The U.S. has dusted off plans to add the Muslim Brotherhood to its list of foreign terrorist organizations. Officials said a designation was being prepared after President Donald Trump in April hosted his Egyptian counterpart Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who as army chief in 2013 evicted the group from power and then cracked down on Islamists. Listing the loosely-affiliated Brotherhood would bar Americans from providing it with assistance and force U.S. financial institutions to freeze its assets. Political parties inspired by its tenets are in power in several nations, potentially exposing those governments to penalties.
1. What is the Muslim Brotherhood?
The group, called al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun in Arabic, is a 90-year-old movement among members of Islam’s majority Sunni branch that combines political activism with charity work. The Brotherhood and the mainstream Islamist parties it has inspired across the Muslim world believe Islamic law and values should play a central role in public and political life. Its most famous slogan is: “Islam is the solution.” The movement defines itself as non-violent, accepting parliamentary politics and participating in state structures. Its members often disagree on issues like the rights of women and minorities. All that puts it at odds with radical Islamist militants, such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State, which denounced the Brotherhood as a “devastating cancer” that cares more for democracy than faith.
2. Where did it come from?
The Brotherhood was founded in 1928, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, by Egyptian school teacher Hasan al-Banna to raise “a generation of Muslims who would understand Islam correctly and act according to its teachings.” It gained a political role driven in part by its rejection of colonialism and Zionism. The Brotherhood provided the main opposition to decades of autocratic rule in Egypt, building its strength on a grassroots movement that provided services and support where the government fell short. Offshoots inspired by the Brotherhood took root in many countries, often adapting its ideology to their own local circumstances. In Tunisia, for example, the Islamist Ennahda party played a pragmatic part in the transition to democracy, dropping its push for a reference to Islamic sharia law during the drafting of the 2014 constitution.
3. How did it become associated with violence?
Arguments within the organization arose early on over how to achieve its aims, and in 1954 a group of Brothers attempted to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Among its early supporters was Sayyid Qutb, whose writings later inspired al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. Outside Egypt, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood fought against the Syrian government in the 1970s and 1980s. One offshoot, the Palestinian group Hamas, is considered a terrorist entity by Israel, the U.S. and European Union. Two others that emerged in Egypt in 2014 after hundreds of Islamists were jailed and killed have been labeled as terrorists by the U.S.
4. What are Trump’s motivations?
At least two previous administrations considered the idea before Trump first discussed it in 2017 and then reintroduced it after his talks with El-Sisi in April. The Trump administration has swung firmly behind Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in a joint attempt to roll back the influence of shared foe Iran. All three U.S. allies have banned the group, arguing despite its denials that it shares the extremist agenda of groups such as al-Qaeda and that it doesn’t accept the idea of the nation state. Autocratic Gulf governments fear the Brotherhood’s power at the ballot box. Those concerns grew after it thrived in the political vacuum created by the 2011 Arab Spring, especially in Egypt. There, Mohamed Mursi, a Brotherhood member, won election as president but was accused of curtailing civil liberties and concentrating power in the group’s hands. He was ousted after a year by a military-backed uprising.
5. What do critics say about the idea?
Many experts say the Brotherhood doesn’t fit the criteria for terrorist activity outlined by U.S. law because there’s no proof it has engaged in violence that threatens the U.S. or its interests. Designation wouldn’t be easy because the Brotherhood itself is deeply fragmented and not monolithic. Aside from the political parties it has inspired, there are charities and mosques all over the world that have links to the group. The move also risks alienating countless Muslims. Even some of those critical of the Brotherhood -- who regard it as illiberal, authoritarian or suspiciously secretive -- say it shouldn’t be banned.
6. What are other ramifications of a designation?
The move risks stoking tension with U.S. allies in the Middle East. The ruling parties in Morocco and Turkey emerged from the Brotherhood, while another spinoff group is a coalition partner in Tunisia. In Algeria and Kuwait, groups close to the Brotherhood are in the official opposition. Jordan has the strongest chapter of the Brotherhood. Labeling it a terrorist group would feed into the propaganda of Islamic State, which says violence is the only way forward because democracy can’t accommodate any kind of Islamism. A designation could radicalize factions within the group that are already disillusioned with its embrace of electoral politics after the experience in Egypt. Critics argue as well that it would divert attention from tackling pressing terrorist threats.
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