Right-wing critics of Islamic militancy have long targeted the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2016, then-Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), now secretary of state, advanced a similar proposal. In 2017, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) sponsored legislation that would require the White House to make a determination on whether the Brotherhood fit the criteria for terrorist designation. Trump contemplated the move early in his term.
Key Arab allies to the United States — such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — made such a terrorist designation in the years following Egypt’s July 3, 2013, military coup, in which the elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government was overthrown.
Those moves all failed in the face of strong institutional and political resistance. Almost all academics and analysts, even those critical of the Brotherhood, agree that it is not a terrorist organization. Moreover, such a designation would introduce a plethora of political problems in the Middle East and at home.
Those arguments have proved decisive so many times, it almost seems redundant to again litigate them. This time could be different, however, even if little has changed on the factual or political merits of the proposal.
Trump has repeatedly adopted ideas such as moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, despite expert consensus to the contrary. The Trump administration may not worry about the likely consequences of tagging the Brotherhood as a terrorist group, and may view its political benefits as outweighing the likely costs.
Is the Brotherhood a terrorist organization? First, there is near universal consensus in the analytical, academic and intelligence communities that the Brotherhood is not a terrorist organization. This is notable given the widespread and fierce disagreement among those experts about other questions, such as whether the Brotherhood is committed to democracy or can serve as a firewall against violent extremism.
For the past seven years, I have been leading a series of Project on Middle East Political Science workshops focused on the many ways Islamist movements have changed since the Arab uprisings of 2011. The uprisings, and the successes and setbacks that followed, have fundamentally transformed the Muslim Brotherhood’s political strategies, organizations and ideas — as well as the environments within which they operate. Those changes do require rethinking of our theories. But none of those changes support a terrorist designation.
For decades, and even more after the 9/11 attacks, the Muslim Brotherhood has positioned itself as the nonviolent alternative to al-Qaeda’s Islamic militancy. While critics noted that the Brotherhood shares some of the same Islamist goals and ideological genealogy, the Brotherhood has clearly laid out a rejection of al-Qaeda’s embrace of violence (and, later, that of the Islamic State).
The Brotherhood’s political strategy and ideology emphasized patient social transformation and electoral participation rather than violent overthrow of regimes. It has consistently condemned acts of terrorism such as al-Qaeda’s attack on the United States.
This is not to say that all Muslim Brotherhood affiliates are nonviolent. Brotherhood national affiliates share a common organizational and ideological foundation, but do not have any real organizational coherence at the international level. They have evolved in very different directions based on local context. They have been more willing to take up arms in arenas viewed as legitimate struggles against occupation. Hamas has long used terrorism and violence against Israel. Brotherhood factions joined the Syrian insurgency, fought on one side of the Libyan civil war, and supported the post-2003 Iraqi insurgency against the U.S. occupation.
But even in those violent contexts, the Brotherhood has typically positioned itself against al-Qaeda and ISIS. Brotherhood-linked insurgency factions were key to the 2006-2008 realignment of Iraqi Sunnis against the Islamic State in Iraq that enabled the “Surge.” In Syria, the Brotherhood was a key component of the insurgency against Bashar al-Asad’s regime and against ISIS.
The Brotherhood in Egypt has been fundamentally transformed by a series of events: the July 2013 coup that removed the Brotherhood-aligned Mohamed Morsi from the presidency; the Aug. 14, 2013 massacre of Islamist protesters in central Cairo; and the systematic campaign of repression that has put many thousands of alleged Brotherhood members or sympathizers in prison or drove them into exile.
Egypt’s post-coup repression shattered the organization, removed its leadership, destroyed its public presence and social infrastructure, and weakened its arguments for the superiority of democratic participation. Such an experience would have radicalized many organizations and individuals, regardless of ideology. Some Brotherhood members did shift toward violence in response, and those splinter factions have already been designated as terrorist organizations. But there has been little sign of a large-scale, organized Brotherhood shift toward violent insurgency in Egypt, and Brotherhood affiliates elsewhere continue to play the democratic game where permitted.
So why designate it now? Without new evidence or reason to support changing the assessment of the Muslim Brotherhood, why is it back on the table? In part, it may simply be part of a broader pattern of Trump asserting his policy preferences more forcefully despite expert advice or institutional opposition. Individuals ideologically supportive of such a move, such as Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, are in a stronger position inside the administration following the departure of figures such as former defense secretary Jim Mattis.
The designation of the Brotherhood would also be a major reward to key Arab autocratic allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As Pompeo made clear in his January speech in Cairo, the Trump administration shares the worldview of those autocratic allies and abandoned any pretense of supporting democracy in the Middle East. The leaders of the regional autocratic axis view Islamist movements as especially threatening not just for their ideology, but because they typically have done well in electoral competition and have framed their political strategy in terms of democratic commitments that have traditionally resonated in the West. The move could be aimed at assuaging Saudi and UAE anger over other issues, such as Trump’s pressure on Saudi Arabia over oil prices or his impending Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal.
The designation would also be a major victory for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in their ongoing campaign against Qatar. Qatari support for Muslim Brotherhood movements was a key point in the justification of the blockade announced in June 2017. Since 2011, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been pitted against Qatari allies (often including the Muslim Brotherhood) in arenas ranging from Egypt and Tunisia to Libya and Syria. A terrorist designation for the Muslim Brotherhood would presumably weaken Qatar’s allies across the region. It would also debilitate U.S. pressure to end the Qatar boycott, which most of the government views as a distraction from building a united front against Iran.
Finally, such a designation may play well with Trump’s domestic political base as he moves toward the 2020 election. A terrorist designation would intensify the salience of targeting American Muslim organizations and politicians through accusations of Brotherhood sympathies. It could also open such organizations to legal risks of material support — a threat which also could endanger academic researchers who have worked on or with the Brotherhood. Such targeting of U.S. organizations or individuals would almost certainly be challenged in court, where the legal foundations seem weak. But an ongoing controversy that keeps Muslim organizations in the news and on the defensive may serve the tactics of the campaign, and the eventual success of the travel ban legislation after multiple court rulings against it shows the risks.
The move to designate the Brotherhood a terrorist organization may dissipate once more as the same objections are again raised through the policy process. That it is again being raised is nonetheless significant for what it shows about the Trump administration’s accelerating tilt toward the UAE-Saudi axis in Middle East politics, its domestic political calculations and its disregard for warnings of negative consequences. Expert consensus and factual evidence may have little to do with the policy outcome.