UK policy and Egypt’s nurturing of radical Islam under Sadat

This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam

by Mark Curtis


As King Hussein was crushing the Palestinians in September 1970, Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s vice president, took over as President of Egypt on Nasser’s death. The Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to side with King Hussein in the Jordan crisis did not go unnoticed by the new Egyptian president, who had strong personal links to the Brotherhood going back to the 1940s. As President, Sadat rejected Nasser’s Arab nationalism, purged the government of Nasserites and expelled Soviet military advisers in 1972. Instead, Sadat’s strategy was to Islamicise Egyptian society and forge a new alliance with the US. Washington was so keen to work with Sadat in bringing Egypt over to the US side in the Cold War that policy-makers and intelligence officers ‘viewed his restoration of the Islamic right benignly or tacitly encouraged it’. In fact, Sadat’s policies helped spark the emergence of global Islamic radicalism.

For Britain as well as the US, this was a case of the chickens coming home to roost. The British had connived with Islamist forces against Nasser, their chief Middle Eastern enemy for the previous eighteen years, and helped to defeat Arab nationalism as a major political force. Now, Whitehall joined the US in backing Sadat as he swung Egypt onto a new Islamic as well as pro-Western path, understanding that the regime was ‘not very’ democratic, as the British ambassador noted in 1975, but welcoming it as a ‘moderate’, stabilising force in the region. It was anything but.

Sadat’s broad Islamisation of Egyptian society included enshrining Islam as the state religion in the 1971 constitution and reversing Nasser’s policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood, releasing some Brothers from jail and declaring a general amnesty for all those imprisoned before May 1971. By the mid-70s Sadat, with the support of the Saudis, was also allowing Muslim Brothers to return from their Nasser-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia, where many of them had grown rich. At the same time, Sadat also established a covert relationship with Kamal Adham, the head of Saudi intelligence, representing a new Egyptian–Saudi détente and a sharp break from the bitter enmity under Nasser.

The Muslim Brothers freed by Sadat gravitated towards Egypt’s universities, many of which were by the early 1970s controlled by Islamist movements which had overturned the dominance of nationalist ideology. At the same time, the Islamist intelligentsia on the campuses began to spread their ideas throughout the Muslim world, courtesy of the networks and financial clout of the Saudi Wahhabis, especially following the 1973 Arab–Israeli conflict. Among the new recruits to the movement were two important social groups – the mass of young urban poor from deprived backgrounds and the devout bourgeoisie, a class hitherto excluded from political power and restricted by military and monarchical regimes.

Sadat’s secret services nurtured this radical Islamist resurgence by aiding the formation of various small militant groups in order to counter the remaining student groups led by Nasserites and Marxists. The Jamaat Islamiya (Islamic Associations) were formed on the university campuses with the help of a Sadat aide, the former lawyer, Mohammed Uthman Ismail, who is considered to be the ‘godfather’ of the Jamaat. By the late 1970s, the Jamaat, espousing the importance of a pure Islamic life and organising summer camps for its cadres, involving ideological training, had driven the leftist student organisations underground. The Jamaat remained close allies, and useful tools, of the Sadat government until 1977 when the president flew to Jerusalem for peace talks with Israel.

In return for Sadat’s opening to the Muslim Brotherhood, the latter extended enthusiastic support to the regime’s neo-liberal, free enterprise economic policies. Diametrically opposed to Nasser’s nationalist policies, Egypt’s economic liberalisation was propelled by a programme devised by the International Monetary Fund, which had strong Anglo–American support, and involved reducing the state’s role in the economy and promoting trade and investment policies favourable to foreign investors. These policies increased inequalities between rich and poor and, for many, poverty acted as a further recruiting sergeant for Islamist movements in the 1970s and 1980s, not just in Egypt but elsewhere in the Muslim world. Radical Islamists, although supporting the basic ‘free market’ project, could also speak in the name of resistance to foreign domination and exploitation of ‘the people’, while establishing a popular base and offering vital social services that the state no longer provided.

British officials witnessed Sadat using the Muslim Brotherhood to bolster the regime as a previous generation had seen King Farouk and, initially, Nasser, do. They viewed Sadat’s strategy favourably, provided that he could ultimately control those forces – precisely the concern that British covert planners had with regard to their own use of the Brotherhood in overthrowing Nasser in the 1950s. In 1971 British officials recognised that ‘Sadat might be tempted to make use of such a potentially handy weapon’, mirroring the long-standing British perception of the Brotherhood. The organisation was enjoying ‘a renaissance’ under Sadat, but the danger was that he ‘might underestimate the difficulty of keeping it under control’. The Foreign Office wrote that Sir Richard Beaumont, the British ambassador:

“Considers that Sadat may wish to use it [the Brotherhood] as a counter-weight to left-wing forces, but equally Sadat’s performance so far does not give any reason to think he would wish to see its more fanatical aspects such as its tendency towards xenophobia become a dominant factor in Egyptian politics. On the other hand, the use of individual Moslem [sic] Brothers to leaven other political organisations, rather than the encouragement of the Brotherhood as such, might suit Sadat’s book better”.

Thus Britain’s senior official in Egypt was continuing to recognise the value of conniving with Brotherhood leaders, just as officials in his embassy had done in the 1950s. Indeed, Hassan al-Hodeibi, the Brotherhood’s leader with whom Britain had then dealt, was still in his position when Beaumont penned these thoughts. Whether British officials had contacts with al-Hodeibi at this time is not revealed in the declassified government files; al-Hodeibi died in 1973.

Sadat’s belief that he could manage and co-opt the Muslim Brotherhood against his leftist and communist political opponents worked to an extent, but the Brotherhood refused to openly back the regime, not least since Sadat refused to allow it to operate as a political party. Sadat also failed to understand that only a complete Islamisation of society could satisfy the demands of the more fundamentalist groups. In the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War – when the Arab states led by Egypt made early territorial gains against the Israeli military before reaching a stalemate – Sadat deployed the symbols of Islam to fire Egypt, in contrast to Nasser’s evocation of Arab nationalism in the 1967 war. But Sadat’s overtures to Israel and the signing of the Camp David Accords in September 1978, which led to a peace treaty with Israel, confirmed to the radical Islamists, bent on Israel’s destruction, that Sadat was clearly no ally. His earlier patronage of the militant Islamists had by now led to the formation of a violent jihadist movement in the country. Sadat realised the threat against the regime too late; it was only in 1981 that the regime cracked down on the Jamaat Islamiya, dissolving them in September.

The following month, Sadat was assassinated by the al-Jihad organisation, which had its roots in a university Islamic group at Asyut University in Upper Egypt, similar to those formed with government help earlier in the decade. In the 1980s, members of al-Jihad were to splinter off into other groups, notably Islamic Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose militants would volunteer for the war in Afghanistan. Though many of their members and leaders were, like al-Zawahiri, former Muslim Brothers, these more violent organisations had become distinct from the Brotherhood. They attacked the Brotherhood for its lack of militancy and for accepting some notions of democracy rather than subjecting all powers of the state to Allah’s will. Violent Islamism now appeared to be on the march.

Sadat’s assassination was a blow to US and British strategy in the Middle East, but his Islamisation programme in Egypt was already proving useful to one major Anglo–American covert operation. It was the radicalised Islamist elements from Egypt who were among those volunteering to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan after 1979, and who played key leadership roles there, sponsored by the Sadat regime and aided by Saudi money. Thus these forces continued to be the ‘handy weapon’ recognised by British officials, though far beyond Egypt itself. But before turning to these later events, we consider the momentous events of 1973 and the deepening, and rather extraordinary British–Saudi alliance.