Tensions with Iran draw attention to Egypt’s Brotherhood’s ties with Tehran

Hints about which side the Brotherhood is likely to take was provided by senior Brotherhood member Osama Rushdi in May.
Sunday 09/06/2019
Under scrutiny. A file picture shows former Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi sitting behind bars at a court on the outskirts of Cairo.(Reuters)
Under scrutiny. A file picture shows former Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi sitting behind bars at a court on the outskirts of Cairo.(Reuters)

CAIRO - The conspicuous silence of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the Iran-United States showdown has drawn attention to the ties between Tehran and the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood, which has campaigned for applying sharia in Arab countries, refrained from denouncing the threat posed by Iran and its proxies to regional security for strong reasons, including the close relations it maintained despite apparent sectarian and ideological differences with Iran, analysts said.

“These relations are very old,” said Ibrahim Rabie, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood share so many things in common.”

Both Iran and the Brotherhood advocate for a rule based on a politically expedient of Islam, authoritarianism and total obedience to the supreme leader.

Before he became known to the world, Ruhollah Ayatollah Khomeini visited the office of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo in 1938, almost eight years after the Brotherhood emerged as an “educational charity organisation.”

At the Cairo office, Khomeini met with Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and other leaders of the organisation who explained the objectives of the group.

Decades later, Khomeini was greeted by tens of thousands of Iranians as the leader of Iran’s Islamist revolution.

In Cairo, the Brotherhood enjoyed considerable freedom, like other Islamist movements, with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat playing the Islamists against the leftists, a game he paid for dearly when he was assassinated by Islamists in 1981.

After the Islamic Revolution in Iran, several Brotherhood delegations visited Tehran, including once at the orders of Omar al-Tilmisani, the supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood from 1973-86. Leading the Brotherhood delegation on this visit was Youssef Nada, a business tycoon.

Nada suggested the establishment of a branch of the Brotherhood in Tehran, a suggestion that was immediately approved by Khomeini.

When the 2011 uprising erupted in Egypt, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered a speech in Arabic calling on Egyptians to draw lessons from the Iranian revolution.

In August 2013, Muhammad Morsi, a long-time Brotherhood leader, became the first Egyptian president to visit Tehran since the downfall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reciprocated six months later by visiting Cairo. His itinerary included a tour of al-Azhar mosque, the epicentre of Sunni Islamic learning, where he raised the victory sign.

“Apart from historical relations between Iran and the Brotherhood, the coming to power in Egypt by the Brotherhood gave the Islamic Republic a chance it had been dreaming of for years,” said Abdel Sattar al-Meligi, a specialist in Islamist movements. “The Brotherhood was for Iran an indispensable chance to extend its leverage to Egypt, whereas the Brotherhood viewed Iran as a role model.”

The Brotherhood’s cooperation with Tehran was clarified by a retired Egyptian military intelligence official in March 2015 when he revealed that Morsi planned to establish an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-like force in Egypt.

Tamer al-Shahawi, a member of the Egyptian parliament, said Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers visited Egypt several times in the first half of 2013 to offer training to Brotherhood militants and help form Morsi’s force.

In January 2016, a judge presiding over a panel formed to manage the assets of the disbanded Muslim Brotherhood organisation said Iran promised Morsi to deposit $10 billion at the Central Bank of Egypt and to supply Egypt with petroleum products.

An analysis of the ties between Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, analysts said, is important as the showdown between Iran and Arab countries becomes more intense against the background of Iranian interference in regional affairs.

“The Brotherhood is an organisation that has branches almost everywhere in the Arab world and a discussion of these ties strongly matters now,” Meligi said.

Perhaps close relations between both parties is why Iran opposed plans by the Trump administration to designate the Brotherhood a “terrorist” organisation.

It is not clear how the Brotherhood will return the favour if the showdown between moderate Arab countries and Iran intensifies or turns into a military confrontation.

Hints about which side the Brotherhood is likely to take was provided by senior Brotherhood member Osama Rushdi in May. Appearing on the Brotherhood channel, Mekameleen, which is broadcast from Turkey, he accused Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, not Iran, of beating the drums of war in the region.

This is why observers said the Brotherhood won’t deviate from the track set by its regional sponsors, Qatar and Turkey, in deciding which side to take in the conflict between moderate Arab countries and Iran. They also expressed concern that Brotherhood elements could destabilise Arab countries where they have presence if the showdown escalates.

“The problem is that the Brotherhood succeeded in gaining a huge presence in Arab societies in the past decades,” said Hossam al-Haddad, another specialist in Islamist movements. “This shows the enormity of danger represented by this movement as moderate Arab states work to keep the Iranian threat at bay.”