Home > News from Abroad > Egypt, the far left, and the far right

Egypt, the far left, and the far right

On Wednesday, 26 January 2011, Alan Woods, one of the leading members of the International Marxist Tendency, described the situation in Egypt. He set out the major problems for those demonstrating, namely that the Mubarak family will try all they possibly can to resist any oppositional strength, and that in any case, who will replace them? Inevitably Woods broaches the main opposition in Egypt: “The Islamic parties,” he notes “led by the Muslim Brotherhood, did not play any role in the organisation of this action [on the 25th of January] and originally they even opposed it. Only at a later stage were they forced to allow their members to attend.” Woods continues: “That is a devastating comment on those sorry “Marxists” in Europe who have been tail-ending the Islamists and given uncritical support to the Muslim Brotherhood.”

It is not made clear, in the proceeding paragraphs, which European Marxists Woods is referring to here, but there is no doubt that the Socialist Workers’ Party have been tail-ending the Muslim Association of Britain – a right wing fundamentalist tendency which is associated to the Muslim Brotherhood – for the past few years, both over opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the creation of the Respect party. Chris Marsden, in his review of SWP central committee member Alex Callinicos’ book An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto for the International Committee of the Fourth International’s (ICFI) website, writes of this curious bedfellowship that for the SWP, the MAB – which supports the introduction of Sharia Law – “is a vehicle through which it hopes to make an opportunist appeal to the many young muslims who were opposed to the war”.

A very brief history of the British far left’s attitudes towards Islamism

Some clues as to why the SWP were quite happy to coordinate protest groups, and protest parties, with organisations that can broadly be described as Islamist, can be found in an interview which Alex Callinicos himself gave in October 2006 to Ardeshir Mehrdad – an editor of the Middle East Left Forum, formerly Iran bulletin. During the interview Callinicos identifies the main ideological element at work in Middle Eastern “popular mentalities” as “anti-imperialist nationalism” for reasons which include Western domination of the region, Israel and the “pathetic subordination of most Arab regimes to Washington”. What can be seen is through subordination of the “workers and other exploited classes to those of the bourgeois leadership” the Islamists are taking over the mantle of leadership “from the secular nationalists and the left”. Organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah in cultivating a popular base among the urban poor, and supposedly fronting an anti-imperialist backlash, can, in Callinicos’ opinion, no longer be described as ‘ultra-conservative’ on this issue. Presumably on this basis, it’s OK to work in step with their UK representatives, or actively support them abroad. It was, in fact, in that same year that Lindsey German, then of Respect, said: “whatever disagreements I have with Hamas and Hezbollah, I would rather be in their camp…they want democracy. Democracy in the Middle East is Hamas, is Hezbollah.” Lest it said that were the same sentiments uttered about the BNP, there would no small uproar inside the far left.

The late Chris Harman, once member of the SWP central committee and former editor of International Socialism and Socialist Worker, noted some key issues on Islamism and the far left’s attitude towards it in his 1994 book “The Prophet and the Proletariat”. He emphasised that it was frequently students, “recent Arab speaking graduates” and “unemployed ex-students” who formed the backbone of Islamist movements. It was through their influence, Harman attests, that Islamism was “able to spread out to dominate the propagation of ideas in the slums and shanty towns as a “conservative” movement (Harman, 1994, pp16-17)”. The left, he maintains can work alongside Islamism, but it cannot take a neutral stance towards it, it must take a third position:

“They grow on the soil of very large social groups that suffer under existing society, and whose feeling of revolt could be tapped for progressive purposes . . . many of the individuals attracted to radical versions of Islamism can be influenced by socialists— provided socialists combine complete political independence from all forms of Islamism with a willingness to seize opportunities to draw individual Islamists into genuinely radical forms alongside them (Harman, 1994, pp18).”

Two initial thoughts: firstly this opinion of the Egyptian-born Harman shows what little seriousness he takes Islamism as an idea, instead seeing it as either false class consciousness (present in his preceding thoughts) or as a transitional phase, fit for progressive purposes – an almost patronising view. Secondly, according to Chris Marsden again, the SWP:

“insisted that a refusal to raise political differences was essential in order to maintain the heterogeneous movement against war; to keep things purely at the level of general opposition to war so as not to alienate anyone.”

Though it is evidently true that the SWP/MAB ventures (Stop the War Coalition and Respect party) were not created with the intention of achieving distant, programmatic cooperation, but to integrate over a single issue  – and so are consequently at odds with the cautious, yet condescending, sentiments of Chris Harman.

As David Osler pointed out on his blog on Thursday “[b]ack in 1946, Socialist Workers’ Party founder Tony Cliff famously characterised [the Muslim Brotherhood] as clerical-fascists.” This sets an interesting precedent, particularly when we consider the close coordination of the far left and far right in the anti-war movement. But what we can see from further comments by Alex Callinicos and Chris Harman, existing and former members of the SWP central committee, is that justification for the far left working with Islamist movements, in the Middle East or in East London, is based upon the assumption that it is a half-baked set of conservative, anti-imperialist ideas which can be pounced upon by socialists providing they refuse to raise political differences. Judging by Alan Woods’ statement, quoted at the start of this article, and in consideration of the Egyptian situation, where the major opposition in that country is the Muslim Brotherhood – who have had a part to play in reducing secular opposition to the government – a rift could re-emerge on the question of far left and Islamist cooperation.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – a brief overview

The Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist organisation, founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna. It was banned as an organisation in 1954 but “is somewhat tolerated by the state”. A blind eye is turned to the Brotherhood’s significant political influence, and its forged alliances with legal political groups in the last twenty years, such as with New Wafd, Liberal, and Socialist Labor parties. Though over this time it has attempted to present itself as a reformist, moderate and non-violent grouping. This is notable in their rejection of “offensive jihad” – later symbolically swapping Sayyid Qutb’s text Signposts (or Milestones) for Hassan al-Hudaybi’s Preachers, Not Judges (the former being a despairing description of jahiliyyah, or pre-Islamic ignorance, largely seen as a very radical call to arms for the recreation of Islamist tactics on Muslim lands; the latter regarded as being a relatively peaceful rebuttal of Qutb’s radical ideas, focusing on the Muslim duty not to declare individuals as Muslim apostates).

(For information on the Preachers, Not Judges controversy, which questions the attributed authorship of the book, see Patrick Poole’s 2008 article The US and the Muslim Brotherhood at American Thinker. Also, the debate spills over to the comments thread of Poole’s blog, where the grandson of Hudaybi argues that his Grandfather was the original article, against the view of, among others, Brigadier General Fu’ed Allam, the security apparatus in the fifties when many of the Brotherhood leadership were being arrested, who professes that the book was written by select Brotherhood members at al-Azhar, a university in Cairo).

On the dawn of pressure to legalise the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, in 2004 the organisation embraced a “reform initiative” in which they began to sing to the tune of parliamentary, and not presidential, democracy – a “landmark” in their political evolution. During a bout of pressure on the Mubarak regime from the Bush administration in the US, the Brotherhood entered into an internal dialogue about how to respond. This divided the traditionalists (taqlidiyun) who wanted to pursue increased religious education from reformists. Not long after this happened the Brotherhood elected Mohamed Badie, once close associate to Qutb, over the more moderate Mahmed Habib – though, it ought to be pointed out, Badie made an initial point of reaffirming the Brotherhood’s “commitment to democracy, pluralism, and minority and women’s rights” (according to Shadi Hamid’s policy brieifing (pdf) on Islamist groups for the Brookings Doha Center).

Many, of course, are still dubious of the Muslim Brotherhood’s so-called moderation. The Brotherhood for example declared Nasr Abu Zaid, the Muslim academic, an apostate – in direct parallel to the supposed teachings of  Hassan al-Hudaybi. His crime was to put forward the theory that the Qur’an has been interpreted differently in different historical contexts. In this respect, leaders from Yasser Arafat to Hassan Nasrallah to Osama bin Laden should all be dealt apostasies on the grounds that they have erroneously interpreted the Qur’an as having negated the historical connection of the Jewish people to the city of Jerusalem – but yet I cannot foresee this.

It’s not the first time the Brotherhood’s actions have been in conflict with Hudaybi’s; an article by the Hudson Institute notes that:

When Alexandria’s Administrative Court issued a ruling on April 4, 2006 instructing the Interior Ministry to allow a citizen’s identity card to state that the holder was a Baha’i, the Brotherhood reacted with outrage. In the May 3, 2006 parliamentary debate on the ruling, MB deputies said that the Baha’is were apostates who should be killed. Quoting a hadith attributed to the Prophet Mohammed to support their position, they declared that they would draft a law making Baha’ism a crime and branding the Baha’is apostates.

Memories of this, and the Brotherhood’s opinions of minorities in Egypt, have left people concerned that if the fall of Mubarak occurs, and the largest of the opposition forces take office, non-Muslim group will be preyed upon.

In very recent times, Badie, who once was on the radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1960s, but confessed rejection of violence in later years, called for jihad against the US, professing Allah’s support for Gazan mujahideen. On the subject, Professor Barry Rubin argues that:

When the extreme and arguably marginal British Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary says that Islam will conquer the West and raise its flag over the White House, that can be treated as wild rhetoric. His remark is getting lots of attention because he said it in English in an interview with CNN. Who cares what he says?

But when the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood says the same thing in Arabic, that’s a program for action, a call to arms for hundreds of thousands of people, and a national security threat to every Western country.

One could see this as a point of hysteria, but it is most certainly a question of influence; the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, addressing his audience in Arabic, yields more influence than most, and frankly any decent person would have no truck with him – and yet his “moderate” credentials surpass requirement to scrutinise.

The Muslim Brotherhood did not come out in support of the resistance to start with, true. And for this reason Alan Woods was right to wag his finger; but now they have, they could play a large role if the government collapses, which after hearing Hillary Clinton’s words yesterday, it would seem the US is cautiously in anticipation of. Perhaps they will back Mohammed ElBaradei – it is not known at the time of writing – but as for how the left deals with this issue, a look at the sobering words of Maha Abdelrahman, on the subject of previous attempts at leftist/Islamist cooperation, should put things into perspective:

On the one hand, the rising coalition does hold the potential to become a precursor of a vibrant, broadly-based and democratic grouping that can offer effective opposition to government repression. But on the other, efforts at cooperation between the Left and the Islamists have been slow-moving, reluctant and beset with major obstacles.

[…]

Moreover, initiatives taken for organizing collaborative action have mostly, if not exclusively, come from the Left, which is objectively the weaker partner in the coalition, rather than from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Why should the left, of all countries, sell themselves short; under the Muslim Brotherhood Egypt would be a disaster state.

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Categories: News from Abroad
  1. Ian
    January 29, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    My compliments.
    A very good and thoughtful blog post

    • January 29, 2011 at 10:37 pm

      Thank you very much Ian. Are you from Unite?

  2. January 30, 2011 at 12:40 am

    Really good post.

    In the US, this post was sent to all IMT comrades.

    • January 30, 2011 at 2:08 am

      That’s wonderful news – you’re doing great work

  3. January 30, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    I’ve been surprised at the way we still see some “Trotskyist” trot out the same mechanical distorted vesion of Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution in relation to both Tunisia and Egypt. There seems to be no recognition that “Imperialism”, is actually different to the Colonial regimes that Trotsky was referring to – and actully which characterised Lenin’s analysis in “Imperialism”.

    Imperialism proper understood as a global Capitalist system, and in which Big Multinational Capital extracts Surplus Value through the employment of industrial Labour Power, differs markedly from Colonialism under which Merchant Capital in a symbiotic relation with a Landlord Class extracted not Surplus Value, but Surplus product and Rent, through buying and selling of commodities, but largely NOT through the employment of wage labour proper. In other words the economic base of these societies under Colonialism was similar to that under Feudalism, not that of industrial Capitalism, and the political regimes, and ideology that arose on the back of that economic base had more in common with that under Feudalism than the bourgeois demcoracy that arises on the back of industrial Capitalist relations.

    Egypyt along with Turkey is one of those “second 11″ group of economies identified as following on quickly behind the BRIC economies. North African economies have already been tied into the EU through the development of a Mediterranean Trading Area. Its not surprising then to me that both US and EU Capital was looking towards the possibility of the kind of bourgeois democracy that Big Multinational Industrial Capital requires for efficient extraction of Surplus Value through the employment of wage labour. It appears that the US has in fact been providing secret support for Egyptian Democracy activists for at least the last three years, and discussing the how and when of regime change.

    The evidence for that has been provided by Wikileaks. I’ve posted a copy of the Wikileaks document showing these links on my blog here – Secret US Document.

    • January 31, 2011 at 1:23 am

      I haven’t got a vested interest as such in defending Lenin’s theories, but the thing that distinguishes Leninism from Marxism proper is the adaptability of dialectical materialism and the revolution of the proletariat to a specific national question – or at least this was the criticism levelled to him by his council Communist critics. The same can be said for Maoism which warranted a cultural revolution – I think you’re right to be concerned; use of the word ‘Imperialism’ isn’t catch-all, as can be seen in the finer points, distinguishing Lenin’s to Trotsky’s definitions.

  4. January 30, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Thanks for this, Carl. It concerns me greatly that pro-democracy leaders don’t have the same organisation inside of Egypt as the Muslim Brotherhood. I’m also concerned that a MB government in Egypt would extend support to Turabi to topple the Sudanese government and replace it with an even more extremist NIF front that would restart a war with the South rather than accept separation of the South as a reality. We need to take a sober look at what’s going on in Egypt rather than just cheerleading anyone who’s opposed to Mubarak.

    • January 31, 2011 at 1:30 am

      You’re absolutely right, it’s all well and good being excited at the prospect of a people-led movement against a tyrannical government, but realistically something needs to fill that void; the Muslim Brotherhood have had to live, since the fifties, with an invisible influence on opposition politics, and they’ve done this with incredible success; “indepedent” candidates, attached to the MB, who have stood in elections have gained up to 20% of the public support, rendering them the most popular opposition movement. It is now unquestionably so that they will back the likely interim president Mohamed ElBaradei, and yield influence there; increased efforts will be pursued to overturn their ban in Egypt, and it is not unforeseeable that a consequence of their new found legitimacy will be a heavy influence on other Arab states, currently undergoing economic recessions that have spurred people to take to the streets.

  5. January 31, 2011 at 3:33 am

    A good post: the left needs to take a far harder position against Islamism, and in support of women, gays and others within the British Muslim “community”. Tnerole of the SWP and other anti-Marxist relativists has been nothing short of a disgrace on this.

  6. January 31, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Carl,

    I don’t think that events in Egypt or other places “disprove” PR, I just don’t think it applies. It applies where a bourgeois revolution is taking place i.e. a change in the class nature of the State. When Franco took power in Spain, or Hitler in Germany for instance these were not feudal counter-revolutions turning the class nature of a bourgeois state backwards. They were Political Counter Revolutions, which whilst thoroughgoing, and bearing some resemblance to a social revolution due to their widespread and violent nature, only changed the political regime through which the bourgeois State was regulated. Similarly, when Franco and other such regimes fell this was not a bourgeois revolution, but only a bourgeois Political Revolution rewinding the film of the fascist takeover. The same law applies to, for example, the USSR. In the 1920’s the former ruling classes were uprooted, and the social relations on which they were reproduced – private property – destroyed. That left the workers in default as the ruling social class, but unable to exercise its Social Dictatorship directly by its own political rule – the same as with the bourgeoisie in Nazi Germany or Spain. The Stalinists established a form of Bonapartist political regime similar to that established by Hitler, but in both cases the class nature of the State is not changed by that – a Capitalist State in Germany a Workers State in the USSR.

    In relation to the MB, Marxists clearly should not be advocating some orm of PF in Egypt, which would be uncritical of bourgeois forces in general, and certainly not the MB. The fact, that workers are spontaneously erecting Workers Councils, and Militia in their neighbourhoods – with some sign of it being extended to City wide committees, is heartening. It looks like the events may be different from Iran. In Iran, a popular revolution was susceptible to being hijacked by any well organised group that was able to provide leadership – much as the Bolsheviks did in 1917. In iran that group turned out to be the Khomeiniites. But, if as seems possible if not exactly probable, that the US will facilitate transition, and if the Army plays a crucial role in that transition, then it will be they that plays that role. It appears that the MB have agreed to back Elbaradei, and he says that the MB would have no more than 20% support and seats in any democratically elected Government. But, workers especilly when armed should not let go of their arms, or their local militias and committees as the best guarantee that nothing more detrimental to their interests materialised.

  7. January 31, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    Excellent post. Disturbing that simply pointing an AK47 in the direction of the US gives one ‘ally’ status to some these days.

  8. February 1, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    You say that “under the Muslim Brotherhood Egypt would be a disaster state”. What has it been for Egyptians under Mubarak whose police have tortured, murdered and raped their own people (including children) for decades ?(see e.g Human Rights Watch’s 2004 report ‘Egypt’s Torture Epidemic’)

    http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2004/02/25/egypt-s-torture-epidemic

    Even in the unlikely event that Egypt ended up like a Sunni version of Iran it couldn’t be any worse than it is under Mubarak’s dictatorship.

    The Egytpian Muslim Brotherhood broke with Qtub’s extremism a long time ago – and are enemies of Al Qa’ida and other Jihadist terrorist groups (see Professor Fawaz Gerges book ‘The Far Enemy’ on this – and google “West Point” along with “Self inflicted wounds” for a US military training manual or see the link below

    http://www.ctc.usma.edu/Self-Inflicted%20Wounds.pdf

    The Muslim Brotherhood could certainly play a large role because many Egyptians support them. If you believe in democracy though, you accept that people you completely disagree with on most things have a right to their say and their vote too. Propping up dictatorships is certainly not going to reduce support for Islamic fundamentalists or make them more moderate either – it’ll only get even more extreme groups like Al Qa’ida more recruits.

    No-one knows exactly how many Egyptians will vote for who in elections. The important thing is that they get the chance to choose their own government.

    The Brotherhood’s leader has said that “A new era of freedom and democracy is dawning in the Middle East and Arab world. That’s more important than declaring that a ‘new Islamist era is dawning’, because I know Islamists would not be able to rule Egypt alone. We should and would co-operate – Muslims, leftists, communists, socialists, secularists…The west is always afraid that if the Brotherhood came to power it would end freedoms or do something [negative] with Israel. But I stress that the Brotherhood are among the people who defend democracy in full, and like to see democracy prevailing, because democracy gives them some of their rights…The Brotherhood has said it would put the Camp David peace accords with Israel to a referendum if it took power.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/30/muslim-brotherhood-jail-escape-egypt

    • February 1, 2011 at 8:49 pm

      I’ll take three points from your defence of the Muslim Brotherhood.

      1) What has it been for Egyptians under Mubarak?

      Nothing but trouble, what’s your point? Does that discount me from worrying about what waits in the wings to fill the void?

      2) The Egytpian Muslim Brotherhood broke with Qtub’s extremism a long time ago

      It may have broke with Qtub’s extremism a long time ago – although what do you understand from this? Has it broken with extremism? Is calling for a jihad upon the US and Israel not “extremist” anymore? Did you read the post?

      3) If you believe in democracy though, you accept that people you completely disagree with on most things have a right to their say and their vote too.

      This is true, but I refer you to answer number 1.

      Let me tell you what I think about what their leader has said; like when in 2004 (again read the post for information on this) the MB realised it would be the beneficiary of George Bush’s pressure on the Egyptian government, so many in the organisation changed their opinion of how to react to this. Because of the support they have in Egypt the MB can benefit from democratic change in Egypt – that’s a fact. How have you managed to conflate support for democracy with unquestionable support for the Brotherhood? If you’ve a brain between your ears you would know that in support of democracy, one can often despair of the results it yields – that’s the act of a true democrat.

  9. February 1, 2011 at 11:47 pm

    “I’ll take three points from your defence of the Muslim Brotherhood.

    1) What has it been for Egyptians under Mubarak?

    Nothing but trouble, what’s your point? Does that discount me from worrying about what waits in the wings to fill the void?”

    That even if you were right and the Muslim Brotherhood instituted a Sunni version of Iran’s semi-theocracy it couldn’t be worse than Mubarak’s dictatorship, which tortures and murders just as many people.

    You can certainly worry about this possibility and it’s not irrational to, but if most Egyptians (including the secular ones) prefer that possibility (and it’s far from the only possible result) to Mubarak, they probably deserve our support.

    “2) The Egytpian Muslim Brotherhood broke with Qtub’s extremism a long time ago

    It may have broke with Qtub’s extremism a long time ago – although what do you understand from this? Has it broken with extremism? Is calling for a jihad upon the US and Israel not “extremist” anymore? Did you read the post?”

    It’s no more extremist than the Israeli government in its killings of Palestinian civilians, or the US government in it’s many war crimes in it’s foreign policy. If being allied to people involved in war crimes or terrorism makes a government or party illegitimate then the US and British governments would be as bad in that respect as the Muslim Brotherhood.

    “How have you managed to conflate support for democracy with unquestionable support for the Brotherhood? If you’ve a brain between your ears you would know that in support of democracy, one can often despair of the results it yields – that’s the act of a true democrat.”

    I agree with you there.

    I’m not a supporter of the Brotherhood. I’d prefer no-religious parties to win elections in Egypt, but i’ll accept whoever the majority of Egyptians elect, even if it’s the Brotherhood.

    Not all Islamic parties in government are extremist and most parties (including the AKP in Turkey) get more moderate and secular the longer they’re in government.
    Hamas is unusual in that it exists under blockade and constant military assault.The Taliban are the result of decades of support for extreme fundamentalists by the Pakistan military and the Saudi monarchy.

    So it seems a bit early to assume that the Brotherhood will get sole power in Egypt – and even if they did win elections as the sole governing party they might not be nearly as extreme as Qtub was or as the Taliban were.

    • February 2, 2011 at 9:12 pm

      That even if you were right and the Muslim Brotherhood instituted a Sunni version of Iran’s semi-theocracy it couldn’t be worse than Mubarak’s dictatorship, which tortures and murders just as many people.

      Even if “it couldn’t be worse” – which I fail to see proof of anyway – that’s hardly the point, just means it’s less evil, can’t see why I should be made to support the lesser of two evils.

      You can certainly worry about this possibility and it’s not irrational to, but if most Egyptians (including the secular ones) prefer that possibility (and it’s far from the only possible result) to Mubarak, they probably deserve our support.

      We are allowed to be critical of people’s choices though aren’t we.

      It’s no more extremist than the Israeli government

      ?

      So it seems a bit early to assume that the Brotherhood will get sole power in Egypt – and even if they did win elections as the sole governing party they might not be nearly as extreme as Qtub was or as the Taliban were.

      I’ve not contradicted this, in fact you should see my post today

  10. February 2, 2011 at 1:21 am

    p.s Hamas also won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections – and Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, not Salaam Fayyad, is the elected Palestinian Prime Minister. So supporting part of the elected government of the Palestinian Authority is hardly a mark against the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood

  1. February 1, 2011 at 2:14 pm

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