Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood: A Short History

By J. Millard Burr*
Wednesday, November 26th, 2014 @ 5:07AM

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The Jordanian arrest last week of MusZaki Bani Rsheid, deputy leader of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, came after he criticized the United Arab Emirates for designating “The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) organization and 79 affiliated groups” as terrorists on his Facebook page.

Rsheid was accused of “acts that could harm Jordan’s relations with a brotherly state,” after labeling the UAE “the prime godfather of terrorism,” by kowtowing to the Americans who, he claimed, served “Zionist interests.” And, in what was the unkindest cut, Rsheid’s own international Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimun) was included in the UAE list.

Under King Abdullah II, Jordan, which has had a sweet and sour relationship with the Ikhwan for more than a half-century, was not about to tolerate such lèse majesté.  After all, Jordan partnered with the UAE (and others) in the campaign against the IS jihadists operating in Syria and Iraq.  Last September it arrested another senior Brotherhood member, Mohamed Said Bakr, on charges of incitement against the government, after criticizing it of being “subject to the United States.”

Yet, Jordan has done little to curb the Muslim Brotherhood’s demons

The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, Background

The decade after the Muslim Brotherhood was formed in Egypt in 1928 affiliated groups emerged across the Levant. In that decade the Ikhwan found favor with King Abdullah I of Transjordan.  Then, the King urged Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna’s brother-in-law, Abdul-Hakim Abidin, to lead a Jordanian government.  Abidin, who was the Secretary General of the Muslim Brotherhood, refused the offer preferring Cairo to Amman.  Nonetheless, by 1942 Ikhwan branches were functioning in Transjordan and Palestine.

In 1942 Hasan al-Banna himself had begun an effort to stimulate the Ikhwan movement throughout Transjordan.  The breakthrough occurred in 1945 when the Ikhwan intellectual Said Ramadan was able to restructure the Muslim Brotherhood branch that was given official recognition in 1946 by Abdullah, King of Transjordan (and formerly Emir of Transjordan from 1921-1946).  Ramadan was an amazing orator who found great favor with Abdullah, including a Jordanian passport the peripatetic Brother would ever after travel on. Meanwhile, the Levantine chapters grew rapidly thanks to the tireless work of Sheikh Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah (1917-1997) and the first General Guide of Transjordan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Abd al-Latif Abu-Qura.

Just prior to the end of the British Mandate in April 1948 the Egyptian Brothers sent three Egyptian military officers to assume leadership of Ikhwan units in what would soon become a war with Israel. To that end, a Jordanian brigade led by Abu Qura himself joined the Ikhwan force.  Following the Arab defeat, both Palestine and Transjordan received general supervision from the influential and sinister Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini who was named Ikhwan leader in Palestine and, tangentially, in Jordan.

In July 1951 Jordan’s King Abdullah was assassinated during Friday prayers at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, by a member of an extremist group that feared the King would choose peace with Israel.  Fortunately for the Jordan Ikhwan, no member was implicated in the action.  In the decades that followed the Ikhwan survived thanks to its cautious politicking and its wise pose as a “reformist rather than a fundamentalist anti-regime movement.” The Ikhwan would further solidify its presence in the nineteen fifties after the King welcomed Brethren who fled the dictatorship of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser.

In the history of the Jordanian Ikhwan, perhaps its most important accomplishment followed the war with Israel when it led demonstrations demanding an end to the presence of British officers in the Jordanian army.  During protests held in the early nineteen fifties The General Guide was arrested several times but in the end the British would leave.  Thereafter, as the Ikhwan leader Yusuf al-Azm claimed, “The Muslim Brotherhood did not provoke the King.”  Indeed, relations soon improved once the Ikhwan supported King Hussein in his battles with the Communist and secular forces who were his enemies.

Jordan’s Ikhwan was able to maintain a close alliance with the monarchy despite disagreements over the creation of the pro-Western Baghdad Pact signed in the nineteen fifties and much later, the Jordan-Syria rapprochement that occurred in the nineteen eighties.  And when the King banned political parties in 1957, the only movement allowed to participate in government was the Muslim Brotherhood.  The Ikhwan took part in parliamentary elections even when the nationalist movements did not.

Egypt’s Nasser and the Ikhwan

Traditionally, the Jordanian Muslim Brothers follow the same general organization created in Egypt. The various Jordan Ikhwan al-Muslimun General Associations elect officers every two years.  And every four years that body elects the “Leadership Council of fifty members” (the majlis al-shura).  The Council itself elects its own Secretary General (murraqb al-am), his deputy, and an executive committee of seven members.

Jordan’s Ikhwan was reinforced in the wake of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s brutal reaction to a 1954 attempt on his life. In the years that followed the Egyptian government purged 5,000 bureaucrats and teachers with Ikhwan sympathies.  Deprived of work, hundreds of Muslim Brothers chose exile in Jordan. The Ikhwan relationship was enhanced after 1957 when they joined the King to quash an attempted coup undertaken by a cabal of Nasserites and nationalists.  Ironically, it is noted that in the nineteen sixties, just as Ikhwan influence grew in Royal circles, its overall membership diminished.  Thus, by 1967 the Ikhwan counted only some thousand, a number that reflected “a sharp decline” from the society’s membership in 1947.

In the meantime, Nasserist Arab nationalism and political secularism were growing.  They attracted many young Jordanians, especially university students.  For more than a decade, the student committees at Jordan’s universities were dominated by Communists. That was the situation when in 1967 the failure of the Six Day War was yet another blow to the Muslim World — with Jordan losing its foothold in the West Bank.  In 1970, King Hussein of Jordan, the grandson of King Abdullah, launched an attack (the “Black September”) against the West Bank Palestinians that had relocated in his country. While they hardly threatened Israel they certainly threatened his throne. Thousands of Palestinians fled to Syria where they first joined with Assad and his Baath.

The death of Egypt’s president Nasser, threw the Arab Middle East into confusion.  However, Jordan’s Ikhwan survived thanks to the effort of Muslim Brother Ishaq al-Farhan, the Minister of Education.  He assisted in the Brotherhood’s infiltration of Jordan’s education system, and continued the struggle against the Jordanian communists and secularists.

The Sadat Revival and the War in Afghanistan

Tangentially, the Jordan Ikhwan benefitted greatly from the live-and-let-live policy affirmed by Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat.  The Ikhwan slowly revived in Egypt.  With the death of Murshid Hudaybi in 1973, the cautious Umar al-Talmasani assumed the Ikhwan leadership.  Talmasani’s major success would then come with the revival of “Al-Dawaa” in July 1976.  The magazine then served as the Ikhwan mouthpiece both in Egypt and abroad, and it served as a source of inspiration for many budding Islamists.  Indeed, the nineteen seventies was a decade when the modern Islamist ideology was fused — thanks to the hypnotic influence Muhammad Qutb (the brother of author, Muslim Brother and salafist Sayyid Qutb) and Abdullah Azzam, a former member of the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, had on a generation of students.  Both taught at King Abdul Aziz University and both made a strong impression on young Saudis, including in Azzam’s case a student named Osama bin Laden

The war that resulted from the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan (1979-!988) greatly abetted the Ikhwan’s fortune — thanks in great part to an infusion of petrodollars from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. And with its funding issue resolved, Cairo sought to reclaim its role as the center of the Ikhwan universe.  An Egyptian murshid would once again serve as leader of the Ikhwan universe.  Nonetheless, while the head of the Egyptian center “reserved a leading role” for itself, given Egyptian travel restrictions, the General Guides of the Syrian and Jordanian Ikhwan served for years as the Egyptian Murshid’s alter ego.  As one observer put it, in Egypt the office of the General Guide would remain for years “largely ceremonial,” and Ikhwan conferences could only meet “at irregular intervals” and nearly always abroad.

The Leaders

The fortunes of both the modern Ikhwan movements in Syria and Jordan can be followed through a study of the life and times of Ali Sadreddine Al-Bayanouni. Born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1938 to a religious family, at age 16 Bayanouni joined the Muslim Brotherhood.  Educated as a lawyer, he was jailed in one of the Syrian government attacks on the Ikhwan organization.  Claiming that the Syrian Ikhwan had “always rejected violence,” the organization’s tribulations had really begun in 1963 when the socialist Baath Party seized power.  After that, all other Syrian political activity was brutally curbed.  After a stint in prison, Bayanouni was named the Ikhwan’s deputy guide in 1977.  Under attack by the government, in 1979 he left Syria and settled in Jordan.  Over the next twenty years, through all the bad years, he remained in contact with what was left of the Syrian Ikhwan and played an important role within the Jordanian Brotherhood.  In 1982, the Syrian army struck in an attempt to extirpate the Brotherhood.  Some 5-10,000 Muslim Brothers were killed in the Syrian city of Hama; a few Brothers who survived joined Bayanouni in Jordan or fled to Saudi Arabia and Europe.

In Fall 1985, King Hussein “personally ordered” the disbanding of the Ikhwan to “normalize relations” with Syria. To do so, Hussein “publicly admitted that the brotherhood had maintained camps in Jordan which they used as bases for attacks” against the Assad government in Syria.  His claim that the camps “existed without his knowledge were,” given his close relationship with Jordanian Ikhwan, taken with a grain of salt. Bayanouni remained in Amman untouched.

In May 1986 the Jordan government used its security forces to quash a student rebellion in Irbed involving high fees and crowded facilities.  The government claimed special forces were needed to end a protest that was led by both “anti-government political organizations, including the Communists,” and exiled Syrian members the Muslim Brotherhood.  When the exiled Syrians continued to receive threats, Bayanouni finally got the message and fled the Kingdom for Europe.  He arrived in Britain in 2000 and was granted asylum as a political refugee.  His associate Issam al-Attar landed in Germany where he led the Islamist Talaai organization founded in Germany in the late nineteen seventies.

The Ikhwan Revival in Jordan 

Throughout its long existence in Jordan the crafty Muslim Brotherhood leadership learned to live in peace with the Royal Family.  The 1952 Constitution had provided for citizens of Jordan to form and join political parties, but those rights were suspended in 1967 when a state of emergency was declared.  Martial law was declared and Parliament was suspended, and the actions were not repealed until 1989.  In that year a series of public protests led the King to fire his Prime Minister and then announce elections would be held later that year.  In what foreign observers called an unexpectedly impartial election, the Jabhat al-Amal al-Islami (Islamic Action Front, or IAF), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, won 32 seats in the 80 member Jordanian House of Representatives. The King’s action to re-convene parliament was considered a significant move to enable the Jordanian public to enjoy greater political freedom. The move was labeled by Freedom House as “the Arab World’s most promising experiment in political liberalization and reform.”

Ironically, the IAF election success of 1989, though welcomed by indigenous Ikhwan, was not to the liking of Palestinian Muslim Brothers located in far off Pakistan. In Peshawar, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam and Abu Zaydan conspired to raise a counter-attack on the appeasers by using the jihadist Jaish Mohammad (Mohammed’s Army, or JM).  The JM, a movement founded in Jordan in 1988, was yet another terrorist offshoot of the Ikhwan tree.  Perhaps never numbering more than one hundred men, in January 1991 the Afghan-Arab veterans returned to Jordan and led a series of attacks on the Christian community. The atrocities received wide condemnation, and fortunately in less than a year the revolutionaries were rounded-up.

The JM effort may have angered the King, but it worried the Ikhwan, which understood that the government’s ferocious response a warning that their own organization could be in trouble.

The resumption of the parliamentary election was reinforced by new laws governing the media and publishing as well as fewer restrictions on freedoms of expression. Political parties were legalized in 1992, and in the following year the first multi-party elections were held since 1956.

The 1993 elections and the resulting success of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front was a sure indication that the movement was still popular.  And once again it was held guiltless after a number of Afghan-Arabs jihadists who had returned to Jordan to cause problems were captured in 1994.  Among the defendants were a number of former Ikhwan, including the principal defendant Abdallah Kamil al-Hashayikah, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Suwaylih Branch.  (Al-Hashayikah had worked with Jamal Khalifah, Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law in Al Qaeda sponsored charities created in the Philippines.)  Eventually, eight men were sentenced to death. The King commuted their sentences to life in prison, but the Royals were aware that there were still dangerous Jordanians still at large.

In April 1994 newspapers warned that the men responsible for the recent bombings were just the tip of an organization that included “nearly 400 Jordanians and Palestinians” who had undergone military training with other Afghan-Arab mujahideen. The Jordanian Ikhwan certainly had its political enemies, and there existed Amman papers that raised the possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood involvement. In one case it was observed that “Several quarters insinuated” that the Ikhwan “could be implicated” in the explosions because both a Brotherhood leader from Suwaylih and individuals “close to the hawkish wing of the Muslim Brotherhood” were involved in terrorist acts.  If that were so, other arrests did not implicate the Ikhwan. The Muslim Brotherhood declared its innocence, and regularly continued to do so.

It was a difficult time for the Ikhwan leadership because its younger members strongly opposed the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty signed in 1994.  Although the Islamic Action Front openly supported Hamas, its fellow Ikhwan organization, the leadership escaped a trap when (through policy or the lack of funds) it failed to help fund Hamas suicide operations against Israel.  The IAF was thus excluded from the post 9/11 lists prepared by the United States, European and United Nations that noted organizations supporting terrorism.

Thereafter the Jordanian Ikhwan had to walk a fine line given the presence of the revolutionary Hamas organization and the Intifada occurring next door in Palestine. Though the Jordan Ikhwan achieved a privileged status it was not free to do as it wishes.  In September 1996 six top members were arrested, tortured and held for what could be considered as acts of lèse majesté.  Included in the group was Abdelaziz Amri, Amman Bureau Chief of the Hamas news daily Filistina al-Muslima.

By 1999 the Ikhwan was again on good terms with the royal family, and in March the Ikhwan representative Abd al-Magid al-Nebias met with the King in a secret session, after which it was revealed that the King would release a dozen Ikhwan who had been jailed during an earlier round-up. Later that year Jordan’s Ikhwan leader Abd al-Rahman Khalifa was allowed to organize a World Popular Islamic Conference which was held in Annam and, “attended by the leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood worldwide.”  And following 9/11 the IAF was quick to disassociate itself from the activity of Jordanian-born and al-Qaeda operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the number of former Muslim Brothers in his coterie.

In late December 2003 the Jordanian Ikhwan took advantage of the government’s recently eased entry into the media.  It wanted to, but was generally blocked, from creating a television and radio network that could implement Islamic outreach (dawaa) throughout the Hashemite Kingdom.  The effort attempted to replicate the Ikhwan’s tradition that began with Hasan al-Banna, and it sought to use the modern media to broadcast its message to the people.

The Plotters

Although the Jordan royals kept a close eye on the domestic Ikhwan, for reasons of its own it allowed exiled Brothers to live in Amman and plot against the enemies of Ikhwan. One example was Khaled Mashal (1956-), a Palestinian exile resident in Kuwait, chose a different path from Arafat but also achieved renown. Born in Palestine, he moved with his father to the Gulf, settling in Kuwait in the nineteen sixties.  In school Mashal joined the Ikwhan in 1971. He attended Kuwait University, studied physics, and found time to create an Ikhwan student organization.  Graduating in 1978 he taught at the University and became a leader of the Palestinian Ikhwan in exile.

Following the creation of Hamas in 1987, Mashal was head of a group of Palestinian Ikhwan who lived in Kuwait.  When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 Mashal moved to Jordan and there became head of the Hamas international fundraising effort.  Surviving an Israeli assassination attempt, when the Jordan government closed down his Hamas fundraising operation Mashal was briefly jailed and a decade after arriving in Jordan he left for Syria and set up shop.  In 2001 he was named Political Chief of Hamas, and following the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, he was named in 2004 to lead Hamas, the Palestine branch of the international Ikhwan al-Muslimun.

In 1999, Hamas was banned in Jordan. Jordan’s King Abdullah accused it of using Jordanian soil for illegal activities, and for trying to disrupt the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. In that year, Jordan arrested top Hamas leaders, including Mashal, Mousa Abu Marzook, and five others after they returned to Jordan from a trip to Iran.  They were charged with being members of an organization outlawed by Jordan, for illegal possession of light weapons and hand grenades, fraud, and illegal fundraising.  As noted above, Mashal was expelled from Jordan. He made his home initially in Qatar, and in 2001 moved to Damascus.  In February 2012, as the Syrian civil war progressed, Mashal left Syria and returned to Qatar.

Recent Developments

In January 2010 the Ikhwan suffered a major embarrassment when six senior members were charged with corruption and mismanagement of the Brotherhood’s Islamic charities. It was not known if the annual charitable funds (zakat) collected were used on Islamist terrorists.  It could not be proved and under normal legal circumstances would not be illegal, as it is argued by some that zakat can be used in support of those fighting in the name of Allah.

Ironically the trial was only months in advance of what would be called the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia.  A campaign of civil resistance to the Zine El Abdine Ben Ali government was sparked by a single event that began in December 2010.  It resulted in the shocking ouster of the entrenched Ben Ali government in January 2011.

The revolutionary developments that impacted the Middle East, which, beginning with events in Tunisia, reached a fever pitch with the deposal of Egypt’s Mubarak government also in January 2011. The street demonstrations held in Tunisia and Egypt began to spread throughout the Middle East.  It can be said that the intensity of the revolt surprised the Muslim Brotherhood center in Egypt and the An Nahda Ikhwan movement in Tunisia, and neither could take advantage of the situation for months to come.  Meanwhile in Jordan, King Abdullah II by February 2011 was forced to make an effort to resolve what had become widespread public discontent. Thus, after weeks of protests demanding political change in Jordan, the king met with the various political parties. In doing so, his meeting with Muslim Brotherhood leaders was the first time he had held such a meeting in nearly a decade.

With Jordan about to suffer its own “Arab Spring”, King Abdullah fired his cabinet and appointed Marouf al-Bakhit prime minister. The king publicly instructed Bakhit to institute democratic reforms and involve more Jordanians in government. An official statement was issued that verified the King had met with an Ikhwan delegation and members of its political arm, the Islamic Action Front, claimed that the two sides seemingly agreed to work together to increase the role of citizens in the political process.  From his office in Amman Zaki Bani Rsheid added a surprising note that Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit had offered the Ikhwan “a role” in government, but Rsheid had rejected the offer.  As he put it, “We refused because we want the prime minister to be elected, not appointed by the king, and we want real elections.”  The Ikhwan did not indicate that it would eschew involvement in the body politic, and its leadership was convinced it had the support of 25 to 30 percent of Jordan’s voting public.

Urged by the King, a new electoral law would be drafted that allowed the political parties greater freedom to take part in elections. The result was an election held in January 2013 during which 1,425 candidates battled to win a four-year term to the a 159-member lower house of parliament.  Perhaps sensing that it was not as powerful as its leadership presumed, the Jordan Ikhwan boycotted the election.  It used the excuse that the Ikhwan was disadvantaged because the election favored the rural tribes over the urban residents.

At the time of the election in early 2013, it must have seemed to the Ikhwan that time was on its side.  It looked to Tunisia and Egypt as examples of where the Muslim Brotherhood achieved power in the face of an entrenched power structure.  Only months later, however, the Jordanian leadership must have viewed with great dismay events in Egypt and Tunisia, as in both cases the Muslim Brotherhood were driven from power.  To many observers it appeared that the Ikhwan had reached its political apogee in the Middle East, and the Ikhwan in Jordan, like its fraternal chapters elsewhere in the region, would be driven into the political wilderness.

It has happened before, but if nothing else the Ikhwan has staying power.

* J. Millard Burr is a Senior Fellow at the American Center for Democracy.

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