Martyn Frampton, The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: A History of Enmity and Engagement (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
MF: I was drawn to the subject because it was one that was surrounded by no small amount of mythmaking and speculation, yet there seemed to be a gap in the existing literature on this issue. I was always interested in Islamism (or political Islam, as it used to be called), going back into the 1990s, when I went to university and one of the first courses I took examined these issues under the heading “Islam and the West” (it was a ‘themes and sources’ paper at Cambridge University). I subsequently became interested in the Muslim Brotherhood in particular—as a kind of sideline to what was then my main academic focus on Irish republicanism—and I read the key works of scholars like Richard Mitchell and Brynjar Lia as well as more recent invaluable studies like those of Carrie Wickham, Alison Pargeter, Khalil al-Anani, Beth Baron and Hazem Kandil. It seemed to me that while these various books gave us a clear insight into many aspects of the Brotherhood’s worldview and history, one issue that had been touched upon only in passing was the question of the group’s relationship with ‘the West’ (which in the book, I take to mean primarily the UK and the US, as these two external powers have exerted the most direct influence over Egypt and the wider Middle East). This struck me as a subject worth pursuing academically, given its enduring salience. As I lay out in the book’s opening (see below), all sides have made claims about the Brotherhood’s foreign relations, particularly with the major western powers, and I thought it would be interesting to excavate this empirically, and to do so from both sides. I was clear from the start that I did not just want to examine the ‘tangible’ dimensions of this relationship—who talked to who and when—but also the history of ideas. I hoped to understand the role of the idea of ‘the West’ in the formation and evolution of the Brotherhood’s worldview. Equally, I wanted to understand how successive generations of western policymakers and diplomats have looked at the Brotherhood, and how their perceptions of this group have intertwined with broader concerns.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MF: I think the book addresses a number of topics and literatures. Firstly, it hopefully offers a new perspective on the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, as it underlines how central the concept of ‘the West’ has been as the essential ‘other’ against which the group constructs its sense of self. It is hard to understate how important this is for the Brothers’ perception of both history and the forces that shape the world—something I do not think I fully appreciated when I started the research. Alongside this, the book offers an extended study of Anglo-American thinking about the Brotherhood and Islamism more generally, and in the process, I hope it speaks to those literatures that touch on western foreign policy making in the Middle East. On the one hand, for instance, I think the early chapters intersect with histories of the late British Empire and the way it operated in the region (for instance, the work of Frances Robinson, John Ferris and John Darwin); on the other hand, it engages with studies of American foreign policy in the Middle East generally, and Egypt in particular. For example, I found the work of scholars like Andrew Preston, Matthew Jacobs and latterly, Fawaz Gerges extremely useful. Through my research, I was able to identify and explore the evolution of a particular ‘language of diplomacy’, and the way it was applied to a group such as the Brotherhood. What I would argue is that historically, both the British and the Americans have relied on local allies and partners as an indispensable ingredient in their systems of global power projection. Invariably, these allies have been framed as “moderates” who should be supported as against more “extreme” alternatives. This paradigm has, I think, been applied and reapplied continuously over the last century, and it is fascinating to me to see how the Brotherhood has been located at different points on this imagined spectrum over the last ninety years. Often, this has involved ‘reading’ the Brotherhood against broader concerns (the challenge of nationalism of varying hues, or the perceived threat from communism, or the possibility of democratization etc). Efforts have been made too to reach inside the Brotherhood and identify internal ‘moderates’ as opposed to ‘extremists’—a kind of ‘kremlinology’ that has infused western understandings of the group. In all of this, I think western policy on the Brotherhood stands as a fascinating case study for broader tendencies in Anglo-American foreign policy making.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MF: This book marks an obvious departure for me in my research career in that I had previously only written academically about Irish republicanism and the conflict in Northern Ireland (this was the subject of my PhD and three other books I authored). To do it properly, I spent considerable time in Cairo and learned Arabic so that I could approach it as an academic historian capable of utilizing primary sources on both sides. Needless to say, this was a challenge, one which pushed me outside my research comfort zone. Yet, I think there are certain continuities of theme with my earlier work that drew me to consider the Brotherhood. At the broadest level, I have a deep interest in certain modes of politics that are pursued by what we might call ideologically assertive, socio-political movements. Strange as it might seem, I think there are interesting insights that can be garnered from putting otherwise unfamiliar groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Sinn Fein alongside each other—to consider how they view the world and how they operate. Crucially, as I have already indicated, I would argue that both movements, at the moment of their inception and for a long time thereafter, have defined themselves as being against a notion of “the West” that is identified primarily with the British (or as they often prefer to put it, England). Both movements emerged in countries that occupied an unusual position within the British Empire. Scholars like John Darwin have of course emphasized that the British Empire was, by its nature, heterogeneous, and encompassed a variety of imperial modes of governance. Both Ireland and Egypt, respectively, underline this point. The former was a hybrid territory that was simultaneously part of the main British polity (and enjoyed, for example, representation in the Westminster parliament), yet also had an imperialist governmental edifice. In Egypt, aside from a brief period when it declared the country to be a protectorate, the British always maintained the fiction of either ‘self-government’ or independence (from 1922). In each country, however, the jarring reality was one of fundamental British control—maintained ultimately, by the disposition of military force. Moreover, British cultural influence proved pervasive, and it was against this background that Sinn Fein and the Brotherhood, respectively, emerged to preserve what were held to be fundamental aspects of local identity (the Irish language and the ethos of ‘Irish Ireland’ on the one hand; Islam as a religion and way of life on the other). It was the effort to understand this process that led me from Ireland towards an interest in the Brotherhood. At the same time, I have always been interested in the interactions between ‘the State’ and non-state actors/social movements, to see how that relationship is formed and operates through history. This was a major theme of my work on Irish republicanism, and obviously, this issue is integral to my book on the Muslim Brotherhood and ‘the West’.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MF: In the first instance, I wanted to write a rigorous and substantive work of history, one that would add something to the academic literature on both the Brotherhood and Anglo-American foreign policy in the Middle East. With regards to the former, the exemplars I had in my head were those classic, seminal works by scholars like Mitchell and Lia. I am not arrogant enough to believe that my work is on the same plane as theirs, but their work comprised the gold standard to aim at. Beyond this, I would like to think that the book can appeal beyond the reaches of the academy, especially to those concerned with foreign-policy formation and analysis, given that its subject matter continues to resonate in the contemporary world. As I describe in the introduction to the book, the question of the Brotherhood’s relationship with the West proved deeply controversial during the ‘Arab Spring’. Though the substantive part of my research did not cover this period (I chose to stop in 2010, on the eve of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak), I think the book helps understand the mindset of key actors going into that period of upheaval. This in turn hopefully allows us to understand the pre-existing preconceptions and worldview that shaped Brotherhood-western relations during that more recent era.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MF: I’m currently trying to write up an article that explores more formally the comparison I referred to above—between the Brotherhood and Sinn Fein. In addition to this, I want to write something that follows my story through from the onset of the Arab Uprisings down to the present day. As mentioned, I purposely ended the narrative of my book in 2010, because it seemed to me that there were simply too many moving parts to encompass a full history of Brotherhood-western relations in the period after Mubarak fell. I was also conscious that, as a historian, one tries to write with a degree of detachment from the period and subject matter that you work on. Now that we are perhaps in a ‘post-Arab Spring’ world, I would like to revisit the years from 2011-2016 (down to the end of the Obama administration) in order to understand how the themes and issues that I identified in the book developed during that time.
J: You referred earlier to the ‘pre-existing preconceptions’ that shaped Brotherhood-western relations during the Arab Spring – can you briefly explain what you mean by this?
MF: I think the book highlights the centrality of the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the West—certainly for the Brotherhood itself, but also for Anglo-American policy makers. The Brothers operated in a world, which, in their mind, was indelibly shaped by western cultural and political power. One manifestation of this was their endless rhetoric about the threat posed by the “enemies of Islam” to the Muslim world. This conspiracy laden notion of perceived victimhood is integral to the way in which the Brotherhood understands the passage of events, and it shapes the mental ‘realm of the possible’ among the group’s leaders. I would argue that it is crucial in driving the inward-looking, deeply insecure outlook of the Brotherhood—which made it very hard for the group to trust (and be trusted by) other political forces in the period after 2011. On the other side, if one considers the evolution of western thinking about the Brotherhood, I think there had always been those who felt that this group, and others like it, were the embodiment of an inherently conservative, pious ‘essence’ to Egyptian and Middle Eastern societies. In other words, certain diplomats and commentators believed that countries like Egypt were deeply religious and relatedly, that the Muslim Brothers were the incarnation of that religious character. In the book, I describe this as a kind of pessimism, or fatalism, about the trajectory of Middle Eastern societies, and I think this attitude became increasingly prominent from the 1970s onwards. Until 2011, it was held in check as a factor shaping policy by the exigencies of the relationship with those ruling in Cairo— first Sadat, then Mubarak. But once the ‘rules of the game’ set by the regime were removed, then that pessimism/fatalism came increasingly to fill the vacuum and exerted powerful influence on policy-makers after 2011.
Excerpt from the Introduction:
In the summer of 2013, Egyptian protestors took to the streets to voice their opposition to Muhammad Morsi, their country’s first democratically elected president and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. After massive demonstrations, the army intervened to remove Morsi from power. In the months leading up to that dramatic denouement, Egypt’s president, and the movement to which he belonged, had been subject to widespread criticism. Many of the most poisonous accusations leveled against him concerned the alleged relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the West.
One striking poster that appeared at anti-Morsi rallies, for example, referenced the title of a Hollywood movie, with the words, “We know what you did last summer” superimposed over a picture of the American ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson, shaking hands with the leader of the Brotherhood, Muhammad Badi‘e. The implication was clear: that Morsi had been elevated to power in 2012 mainly because of pressure and interference from the United States. Other, less imaginative banners included one that decried President Barack Obama for supporting a “fascist regime”; another that featured the composite image of “Obama bin Laden”; and a third, which carried Patterson’s picture under the caustic headline, “Kick this bitch out of Egypt.” Such images and insults expressed the widespread belief that Washington had decisively embraced Morsi and the Brotherhood. This idea had gained widespread currency over the previous two years among opponents of the Brothers. As early as July 2011, just a few months after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, the American Embassy in Cairo reported that activists in the city’s Tahrir Square believed the United States was “supporting the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and wished to see a religious state in Egypt.” Despite American protestations that this was not the case, officials noted that the notion of a “special relationship” between the United States and the Brotherhood had become engrained in certain quarters.
Among the more voluble advocates of this idea was the vehemently anti-Brotherhood journalist-turned-politician Mustafa Bakri. In his book The Army and the Ikhwan, for instance, Bakri claimed that the United States had originally conspired with the Brotherhood to secure the downfall of Mubarak via secret meetings held in Qatar and Istanbul from 2002 onward. On Bakri’s account, a deal was done by which the United States agreed to support the Brotherhood’s ascent to power in return for a promise that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty would be respected. Further, Washington’s decision to back the Brotherhood was said to be the first stage in a wider US plan to build a “new Middle East,” in which existing states like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and of course Egypt would be broken up (Egypt into four parts). This would, it was said, allow the triumph of the Greater Israeli Zionist dream, in line with a secret plan that had been formulated by the academic Bernard Lewis and accepted by the US Congress in 1983.
As conspiracies go, Bakri’s ruminations painted quite a picture. But as outlandish as they may seem, such thinking was not uncommon. It found parallel in the writings of people like Tawhid Magdi, whose sensationalist tome Conspiracies of the Brotherhood: From the Files of the CIA and MI6—Top Secret included everything from claims of a Brotherhood alliance with Adolf Hitler to the suggestion that the group was a tool of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The July 2013 ouster of Morsi did nothing to lessen the pervasiveness of such theories. In December of that year, the secular liberal newspaper al-Dustur carried the front-page headline, “The conspiracies of Washington with the group of treachery [the Brotherhood] to assassinate al-Sissi [Morsi’s successor as president].” The same month, the British embassy was forced to issue a statement denying that they were funding Brotherhood activists in the Nile Delta provinces of Menufiya and Sharqiya. And at his retrial in August 2014, former Egyptian Interior Minister Habib al-Adly claimed that the United States had given training to the Brotherhood and other opposition groups in an effort to foment revolution as part of a “new Middle East plan.”
Clearly, the notion of secret ties between the Brotherhood and the western powers has proven an enduring leitmotif of Egyptian politics. In part, this is because it taps into a vein of suspicion about western intentions that has a long provenance within Arab nationalist discourse—although it might be added too that there is nothing exclusively Egyptian about this belief. A glance at the outpourings of right-wing commentators like Frank Gaffney and websites like Frontpagemag and Breitbart demonstrates that similar assertions about the connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Obama administration enjoyed a constituency across the Atlantic. It was one element within broader conspiracy theories about Obama that flourished on the alt-right and to some extent fueled the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.
The irony, meanwhile, is that Egypt’s Islamists themselves adhere to a conspiracy-minded critique of US policy in the Middle East. Washington’s support for both Israel and various authoritarian governments (not least in Cairo) has long been portrayed as part of a plot to control the region. After the overthrow of Morsi, it became an article of faith inside the Brotherhood that the United States had abandoned his “legitimate” government in favor of a more familiar accommodation with autocracy. John Kerry’s 2013 comments that the Egyptian army had been “restoring democracy” when it opted to remove Morsi were seen as particularly telling in this regard. In one of its weekly bulletins to supporters, the Brotherhood condemned western “hypocrisy” and “complicity” in the crackdown against the group. In November 2013, Amr Darrag, one of the few leaders of the group to have avoided arrest, offered a withering assessment of Kerry and American policy more generally, declaring that it had become “absolutely clear” that Washington had “supported the coup from the first moment” and was “behind the attempts to abort the Arab Spring in all countries that have gone that route.” As can be seen, the US government has frequently found itself damned on all sides.
Accounts like these are invariably long on lurid assertion and somewhat shorter on hard evidence. Yet like many conspiracy theories, they are built on certain kernels of truth: past moments when there have been contacts between the West and the Muslim Brothers. Most of these encounters took place behind closed doors, away from public view. Inevitably, this encouraged distortion, exaggeration, and outright falsification. The truth of the actual relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the West has been obscured. It is against this backdrop that this book offers the first sustained and comprehensive academic analysis of that relationship, charting its evolution from the founding of the group in 1928 to the eve of the revolt against Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
To be clear, this is not an account of Egypt’s experience of the Arab Spring, nor of the ties between the Brotherhood and the western powers after 2011. Instead, the aim here is to historicize more contemporary debates: to examine the trajectory of a relationship that has existed, for the most part, in the shadows. Not only is this story crucial for understanding recent developments in Egypt, but also it sheds new light on the broader history of western engagement with the Middle East during the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first. Furthermore, this subject is crucial for understanding the history of the Brotherhood itself and the way in which the group views the world. Over the last eighty years, the West—both as a concept and as a political reality—has been a critical point of reference for the Brotherhood and its leaders. It is no exaggeration to say that absent the West, the group would not exist. As the essential Other, it has defined the Brotherhood and the way in which it has understood its sociopolitical mission. The idea of the West and a vision of what it represents sit at the very center of the group’s ideology. Consequently, changes and continuities in the Brotherhood’s thinking on this issue reveal much about the broader evolution of the group.