Trump’s Disastrous Plan for the Muslim Brotherhood

Muslim Brotherhood demonstration in Jordan in 2015 (Lena Ha via Shutterstock)

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.

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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. Hatem Tawfiq

    Erdogan is a terrorist? And Gullen?

  2. Emil Nakhle

    US position is very welcome news for Iran, should it come to pass.

    I agree that it is bad for America.

  3. I am not sure how can he say this after what the MB did in Egypt. I would recommend that you check el baltagy video claiming that terrorism in north Sinai will stop once morsi is back as president. I would also recommend that he goes back to alzawahry comments after June 30 2013 and the threats he made to the Egyptian ppl unless the MB is back to power. How about MB relation to the Iranian national Guard and hosting the head of the ING in Egypt to start a national guard in Egypt. How about morsi releasing 1400 terrorists from prisons a week after he came to power. Terrorist who killed tourists in Luxor in 1997. How about appointing one of these terrorists as the governor of Luxor. How about tourtiring protestors in the mosque in front of ithadya done by Khayrat al shater, the real key player in MB in Egypt. I would suggest that he reviews the facts well before claiming that they are not a terrorist group. Egypt was under heavy terrorist attacks in the 1990s until Mubarak made a deal wz the MB and since that deal, nothing happened in Egypt. I can keep writing a whole research paper on what they did that would prove that their ideology is the key to all terrorists groups around the world. Saudi Arabia was funding them to spread extremism and the funding stopped after 2011 and Saudi concern that they might eventually be their target as well. So I think Trump decision is right on time and I hope other European countries would take the same stand eventually. I am a Muslim who lives in the Middle East and I can tell you that MB is not the alternative to military rule and ppl respect their army. MB is a transnational network wz no loyality to a nation. And Morroco is not a good example cause the ppl loyality is to the king not the government. They consider him a religious figure. I am very surprised that the director of political Islam program in the cia is not aware of such facts.

  4. Yasmin Salem

    What is a credible alternative to military rule among Sunni Muslim countries, in your opinion?

    Excepting Turkey, which is MB, and Tunisia, in every single Sunni Muslim state the military hold the reigns of power, be it Pakistan or Indonesia.

    What is your plausible alternative?

    How could Sunni Muslims be ruled?

  5. I will respond to your question about alternative to military ruling but first I need to clarify the following:
    One of the major problems when looking at the Muslim countries is labeling them all as Sunni Muslim countries without look at each case individually. Sunni countries cannot be general statement to describe Muslim countries. Egypt cannot be compared to the gulf or to Indonesia or to North Africa or to turkey. You cannot generalize and claim that Sunni Islam is the main identity that describes all these countries and put them in the same context. Egypt has a different history and identity than the rest of the countries mentioned above. Even North African countries can be similar in language and culture a little but it is not religion that makes them similar. It is more that they were colonized by the French and that influenced their culture. This makes them even different from Lybia. Some of these Sunni countries have a tribal nature and some are influenced by the colonizer and some have Sunni and Shia and Kurds in case of turkey so generalizing and looking at them as just Sunni countries makes the analysis wrong to start with cause u r taking only one aspect of looking at Egypt for example. Egyptians were never rulled by religion. They are moderates and believers but still when the MB started using the religion card, the ppl rejected them because religion is personal. The MB held gatherings in front of Cairo university while they were in power to pass their constitution where they claimed that who ever will vote no against the constitution is infidel. Ppl in these gatherings were holding the black el Qaeda flags, not Egypt flags. They looked different even to the Egyptians. I would recommend that you check these videos as they are available online. Some of the speakers on that stage were terrorist like Tarek el zomor who were involved in killing Sadat. So I don’t see how can they be an alternative and how can they rule a country.
    2- in case of turkey, Erdogan changed the constitution to rule forever and he has been breaking human rights laws and arresting ppl in thousands and no one is really talking about this. Why is it ok to let an MB member manipulate a country. Is it because he was elected? I can raise the same argument and say Mubarak was elected. Why look at things differently.
    3- the west put the rule that a person wz a military background should not rule. But the question is why? Is it a science where it was proven wrong? Some of good presidents that came to rule were generals like Mitterrand in France and probably other cases too. So why do u force a transnational group that has no ties to a country and actually was involved in terrorism and whose ideology is the basis to all extremists in the world to rule a country because you think that a person wz a military background is not acceptable. Why interfere when u didn’t experience or want to ignore what happened when MB came to power. MB is a terrorist group and they tell ppl what they want to hear to get what they want but at the end of the day, they are extremists with an agenda.
    4- a country where u can buy vote with a box of rice and oil is not ready for democracy cause it is not really the free will of the ppl that makes them judge. It is how many boxes of food u will bribe them wz to get their vote. Egypt and other countries will need education and strong economy before getting to democracy. Until then, we prefer an army that will keep the country safe and stable and build the country not destroy it. Al Sisi is a great man and he built so much since he came to power and he actually had the guts to go in al azhar and tell them to change extremists ideas even though he has great respect for religion and a very religious person.
    5- I don’t think that anyone has the power really to ban MB cause they are very powerful as a transnational network but they are not powerful in Egypt cause ppl rejected them. I am curious to see if labeling MB as a terrorist organization will actually mean confesicating their assets or just will be a just a general statement regarding Egypt.
    One more thing, the Middle East stabilized more after MB were out of power. So the claim that trump decision will distablize the Middle East was proven wrong already.

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