Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Egypt: Life Before the Muslim Brotherhood

Nadene Goldfoot
Egypt was a secularist state in the 1920's. They received their independence from Great Britain on February 28, 1922.   They were in the majority, but existed without any such organization like the Muslim Brotherhood had started simply because they were the majority in their outlook about religion.  Some were even agnostics and didn't care about Islam or any other religion.  They believed in the separation of religion and state and they believed in the freedom of religion within the state.  What happened?

So far, they weren't different in their philosophy of the United States.  They were people that believed in the importance of Islamic culture.  Even the Christian Copts didn't disagree with this.   Islam was identified with all aspects of their life.  Atheists said they were also Muslims, just like they said they were Egyptians.  All shades of believers cooperated with each other.  Secularists could ignore Islam, practice it privately in their own homes, but no one believed in imposing it on the nation of Egypt. Omar Sharif was a well known movie actor who starred with Barbara Streisand once. He was a Christian Lebanese-Syrian who was born in Alexandria and remained an Egyptian. Of course he had a major role in "Lawrence of Arabia."  

One well known secularist living between the World Wars I and II was Taha Husayn b: 1889).  He was a blind genius, educator and humanitarian educated at Azhar and France.  He rejected religious fundamentalism and the colonialists (British) desire to dominate the Middle East.  He returned from France to Egypt in 1919, advocating the use of critical methods in research and had a love of Western thought.  He became a threat and was soon branded as a heretic, since he advocated liking the civilization of Europe.

Another secularist was Ali Abd al-Raziq (b: 1888-d: 1966).  The 1920's found Islamic world  in an uproar because the Turks had exiled the Ottoman sultan and abolished the caliphate.  He thought the caliphate had been harmful for them and claimed that Muhammad was not into creating government, but had started an ummah (community).  He stated that Mohammed was a prophet, not a political leader and that different governments weren't a concern of G-d.  Governments should be judged by human reason, so that it wasn't necessary for all Muslims to be members of one state, have the same government or ruled by one caliph.

Through world War II, Egyptians had little political independence.  They thought only about loyalty to Egypt or to Islam or to both.  They weren't Arabs and didn't pay attention to events concerning them.  By 1936 the Anglo-Egyptian treaty was signed, but 3 years later found the British still occupying Egypt.  WWII started in September which caused more troops to enter, and yet Egypt wouldn't declare war on the axis, Germany because they thought Germany would win the war.  So in 1942 the British surrounded the royal Abdin Palace in Cairo with tanks and King Faruq was given the ultimatum to either appoint Nahhas Pasha as prime minister  or leave the country.  He agreed and they cooperated with the British.  There was a lot of corruption in their government.  The German General Rommel was defeated and Americans landed in North Africa.  Today Egypt has 82.2 million people. 90% are Sunni Muslims following Shafi'i fiqh and Islam is the state religion.

Israel was re-born May 14, 1948 and the very next day, 6 neighboring Muslim states attacked her:  Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria.  Israel only had a population of 650,000 and were up against states totaling 40,000,000, which was like a miracle to the Jews.  Jews were fighting for their very existence.  The Arabs felt differently about the whole thing.  The Arabs point out that they had entered the fight with only 70,000 soldiers of which only 10,000 had any good training.  Israel, just a day old, had 60,000 of the Haganah, they figured including 300 British trained officers and 20,000 veterans of WWII and 3,000 Palmach commandos.  The war stopped on February 24, 1949 with 2 cease fires.

Israel did have problems with Egypt after this.  Egypt continued to be belligerent with Israel after an armistice agreement was signed.  They closed the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping.  On August 9, 1949, the UN Mixed Armistice Commission upheld Israel's complaint that Egypt was illegally blocking the canal.  Ralph Bunche, UN negotiator stated that there was to be free movement.  By September 1, 1951 Egypt was ordered to open the Canal to Israeli shipping.  Egypt refused.  By early 1954, Egypt's Foreign Minister, Muhammad Salah al-Din said that "The Arab people will not be embarrassed to declare:  We shall not be satisfied except by the final obliteration of Israel from the map of the Middle East." President Gamal Abdel Nasser imported arms from the Soviets for a confrontation with Israel.  He announced on August 31, 1955, "Egypt has decided to dispatch her heroes, the disciples of Pharaoh and the sons of Islam, and they will cleanse the land of Palestine....There will be no peace on Israel's border because we demand vengeance, and vengeance is Israel's death."  

The heroes turned out to be Arab terrorists, or fedayeen, who were on the border and sometimes infiltrated into Israel and committed acts of sabotage and murder.  These attacks were a violation of the armistice agreement provision that prohibited this.  Escalation continued with the blockade of the Straits of Tehran, and Nasser nationalized it in July of 1956.  Nasser said, " I am not solely fighting against Israel itself.  My task is to deliver the Arab world from destruction through Israel's intrigue, which has its roots abroad.  Our hatred is very strong.  There is no sense in talking about peace with Israel.  There is not even the smallest place for negotiations."  

Not even 2 weeks went by and on October 25, Egypt signed an agreement with Syria and Jordan with Nasser in command.  Israel, backed by Britain and France, attacked Egypt on October 29, 1956.

Egypt didn't give up hope of smashing Israel.  Nasser continued to make speeches threatening war.  Terrorist attacks were happening more frequently.  By May 15, 1967, Israel's Independence Day, Egyptian troops moved into the Sinai massing near Israel's border.  In 3 days the Syrian troops were ready to fight along the Golan Heights.  Nasser told the UN force to leave and they scuttled away.  On May 22nd Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli shipping.  Nasser challenged Israel to fight almost daily.  "Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel.  The Arab people want to fight..We will not accept any...coexistence with Israel.  Today the issue is not the establishment of peace between the Arab states and Israel...The war with Israel is in effect since 1948."  Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon sat on the border with Israel while Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation backed them up. The war started June 5 and ended June 10, 1967.     In SIX (6) days, Israel won against 250,000 troops, more than 2,000 tanks and 700 aircraft had ringed Israel.  Though Israel won the battle, 777 of their men were killed and 2,586 wounded.  This is the same proportion as the US lost in 8 years of fighting in Vietnam.

Still, on July 1, 1967 Egypt began shelling Israeli positions near the Suez Canal and on October 21, 1967, Egypt sank the Israeli destroyer, Eilat and killed 47.  Less than one year later they shelled Israeli positions along the Suez Canal.  A War of Attrition went on for 16 months with Israel's deaths of 600 soldiers and 127 civilians.  2,000 soldiers were wounded and 700 civilians were wounded.  Israel also lost 15 airplanes.    

October 6, 1973 on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews, when most were attending synagogues asking G-d for forgiveness for their sins, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel.  At least 9 Arab states, including 4 non-Middle Eastern nations, actively aided the Egyptian-Syrian war with men and money.  It looked like the Arabs might win, so nobody tried to stop it like the Soviet Union or the UN.  Israel won again, and it ended on October 25, 1973 and this ended with Sadat visiting Jerusalem on November 29, 1977 for 36 hours, but being assassinated later on October 6, 1981.  He had signed a peace treaty with Israel on March 26, 1979.  Israel has about 7.5 million people, of which 1.4 million are Muslims.

Islam has become the state religion. Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood has been voted in as President in the state's first experience at democracy on June 24, 2012.    The question we wonder about is if he will keep the peace treaty.  He plans to visit Iran in a few days, Israel's nemesis.  

The Muslim Brotherhood rose because of the colonial occupation by the British.  Devout Muslims felt humiliated to be ruled by Christians.  Another reason was that the Egyptian educated and middle classes had become so secularized so fast, causing the deterioration of Muslim laws (Sharia) and institutions.  Turkey was also another cause, which Egyptians saw in their alterations a de-Islamization there as well.  When the caliphate was abolished, it was like the end of the world to the religious Egyptians.

Militant Muslims were religious people of the fundamentalist Wahhabis of Arabia and the militant Jamal al-Din al-Afghani.  The Muslim Brotherhood, al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin, organized between the 2 wars,  was the largest and most influential of the militant groups.  It had a military zeal and organization similar to a medieval Ismai'li group called the Brethren of Sincerity.  They copied another aIsmai'li organization, the Assassins in its militancy and methods.

Now their charter sounds like all the rhetoric that Egypt had proclaimed and that Iran is now copying.  They had been kept out of politics by Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt because they were so extreme.  With the uprising of the Arab Spring, Mubarak was jailed in February 2011.  There is no parliament, no constitution and no restrictions on presidential powers in Egypt right now.

Resource: Textbook: Middle East Past &I Present by Yahya Armajani and Thomas M. Ricks, used at Portland State U.
Myths and Facts, a concise record of the Arab-Israeli-conflict by Mitchell G. Bard, PhD, and Joel Himelfarb

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