Renewed talk over whether the White House will designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation raises compelling questions. Why would US President Donald Trump take this step now? How will members of his administration sort out their differences over the move? And if, indeed, the Trump administration goes ahead, what repercussions will there be?
On Tuesday The New York Times published a report citing officials familiar with the matter, saying the US administration was working to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, a move that would mean “wide-ranging economic and travel sanctions” on entities that do business with the group.
According to NY Times, the US administration “directed national security and diplomatic officials to find a way to place sanctions on the group” following President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to the White House earlier this month. Egypt has been calling upon its allies to designate the group a terrorist organisation for years.
The news was confirmed by White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders who said the Trump administration was “working its way through the internal process”, to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.
The group has been banned in Egypt and labelled terrorist since 2013.
Trump is more inclined than previous US presidents to take decisions his predecessors regarded as risky or better to avoid. Examples include moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran and recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. His record indicates that, despite reservations voiced by some members of his administration against designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, he may take the decision. It would be in keeping with his determination to demonstrate his ability to go where his predecessors feared to tread.
According to NY Times, there is no unanimity on the decision in the White House, bur national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are supportive of the decision.
In fact, Pompeo has been co-sponsoring legislation with other conservatives to take the step when he was a member of Congress.
However, others, including the Defense Department, have “voiced legal and policy objections”.
Blacklisting the Muslim Brotherhood poses a number of problems for Trump. Taking such a step at this time might lead some to link it with his 8 April decision to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group.
The move might be read as an inclination to lump Shias and Sunnis together as opposed to US interests in the Middle East. This would mark a reversal of the trend under the Bush Jr and Obama administrations that sought to set Sunnis against Shias as part of a strategy to contain Iran.
A second problem is how to formulate the decision legally. Trump and his team will need to furnish proof that the Muslim Brotherhood is directly implicated in terrorist acts. And supposing that they can produce such evidence, there arises questions about the potential impact on US security and its political and economic interests.
Influential think tanks in the US are unlikely to help Trump out with this decision. Most cling to the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood is a political opposition movement, as opposed to a group with a religious or theocratic agenda.
Their view has been proven wrong on both the theoretical and practical levels. Former presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood member who served as a high-ranking member of the organisation’s Guidance Bureau in Egypt, admitted that the organisation does not educate its members in politics and the arts of political give-and-take and consensus-making but rather inculcates a discipline of proselytising. The approach is essentially racist: it is founded on a notion of inherent supremacy over others and accordingly sanctions the violation of the civil and human rights of political opponents and of non-Muslims.
The Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated this practically during its short period in power in Egypt under the figurehead of Mohamed Morsi. In a televised speech Morsi said Sharia Law permitted the killing of a minority, which he did not identify or quantify, so that the majority could enjoy security and stability. In other words, after the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in coming to power in Egypt, it signalled its intent to liquidate its opponents. That danger was averted when the Egyptian people rose up against Muslim Brotherhood rule and the army responded to the popular demand to remove Morsi and his group from power in June 2013.
Many in the US security establishment will argue against designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group. These agencies believe that such a decision will aggravate security risks by encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood to act openly against US interests at home and abroad in retaliation. Perhaps too, the Brotherhood would collaborate more closely with groups such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State which have attracted growing numbers of former Brotherhood members in the past five years.
If it were just a question of an individual decision there is no doubt that Trump would be capable of taking it. But the decision-making process on such matters is complex at an institutional level. In the end it is difficult to imagine that Washington will go ahead and designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, for the reasons mentioned above, which have also been noted by the NY Times. “John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, support the idea, officials said. But the Pentagon, career national security staff, government lawyers and diplomatic officials have voiced legal and policy objections, and have been scrambling to find a more limited step that would satisfy the White House,” reported the paper.
*This story was first published by Al-Ahram Weekly.