Terrorist Designation of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Highly Risky

by Emile Nakhleh

For the first time in its 85-year history, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Wednesday was declared a terrorist organization. The provisional government’s decision yesterday, presumably with the military junta’s approval, came after two deadly bombings in Mansura and Cairo.

The government offered no proof of the MB’s involvement in the bombings; in fact, a radical group by the name of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Defenders of the Holy Mosque) claimed responsibility for the attacks. The MB denounced all violent acts, especially against security officers.

The government ‘s action against the MB will have far-reaching implications, both short-term and long-term, for Egypt and ultimately for the US. Declaring the MB a terrorist organization is a short-term victory for the hard-liners within the junta and the provisional civilian government who have vowed to crush the MB. But it is a Pyrrhic victory because since the 1940s every Egyptian government, which clashed with the MB, failed to crush it.

The MB is not just a political organization, as these hardliners maintain. It is a social, religious, educational, healthcare, and cultural movement. It’s the most visible and credible face of civic Islam in the country. It is also the largest and most-disciplined Islamic political society in the Arab and Sunni Islamic world.

The MB has penetrated Egyptian society, especially in the lower middle class and poorer neighborhoods, through a myriad of non-governmental organizations. These groups provide food, healthcare, childcare, and education for free or at affordable costs. Furthermore, millions of middle class, professional Egyptians benefit from the medical services of MB-run hospitals and clinics.

When compared with expensive private hospitals or low-quality government hospitals, MB health facilities offer the only appealing alternative available to most Egyptians.

The government’s short-sighted decision branding the MB a terrorist organization will force all these services to stop, leaving millions of Egyptians without health, education, and welfare services. These abrupt hardships would push people to the streets, creating a new wave of unrest, violence, and instability.

The military junta is blindly lashing out against the MB because it has failed to quell the daily demonstrations against its deepening dictatorship. The recent convictions and imprisonment of three Tahrir Square secular icons is another sign of the military’s visceral and ruthless intolerance of all voices of opposition, secular or Islamist.

The government’s action is not expected to stop public demonstrations against the military despite the rising wave of arrests of MB members and sympathizers. As more MB leaders are detained and as communications between the leadership and rank and file are interrupted, younger and perhaps more radical members of the MB will hit the streets. Egypt will experience a heightened level of chaos and insecurity.

Chances for an inclusive political settlement are rapidly diminishing. The military junta would be foolish to think they could devise a stable political system without including the MB. Political Islam is an organic component of Egyptian politics dating back to 1928 when the MB was founded.

General Sisi might ride the wave of anti-MB hysteria all the way to the presidency, but riding the tiger is a risky proposition, as the modern history of Egypt has shown. He should learn from the military dictators who preceded him as presidents that repressing the MB and jailing and executing its leaders have failed to make it go away. The wave of violence that is expected to follow the junta’s decision would ultimately force the government to reconsider its decision.

Declaring the MB a terrorist organization will also have serious negative implications for the United States.  Hard-line supporters of the military will likely accuse the US of coddling the MB, and MB supporters would turn against the US for its perceived support of the military. American personnel and facilities in Egypt will be targeted by regime thugs and by potential terrorists.

The US State Department’s mild rebuke of the junta’s action — voicing its support for “an inclusive political process” and calling for “dialogue and political participation across the political spectrum” — will fail to satisfy either the military or the MB.  Washington should make it clear to the junta that political stability in Egypt cannot be achieved by excluding the MB and its affiliates from the political process.

In fact, Washington has been engaging the MB since the early 1990s when the organization decided to shun violence and participate in Egyptian politics through elections despite frequent objections from the Mubarak regime.  The US should continue to do so regardless of the junta’s ill-advised decision.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. The Egyptian MB was twice formally banned, in Dec. 1948 and in Jan. 1954. Although such a thing as terrorist designation did not exist in Egyptian law, both decrees mentioned terrorism (assassinations, etc) as a reason for the ban.

  2. Hard to see how Washington can do anything today that doesn’t conflict with meddling in other countries affairs in a less than desirable outcome. There seems to be too many chiefs in the process, leaving me to believe since our esteemed Senators attained P.O.T.U.S. status or near status, that most all want that distinction, or at least believe they know what’s best for the country/world. In the process, they drive the worldview that this country once enjoyed, to that of bully. How Washington responds to this latest development, is anybodies guess, but high hopes are not on the agenda that the right direction will lead to a solution.

  3. Declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization is a risky and counter-productive policy, but even if it were none of those it is still wrong. After decades of being banned from participation in politics, the MB took part in a democratic election and won a sizeable majority of votes. President Morsi and the MB should have been removed from power through the ballot box not through a violent military coup. Sadly, these developments mean that Egypt will be in turmoil for a long time to come, and it also reveals the nature of the Saudi regime that opposes democratic elections and supports the military junta. The democratic West has no option but to condemn the coup and call for a return to democracy if it wants to remain true to its principles. By doing so it will also help Egypt move away from failed policies of military dictatorships and will win the support of the vast majority of the Egyptians who staged a revolution to depose a dictator.

  4. A wagging tail is nice to behold until you wake up to the fact that it’s your tail and someone else (in this
    case, Saudi Arabia) is wagging it.

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