by Emile Nakhleh
The Trump administration’s on-going discussions to designate the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) a terrorist organization would harm America’s national security and destabilize Sunni Muslim countries, many of whom are presumed allies of the United States. Despite objections to such designation from within the administration, President Trump seems to have been persuaded by Egypt’s strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during his recent visit to Washington to make this ill-advised policy.
The decision to declare the MB a terrorist organization reflects an ignorance of the organization’s history, ideology, deep roots in the Muslim world, and impact on mainstream Muslim political activism globally. If the administration’s goal is to separate radicals and extremists from mainstream Muslims, then pushing the MB into the radical camp by declaring it a terrorist organization is shortsighted and counterproductive.
According to press reports, Egyptian strongman Sisi on his recent visit to the White House lobbied Trump to declare the MB a terrorist organization. Trump reportedly acquiesced to Sisi’s request because of his visceral attraction to dictators and because of his scant knowledge of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic politics in general.
Sisi’s Campaign of Suppression
Since Sisi removed the MB-affiliated Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi from office in 2013, his regime began to target MB members mercilessly. Thousands were arrested illegally, tortured, put through sham trials, and received harsh sentences, including the death penalty. Sisi’s policy directly contradicts his earlier thinking on the matter. At the conclusion of his 2005-2006 study tour at the U.S. Army War College, he wrote a thesis in which he argued that domestic stability in Egypt could best be achieved through a partnership between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Largely because of such a position, President Morsi appointed him chief of staff of the Egyptian military. Judicial Watch obtained and published the thesis in 2013 under the Freedom of Information Act.
In the past six years, but especially since President Trump came to office, Sisi’s anti-MB policies were often done in conjunction with the Saudi, UAE, and Bahraini regimes. They too declared the MB a terrorist organization and enacted draconian “terrorism” laws that they then used to silence the opposition in their respective countries. In the past two years, thanks to support from the Trump administration, Sisi and his fellow Arab autocrats felt empowered to demonize the Muslim Brotherhood and target its members.
These regimes fear the MB because of its close connection with the people in Sunni majority countries and the social, educational, and medical services it provides. These autocrats primarily fear the MB because it speaks out for human rights, political participation, and the rule of law.
Unlike Sisi’s autocratic regime, the Muslim Brotherhood believes in gradual, peaceful political reform. Since the mid-1990s, the MB has been committed to effecting political reform through the ballot box, not the barrel of a gun. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011, the MB formed a political party, which won handily in the Egyptian legislative and presidential elections in 2012.
Since its founding in 1928 in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has become the face of community Islam across the Muslim world. Most, if not all mainstream Sunni Islamic political parties across the globe—from Turkey and Malaysia to Kuwait and Tunisia—are grounded in MB ideology. Although the organization was often involved in violence in its early years, the MB renounced violence in the mid-1990s and opted for peaceful, gradual reform working through existing political systems.
The Brotherhood’s decision to focus on elections precipitated the antagonism of Arab dictators. The MB argued that regardless of the “un-Islamic” behavior of some of those regimes, it would participate in national elections under whatever modality the regimes allowed. For example, the MB ran in Egyptian national elections in affiliation with other parties or as “independent” candidates. They generally did very well because the public viewed these candidates as less corrupt than those connected to the ruling elites and because the MB provided services that the state failed to do. The MB became the face of civic Islam in Egypt and many Arab and Muslim societies.
American Approaches to the Brotherhood
Targeting the MB in the Trump White House has been the handiwork of National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Their deeply seated Islamophobia, Iranophobia, and support for Sunni dictators against Shia Iran drive their anti-MB posture. The personal relationships that Trump and his family, especially son-in-law Jared Kushner, have forged with selected Arab autocrats in Saudi Arabia and Egypt have led the administration to accept at face value the views of these autocrats on the “terrorism” of the MB.
Sadly, by attacking the MB, the Trump administration’s clear message to the Arab and Muslim worlds is that democratic politics does not matter. The hypocrisy of this message has been made abundantly clear in Pompeo’s recent statements against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro. Pompeo defends autocracy and eschews democracy in Arab countries but voices the opposite message in Latin America.
For three decades, from the 1980s to the end of the first decade in this century, American diplomats had close contacts with the MB and its affiliated parties in Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, and other places. Most of these political parties had participated in national legislative elections and worked closely with other parties in those legislatures. During my government service, my colleagues and I engaged regularly with such Islamic political parties and movements as the MB in Egypt, the AKP in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, the PKS in Indonesia, PAS in Malaysia, the ICM in Kuwait, the IMU in Uzbekistan, the Islamic Party in Kenya, the Islamic Movement in Israel, al-Nahda in Tunisia, al-Islah in Yemen, and the Islamic Action Front in Jordan.
By engaging over the past 30 years with these political parties, which represent the vast majority of mainstream Sunni Muslims, American policymakers developed a better understanding of the Islamic world, the different historical, religious, and ideological narratives of Muslim societies, and the distinction between radicalism and extremism and mainstream Islam.
By now American policymakers should have learned that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a terrorist organization. Salafist groups such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their affiliates across the globe, which Saudi Arabia supported for years, are the real terrorists. These groups continue to spout a radical, intolerant, narrow-minded ideology emanating from Saudi Islam, which has led some of its followers to attack synagogues and churches across the globe. The MB has not engaged in such violence. Instead, it has encouraged legally established political parties to engage in politics through elections and legislative compromises.
If the White House decides to designate the MB a terrorist organization, most of these parties would become extremely reticent to engage with American diplomats, intelligence officers, and other officials at US embassies. Such a move will also alienate millions of mainstream Muslims and endanger American interests across the Muslim world. If Trump brands the MB a terrorist organization, American diplomatic and military personnel could be targeted by militant and radicalized Muslims. For all of these reasons, Trump’s precipitous decision, taken on the advice of an Egyptian autocrat, would damage American national security irreparably.