Ever since late 2017 there have been behind-the-scenes discussions in the White House about designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist organisation”. On 30 April, administration officials confirmed that it is only a matter of time before the movement is indeed designated. This will have legal ramifications and repercussions. Which Muslim Brotherhood does Washington want to designate, though? And how does that serve US interests?
Between its foundation in Egypt in 1928 and today, the Brotherhood has evolved hugely in both ideology and practice. The group’s hierarchy and decision-making processes might be the same as its founder Hassan Al-Banna envisioned it 91 years ago, but everything else has changed. It has, for example, developed extraordinary survival skills that helped it through its difficult years in Egypt from the 1960s and beyond. By creating different but affiliated organisations, each adapting itself to its own political and social environment while sharing the same ideology, the movement became one of the oldest Islamist political parties.
The Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, is a good example of how Brotherhood members mobilised their extensive popular base into charity work, before turning to resistance to the Zionist occupation. Hamas is essentially an offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and is already designated as a “global terrorist entity” in its own right. It is also a political party and, regardless of the difficulties it might face as a result of the terrorist designation, it is part of any Palestinian equation in the immediate and long-term future.
Similarly, Ennahda Movement in Tunisia was banned under the ousted Ben Ali regime, but returned post-2011 revolution which toppled the dictator. Under its skilful, politically-shrewd leader Rached Ghannouchi, the movement became a mainstream political party taking part in elections and winning seats in all governments in Tunis since 2012.
In Kuwait, the Muslim Brotherhood is considered to be pro-America and has made little effort to change this perception. The political party in Yemen which is seen as part of the movement, is fighting alongside the coalition led by US ally Saudi Arabia against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
In Sudan, the late Hassan Al-Turabi (1932-2016) was regarded as the “new” moderate and modern face of the Brotherhood. He was the proud revivalist of the movement’s ideology and ideals. However, his entanglement with (recently ousted President) Omar Al-Bashir might have eaten away much of his credibility with his followers. Yet Al-Turabi never renounced the Muslim Brotherhood and gave it a new face with open-minded politics.
Wherever one looks in the Middle East and North Africa, the Brotherhood is a well-established political entity playing by the rules of the day, within the boundaries of the new era prevailing in the region. Even in Libya, where chaos is the order of the day, the Libyan branch of the movement is part of the scene, for better or worse.Furthermore, neither the global movement nor its spinoffs have so far been found guilty of any threats to the US or its interests in sensitive areas, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Hamas is designated solely for taking a contrary position to the US against the Israeli occupation, not because it is implicated in any anti-American activities in the region or elsewhere. Indeed, Hamas has never conducted any activities beyond the historic border of occupied Palestine, neither against the US nor anyone else.
Countries like Qatar and Turkey are considered to be run by Brotherhood-related governments, or at least sympathisers with the movement. Turkey is a member of NATO and has been an active participant in almost all US-led wars in the Middle East. Qatar, meanwhile, is home to at least one major US military base from where the Americans attacked Iraq in 2003 and continue to monitor the region. These two US allies are unlikely to sit by and watch while their friend Donald Trump goes ahead and labels the Muslim Brotherhood per se as a terrorist organisation, with all that comes with such a designation.
There is no doubt that the Trump administration is under tremendous pressure from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to go ahead with the designation. Since the rise of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt, the trio have been persecuting the Brotherhood in its home country and beyond because they see it as a political threat. Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have so far been able to disguise their anti-Brotherhood campaign as part of the “war on terror” but this doesn’t stand up to honest scrutiny, which reveals that their true objective is to suppress political dissent and silence opposition groups.
Nevertheless, the ideology of the Brotherhood must be challenged, because it is somewhat twisted in content. Wherever it exists, the movement is usually well organised and very good in doing charity work and the mass mobilisation of the people. The twist is in its basic preaching of Islam as a political ideology in today’s world, wherein it is hard to condone any political ambitions masked with religious preaching. Moreover, the movement has been doing so in almost exclusively Muslim societies as if it and it alone is defining who is a Muslim and who is not, which is a dangerous and polarising practice.
However, designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation requires more work in co-existence, civil society and education where the state is responsible for peace and security and religion is a political ideology. Such a designation, in the long run, will prove to be counterproductive, particularly in countries like Egypt where its members remain part of the history of the country; they did, after all, take part in the struggle against the British occupation.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s main difficulty is its adherence to a global view lacking in essential, well-established local roots. This makes its members in Libya, Sudan or any other country likely to be more loyal to the movement than to their own governments. However, whatever the White House decides, the Muslim Brotherhood is here to stay and its endgame is not in sight yet. It will take much more than a stroke of the pen to write off such an organisation.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.