Things are looking good for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the grandfather of all Islamist groups. Despite the organization’s hegemonic aspirations—which include “eliminating and destroying the Western civilization … so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions”—the Obama administration recently announced that it “welcomes dialogue” with the Brotherhood; so did the European Union. And under Egypt’s military regime, the Islamist organization just “became a legal political party for the first time since President Gamal Abdel Nasser banned it more than half-a-century ago.”
Why Nasser banned the Brotherhood, indeed, tried to decimate it, is instructive, and offers an important lesson in—and about—time.
Machiavellian from the start, Nasser collaborated closely with the Brotherhood; many Egyptians still insist he was originally a member. Soon after usurping Egypt’s leadership via the 1952 Revolution, the alliance soured, culminating with an assassination attempt on Nasser’s life by a Brotherhood member.
Nasser’s response was swift and decisive: he dissolved the Brotherhood, burned down its headquarters, arrested some 15,000 members, and executed some—most famously Sayyid Qutb, the spiritual father of al-Qaeda—while leaving others to rot in prison. Many of the remaining members, aware that Nasser meant business, fled Egypt.
Why such a dramatic response? Why not simply punish the failed assassin and his accomplices? Nasser, a pious Muslim, was most likely intimately, if not instinctively, aware of what the Brotherhood was—and still is—all about; he was aware that it is impossible for Muslim organization’s committed to theocratic rule to negotiate or share power, much less be trustworthy allies.
In short, Nasser was aware that, once the opportunity presented itself, the Brotherhood would do everything in its power to take over: unlike secular parties concerned with the temporal, it has a divine mandate—a totalitarian vision—to subdue society to Sharia.
Some people even maintain that Nasser himself staged the assassination attempt as a pretext to eliminate the Brotherhood—an interpretation that only further supports the theory that Nasser knew he had to dismantle the Islamists, and was willing to play dirty to do so.
Nasser’s approach, then, is the real politick approach of one who knows that you must suppress those who would certainly suppress you—once circumstance permits; it is the long-term approach that takes the big picture into account (unlike many Western politicians looking for a quick fix for the duration of their term).
For its part, the Brotherhood learned the great virtues of patience and perseverance; learned to play the game on the enemy’s terms—whether by rejecting violence, going to the kafir [infidel unbeliever] ballot box, our adopting the “pluralistic” language of the West (which Brotherhood affiliates in the West, such as CAIR, have perfected to an art). Indeed, a new document on implementing Sharia appearing on the Brotherhood’s website argues that “Gradual action does not impose Islam at once, but rather step by step.”
Accordingly, consider how the mere passage of time has empowered the Brotherhood: over the decades, Egyptian society has become more Islamist, that is, more sympathetic to the Brotherhood—thanks in no small part to the organization’s grassroots efforts; moreover, both in Egypt and abroad, many truly believe that the organization has reformed, which would be worthy of note if the facts corresponded. They don’t. Many people also believed that Khomeini would bring democracy to Iran. He didn’t.
The passage of time in the West has also helped the Brotherhood: Western politics have descended into idealism and fantasy—culminating today with Washington reaching out to Islamists. Would they have reached out to the Nazis?
The Muslim Brotherhood is a great testimony to the power of time and patience. From being crushed and disbanded half a century ago, it is now legal and poised to take over Egypt.
Yet, the fact is, when all is said and done, the Brotherhood wants the same thing all Islamists, Salafists, and Jihadists want: the enforcement of Allah’s draconian, anti-infidel laws to govern the earth. They’re just smarter—more patient—than their impulsive, violent counterparts in the West.
Hence the great lesson of Nasser: when dealing with an existential, permanent enemy, sometimes the only response is the most decisive, the ugliest—even when your enemy is weak. If he becomes stronger, it becomes that much more costly to counter him. Consider how much easier it would have been to stop Hitler, say, before he crossed the Rhine—but how many voices were there then insisting he was just a tin-pot dictator who would never be a serious threat to anyone?
Yet the West continues to play the same talking game, the same waiting game—for example, with North Korea and Iran—granting one’s adversary precisely what he most needs to be in a position to attack you: Time.