At the start of the new year, major think tanks in the United States' capital presented key policy recommendations to the American president. One of these recommendations was a policy memo that advised President Obama on how to address the potential radicalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood with respect to recent and ongoing political developments in Egypt.
The brief, written by Tamara Witts and Daniel Byman, projects that the future of the Brotherhood is at stake and urges action to prevent the group from radicalising and resorting to violence that could spill beyond the borders of Egypt and subsequently threaten Washington's interests in the Middle East. The three-page memo asserted that the military coup that ousted president Mohamed Morsi and its aftermath, which led to the arrest of the former president and the persecution of the Brotherhood, have increased tensions and instability and put Washington's vested interest in a stable Egypt at risk. It added that the continued exclusion of the Brotherhood from the political process could result in its members rejecting peaceful alternatives and resorting to terrorist tactics; this would ultimately pose a legitimate threat to Washington's interests in and outside Egypt.
Addressing the threat
The memo asserted that the US cannot prevent some Brotherhood members from resorting to radical methods, but it can, at a minimum, reduce the risk of this possible transformation by weakening the potential and capabilities of neo-Islamist radicalism.
It also warned the president not to ask the new regime in Cairo to release president Morsi, but rather, to request a fair trial for Morsi as well as others accused of acts of violence, so long as there is conclusive evidence. At the same time, those charged with committing acts of violence for which there is not conclusive evidence should be released. The memo also urged US encouragement of the Egyptian government to reconcile with leading Brotherhood figures who are seeking to resolve strained relations with the Egyptian state and powers that be.
The memo reviewed recent political developments in Egypt, starting with the popular opposition to the Brotherhood prior to 30 June 2013, the mass protests that followed, the interference of the army, and the ultimate overthrow of Morsi. The two authors reminded President Obama that his decision on 9 October to halt an arms shipment to the Egyptian army did not change anything on the ground, and that the influence of US aid is very weak. The memo also noted the Egyptian army’s determination to completely eliminate the Brotherhood and the shocking spike in clashes between security forces and Brotherhood supporters. The brief added that although the Brotherhood has not yet ordered its members to take up arms and resort to force, there is growing pressure by younger members move in that direction in response to violent government repression.
How to respond
The memo suggested five steps to reduce the risk of a radicalised Brotherhood. First, US officials should inform its Egyptian counterparts that Washington believes the radicalisation of the Brotherhood is avoidable and that the risk can be reduced by allowing innocent Brotherhood leaders and other Islamists to play a role in political and social life even while the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood is in place.
Second, the US administration must clearly state its commitment to the army's ability to protect its interest through its counterterrorism activities and protection of Israeli security. At the same time, it is important for Washington to highlight the need to respect human rights and rule of law by making a clear distinction between Islamists and terrorists.
Third, the US administration should continue correspondence with all Islamist forces and figures who have not committed violence, including Brotherhood members in and outside of Egypt. The administration should pressure these forces to insist on peaceful alternatives while condemning anyone who calls for or incites violence.
Fourth, Washington should convince US allies such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who are concerned that democracy will bring the Brotherhood to power, that supporting its complete exclusion may lead to the group's radicalisation; an outcome which runs counter to their regional interests.
Fifth, US intelligence should be prepared to address any radicalisation that does occur. Information gathering on Egyptian Islamists should be prioritised with a focus on any possible links between any members of the Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda or Palestinian jihadist groups. US intelligence should also work closely with the Israelis in data gathering, analysis, and comparison while also studying data it receives from Egyptian intelligence.
The memo concludes that political conditions in Egypt are uncertain and that chaos has put Washington in a position of reaction as opposed to taking initiative. Thus, once again it is obvious that Washington’s influence and leverage over Egypt’s domestic politics is lacking. President Obama seems to have no other option but to deal with whoever occupies the Ittahideya presidential palace whether his name is Hosni Mubarak, Hussein Tantawy, Mohamed Morsi or Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
Mohamed Elmenshawy is a researcher focusing on Egyptian politics. Follow him on Twitter @ElMenshawyM or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org