More Identity, Less Class
Hesham Sallam's gripping new account of the 1970s rebirth of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood
Hesham Sallam, Classless Politics: Islamist Movements, the Left, and Authoritarian Legacies in Egypt (Columbia University Press, 2022)
How did Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood rebuild itself after Gamal Abdel Nasser comprehensively crushed the organization during the 1950s and 1960s? Earlier this year, I published a short article asking what lessons we might learn from that resurgence (as well as others such as Tunisia’s Ennahda) for Islamist movements currently experiencing profound political repression and exclusion from public life across much of the region. For that article, I enjoyed surveying a rich new literature building on earlier research which set out to explain that remarkable revival: highlights of that literature include Abdullah al-Arian’s Answering the Call (2014), Victor Willi’s The Fourth Ordeal (2021), Carrie Rosefsky Wickham’s updated version of The Muslim Brotherhood (2015), and Khalid Mustafa Medani’s Black Markets and Militants (2021) (read my review here)
Hesham Sallam’s gripping new book, Classless Politics, is a highly welcome addition to this literature. Where many of the other excellent books focus primarily on the Muslim Brotherhood itself, Sallem reorients the question towards the broader political field. His account revolves around two big questions which tend to feature less prominently in other approaches: why did the Sadat and Mubarak regimes opt for a form of political incorporation of the Muslim Brotherhood?; and why wasn’t there a strong leftist trend capable of challenging either the Brotherhood or the regime? Sallam argues that the answers to these two questions are organically linked: the post-Nasser regimes accommodated the Islamists in large part to weaken challenges to neoliberal economic reforms from the left, welcoming - and even encouraging - a reframing of the political field from questions of economic policy towards questions of identity and religion.
The basic contours of the story are fairly well-known. After taking over the presidency following Nasser’s death, Anwar Sadat moved to open the political arena to Islamists in order to build a counterbalance to Nasserist elites and leftist opposition movements. Sadat’s strategic decision to liberalize the economy meant highly unpopular moves such as slashing subsidies (which triggered the regime-threatening bread riots in 1977) and privatizing the public sector. Attracting foreign investment and desperately needed capital required shifting from the Soviet bloc to the Western bloc, which in turn required the highly unpopular move of making peace with Israel. It also required a realignment towards the wealthy states of the Gulf, where many Egyptian Muslim Brothers had settled and built fortunes after Nasser’s repression in the 1950s. Fortunately, from Sadat’s perspective, the Muslim Brotherhood and student Islamist groups had their own reasons to despise Communists and to focus more on issues related to sharia, public culture and education than on economic issues.
Sallam provides copious details drawn from a wide range of sources, including published memoirs, recently declassified documents, media and interviews, to flesh out surprising new interpretations of many strands of this story. He does an exceptional job of contextualizing his sources, giving great insights into the nuances of Egyptian political debates and the interpersonal relationships of key regime, Islamist and leftist figures. His work nicely builds upon and supplements al-Arian’s pathbreaking research on how Islamist student groups on university campuses fueled the Brotherhood’s rebirth and Medani’s focus on how the Brotherhood benefited from the massive circulation of capital and labor through the Islamic banking sector enabled by these shifts. His adding a focus on the regime’s choices regarding Islamist and leftist incorporation goes beyond both to offer an important new contextual analysis. His careful reading of the evidence he marshals provides important nuance: the security services did tilt the playing field of campus politics towards Islamists, but the Islamist student groups pursued their own path; Islamist businessmen did grow rich from Sadat and Mubarak’s economic policies, but their gains were dwarfed by those of regime crony capitalists.
What makes Sallam’s account distinctive is his integrated analysis of how the Egyptian regime sought to structure the political field by neutralizing the Left while encouraging a shift to identity politics which would not threaten its economic project. His analysis gives as much attention to the co-optation of the Left as it does to the accommodation of the Islamists. He carefully traces the incorporation of Leftist parties into Sadat’s regime-managed parties of the Arab Socialist Union, resulting in a dissolution of the Communist Party which Sallem views as disastrous for the Left. Incorporation as officially sanctioned parties, he argues, left them dependent on the regime and unable to develop autonomous institutional structures or to advance the sort of strong critiques of regime economic policies which might have resonated with workers and citizens reeling from the rolling back of Nasser’s social pact and welfare state. His evisceration of the evolution of the al-Tagammu party
The Muslim Brotherhood, by contrast, benefited from its exclusion from formal politics by remaining institutionally autonomous. Its transnational connections into the Gulf and the new Islamic banking sector (detailed so well in Medani’s book) gave it access to resources independent of state or regime largesse. Its building of a vast network of social services suited both its own organizational interests in expanding its presence within society and the regime’s interests in having private charities replace the state-backed social services it dismantled in the name of neoliberal reforms (great recent books like Mona Atia’s Building a House in Heaven and Steven Brooke’s Winning Hearts and Votes cover this dimension in depth). Its vague economic policies allowed it to distract from its support for neoliberal economic reforms and privatization with populist appeals to social justice and critiques of corruption, as Tarek Masoud’s Counting Islam demonstrates. Its maintenance of a secretive, insular, and highly indoctrinated institutional structure left it resilient in the face of twists and turns in regime repression (see Khalil al-Anani’s Inside the Muslim Brotherhood on this aspect). Right up until the 2011 revolution, as Nathan Brown’s When Victory is Not an Option documents, it carefully calibrated its political strategy to the available political opportunities without aspiring to actually challenging the regime. After 2011, well, Mona el-Ghobashy has that covered:
Sallam’s Classless Politics makes a major contribution to our understanding not only of what happened in the 1970s that allowed for the Muslim Brotherhood revival, but also of the enduring political affects of choices made tactically in moments of flux. His careful analysis shows how Sadat’s opening of the field to the Islamists backfired as their criticism of his peace treaty with Israel mounted and as they came to dominate huge swathes of political, cultural and institutional spaces. He shows how Sadat’s efforts to neuter the Nasserist and Communist Left in response to immediate political exigency over the long term resulted in the profound weakness of leftist parties which might have otherwise challenged both the Brotherhood and the late Mubarak regime. He is particularly acute in analyzing the shift by many of those Leftists instead into an anti-Islamism which implicitly supported the regime (by adopting the role of anti-Islamist attack dogs while refraining from criticism of regime economic policies) while playing into the hands of the Brotherhood (by accepting and reinforcing their prioritization of identity over class). Classless Politics is highly recommended for scholars and students of Egypt (even experts will learn a lot) and of the broader Middle East, and should also interest anyone interested in broader Comparative Politics questions.
Note: This post has been updated to spell the author’s name correctly. I take full responsibility and assign it to my dog.
Abu Aardvark's MENA Academy is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
So much the same, leaders never learn.