By Cynthia Chung
In the 1950s the so-called enemy of the West was not only Moscow but the Third World’s emerging nationalists, from Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt to Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. The United States and Britain staged a coup d’état against Mossadegh, and used the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist movement and the grandfather organization of the militant Islamic right, in an attempt to remove Nasser, the leader of the Arab nationalists.
In the 1960s, left wing nationalism and Arab socialism spread from Egypt to Algeria to Syria, Iraq and Palestine. This emergence presented a threat to the old imperialist game of Great Britain, to which the United States was a recent recruit of, and thus they decided to forge a working alliance with Saudi Arabia intent on using Wahhabi fundamentalism as their foreign policy arm in the Middle East, along with the Muslim Brotherhood.
This paper will go through the carving up of the Middle East under Sykes-Picot, the British creation of Saudi Arabia and Israel and the British occupation of Palestine, the origin of the Muslim Brotherhood and Nasser’s fight for Arab independence. In a follow-up paper, I will discuss the role of the City of London in facilitating the bankroll of the first Islamic fundamentalist state Saudi Arabia, along with the Muslim Brotherhood and its terrorist apparatus.
An “Arab Awakening” Made in Britain
“The renunciation will not be easy. Jewish hopes have been raised to such a pitch that the non-fulfilment of the Zionist dream of a Jewish state in Palestine will cause intense disillusionment and bitterness. The manifold proofs of public spirit and of capacity to endure hardships and face danger in the building up of the national home are there to testify to the devotion with which a large section of the Jewish people cherish the Zionist ideal. And it would be an act of further cruelty to the Jews to disappoint those hopes if there existed some way of satisfying them, that did not involve cruelty to another people. But the logic of facts is inexorable. It shows that no room can be made in Palestine for a second nation except by dislodging or exterminating the nation in possession.”
– the concluding paragraph of George Antonius’ “The Arab Awakening” (1938)
Much of what is responsible for the war and havoc in the Middle East today has the British orchestrated so-called “Arab Awakening” to thank, led by characters such as E.G. Browne, St. John Philby, T.E. Lawrence of Arabia, and Gertrude Bell. Although its origins go as far back as the 19th century, it was only until the early 20th century, that the British were able to reap significant results from its long harvest.
The Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, had been, to the detriment of the Arab people, a British led rebellion. The British claimed that their sole interest in the affair was the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and had given their word that these Arab territories would be freed and allowed independence if they agreed to rebel, in large part led and directed by the British.
It is a rather predictable feature of the British to lie and double cross and thus it should be of no surprise to anyone that their intentions were quite the opposite of what they had promised and thanks to the Sykes-Picot Russian leak, were revealed in their entire shameful glory.
If the Sultan of Turkey were to disappear, then the Caliphate by common consent of Islam would fall to the family of the prophet, Hussein ibn Ali the Sharif of Mecca, a candidate which was approved by the British Cairo office as suitable for British strings. T.E. Lawrence, who worked at the Cairo bureau is quoted as saying:
“If the Sultan of Turkey were to disappear, then the Caliphate by common consent of Islam would fall to the family of the prophet, the present representative of which is Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca….If properly handled the Arab States would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of jealous principalities incapable of cohesion…” (1)
Once the Arab Revolt was “won” against the Ottoman Empire, instead of the promised Arab independence, the Middle East was carved up into zones of influence under British and French colonial rule. Puppet monarchies were created in regions that were considered not under direct colonial subjugation in order to continue the illusion that Arabs remained in charge of sacred regions such as Mecca and Medina.
In central Arabia, Hussein, Sharif of Mecca, the puppet leader of the Arab Revolt laid claim to the title Caliph in 1924, which his rival Wahhabite Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud rejected and declared war, defeating the Hashemites. Hussein abdicated and ibn Saud, the favourite of the British India Office, was proclaimed King of Hejaz and Najd in 1926, which led to the founding of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Al Saud warriors of Wahhabism were a formidable strike force that the British believed would help London gain control of the western shores of the Persian Gulf.
Hussein ibn Ali’s son Faisal (under the heavy tutelage of T.E. Lawrence) was bestowed as King of Iraq and Hussein’s other son, Abdullah I was established as the Emir of Transjordan until a negotiated legal separation of Transjordan from Britain’s Palestine mandate occurred in 1946, whereupon he was crowned King of Jordan. (For more on this history refer to my paper.)
While the British were promising Arab independence they simultaneously were promising a homeland in Palestine to the Jews. The Balfour Declaration of November 2nd, 1917 states:
“His majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object…”
Palestine had been seized by the British during the so-called Arab Revolt on December 11th, 1917 when General Allenby marched into Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate and declared martial law over the city. Palestine has remained occupied ever since.
Britain would receive the mandate over Palestine from the League of Nations in July 1922.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s violent confrontations between Jews and Arabs took place in Palestine costing hundreds of lives. In 1936 a major Arab revolt occurred over 7 months, until diplomatic efforts involving other Arab countries led to a ceasefire. In 1937, a British Royal Commission of Inquiry headed by William Peel concluded that Palestine had two distinct societies with irreconcilable political demands, thus making it necessary to partition the land.
The Arab Higher Committee refused Peel’s “prescription” and the revolt broke out again. This time, Britain responded with a devastatingly heavy hand. Roughly 5,000 Arabs were killed by the British armed forces and police.
Following the riots, the British mandate government dissolved the Arab Higher Committee and declared it an illegal body.
In response to the revolt, the British government issued the White Paper of 1939, which stated that Palestine should be a bi-national state, inhabited by both Arabs and Jews. Due to the international unpopularity of the mandate including within Britain itself, it was organised such that the United Nations would take responsibility for the British initiative and adopted the resolution to partition Palestine on November 29th, 1947. Britain would announce its termination of its Mandate for Palestine on May 15th, 1948 after the State of Israel declared its independence on May 14th, 1948.
The Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood
In 1869, a man named Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, the intellectual founder of the Salafiyya movement, went to India where British led colonial authorities welcomed him with honors and graciously escorted him aboard a government owned vessel on an all expenses paid voyage to the Suez. (2)
In Cairo he was adopted by the Egyptian prime minister Riad Pasha, a notorious enemy of the emerging nationalist movement in Egypt. Pasha persuaded Afghani to stay in Egypt and allowed him to take up residence in Cairo’s 900 year old Al Azhar mosque considered the center of Islamic learning worldwide, where he received lodging and a monthly government stipend (paid for by the British). (3)
In 1879, Cairo nationalists in the Egyptian Army, led by the famous Egyptian hero Ahmed ‘Urabi, organised an uprising against the British role in Egypt. Afghani was expelled from Egypt by the Egyptian nationalists that same year.
Ahmed ‘Urabi served as prime minister of Egypt briefly, from July 1882 to Sept 1882, however, his movement for Egyptian independence was eventually crushed by the British with the shelling of Alexandria in July 1882 followed by an invasion which resulted in a direct British occupation of Egypt that would last until 1956. It would be Gamal Abdel Nasser who would finally end British colonial rule of Egypt during the Suez Crisis, whereupon the Suez canal was nationalised and the British military bases expelled.
While Egypt was fighting its nationalist fight from 1879-1882, Afghani and his chief disciple Muhammad Abduh travelled together first to Paris and then to Britain, it was in Britain that they would make a proposal for a pan-Islamic alliance among Egypt, Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan against Czarist Russia (4).
In addition, the crisis in Sudan, was in the middle of a tribal religious rebellion against the British led by a man named Mohammed Ahmad a Sudanese sheikh who proclaimed himself the Mahdi, or savior, and was leading a puritanical Islamic revolt. (5)
What Afghani was proposing to the British was that they provide aid and resources to support his formation of a militant Islam sect that would favour Britain’s interest in the Middle East, in other words, Afghani wished to fight Islam with Islam, having stated in one of his works “We do not cut the head of religion except by sword of religion.”(6)
Although it is said that the British refused this offer, this is not likely considering the support Afghani would receive in creating the intellectual foundation for a pan-Islamic movement with British patronage and the support of England’s leading orientalist E.G. Browne, the godfather of twentieth century Orientalism and teacher of St John Philby and T.E. Lawrence.
E.G. Browne would make sure the work of Afghani would continue long beyond his death by immortalising him in his 1910 “The Persian Revolution,” considered an authoritative history of the time.
In 1888, Abduh, the chief disciple of Afghani, would return to Egypt in triumph with the full support of the representatives of her Majesty’s imperial force and took the first of several positions in Cairo, openly casting his lot with Lord Cromer, who was the symbol of British imperialism in Egypt.
Abduh would found, with the hold of London’s Egyptian proconsul Evelyn Baring (aka Lord Cromer) who was the scion of the enormously powerful banking clan (Barings Bank) under the city of London, the Salafiyya movement. (7)
Abduh had attached himself to the British rulers of Egypt and created the cornerstone of the Muslim Brotherhood which dominated the militant Islamic right throughout the twentieth century.
In 1899, Abduh reached the pinnacle of his power and influence, and was named mufti of Egypt.
In 1902, Riyadh fell to Ibn Saud and it was during this period that Ibn Saud established the fearsome Ikhwan (translated as “brotherhood”). He collected fighters from Bedouin tribes firing them up with fanatical religious zeal and threw them into battle. By 1912 the Ikhwan numbered 11,000 and Ibn Saud had both central Arabia’s Nejd and Al-Ahsa in the east under his control.
From the 1920s onward, the new Saudi state merged its Wahhabi orthodoxy with the Salafiyya movement (which would be organised into the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928).
William Shakespear, a famed British agent, forged the first formal treaty between England and Saudi Arabia which was signed in 1915, which bound London and Arabia for years before Saudi Arabia became a country. “It formally recognized Ibn Saud as the independent ruler of the Nejd and its Dependencies under British protection. In return, Ibn Saud undertook to follow British advice.” (8)
Harry St. John Bridger Philby, a British operative schooled by E.G. Browne and father to the legendary triple agent Kim Philby, would succeed Shakespear as Great Britain’s liaison to Ibn Saud under the British India Office, the friendly rival of the Cairo Arab Bureau office which was sponsoring T.E. Lawrence of Arabia.
In Egypt 1928, Hassan al-Banna (a follower of Afghani and Abduh) founded the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimeen), the organization that would change the course of history in the twentieth century Middle East.
Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood was established with a grant from England’s Suez Canal Company (9) and from that point on, British diplomats and intelligence service, along with the British puppet King Farouq would use the Muslim Brotherhood as a truncheon against Egypt’s nationalists and later against Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
To get the Muslim Brotherhood off the ground, the Suez Canal Company helped Banna build the mosque in Ismailia that would serve as its headquarters and base of operation. (10) The fact that Banna created the organization in Ismailia is itself worthy of note. For England, the Suez Canal was the indispensable route to its prize possession, India and in 1928 the town Ismailia happened to house not only the company’s offices but a major British military base built during WWI. It was also, in the 1920s a center of pro-British sentiment in Egypt.
In the post-WWI world, England reigned supreme, the flag of the British empire was everywhere from the Mediterranean to India. A new generation of kings and potentates ruled over British dominated colonies, mandates, vassal states, and semi-independent fiefdoms in Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan, Arabia and Persia. To varying degrees those monarchies were beholden to London.
In the half century between 1875 and 1925 the building blocks of the militant Islamic right were cemented in place by the British Empire.
Nasser Leads the Fight for Arab Independence
In 1942, the Muslim Brotherhood would earn their well-deserved reputation for extremism and violence by establishing the “Secret Apparatus,” an intelligence service and secret terrorist unit. This clandestine unit functioned for over twelve years almost entirely unchecked, assassinating judges, police officers, government officials and engaging in goon squad attacks on labor unions and communists.
Throughout this period the Muslim Brotherhood worked for the most part in an alliance with King Farouq (and thus the British), using their clandestine forces on behalf of British interests. And throughout its entire existence it would receive political support and money from the Saudi royal family and the Wahhabi establishment (more on this in part 2 of this series).
The Secret Apparatus would be smashed into pieces by Nasser in 1954.
After WWII, the faltering Farouq regime lashed out against the left in an intense campaign of repression aimed at the communists. The Cold War was beginning. In 1946, prime minister Isma’il Sidqi of Egypt who was installed as head of the government with the support of Banna, openly funded the Muslim Brotherhood and provided training camps for its shock troops used in a sweeping anti-left campaign. Sidqi resigned in Dec 1946 after less than one year as PM due to massive unpopularity.
As King Farouq began to lose his grip on the Egyptian people, the Brotherhood distanced itself while maintaining shadowy ties to the army and to foreign intelligence agencies and always opposed to the left.
The Palestine War (1947-1949) resulted in the establishment of the State of Israel at the cost of 700,000 displaced Palestinian Arabs and the destruction of most of their urban areas.
The territory that was under British administration before the war was divided between the State of Israel (officially formed May 14th, 1948), which captured about 78% of it. In opposition to Israel, the Kingdom of Jordan captured and later annexed the West Bank, and Egypt captured the Gaza Strip, with the Arab League establishing the All-Palestine Government, which came to an end in June 1967 when the Gaza Strip, along with the West Bank, were captured by Israel in the Six-Day War.
The Egyptian people were furious over these developments, and the reign of British puppet King Farouq who had done nothing to prevent the dismantling of Palestine was on extremely shaky ground. In response to this, Farouq’s accord with the Muslim Brotherhood broke down, and in December 1948, the Egyptian government outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood. Weeks later a Brotherhood assassin murdered prime minister Mahmoud El Nokrashy.
Two months later, in Feb. 1949, Banna was assassinated in Cairo by the Egyptian secret police.
For Arab nationalists, Israel was a symbol of Arab weakness and semi-colonial subjugation, overseen by proxy kings in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
On the night of July 23, 1952, the Free Officers, led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser, staged a military coup that launched the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, overthrowing the British puppet monarch. The Free Officers, knowing that warrants had been issued for their arrest, launched the coup that night, storming the staff headquarters in Cairo.
Cairo was now, for the first time, under the control of the Arab people after over 70 years of British occupation.
The seizure of power by the Free Officers in Egypt came during an era when the entire Arab world from Morocco to Iraq was locked in the grip of imperialism. Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia were French colonies; Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman and Yemen were British colonies. Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia were kingdoms ruled by monarchies installed by London. And Egypt under King Farouq was the political and economic center of the Arab world.
A growing surge of Arab nationalism arose in response to the Free Officers’ actions in Egypt. The powerful Voice of the Arabs radio in Cairo was reporting to the entire Arab world that they had found their independence movement, and that Nasser was at its helm.
From 1956 to 1958 Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon underwent rebellions, Iraq’s king was toppled, and Syria united with Egypt in Nasser’s United Arab Republic, part of Nasser’s strategy to unify the Arab world.
In Algeria, moral and material support was given from Cairo towards the Algerian revolution that finally won them independence from French colonial rule in 1962.
That same year, Yemen underwent a Nasser-inspired revolt, triggering a proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia against Egypt, with Nasser stating in a 1962 speech, “Yemen’s fight is my fight. Yemen’s Revolution is our Revolution.”
Nasser’s leadership and the inspiration he stirred were so strong that even as late as 1969 the year before Nasser’s death, Libya’s king was overthrown and Sudan’s right-wing regime was eliminated by military leaders loyal to Nasser.
Nasser had managed to threaten the very heart of Anglo-America’s post-WWII strategy in the Middle East. Nasser understood, that if the vast oil fields in Saudi Arabia were under Arab control, the potential for an economic boom would be enormous for all Arab states, such that the old game of imperialism by Britain and France could no longer retain its chokehold on Arab independence.
Not only was Egypt a military rival to Saudi Arabia, not only did Cairo clash with Riyadh in a shooting war in Yemen, not only did Nasser inspire Arabs in Saudi Arabia with republican ideals but the Egyptian leader even won over some of Saudi Arabia’s royal family. This group was led by Prince Talal to form the ‘Free Princes’, which defected to Egypt demanding the establishment of a republic in Saudi Arabia!
What was really going on during the period of 1954 to 1970, under Nasser’s leadership, was a war between two competing visions for the future of the Middle East; an Arab world of independent but cooperative Arab republics utilising their natural resources to facilitate an economic boom in industrialisation vs a semi-feudal scattering of monarchies with their natural resources largely at the West’s disposal.
The real reason why the British and Anglo Americans wanted Nasser removed, was not because he was a communist or because he was susceptible to communist influence; it was because he refused to obey his would-be foreign controllers and was rather successful in this endeavour, bringing their shadowy actions uncomfortably close to the light and inspiring loyalty amongst Arabs outside of Egypt including those sitting on top of the oil.
What especially worried London and Washington was the idea that Nasser might succeed in his plan to unify Egypt and Saudi Arabia thus creating a major Arab power. Nasser believed that these oil wells were not only for the government of those territories to do with as they wished but belonged to all Arab people and thus should be used for the advancement of the Arab world. Afterall, most Arabs are aware that both the monarchies themselves and the artificial borders that demarcate their states, were designed by imperialists seeking to build fences around oil wells in the 1920s.
Nasser understood that if Cairo and Riyadh were to unite in a common cause for the uplifting of the Arab people, it would create a vastly important new Arab center of gravity with worldwide influence.
In 1954 Egypt and the United Kingdom had signed an agreement over the Suez Canal and British military basing rights. It was a short lived. By 1956 Great Britain, France and Israel concocted a plot against Egypt aimed at toppling Nasser and seizing control of the Suez Canal, a conspiracy that enlisted the Muslim Brotherhood.
In fact, the British went so far as to hold secret meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood in Geneva. According to author Stephen Dorrill, two British intelligence agents Col. Neil McLean and Julian Amery, helped MI6 organize a clandestine anti-Nasser opposition in the south of France and in Switzerland, (11) in his book he writes “They also went so far as to make contact in Geneva…with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, informing only MI6 of this demarche which they kept secret from the rest of the Suez Group [which was planning the military operation via its British bases by the Suez Canal]. Amery forwarded various names to [Selwyn] Lloyd, [the British foreign secretary].”
British prime minister Anthony Eden, Churchill’s handpicked successor, was violently anti-Nasser all along and considered a British coup d’état in Cairo as early as 1953. Other than such brash actions, the only political force that could mount a challenge to Nasser was the Muslim Brotherhood which had hundreds of thousands of followers.
Nasser’s long postponed showdown with the Muslim Brotherhood occurred in 1954, this was timed to add pressure during the rising frustration concerning the British-Egyptian negotiations over the transfer of the Suez Canal and its military bases to Egypt. The British, after over 70 years of direct occupation in Egypt, were not going to give up on one of their most prized jewels, their gateway to the Orient, so easily.
From 1954 on, Anthony Eden, the British prime minister was demanding Nasser’s head. According to Stephen Dorrill’s “MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations”, Eden had ranted “What’s all this nonsense about isolating Nasser or ‘neutralising’ him, as you call it? I want him destroyed, can’t you understand? I want him murdered…And I don’t give a damn if there’s anarchy and chaos in Egypt.”
Nasser would not back down, and in the first few months of 1954 the Muslim Brotherhood and Nasser went to war, culminating in Nasser outlawing them as a terrorist group and a pawn of the British.
On Oct. 1954, a Muslim Brotherhood member Mahmoud Abdel-Latif attempted to assassinate Nasser while he was delivering a speech in Alexandria, which was live broadcasting to the Arab world by radio, to celebrate the British military withdrawal.
Panic broke out in the mass audience, but Nasser maintained his posture and raised his voice to appeal for calm, and with great emotion he exclaimed the following:
“My countrymen, my blood spills for you and for Egypt. I will live for your sake and die for the sake of your freedom and honor. Let them kill me; it does not concern me so long as I have instilled pride, honor, and freedom in you.”
The crowd roared in approval and Arab audiences were electrified. The assassination attempt backfired, and quickly played back into Nasser’s hands. Upon returning to Cairo, he ordered one of the largest political crackdowns in the modern history of Egypt, with the arrests of thousands of dissenters, mostly members of the Brotherhood.
The decree banning the Muslim Brotherhood organization said “The revolution will never allow reactionary corruption to recur in the name of religion.” (12)
In 1967, there was a Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab states Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, which was started by Israel in a coordinated aerial attack on Egypt, eliminating roughly 90% of Egyptian air forces that were still on the ground, followed by an aerial attack on Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Israel then went on to conduct a ground attack with tanks and infantry, devastating whole Arab regions.
Despite the disastrous loss to Israel, the people of Egypt refused to accept Nasser’s resignation and took to the streets in a mass demonstration calling for Nasser’s return. Nasser accepted the call of the people and returned to his position as president where he remained as until his death in Sept 1970.
Five million people turned out on the streets of Egypt for Nasser’s funeral, and hundreds of millions more mourned his death throughout the world.
Although Nasser had devastatingly lost a battle, the Egyptian people along with their Arab compatriots understood that the fight for Arab independence was not lost. The dream of dignity and freedom, in forever opposition to the shackles of tyranny could not be buried now that it had been stirred to its very core. Nasser would be the catalyst for an Arab Revolution for independence, a revolution that remains yet to be finished.
(1) David Hogarth, “The Penetration of Arabia.” Hogarth was a former head of the Arab Bureau, a branch of British Intelligence.
(2) Elie Kedourie, “Afghani and Abduh: An Essay on Religious Unbelief and Political Activism in Modern Islam”
(4) The proposal to London from Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was reported by a British Orientalist and author W.S. Blunt, a friend of Afghani’s. It is cited in C.C. Adams, “Islam and Modernism in Egypt.”
(5) Elie Kedourie, “Afghani and Abduh: An Essay on Religious Unbelief and Political Activism in Modern Islam.”
(8) David Holden and Richard Johns, “The House of Saud.”
(9) Richard P. Mitchell, “The Society of the Muslim Brothers.”
(10) Ibid, pg 9. The source Mitchell uses is al-Banna’s autobiography.
(11) Stephen Dorrill, “MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations.”
(12) Joel Gordon, “Nasser’s Blessed Movement.”
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