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Politics, Profile

Liberal Islam’s Poster Boy

Kamal Helbawy
Kamal Helbawy. THE MAJALLA
Kamal Al-Helbawy, until recently one of the oldest members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has spent most of his life on the perimeters of power. Coming of age in Cairo when Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser was waging a brutal war on the Ikhwan (as the Brotherhood is known in Arabic), he and his comrades spent most of their time working in the shadows at home or in exile abroad. From London, where he lived for nearly two decades until his return to Egypt last year, Helbawy wrote prophetically about the limits of violent jihad and the power of ecumenism. Just as he condemned Nasser and his successors, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, for their transgressions, he writes scornfully against the now-ruling Ikhwan for what he says is the group’s polarizing lust for absolute power.

Bespectacled, thick-set and acerbic, Helbawy has become a seventy-year-old poster-boy for liberal Islamist governance in the most populated and influential Arab state. A year after Mubarak was peacefully deposed in 2011, Helbawy left the Brotherhood along with other dissident members, appalled at the group’s ham-fisted entry into politics. “The Ikhwan”, he said to The Majalla in a gravelly baritone voice, should avoid the political realm and instead transform itself into “an academy for developing the character of Egypt’s youth to prepare them for their professions, including legislators.” He has condemned ex-president Mohamed Mursi, (who resigned from the Brotherhood last year ahead of his inauguration as Egypt’s president), as having been the figurehead of an Islamist-dominated government that, for its increasingly autocratic ways, is little different than its predecessor. “A leadership that makes such fatal mistakes during such a critical period I cannot support,” he said recently from his modest office in suburban Cairo. “The Brotherhood behaves as if there was no revolution.”

Hobbled by knee problems and ill-fitting bridgework, the seventy-four-year-old Helbawy delights in goading his detractors among the ultra-orthodox Salafis as well as their bourgeoisie rivals in the Brotherhood. In response to the passing in April of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he expressed in a column his yearning for an Egyptian leader of similar vision and resolve regardless of sex or religion. “This of course angered the Salafis,” Helbawy said. “They are always unhappy with me. They believe only men and Muslims should rule.”

Helbawy grew up as a farmer’s son in the village of Kafr Al-Batanoon in Egypt’s Monufiya Governorate. He joined the Brotherhood at the age of twelve, not long before the young Colonel Nasser and his cabal of nationalist officers seized power. A tactical alliance between Nasser and the Ikhwan—which Nasser is rumored to have once been a member—quickly dissolved and most of the group’s leaders were driven underground or jailed. After graduating from Cairo University in 1960 with a degree in Arabic literature, Helbawy earned a post-graduate degree in management and spent the next decade as an educator and translator. It was not until after Nasser’s death in 1970 and Sadat’s rapprochement with the Islamists that Helbawy and his comrades were allowed to engage the Muslim world with ambitious plans to expand their influence worldwide.

He joined the Brotherhood at the age of twelve, not long before the young Colonel Nasser and his cabal of nationalist officers seized power. A tactical alliance between Nasser and the Ikhwan

In 1971, Helbawy moved to Nigeria where he helped to launch the Islamic Educational Trust and recruited new Brotherhood members, a formative step in the creation of the Ikhwan’s International Assembly. Several years later, at a time when relations between the Ikhwan and Saudi Arabia were strong, he was dispatched to Saudi Arabia where he drafted a curriculum for Islamic study. While living in Riyadh he hosted his fellow Egyptian and Muslim Brother Mohammed Maudi Akef after his release from prison. Year’s later, Akef would become the group’s penultimate Supreme Guide of the pre-revolutionary era.

In 1988, Helbawy journeyed to Afghanistan where he coordinated the Ikhwan’s network of relief agencies for mujahideen fighters and their families. He insists his work in the region was exclusively humanitarian. “Everyone thinks that if you worked there you must be a fighter,” he said, “but the real work was building schools, orphanages, and wells.” Helbawy, who edited a 16-volume study of the war while in Islamabad, faults the U.S. for abandoning the Afghan guerrillas to their fate. “America was unfaithful,” he said. “It benefited from the Afghan people’s efforts to destroy the Soviet Union only to devastate Afghanistan.”

Nearly a decade later, poised for his return to Egypt after years of living and working abroad, Helbawy decided to lie low. The Mubarak regime, fearing Islamists who fought or worked with the mujahideen posed a security threat, were rounding them up and jailing them. When told that the Pakistani government might deport him, presumably at Mubarak’s request, Helbawy fled to London where he would spend the next twenty-three years in self-imposed exile.

It was a fertile defection. From London, Helbawy wrote for publications worldwide about the need for Islamic leaders to embrace modernity and knowledge for its own sake, axiomatic of Brotherhood founder Hassan Al Banna’s belief that faith should, as Helbawy puts it, “liberate the mind and urge people to study the universe.” In 2004, he became the Secretary General of the Forum for Islamic Unity, where he worked to mend tensions between Sunni and Shia communities inflamed throughout the Arab world after the U.S. invasion of Iraq triggered sectarian conflict there.

A vocal opponent of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, Helbawy was equally critical of the U.S. invasion. On October 19, 2006, he paid a price for his commentary. Prepared for takeoff on a taxing American Airlines flight bound for New York, where he was to speak at a conference on the Brotherhood, Helbawy and his fellow passengers were informed by the flight captain of a departure delay and the aircraft was towed back to the gate. Helbawy was asked to come forward, where he was met by an official of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and informed he had been rendered inadmissible for entry to the U.S. because he was not issued a visa by the U.S. embassy in London. The fact that Helbawy, as a British citizen, did not require a visa was ignored and Helbawy was escorted off the plane. The State Department would not say why Helbawy was barred from the U.S., though the incident coincided with the Bush administration’s increasingly broad interpretation of post 9/11 legislation to keep out foreign scholars critical of White House policies. “It’s just as well,” Helbawy said with a laugh. “Had I landed in the U.S. they might have rendered me straight to Guantanamo Bay.”

In 2010, Helbawy called for his Brotherhood comrades to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections and to support pro-democracy activist Mohamed El Baradai’s calls for civil disobedience. When the Ikhwan instead participated in the ballot, Helbawy began to question the motives of the group’s new, more conservative leadership, which had prevailed in a power struggle against a more liberal faction behind Mohammed Habib, the former Deputy Supreme Guide.

With Mubarak’s ousting a year later, Helbawy returned to Egypt and was welcomed at the airport by Akef and other Brotherhood allies. He wasted no time condemning what he described as the Ikhwan’s aggrandizing of the largely secular revolution that had, with the army’s help, dispatched the regime. Helbawy led attacks on the group for winning more than half the seats in parliament in national elections after assuring the country it wanted no more than a third, and nominating Khairat al Shater, the Ikhwan’s formidable powerbroker, for president despite earlier vows that it would not contest the presidency. (El Shater was forced to drop out of the election on legal grounds and was replaced by Morsi.) He was equally hard on the group when its members, along with other hardline Islamists, dominated a committee tasked with writing the country’s post-Mubarak constitution.

Helbawy is only one of a number of prominent Ikhwanists to have left the group, including Habib, Mokhtar Nouh, Ibrahim El-Za’farny, Tharwat El-Kherbawy and Abdel Monheim Aboul Fotouh, who ran a respectable campaign for president and now heads his own party. Active in the political opposition, they were buoyed by a swelling tide of anger against what was widely seen as Morsi’s imperious leadership style.

Helbawy, who backed Aboul Fotouh in the elections, spends most of his time writing columns for the thicket of publications that have emerged since Mubarak was swept away. He remains on the sidelines, mentoring young Islamists and working with secular opposition leaders to forge a viable alternative to the Brotherhood and its Salafi counterparts. An optimist a year ago, he now sees a dim future ahead, both for the Islamists in power as well as Egypt. Having failed to assemble a coalition government, he says, Mursi and his Ikhwan allies have no partner to blame for failing to assist the recovery of Egypt from more than two years of economic decay. And that, he says, “could spell disaster for political Islam.”

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Stephen Glain
Stephen Glain is a freelance journalist and author based in Paris. For two decades, as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, he covered Asia, the Middle East and the policy sausage factories of Washington, D.C. He is the author of two books: Mullahs, Merchants, and Militants: The Economic Collapse of the Arab World (St. Martin’s Press, 2004) and State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire (Crown Books, 2011).

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