihaz al-sirri ("the secret apparatus") — sought to topple the regime.

For the remainder of the Nasser era, the Brothers were either underground or imprisoned. This rendered the Islamists a non-factor in Egyptian politics for the next two decades — but the showdown in 1954 between Egypt’s generals and the Muslim Brotherhood would have a profound impact on Egyptian politics for decades to come.

It’s possible to read too much into the comparisons between 1954 and 2013. No one in today’s Egypt has tried to assassinate anyone — at least not yet, thankfully. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is not Nasser, though he seems to be coming into his own. But even taking into consideration the vast differences, the political dynamics of July 2013 are eerily similar to October 1954, which does not bode well for Egypt’s stability, not to mention its democratic development.

After the attempt on Nasser’s life, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership was rounded up and placed before kangaroo courts. A "people’s tribunal" presided over by officers Salah Salim, Hussein Shafei, and future President Anwar Sadat sentenced the supreme guide and eight others to death, though the verdicts were all commuted to life sentences. An additional 1,100 Brothers were also jailed, while another 1,000 were incarcerated without being charged.

But while Nasser and the military could repress the Brothers and shatter their political power, they were unable to erase entirely the principles and ideas that animated the organization. Within Egypt’s prisons, debates raged between the Brotherhood’s rank-and-file and leadership about the identity of their enemy, and from where legitimacy to govern stems.

It was during this time in prison that Sayyid Qutb, the one-time minor Ministry of Education official who had become the head of the Brotherhood’s propaganda section, began laying the groundwork for a more radical and uncompromising Islamism. During his imprisonment, he revised his eight-volume magnum opus In the Shadow of the Quran and excerpted much of it in his 1964 Milestones Along the Way, which he wrote specifically for a Muslim Brotherhood vanguard who sought his guidance during their imprisonment. Milestones would become an inspiration for generations of extremists.

The growing extremism of Brotherhood members of that era carries a grim suggestion of what could be next for Egypt — but more relevant is the narrative that developed among the Brotherhood’s mainstream as a result of their experiences in the 1950s and 1960s. After his arrest, Supreme Guide Hudaybi’s primary concern was the survival of the Brotherhood: He first tolerated Qutb’s activism for that reason, though ultimately distancing himself from the Islamist firebrand and his radicalized followers over a variety of doctrinal and political issues. What’s more, the Islamists’s prison experience helped crystallize their view of the Egyptian military elite as a politically corrupt, irreligious, and fundamentally illegitimate regime.

For Nasser and his fellow Free Officers, bringing down the Brotherhood — which had been an ally of sorts — was critical to consolidating their power and advancing their political agenda. In the process, however, they helped create a dedicated and widely influential opposition. The ensuing struggle between the Muslim Brothers and the Egyptian state — despite moments of accommodation — has been one of the major pathologies both destabilizing Egyptian politics and used to justify the authoritarian nature of the political system for six decades now.

In the aftermath of the July 3 military intervention and the subsequent crackdown on the Brothers, the same risks for Egypt’s political maturation are evident today. In a sad replay of history, Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat has issued arrest warrants for a who’s who of high profile Brothers: Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie; his predecessor, Mahdi Akef; and such well-known figures in the West like Essam el-Erian. The charges include spying, killing protesters, inciting violence, possession of weapons, and breaking out of prison. Meanwhile, former President Mohammed Morsy remains in military custody — not so far charged with a crime, but out of the political game nonetheless. There are also lawsuits seeking the dissolution of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

The Brotherhood’s determination to resist such moves adds a new and potentially dangerous factor to Egyptian politics. In fact, these efforts to undermine the movement may actually give it new life at a moment when it is at its weakest. A narrative of victimhood that runs from October 1954 to July 2013 is a powerful mechanism of mobilization for the Brothers’s base: The organization is already talking about a "culture of oppression," and can add this latest episode to their narrative about the injustice of contemporary Egyptian politics.

The only hope, according to some supporters of the coup and leading members of the new government, is "to bring the Muslim Brothers into the political process." Even if these kinds of declarations were not dripping in hypocrisy — the same figures just spearheaded an effort to forcibly remove the Brotherhood from the process — the Brothers’s best strategy is to stay outside the political game and agitate against what they believe to be the fundamental illegitimacy of it. This will only add further instability to Egyptian politics, auguring more force, more arrests, and ultimately, authoritarian measures to establish political control.

There’s always the risk that repression may produce splits and radicalized offshoots of the Brotherhood, but the longer-term consequences of July 3 are likely political. The precedent of pushing an elected president from power — no matter how contested the election or unpopular the president — suspending the constitution, and potentially banning political parties sets a dangerous precedent for Egypt’s future. Morsy and his colleagues were intent on creating institutions that enhanced their power, which makes them no different from political and economic elites the world over. But what happens the next time a group of people determine they do not like their political chances? The July 3 military intervention could grow into a dangerous precedent for using authoritarian measures to alter Egyptian politics.

Morsy and the Brotherhood proved to be incompetent in government, but the real problem going forward may be the ease with which Egyptians believe they can disregard the political rules of the game. This will ultimately make it easier for authoritarians to rig the political system in their favor, all in the name of order and stability. As those who follow Egyptian history well know, it’s happened before.

Even as many welcomed Sisi’s move against Morsy and the Brotherhood as a way forward for Egyptian politics, the echoes of the past are ever-present. Egyptians might want to keep in mind that in October 1954, Egypt’s generals rewrote the British-era military regulation as part of their effort to ensure their power after the confrontation with the Brotherhood. The revision expanded the powers of the military and became the forerunner of the Emergency Law of 1958 — a symbol of tyranny that survived until Hosni Mubarak’s era, and which provided a legal veneer for his crackdown on Islamist and non-Islamist opponents alike.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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