A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Echoes of 1954: Nasser, The Brotherhood and the Manshiyya "Incident"

Mark Twain allegedly said (in one of many Twain quotes that Twain scholars can't confirm but that keep being attributed to him), that "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." Whether Twain or not, it's a useful observation. And it seems to be rhyming again.

Badie Under Arrest
The Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Badie, one of the few leaders of the organization not already in detention, has been arrested. Multiple reports indicate the state will move to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood imminently. General Sisi, who seemed to be on good terms with the organization just two months ago (and some Brothers hinted he was a member), is now denouncing it as a terrorist organization.

It does not repeat, but it does "rhyme with," 1954. In October, 1954, a charismatic military leader of Egypt, who up to that time had worked with the Brotherhood since at least 1947  and may even have once been a member, and had tolerated the Brotherhood even when he dissolved other political parties, suddenly banned the Muslim Brotherhood, arrested its Supreme Guide and the rest of its leadership, and soon consolidated his own power within the military leadership. That officer was Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, and he was responding to a very public assassination attempt against himself.

The Podium at Manshiyya, 1954
In October 1954, two years and three months after the July 1952 Free Officers' coup, Nasser was embroiled in a power struggle with Muhammad Naguib, and had largely won it. Muhammad Naguib was still nominally President of the Republic, but that was an increasingly empty title. The headlines and video below call Nasser ra'is, as he was both Prime Minister (President of the Council of Ministers) and Chairman/President of the Revolution Command Council, the ruling military junta. Naguib was on the way out.

The old political parties had already been dissolved, but the Free Officers had an ambivalent relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom they had conspired against the King. The link cited above includes an excerpt from the memoirs of the leftist Free Officer Khalid Mohieddin (the only surviving Free Officer, 91 this year), remembering meeting Nasser and the Brotherhood as far back as 1947, when MB founder Hasan al-Banna was still in charge. Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and other Free Officers worked closely with the Brotherhood and both were rumored to have been onetime members. Sadat later strongly denied this, though in his Presidency he let the Brotherhood re-emerge; the evidence on Nasser is inconclusive. One or two less-influential Free Officers seem to have been full members.

Supreme Guide Hasan al-Hudaybi
After the 1952 Revolution the Brotherhood and the Free Officers coexisted for a while, even as the old political parties were suppressed. Banna's successor and the Brotherhood's second Supreme Guide, Hasan al-Hudaybi. cooperated, and reportedly shut down the Brotherhood's Secret Apparatus (Al-Jihaz al-Sirri), its secret, armed, revolutionary wing. But as Nasser consolidated power against Naguib, there remained one major political force besides the Revolutionary Command Council, and that was the Muslim Brotherhood.

Even nearly six decades later, the events of October 26, 1954 (a week after a treaty was signed with Britain for withdrawal from the Canal Zone, a treaty the Brotherhood opposed) remain controversial. The ascendant Nasser made a trip to Alexandria, Egypt's second city. Among several stops was a public speech in the city's Midan al-Manshiyya (Midan Muhammad ‘Ali), the city's biggest open space. His speech was being broadcast live to the entire Arab world, and midway through the speech, a former member of the Brotherhood's supposedly dissolved Secret Apparatus, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Latif, pushed his way forward and fired eight shots at Nasser. They all missed him. Nasser quickly recovered and continued his speech:
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. If Gamal Abdel Nasser should die, each of you shall be Gamal Abdel Nasser ... Gamal Abdel Nasser is of you and from you and he is willing to sacrifice his life for the nation.
Here's the audio of Nasser speaking, just before the shots ring out, and the chaos afterward:

Obviously, his blood did not in fact spill. Al-Gumhuriyya was at the time the Free Officers' main voice:

"Eight Stray Bullets: Brotherhood Member Fired at President in Alexandria and Did Not Hit Him"

If you're feeling a bit skeptical about all this, you're not alone. (eight  bullets and all missed? While being broadcast live? And Nasser had a ready-made and heroic response? What happened next: did the Brotherhood burn the Reichstag?) But sixty years later the truth is no clearer. The shooter was indeed a former member of the supposedly dissolved Secret Apparatus. After the Brotherhood finally won the Presidency in 2012 the waters remained just as muddied, with official statements saying the whole thing was staged but other reports saying some Brothers were now claiming credit for involvement.

We may never know. I suspect revisionist history is about to revision back again.

A few weeks later Naguib lost his last official titles and was arrested; Nasser was supreme. The Brotherhood was formally dissolved, its leaders arrested, and several were executed. Hudaybi, who had worked with Nasser, was jailed.

The video below, apparently from November after Naguib's final fall, is heavy on overdone propaganda but shows Nasser's visit. The narration is all Arabic but you do hear the shots on the soundtrack midway through, also heard in the earlier audio clip.


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