The Army of God against the CIA

The Roots of Jihad - Part Two

The egyptian people never accepted foreign rule. The British occupied the country in 1882, guarding the Suez Canal, the lifeline through which London controlled its Indian and Far Eastern empire in an age before the super-tanker. There was serious violence on the streets of all the major cities in 1919, 1930 (when two British battleships menaced Alexandria); 1931 and 1935.

The ideological heart of resistance (and still is) the ancient al-Azhar Islamic university in Cairo. There, in the early years of the 20th century, Muhammed Abdu, a mesmeric scholar, persuaded his students that "through a reformed and reinvigorated Islam, the Arabs could rise to the challenge of the modern world." Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, leader of Hamas - the Palestinian guru of suicide bombings - is the latest graduate of al-Azhar, and one of many, to challenge western values.

Abdu's doctrine of Islamic self-sufficiency is still one of the two basic elements in the tradition of resistance to foreign domination throughout the Mid-East. The other is military, secular, modern and nationalist. The two traditions are as often opposed to one another as they are allies against the West. Militant Islam - a philosophical resistance to materialist Western culture - is proving the more durable. It traces its doctrine of religious purity to Ibn Taymiyyha (1268-1328), taken up by the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, through the writings of Sayyid Qutb ("the father of modern fundamentalism") in the 1950s and thanks to Osama Bin Laden, by Al Qaida worldwide. (Qutb seems to have been traumatised, on a sea voyage to the US, by an American woman's enthusiastic attempts to seduce him).

The herald of religious, militant resistance was Sheikh Izzeddin Qassam, another graduate of al-Azhar. A Syrian, Qassam was condemned to death by the occupying French government and fled to Haifa in 1922. There he recruited 800 potential martyrs to halt burgeoning Jewish immigration into Palestine. In 1917, the British had dedicated themselves to providing "a national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine, where 50,000 Jews were outnumbered ten-to-one by Arabs. The demography changed, in time, thanks to Israel's belief in creating "new facts".

By 1935, as the Arabist David Hirst has noted: "British rule had become intolerable in its disregard of Arab interests...An economic crisis, partly the result of uncontrolled immigration, produced Arab unemployment on a catastrophic scale. There could be no more fertile ground than this dispossessed urban peasantry for the ideals ...for which Sheikh Qassam and his followers were resolved to die."

The military action that followed was a macabre comic opera. It was also momentous. The British were tipped off that Qassam and his men were holed up in caves, armed and preparing a revolt. A mixed force of Tommies and Arab mercenaries surrounded them in the Janin hills. Invited to surrender, Qassam replied: "Never. This is jihad for God and country." He and a handful of others chose a defiant death and became the first "fedayeen" (martyrs) of the Palestinian struggle.

Most of his comrades gave up without a fight. Yet Janin spawned a legend of sacrifice that shaped the consciousness of thousands of young idealists. In many respects it was similar to the Dublin Uprising of 1916: a military lost cause but a political volcano. It was one which would be followed later by beleagured Egyptian police officers standing their ground against British tanks in 1951 and the suicide bombers of the Palestinian intifada for the past two years.

Another pioneer of philosophical resistance was Hassan al-Banna, born in 1906 and murdered in February 1949, almost certainly on the orders of King Farouk, Britain's client ruler in Egypt. In Ismailia in 1928, al-Banna created the Moslem Brotherhood, a movement that initially espoused education and gradualism as the road to Islamic revolution in Egypt. Al-Banna's vision was the restoration of the ancient Caliphate, embracing territories far beyond Egypt, including Syria. The British did not notice but the rising generation of military professionals in the Egyptian Army did. A conspiracy of Young Officers, including two future presidents (Nasser and Sadat) built bridges to the Brotherhood and to the German Afrika Korps during the Second World War.

The British diplomat Anthony Nutting, in his biography of Nasser, writes: "For the first three years of World War II, an Egyptian General, Aziz al-Masry, had been actively engaged in disseminating propaganda among his fellow officers on behalf of the Germans, not so much out of any particular fondness for Germany as from a belief that only the kind of power that Hitler represented could drive the British out of Egypt. As the old Arab axiom says, 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend.'..Every Egyptian nationalist from the Moslem Brotherhood to the university students proclaimed, 'We are Rommel's soldiers."

Sadat was the link man between the Brotherhood and the Young Officers. Much later, as President of his country, he would also become a valued tool of the CIA and a victim of an assassination engineered by the Brotherhood.

The Free Officers resulted from an experiment in democratising the Egyptian Army in the thirties. They differed profoundly from the Brotherhood. As an Israeli scholar, Eliezer Be'esri, has observed: "Very few Egyptian officers are the sons of Muslim religious functionaries...Sons and brothers of those who had a Western-type humanities or technical training have long formed a high percentage of the officer corps."

In 1936 and again in 1965, al-Banna, the Brotherhood's "Supreme Guide", demanded that a percentage of Army commisions be awarded to graduates of the Islamic al-Azhar University. The Army did not want to know. Yet the wars of resistance to be fought by the Egyptians and Palestinians would, in general, put the Brotherhood into the front line.

The Americans, as they started to fish for influence in Egypt in the 1950s, wooed the military caste, with their secular style of doing business, rather than the fundamentalists in the mosque. In Iraq in future, as in Afghanistan now, and Iran in the past, it seems likely that US diplomacy will repeat the same mistake.

From his perch in Cairo, the Irish-American ambassador, Jefferson Caffery, watched the British dig their own grave in the Canal Zone. After the massacre of police officers at Ismailia in January 1952, he told the State Department that the Brits had gone "beyond what was strictly necessary in putting down the disturbances." The US ambassador to London concluded that as a result of British overkill, "the area we want for bases and the influence of Egypt in the Arab world in support of our interests is denied to us."

The British diplomat, Anthony Nutting, concluded that Caffery would "do his utmost to help in evicting the British."

A few months earlier, the Americans had headed off a crisis in the Gulf. A radical, populist Iranian government had seized control of the Abadan oilfield from a British company. Britain's response was to prepare the Paras for a drop on Abadan to recover the oil by force. Warned off by President Truman, the British were obliged to watch the deadly dollar do its work. The CIA orchestrated riots to bring down the Teheran government of Moussadeq and install the Shah in his place.

From this triumph the CIA turned its attention to Cairo. There, the agency's Arab expert Kermit Roosevelt established a friendly, first-name relationship with Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, a hero of the inglorious defeat of the Egyptian Army at Israeli hands in 1948. Nasser was also a veteran of the dissident Young Officers group. In July 1952 the group seized power and forced Britain's client ruler, King Farouk, into exile. He sailed away from Alexandria aboard his yacht, having looted his country's gold reserves. The British had no idea of what was happening until the Americans told them.

Caffery gloated:

I regret to state that the British are showing signs of being a little unhappy with the fact that they have practically no relations with the Egyptian military and our relations are so cordial.

Later, as Cold War politics obtruded upon this relationship, there was a long estrangement between the US and Egypt, still the powerhouse of Arab identity. Nasser was perceived to be a client of Soviet Russia. But with the arrival of Anwar Sadat, Cairo again came under the influence of Washington, to a remarkable degree. Sadat's personal protection was run by the CIA.

Sadat came to power in 1970 and within two years, had evicted the country's Russian advisers. The CIA then took over Egypt's intelligence service as well as the president's bodyguard. As Bob Woodward confirms in his history of the agency, the CIA became addicted to the intimate gossip of political Cairo.

On 6 October 1981 some of Sadat's own troops turned their guns on him at a public parade. The Brotherhood had struck again. Bill Casey, head of the CIA, was appalled. Concerned for the Camp David accord with Israel, and other political assets, including the protection of Sadat's protégé, Hosni Mubarak, he ordered: "Get some people out in the fucking street to see if someone's going to shoot Mubarak."

Like the downfall of another American client, the Shah of Iran, it was a case in which people power overthrew a massive state security apparatus. Later, Casey was heard advising his senior officers: "Look for the Ayatollah - the man coming up who could lead the angry masses."

America's involvement in Egypt, from the alliance with the Free Officers and eviction of the British, to the present time, casts a long shadow over the impending war with Iraq (and its subsequent occupation). In 1956, when the British stormed back into the Canal Zone, in an invasion engineered in collusion with Israel and France, the US halted the operation by threatening London with economic ruin. It was a historic cross-roads. Britain learned the hard way, that it dare not pursue its own independent foreign policy in defiance of the wishes of its bigger transatlantic brother.

Will what Bush's team dismissively describes as "old Europe" - in practice, a new Franco-German partnership - offer an alternative to US domination as the war clouds gather over the global village ? The answer to that question, during the course of another long, bitter conflict in the Middle East, might prove to be the key to all our futures. (Tony Geraghty)