Siding with the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, 1957

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

Mark Curtis

In April 1957, a head-on clash developed between the twenty-two-year-old King Hussein of Jordan – a pillar of Western influence in the region since the assassination of his father, Abdullah, in 1952 – and the pro-Nasser socialist government under Prime Minister Suleiman Nabulsi, which had been freely elected the previous October. Nabulsi’s plan was to align Jordan with Syria and Egypt, thereby breaking Jordan’s long-standing dependence on the West. In response, the CIA engaged in plots to sow disagreement between Nabulsi and Hussein and to discredit Nabulsi and Nasser in order to provide a pretext for Hussein to act against his prime minister. On 10 April, the King dismissed the government and appointed a puppet regime under his control, banning all political parties and introducing martial law.

This palace coup was supported by what was now a familiar combination of conservative forces in the region: the Saudis, the British and the Americans – and the Muslim Brotherhood. The CIA helped Hussein plan his coup and subsequently began funding him. Saudi leaders Faisal and Saud sent 6,000 troops in support of the king, deploying them in the Jordan Valley and Aqaba areas, and promised Hussein ‘unqualified support’. The British ambassador in Amman, Charles Johnston, reported that the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan ‘remained faithful to His Majesty’. Although all political parties were outlawed, Hussein allowed the Brotherhood to continue to operate, ostensibly because of its religious vocation, but in reality because it was seen by the king and his allies as the most effective counterweight to the secular leftists. Brotherhood preachers called upon their supporters to assist the authorities in searching for communist supporters of the government and turn them in, while Brotherhood members in Jericho are believed to have been provided with arms by Hussein’s regime to help it intimidate the leftist opposition. Johnston later wrote that ‘the Muslim Brotherhood was useful to King Hussein in April as representing a “strong arm” organisation which could if necessary have taken on the Left Wing extremists in the streets.’

Britain extended support to Hussein’s new puppet government but was under no illusions as to its nature. The regime was, reported Johnston to Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd ‘frankly repressive’, and ‘has much in common with Franco’s Spain. It is buttressed by qadis [Islamic judges] and muftis instead of by cardinals and bishops.’ Crucially, however, ‘the Jordanian regime happens to be pro-British’:

“I suggest that our interest is better suited by an authoritarian regime which maintains stability and the Western connection than by an untrammeled democracy which rushes downhill towards communism and chaos. There is also something to be said for an honestly authoritarian regime such as now exists in Jordan, in comparison with the odious hypocrisy perpetrated in Colonel Nasser’s ‘parliamentary elections’”.

This was a neat summary of Britain’s preference for repressive regimes backed by the Islamic right, rather than more popular or democratic governments – a permanent feature of British policy in the region, past and present, that helps explain the regular resort to connivance with Islamist forces. This preference also came with the full knowledge that the October 1956 elections won by Nabulsi ‘were the first approximately free ones in the history of Jordan’. The British were also perfectly aware that King Hussein had little domestic support other than from the Muslim Brotherhood, and had always owed his position to British preparedness to prop him up. Earlier in 1957, Anthony Eden had understood that ‘if her Majesty’s Government withdrew their support, it was only a question of time before the kingdom of Jordan disintegrated’ – by which Eden surely meant that the pro-Western regime, rather than the country, would disintegrate.

But while the Brotherhood could be useful to the Jordanian regime, it continued to be seen by British officials as basically an anti-Western, anti-British force; the same view as the British had of the Brothers in Syria and Egypt. The British embassy in Amman had noted in early 1957 that the Brotherhood’s increasing activity was ‘disturbing’ and that its official publication – Al-Kifah al-Islami (the Islamic Struggle) – was identifying the British and the Christians of Jordan as the organisation’s two principal targets.

One Foreign Office official noted that extremists in the Brotherhood had been strengthened by the October 1956 elections and that this did not bode well ‘for what remains of British influence in Jordan’. Charles Johnston reported to the Foreign Office in February 1957 that ‘the Jordanian Moslem Brotherhood organisation is led by a group of parochially-minded local fanatics and its following is mostly illiterate’; but it did have the virtue of being ‘opposed to the powerful left-wing parties’ and, as well as attacking the British and the Americans, also attacked communism.

British fears of the Brotherhood proved well-founded since, within a few months of the April crisis, it withdrew its support for Hussein’s new government. The reason, according to the British ambassador, was that the Brothers regarded the regime as ‘too completely sold to the Americans’. But the organisation’s break with the regime ‘need not I think cause undue concern’, he added, since the Brotherhood ‘will not be an easy object for Russian, Syrian or even Egyptian propaganda’. Thus Johnston was saying that although the Brotherhood was anti-Western, it was also opposed to communism and nationalism, Britain’s two principal enemies.

In July 1958 the British position in the Middle East took a more decisive blow when a popular revolution overthrew the monarchy in Iraq, which had ruled since its installation by the British in 1921. The revolution, from which Brigadier Abdul Karim Qasim emerged as leader, sent shockwaves through London and Washington, which feared that nationalist fervour would overthrow King Hussein and other pro-Western monarchies. In a joint operation, British forces were immediately dispatched to Jordan and US forces to Lebanon to offset the danger. Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd wrote that the British intervention in Jordan ‘would serve the double purpose of stiffening the King’s resolve and forming a bridgehead for such possible future action as may be necessary in Iraq’, thus showing that an invasion of Iraq was also being considered. In fact, Britain also drew up plans for possible military intervention to shore up other pro-British governments in Kuwait, Libya and Sudan.

King Hussein’s call for British intervention in Jordan provoked a critical response from the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, which organised anti-British demonstrations in Amman. In response, Hussein’s regime arrested Brotherhood leader Andal Rahman Khalifa (releasing him three months later) and continued to curb the organisation’s political activities. The episode showed that, while the Brotherhood could be useful in providing support to reactionary pro-British regimes in times of crisis, as in 1957, it was a liability when it came to Western intervention in the region. Nevertheless, this knowledge did not stop Britain and the US from trying to use the Brotherhood, and other Islamist forces, for their own geopolitical ends.